On Gender Bias in Publishing, Editing, and Writing

By Michael Nye

Not a strawberry rhubarb pie, but we’re still happy

While I doubt you are concerned about regularly scheduled programming with this semester’s Monday blog post, you probably did notice that I didn’t post last week. I bumped myself from Monday to give contest editor Mike Petrik the opportunity to talk more about our Audio Competition (which is now closed)(but our Editors’ Prize is now open!) so you might be wondering what happened in class during the eighth week.

Week 8 was a conversation with the founder and editor of Hobart, Aaron Burch. I promise all the editors that I won’t reveal anything they say to my students, but I might come back, in time, to Aaron’s use of the word “legitimate.”

So far this semester, my class has spent plenty of time kinda/sorta outside the classroom. We’ve had two Skype conversations with editors of other literary magazines, a visit from the CIO of the Dish Network, and a snow day. When class only meets once per week, that’s a lot of time devoted to outside talk. During the week, when the interns are in for their office hours, I go around and say hello, ask how they are, what they’re working on, and so forth. Naturally, my rapport with some students is better than with others, but it’s not a substitute for the type of discussion that, in theory, a good publishing class should have.

And last week we talked about a big subject: VIDA and gender bias in publishing.

My class has fifteen students. Three are graduate students, and all three are women. I have twelve undergraduates: seven women, five men (quick digression: over the last five years that I’ve been with TMR, we generally have more women interested in the publishing class than men. I couldn’t tell you the exact ratio, but I’d guess 70/30).

I started by simply asking, who’s heard of VIDA?, and only four hands went up. I walked through a very quick, very basic, history of VIDA, an organization that was started by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu. VIDA is mostly known for The Count, which is released every February, but that’s not all that the organization does. VIDA is all a website for essays about all sorts of topics related to women in publishing, editing, and writing, and a forum for writers who need support outside of the spotlight.

The VIDA Count had primarily focused on the “major” magazines and book review outlets: The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, as well as the literary magazines Tin House, Paris Review, and Boston Review. A few weeks ago, a former student of mine stopped by my office, and somehow, VIDA came up. She told me that the new VIDA count was coming out soon and I said, yeah, but they don’t look at literary magazines like TMR.

Only … this year, they did! Along with the larger publications they already look at, VIDA expanded its scope and examined twenty-four literary magazines, including TMR, Colorado Review, Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review, among many others.

How did TMR do? According to the VIDA pie chart above, we published 57 women and 54 men.

I decided to look at our 2013 numbers and make a comparison to see if the numbers were the same. Not that I doubted the VIDA numbers, I was just curious about methodology and if the figures would match. My numbers were slightly different: I found we published 61 women and 54 men. I’ll get to the difference in a moment.

One of the keys to understanding how this works with TMR should start with our poetry. The breakdown of fiction, book reviews, and book reviewers is pretty straighforward. But with our poetry, we publish poetry features: this means a minimum of three poems per poet, no matter what. Often, we publish more than three (in our summer issue, we published four by Rose McLarney and five by Jim May; in our winter issue, we published seven by Michelle Boisseau). Should this be examined and broken down with more scrutiny?

VIDA also puts several items into nonfiction. According to The Count, we published six women and twelve men in this category. This nonfiction count includes (I think) essays, art features, and the forewords, but I’m truthfully not entirely sure. What I do know is that of the unsolicited, individual essays that TMR published in 2013, only two of the nine were by women. That’s a problem, and that’s on us.

The difference in my numbers and VIDA was in poetry. VIDA considered the series of Claudia Emerson’s poems as one poem, rather than six separate poems. The poems we published from the series are numerated: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9. My guess is that VIDA went by the Table of Contents rather than looking at the poems, but this doesn’t drastically change the end results one way or the other.

I would like to see VIDA separate interviews into its own category. Interviews are a tremendous amount of space in our pages, roughly four thousand words. We also have quite a bit of control of our interview content: we solicit freelancers for interviews, so we have men and women we contact directly, and while the interviewees are entirely up to the freelancer to pitch to us (on spec), we do have the ability to suggest who is a better candidate than another. We are less interested in a first book by a person you went to graduate school with compared to, say, a writer with three or four books.

Further, an interview does suggest “This writer matters.” Seeing that we’ve interviewed Karen Russell, or Sheila Heti, or Dorothea Lasky, or Jo Ann Beard, does make a claim about the value of their work and cultural cache in contemporary literature. While VIDA doesn’t weigh one category more than any other (I can easily imagine the quantitative and qualitative headache that would become) at least separating the category seems like a small but important nod to the purpose of interviewing women authors.

What did my class think of all this?

A concern raised by more than one student (male and female) was pretty straightforward: who cares about the author if the work is good? Shouldn’t the criteria simple be “this is good work”? Aren’t we just creating quotas?

No, I don’t think we are. We receive over ten thousand submissions per year. Of those, we publish forty. Is there really a difference between no. 40 and no. 41? Probably not. Do we receive, say, one hundred submissions that deserve to be published? Absolutely. Our aim is to publish the best writing that we can … but “best” is a nebulous criteria and is not the only thing that we do.

We also teach. We’re at a major state university, and we offer a class in publishing, training future writers and editors. That’s a factor.

Our table of contents doesn’t just list names. It also has author photos. What are we saying if a reader opens our magazine and sees only white male faces on the page?

Our submissions aren’t blind, and I don’t know a reader that doesn’t read the cover letter. Do we have expectations of what is masculine or feminine in literature? During a late-semester workshop in one of my creative writing classes, the story under discussion irritated one of my female students. Paraphrasing, she said “Girls don’t wear white sundresses all the time.” The comment got a laugh, but it also pointed out the perceptions of what writers, especially those still learning the craft, perceive as male or female.

Another thing that literary magazines do (and this will sound snotty) is publish what isn’t getting published by the bigger magazines. Avant-garde, and all that. And if women aren’t being recognized and published in larger magazines, then part of what literary magazines do is to go the other way: publish and champion women writers.

My class was, to my surprise, chatty about VIDA and gender bias, and it wasn’t split right down gender lines in my class, either. They aren’t entirely sure what to think of the subject. They aren’t sure how to approach it. How do we know, they ask, if we’ve done enough? What do we need to do?

There are several things that matter. First, the composition of a magazine’s staff. Of our five senior staffers, three are women; four of our seven graduate editors are women; and eleven of our fifteen interns are women. Second, we have to consider a literary magazine in its entirety, not just as individual pieces. If we’ve accepted seventy percent of the content for an upcoming issue, looking at the gender breakdown, and seeing which way we are leaning, matters. Third, we have to encourage the writers whose work we turn down (which, rather obviously, is most of them) to send work to us again. Our submitters can’t feel shut out. The extra time it takes to write a personalized rejection and say “we want to see more from you” makes a huge difference, something our interns and staff are doing already.

There’s more—much more—to say on this, but I’m getting close to two thousand words already, and, hey, that’s a long blog post. VIDA’s work is clearly not done, but the work they’ve done as an organization in the past five years has been tremendous. Still, they need help, whether you’re a reader, editor, or writer. One simple way? Support VIDA!

Last thing, then I’m off. I wasn’t entirely sure how this conversation would go with my students. Not that I was worried, exactly, more that talking with students individually is not the same as talking with a group, and so I was prepared to do a lot more answering than questioning. But it was unnecessary. My students were thoughtful, inquisitive, and patient for the hour plus that we talked about gender bias, and this was, by far, the best class we have all semester long. So, a big Kudos and Thanks to them for making the class terrific.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye