February 6, 2011

Literary Publishing and the Gender Gap

Photo by Anton Bielousov
Šternberk's library by Anton Bielousov

Photo by Anton Bielousov

A report called “The Count: 2010” from the organization VIDA has recently been generating some buzz in the literary blogosphere. VIDA has counted up the number of female and male writers published in 14 periodicals; they also worked out the ratio of male to female book reviewers and male to female authors of reviewed books.

Since VIDA’s mission statement is “to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” the emphasis on reviewing makes sense, as does the choice of some of the publications: The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, etc. They also cover Harper’s, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker. Actual literary journals aren’t particularly well represented: Granta, Poetry, Tin House, the Paris Review, The Threepenney Review, and Boston Review being the only data sources that I would put in that category (and I would suspect that a broader survey of university-sponsored reviews and small independents might well show a more equitable gender representation).

At any rate, the numbers VIDA has found certainly don’t look very good (for newsprint and the glossies in particular), with male writers outnumbering females in many cases by between 2:1 or 3:1 (women outnumber men in only 2 of the 40 cases presented). VIDA’s tagline for their post is “Numbers don’t lie,” and they seem to assume that what this data means is self-evident, since they provide virtually no analysis of their own.

Commenters on the report have already made some very compelling critiques of VIDA’s data, pointing out that A) this is still a relatively small sample set (unless the question is limited,perhaps, to book reviewing on the national stage), and that B) it’s hard to know what these numbers mean without knowing the ratios in the submission pool. That is, many in comments have already jumped to the conclusion that editors must be biased: but is that really the “truth” these numbers aren’t lying about?

I certainly wouldn’t deny that there most likely is a significant gender gap in publishing (though I wouldn’t take this particular report as proof of that — though it does help justify the hypothesis), and such a gap is a problem (though is it a problem of bias, education, opportunities, or even genre definition?) that we should be investigating. But it’s important also to recognize where the data is problematic before launching into action campaigns or making accusations against editorial staff.

So in the interest of expanding the data set, here’s what I found crunching the numbers on the Missouri Review‘s most recent volume year (33).

Fiction (Male): 7

Fiction (Female): 10

Poetry (Male): 5

Poetry (Female): 7

Essay (Male): 8

Essay (Female): 3

Contributors Total (Male): 20

Contributors Total (Female): 20

So we actually hit (without any deliberate editorial policy) a perfect 50/50 gender split. Our essay ratio for this year is not as balanced, and that’s interesting, though I don’t know that one year’s data is enough to draw conclusions about. We haven’t collected statistics on our submitters to compare out publications rates against, either.

I’m not sure that our book review data is particularly applicable to the broader question, since our omnibus reviews aren’t restricted to current releases and are also highly reflective of the tastes and interests of each individual reviewer. However, here’s the data for Vol. 33

Reviewers (Male): 3

Reviewers (Female): 1

Writers Reviewed (Male): 13

Writers Reviewed (Female): 6

Interestingly, of our last two omnibus reviews, a male reviewer reviewed all male writers and a female reviewer reviewed all female writers. In raw data, we do seem to follow the national trend in book reviewing (at least over a single year), but again I would like to think the actual explanation is more complex than “we prefer to review male writers” — the particular topics reviewed have their own embedded ratios, for example, that shape the probabilities of what might be selected for review.

However, it is food for thought. A question for our readers and submitters: should literary editors read submissions blindly and choose solely on merit, or should editors actively seek equitable gender distribution in their publishing? Or is that — as I suspect — a false binary?

8 Responses to Literary Publishing and the Gender Gap

  1. Daniel says:

    Just a note: Boston Review is much closer to Harpers / Atlantic / TNR / New Yorker than to the lit journals like Granta, Tin House, Poetry, or to NYRB — half of each issue is dedicated to investigative journalism and political / economic / social justice essays. The rest is poetry, fiction, and book reviews. :-)

  2. Interesting thoughts.

    I am a longterm reader of the New Yorker magazine. As a female writer who hopes to someday appear in that magazine’s (and other’s) pages, at some point I started noting the ratio of male to female contributors. It became a game of mine to count up each issue’s ratio. To my consternation I found the percentage of men (oh, dear I’ve gone from ratios to percentages) 70-80% male. This was consistent for years.

    I started my ‘study’ 20 years ago. Eventually, I stopped counting. These days I notice the ratio is more even, as VIDA found but remains skewed.

    I find this discrepancy especially interesting because, when I attend writing workshops or classes, the participants are overwhelmingly female. Publishers announced a few years ago that a huge percentage of book buyers are women. I recall 80-90%, but I don’t have the reference to back that up.

    All of this made me think that perhaps editors in America are conditioned to hear/read a male voice as more appealing, more authoritative or more literary. Perhaps editors should read submissions “blindly,” as you say but only after they have shaken up this habit. Blind readings may well bring unconscious (and possibly unfair) biases into play. Maybe editors can challenge themselves to learn more about their own biases, consciously set out to educate themselves more thoroughly about women authors for a while.

    All, as you say, food for thought.

  3. Harlan Lewin says:

    You mentioned the gender ratio of submissions, but didn’t go on to offer yours. Maybe you could keep track for a while so we could get a baseline.

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  5. jaywalke says:

    So, if your submission pool isn’t also exactly 50/50, that means you must be biased in one direction or the other, right?

    Numbers don’t lie. They don’t tell the truth either. They’re just numbers.

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