(Adapted from VIDA and YOU, Beyond The Margins, March 3, 2014)

The new VIDA statistics just came out a few days ago, and there’s a lot to crow about.  For those of you who aren’t yet aware of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, this four-year-old advocacy group has been at the leading edge of a movement bent on fighting gender inequality in publishing.

The brainchild of two female poets – Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu – VIDA began with the circulation of an email questioning the absence of feminist conversation in contemporary literary circles.  In short order, Marvin, Belieu, and a handful of others pulled together the first of what has become an annual inventory detailing the relative publication of (and reviews of) male vs. female writers.  Dubbed “The Count,” this inventory is now released every year in advance of the AWP conference.  Using easy-to-read red/blue pie-charts, it highlights clearly and directly how the major literary publications of our times are faring on the gender parity spectrum.

So, how are we doing?? 

Well let’s just say the eagle hasn’t landed.  Despite some admirable gains by two major literary outlets this past year – specifically The New York Times Book Review and The Paris Review – the gender scales at the vast majority of  prominent literary publications still tip decidedly toward…well…the penis.  According to 2013 data, roughly 75% of writers published in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement are men, and the list goes on.  Says writer (and VIDA advocate) Elissa Schappell in a recent tongue-in-cheek piece for Dame Magazine (“Would It Kill Ya to Publish Some Women?”), the venerable New York Review of Books “mans up” at a whopping 80%.  Schappell writes:

“It isn’t just you wondering how many issues of The New Yorker have gone by without one major piece written by a woman…How many issues of The New York Review of Books it took before they found it in their hearts to publish more than one essay by a woman, or even critique a woman’s work (That banging you hear, that’s the sound of the editors nailing 2x4s over the manor windows).  And someone should wake up the editors of The New Republic, who had their worst year yet, and let them know it’s not reading women that lowers testosterone.…”

 

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Still, the picture is not all doom and gloom.  Other magazines have responded by consciously attempting to reverse the imbalance.  In particular, GRANTA, Tin House, Poetry Magazine, and Boston Review are a few of the bright stars in this small universe, with Poetry maintaining the most consistent parity for four years running.  And at The New York Times Book Review, new editor Pamela Paul is making inroads not just in covering more books by women but also by having female writers review books by male authors and vice versa – something more or less unprecedented before her tenure.

Responses to “The Count” have varied widely, but clearly the numbers have struck a chord.  More and more column inches are being devoted to the topic of gender parity, in publications ranging from Mother Jones(“Where Are the Women Writers?”) to The Guardian (“Research Shows Male Writers Still Dominate Books World”) to Flavorwire (“Why I’m Canceling My Subscription: An Open Letter to Harper’s from a Loyal Reader” and “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count“).  According to playwright Amy Wheeler, who writes on the VIDA website, the implications of such an imbalance are sobering: “If you understand that storytellers shape our culture, then ‘Who gets to be our storytellers?’ becomes a pivotal question.”  The fact is that while many editors maintain that the work they publish is the best work that comes over the transom, a significant share of that published by the premier literary magazines is either solicited (by male-heavy editorial staffs) or submitted to these editors via literary agents, who, according to Schappell, statistically tend to submit more stories by men than women.

Still, the naysayers have also made themselves heard.  Those like Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, maintain that “he’s ‘not too appalled’ by their record” – despite the fact that it’s held steady at 80% all four years:

“While women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS…The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books…You have to keep an eye on it but I suspect we have a better story to tell than others (The Guardian)”

Some critics of VIDA statistics argue that all the organization is doing is shaming editors into publishing women.  Still others claim that the questions asked and the methodology used to draw conclusions about gender disparity are flawed.  The most common criticism of VIDA’s approach is that it doesn’t include information on the numbers of relative submissions by male versus female writers (Lambda Literary). Whatever the case may be, the numbers and the methodology have proven convincing enough to have been reported on and reproduced extensively in many leading literary and commercial publications.

 

Thus far, what I’ve tried to do here is simply inform.  Many people – writers included – are still under the false impression that women are much closer to having an equal voice in publishing than the statistics would seem to bear out.  It’s up to you as readers to follow some of the links provided above and come to your own conclusions.

But in leaving you, I will ask you to consider how (and how strongly) you feel about the issue of gender parity in publishing and – should you be so inclined – to make your voices heard.  In any case, let us know your thoughts.  If you’re unhappy with the picture outlined above, use your power as a consumer: support those publications that support gender parity, and let those editors of publications that do not know how you feel.  Spread the word about VIDA and The Count.  Make a little literary history.