Two White Writers Discuss VIDA, With Alcohol

Alison: Being an angry feminist on staff, I’ve been itching to talk about The Count from VIDA, the annual reporting of the gender breakdown of writers in major publications. The numbers are both what you would expect and depressing; ever our expectations never fail to let us down. Yet, I did not want to speak in a vacuum, so I’ve enlisted the help of my friend Paul Arrand Rodgers who, unlike me, is an expert of all things male. Hi, Paul.

Paul: Hello, Alison. It’s an honor to be called to this forum as your expert on the male condition, as that, invariably, seems to be the annual takeaway from The Count: that there is such a thing as the male condition, and having it, in this industry, can only help.

Alison: What do you think the male condition is in the publishing industry? Is it as simple as saying that men have all the room and space to fluff their wings, or are we saying men alone when we mean to say, the white man, in all his Rudyard Kipling glory?

Paul: A little of column A and a lot of column B. VIDA makes no distinctions for race, limiting the issue to one of MAN VS. WOMAN. The so-called “slice of blueberry pie” is depressing enough as it is, illuminating what many of us already know: if you’re a man, your chances of landing a piece or a review within the pages of a major literary journal are significantly higher than women in the field. If you extrapolate further, as Roxane Gay did in 2012 with the 742 books reviewed by The New York Times, then it becomes exceedingly clear that the balance of power lies with the white male. 65% of the books Gay and her graduate assistant surveyed that year were written by Caucasian authors. 217 were written by women. A staggering 437 were by men. That means that close to sixty percent of all books reviewed by one of the global authorities on literature were by white men. We don’t have all the space, but we have the majority of it.

Alison: I’m curious what that breakdown would look like if we took class into account – those works written by middle class writers or even those charmed affluent folk, versus those written by members of the working class. But even still, what these graphs are not showing us and what they cannot explain, but what I think we all have a duty to consider, is not why white males make up the majority of the pie, but what systems of oppression are in place that allows this breakdown. If publishing reflected population, then yes, minority writers of race would be publishing less because whites, in America, are the majority. But women are the majority in population, and their numbers are much lower.

Paul: It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think we’re ever going to see a project of The Count’s size and scope preformed on the issue of class. VIDA itself can only cover so much ground, and Roxane Gay’s study of the book reviews in the New York Times required painstaking research that, regardless, is hard to verify. If race is a grey area, then I don’t envy the trailblazer who uncovers the class distinctions of published authors. I will say, however, that in my limited experience working with a literary magazine, authors who made note of their financial circumstances or their life story were sometimes treated like rare, exotic birds. The work of those who weren’t white, middle class, or both that made it up from slush was routinely good and sometimes made the magazine, but when the subject of the author’s situation made it to the floor, the conversation often became cringe-worthy. The author was marked for their talent, sure, but also for being different, and when we aren’t shamed by the way we or our ancestors have exploited those socio-economic differences, we exhibit a naive curiosity about them.

Alison: This naive curiosity; because I have noticed it as well (especially with work we receive from prisons, another ignored class of writers) what do you make of it? From where does this stem? Is it simply gazing curiously at the other? Perhaps that simplifies it too much while remaining curiously abstract.

Paul: For one, our society thrives on labels. We constantly want to be assured that we’re normal (or, as in the case of many self-diagnosed celiacs, extra-normal), so we invent ways—class, race, gender—of marking people as different. Sometimes its benign. One of my favorite poems published in Mid-American Review during my tenure as Assistant Poetry Editor was by an incarcerated man. His poetry was good, and nobody who discussed that poem patronizingly said that it was good “for a prisoner.” Put that man on the same side of the street as a few well-meaning literary magazine editors, however, and what once was naive curiosity will become an urge to flee.

Alison: Ah yes, they’re safe as long as they remain in their place, or their space. I think I remember that poem, wasn’t it about making a potato chip sandwich?**

Paul: Yes, it was. The poem had nothing to do with incarceration, but was every bit about working class struggle. Some romanticize it while eating instant ramen and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on a graduate instructor’s salary, and others live it and go to jail.

Alison: Milwaukee’s Best, Paul. Milwaukee’s Best. Maybe that would make for a more interesting Count, as it were. Not merely who the writers are, but what they are choosing to write about. Are white writers writing about race-minority struggles? Is the middle-class writing about the working class? Are men writing about women in a way that does not leave them helpless on the page? And if they are, is there a risk of insult, because that is not the life of the writer? But if the privileged aren’t writing about the underclass, and they aren’t allowing them to be published, then that’s a whole range of voices that so many people simply don’t think exist.

Paul: A survey like that would be great, but again, we’re talking about dramatically increasing the size and scope of a project that’s already tilting at windmills. And even if the results of it could be described as interesting, I have a feeling that they’d be just as dispiriting as The Count. I’m simplifying, but for every Michael Chabon novel about struggling African American business owners or John Irving book about a bisexual man and the wreckage of the AIDS crisis, there are hundreds more where the author doesn’t step too far beyond their experience.

I don’t think writers are afraid of insulting somebody, or that we are so sensitive that we’d temper our work to deflect such criticism before it happens. We go through much of our early development as writers being told to write what we know, and I suspect we’ve heard it so often that, by the time we consciously shed that particular maxim, it has buried itself so deep in the subconscious that any attempt to escape our experiences is met with crushing self-doubt, if not derision from outside factors, like a reader or the workshop. There’s a balance between self-policing and self-tyranny, and I’m sure how close the community is to achieving that, yet. It’s impossible to monitor.

Alison: I don’t really know if we need a sample size – too much of a costly endeavor, for one – and sometimes I think we can assume the results. This is one of those cases where assumptions are all right. And yes, I really, really hate that advice. I think it allows the writing to become too complacent if you’re not willing to push yourself, nor does anyone follow it to a T. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a young boy, for example, but I’ve written from that p.o.v. before. When I teach workshops and my students write about a particular topic – being on a boat, perhaps – it’s not that they need to have actually set foot on one to know how to write about it, but it’s damn well important that they research the subject. Or speak to someone who has lived that experience. It’s fine if you want to write what you know, but if all you know is you, how is that going to grow beyond your own experience and matter to a reader?

Paul: I think research is valuable—I sustained a concussion during research for a novel once—but again, it’s a matter of balance. If the process of writing a poem or a story hews too close to a research project, that really comes across on the page. In a similar vein, I’m particularly concerned that the stories white men write about those outside their status has stagnated. I haven’t read “Q & A,” the novel it was based upon, but Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is an example of that, this Dickensian model where the underprivileged rise up to monied status by fabulous turns of circumstance and, often, forced assimilation via the death of their unsavory hangers-on. That movie even ended with a Bollywood-inspired dance number, because beyond poverty and call centers (both of which are featured in the narrative), that’s what the typical audience member knows of India.

One way, I think, to grow beyond your experience—the easiest, in fact—is to read. Even though we’re talking about a dearth of publishing opportunities for disadvantaged classes, they have been writing as well, as vitally, as any canonized white male. The problem, I think, is that a few assorted authors here and there, women and persons of color, have managed to break through and become sainted. “Oh,” we’re able to say, “Austen,  Dumas, Wilde—the minorities are represented, after all.” It’s not enough, especially considering that literature has, amazingly, progressed since the 1800s.

Alison: Exactly that. But then it becomes an issue of audience, doesn’t it? Who reads and, if people are not reading for pleasure, what are they being forced to read in schools? You can look at the GRE subject test in literature to see what the canon values, and it’s a myopic landscape. Mine had one question about Toni Morrison, and about eighteen million on Beowulf. And if we dig in further and consider who creates the curriculum, who creates the tests, who says what is valuable for research – we’ll probably see a very similar group of people, and their ideas were inherited down. But let’s talk, before we have to probably shut up and get back to Bioshock: Infinite, about small lit journals and who they are publishing. One thing that irks me about the VIDA numbers is the response of a lot of journals to lay out just how many women vs. men they have been publishing, and if the number comes out even or in favor of women, that they are doing something right, they feel better for the day, and can forget about it.

Paul: I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. VIDA presents The count without a big, long thinkpiece about its meaning. They allow the numbers to speak for themselves. The commentary that follows is thus invaluable, but too often ends up visualizing The Count as a horserace. When I see a Twitter post or a Facebook status where somebody says that they’re subscribing to Tin House because they had better numbers than Harper’s, I cringe a little bit, you know? Not that there’s anything wrong with supporting Tin House’s editorial direction, but if you’re gambling on a particular horse in the race on moral grounds, you’re still gambling on horses. In a lot of ways, sentiment like this is guided by guilt and regret. Both of these are valuable tools, but an outward show of solidarity and actual progress are two very different things. Claiming to subscribe to a magazine because of their Count numbers or pledging to read and review more books by woman authors strikes me as a gilding of the cage, not its disassembly. How do we raise the profile of minority writers without also raising them to the status of Angel in the House?

Alison: Yeah, I agree. But therein lies the problem: if we don’t visualize it as a race where we can throw our money as the morally superior horse, we’re forced to sit back and consider what structures are in place beyond lit mags and beyond ourselves that keep minority writers out. And that’s a difficult position to choose to be in, especially since it necessitates that we consider our own complacency and the benefits we receive if the system stays in place exactly as it is.

Paul: But if you visualize it as a horserace, you have to realize that what you’re gambling against has more money, more power, and more prestige. Every year the VIDA Count comes out, and, every year, the editors of The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and so on refuse to comment. Here’s the thing: they don’t have to, because they will outlive us all. The response to VIDA, I think, should not be shame. The institutions we’re up against are too large to shame effectively, or there would have been sweeping change in the wake of the first Count. To change the numbers, we’re going to have to change the culture. The next wave of people who will be vital to what gets published and how are in school right now. Swap out “The Catcher in the Rye” with “The Bell Jar.” Put away e.e. cummings and put “The Dream of a Common Language” into somebody’s hands. Assign your students a literary magazine and have them write about the authors that are published within and what they wrote about. These people will soon ascend the corridors of power. Our responsibilities are two-fold: make them aware of the world as it stands, and equip them with the tools necessary to challenge that status quo.

Alison: Wonderfully said, Paul. Thanks so much for drinking awful beer and having this conversation with me.

Paul: Boom.

** The poem is “Potato Chip Sandwich” by Ace Boggess

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com

Alison A. Balaskovits works on staff at the Missouri Review. She does not understand twitter.