(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.…”
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.
I’m delighted and grateful to learn that THE OTHER ROOM has been listed as one of “The 12 Most Memorable Debuts of 2013″ by Author Exposure! Here’s what the editors had to say:
The Other Room by Kim Triedman – a powerful, emotional story about two parents grieving the loss of their one-year-old daughter. Triedman, an accomplished poet, has proven herself to be quite the novelist.
(First published by Beyond the Margins, October 8, 2013)
SO apparently I’m what you call a “bloomer.”
An about-to-be-debut-novelist at 54, I’ve been tripping across this term more and more lately, much the way a mom-to-be starts noticing that all of a sudden pregnant women are everywhere. I’m quite sure the moniker didn’t exist a decade ago, and now apparently there’s a whole website devoted to us (bloom-site.com), not to mention recent column inches in the likes of The New Yorker and The Guardian. In any case, it’s a stunning discovery. Apparently, in some critics’ estimation, by the time we hit our 40s we “writing-elders” are creative dust bowls: any real contribution to the world of letters we might have made would have been written ten years ago.
So yeah, I’m a bit of an outlier, falling somewhere between the MFA-bearing-hipsters and the…well…deceased. But while I’m still here, and I can still grab the microphone, I’d like to say a few things about what it is to start making art in the middle.
I didn’t actually write a creative word until I was approaching my fifth decade. Throughout high school and college, I gravitated toward courses which afforded me the opportunity to select right from wrong, true from false; multiple choice over essay. I was not a comfortable public speaker; I was terrified of venturing any opinion that might provoke incredulity in my peers or even outright dismissal. When given the choice I shied away from English and history and philosophy, preferring the safer terrain of the social and physical sciences, subjects one could master given the basic ingredients of time and will. Years went by, and I did this with life, too. I lived it safely. I mastered it. For nearly two decades I felt like I ran a marathon every day just trying to keep all the right balls in the air.
I was nearing 40 when it all came tumbling down, the weight of all that “rightness” suddenly too much to bear. One Sunday afternoon I sat out on my front stoop and forgot how to breathe and watched my life snap cleanly down the middle. A nervous breakdown, in old-timey parlance; a severe depression, I would learn soon enough. The best piece of advice from that time? “Write it down,” my mother said.
And I did.
So for me, writing came not so much as a choice as an imperative. Once entered, it was a place I found I couldn’t leave. My guess is that this applies to many late bloomers: people who’ve somehow found it necessary to step away from the harsh geometry of their constructed lives – which no longer seem to fit or sustain – in favor of something which yields and bends, carries life’s ambiguities in flexible arms. There is urgency to this kind of writing. There is a sense that there is so much to say and not enough paper in the world to say it on and not enough time in which to say it. Once I started, it became the most real of places: the most authentic, the most heady and, in its way, the most life-giving.
I expect for younger writers it’s hard to conceive these days that a person could just pick up writing in the middle of life. For me it was not only that simple, it was an answer I didn’t know I was looking for. I’d already accumulated a lot of life behind me: I’d married, had a career, raised three children most of the way up. I had felt my way through 40-odd years of living but never allowed myself a place to process all that life-stuff: to unwrap it, sift through it, hold it up to the light of day. Writing gave me that space. That stillness. And what a bounty – like discovering an old box of photographs you never knew existed. Suddenly, worlds opened up to me, my own worlds, distilled and exquisite. At just that stage when so much in life seemed to be receding, it was like looking up and seeing things in color, for the first time.
Writing very quickly became my default method of processing my world, something I hadn’t previously built into my life. I was happier, and saner, for it. It created a need for itself, and the act of capturing a thing in words – pinning it down precisely – became my way of accommodating it in my mind and in my life. Interestingly, my identity was not at all wrapped up in this. I didn’t have anything to prove. It was just mine, more privilege than responsibility. Perhaps we late-stage writers may be somewhat less caught up in wanting to be writers than our younger brethren. Many or most of us have already had (or continue to have) other careers. Our identities may not be so tied to the idea of being authors as are those who’ve gone through graduate school (often at great expense) with that specific goal in mind. The writing itself, coming often as a complete surprise in middle life, is its own best reward, giving us a vital new piece of ourselves which never before seemed within reach.
Whatever it was that I somehow couldn’t find in myself in my earlier years – eyes; wings – I have been able to reclaim here, now, in the desert of the long-middle, where I can savor it like a tall glass of cold water. There is joy in it. There is celebration. There is an unmitigated sense of possibility. And during the long haul that is the latter half of the journey, there is perhaps nothing more welcome than that.