On Gender Bias in Publishing, Editing, and Writing
By Michael Nye
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
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.
** 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.
Illuminating The Numbers Game
The organization for women in the arts, VIDA, recently released their examination of the gender breakdown in the Best American anthologies. Their findings, which can be found here, takes a look at the three major anthologies in the series – Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and Best American Poetry – dating back to 1978 for BASS and 1986 for the other two. Along with examining the gender of the work in the anthology, VIDA counted the number of “notable” or “distinguished” pieces that are shortlisted in the back of each book. The numbers are not encouraging.
Here is the percentage of women who were either published or short-listed in each anthology from 1986 to 2010:
Best American Essays: 32%
Best American Poetry: 39%
Best American Short Stories: 46%
BAP does not have a short-list: either you are anthologized in Best American Poetry or you aren’t. The numbers above are the percentage of women recognized, in any fashion, reprinted or short-listed. Because there is the subjective taste of each guest editor to consider, the short-list recognition should be acknowledged because the pool of candidates strikes me as a critical aspect of this discussion.
What I remember of my stats classes in college (classes in which I probably earned a C-minus) is that there is usually a statistical error of three percent, plus and minus. Think of presidential polls: that 50% could really be anywhere from 53% to 47%. Continuing my rudimentary understanding of stats and numbers, I don’t think that applies here. There isn’t any dispute about whether or not John Updike is a dude or not. There isn’t a matter of how the poll question is phrased: John Updike is a dude.
VIDA has also worked this year to show more transparency, which was a criticism of their evaluation of the gender ratio of publications and reviews in major publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and others. VIDA has taken their figures and pie charts and put it all on their website. When VIDA wrote about the major magazines and their publishing record, our web editor Patrick Lane took the time to look at our previous year’s numbers.
What VIDA has not done is really evaluated these numbers and provided context and meaning. There are lies, damn lies, and there are statistics. This is not to say, at all, that VIDA is somehow rigging the books, but just providing statistics without intelligent and thoughtful evaluation of those numbers simply isn’t good enough.
One of the things worth noting here is that over the time period examined, BASS has always had a female series editor. Should we be surprised, then, that BASS has published and acknowledged more women compared to the other two Best American series? The same (male) series editors have been running Poetry and Essays for twenty five years. But do remember, the decision ultimately lies with each year’s guest editor: if we point to the series editor’s gender, we also, then, need to look at the gender of the guest editor. What’s the breakdown there?
Best American Essays: 12 women, 13 men
Best American Poetry: 7 women, 18 men
Best American Short Stories: 16 women, 17 men
Here, Best American Poetry looks quite bad. Again, it is also the only one that doesn’t have a short-list. But look at Best American Essays: plenty of women have been the guest editor. During that time period, only once has the guest editor selected more women than man (Joyce Carol Oates in 1991), and most years, it isn’t even close. Does that seem odd?
At The Missouri Review, and presumably at the other literary journals and magazines that first publish the work appearing in the Best American series, the sole criteria for publication is whether or not the writing is good (digression: I realize calling the work “good” or even discussing our criteria for “goodness” can become tangential, but I’ll try to stay on topic). Last year was my first year working on our Editors Prize. We read and re-read and discussed and argued and questioned. Including our winner, we published three stories that were originally Editors Prize submission. All three are written by women. Our prize winner in the essay is male; we published two other essays (non-contest) in our recent issue, both by women. Did the gender of the writers ever come up? No. At no time, not once, was the gender of the author mentioned. That’s not our criteria. In the same way that we don’t care about the race or ethnicity or MFA program of the author, gender is one of those things that, as literary editors, we don’t worry about.
On the flip side, there is an essay we published a year ago, Rachel Riederer’s essay “Patient.” This essay is about a young woman who gets her foot run over by a bus, and the excruciating recovery process that she goes through. Evelyn, our assistant editor, told me that Riederer’s essay is the piece that she has heard about more than any other this past year. Women readers, Evelyn said, have really responded to that essay, one that is as much about Riederer’s sense of self, her appearance, how the world will view her if she remains crippled, as it is about surgery and medicine.
This October, Riederer’s essay is being reprinted in Best American Essays 2011.
Now, this is anecdotal. This is just one office, one literary journal. I can tell you we receive lots of terrific work by women, and I can tell you that our editorial staff doesn’t care about the writer’s gender, and I can tell you we pick based on artistic criteria, and I can tell you that in one specific insistence we published an essay by a woman that will be republished in the Best American series. I can tell you all sorts of things like that, all indicating that literary journals, or at least ours, are on the level.
But VIDA’s numbers remain troubling. Something looks wrong, feels wrong. As an arts community, we are told that women are overwhelmingly the ones buying books. We are told that women are writing quality work. Yet even when magazines like The Missouri Review claim to be gender neutral (our senior staff, by the way, is made up of 2 men and 3 women), and even when the guest editors of Best American anthologies are women (who are chosen, obviously, because they are successful writers themselves), it does seem like women are published less often than men, and that it is a trend that is simply not improving.
Could either of these explanations be plausible:
1. Women submit work less often than men; consequently, there is less work by women to choose from.
2. Women are not writing work that is as good as men.
The latter is obviously not true. The awards, recognition, and readership earned by Dorothy Allison, Rae Armantrout, Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan, Nadine Gordimer, Barbara Kingsolver, Lydia Davis, Joan Didion, ZZ Packer, Julie Orringer, Sandra Cisneros, Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Cynthia Ozick, Tayari Jones, Nicole Krauss, Eula Biss, Leslie Silko, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Strout – and I could go on for a very long time here – indicates that #2 is false.
Let’s try the other: are women not submitting enough work to literary journals and major magazines?
I pulled a portion of our submissions from 2011 for an incredibly unscientific look at work we’ve received in the last six months. Here is where that “take this with a grain of salt” caveat about stats seems apropos. I took a random sampling of 750 submissions we’ve received since November 2010, looking at both postal and electronic submissions. Be warned – this is approximately 6% of the submissions we receive each year. And there enough holes in my methodology that you could probably drive a truck through it. Nonetheless:
Poetry Submissions by Women: 36%
Story Submissions by Women: 37%
Essay Submissions by Women: 50%
Surprised? Me, too. Purely an educated guess, but I would say we don’t receive nearly as many nonfiction submissions as we do anything else. Let’s say 15% are nonfiction, 25% poetry, and 60% fiction. The majority of the work we receive, of course, gets rejected, the publishing reality of receiving nearly 14,000 submissions and publish maybe 60 each year. I have not looked to see how many people are serial submitters, writers who receive a rejection from us and then instantly send us something new. But it seems that we simply are receiving less work from women than from men.
Am I, then, putting the responsibility of weak publication numbers (quantity, not quality) back on women writers?
Yes. Let’s call it a partnership. As Roxane Gay pointed out, this conversation about women in the arts often falls back to talking points and conventional wisdom. What we need to do, as editors and publishers, is let women writers know their writing is welcome here and we want to read more of it. After all, if you see VIDA’s figures on the New Yorker, and you’re a woman, doesn’t it seem like your work is inherently already at a disadvantage with their editors? Our record indicates that we publish terrific writing by women all the time; our submission record indicates that we aren’t getting enough work from women to consider.
What else is our responsibility? To acknowledge this issue. VIDA published their findings last week. The response to this has been, well, a little quiet, not nearly the same amount of interest that their February study of major magazine publications generated. Why so quiet? Just one more question that I’m curious about. Maybe the problem is that no one really wants to take a shot at Best American. After all, all writers still want to be published in Best American. As mentioned in VIDA’s conversation with women published in Best American, everyone wants to be a part of Best American, though often the reason seems to be for career reasons, not for aesthetic reasons.
If people like me – young writers and editors – are silent on this issue because I want someone to scratch my back down the road, some fear of upsetting the wrong person in the right position, then the problem is simply perpetuated. You get morons like V.S. Naipaul rather than “Hey, Jill Abramson is the new executive editor of the New York Times.” That’s unacceptable. Adrienne Su wrote that magazines shouldn’t solicit and publish women writers just because they’re women, and that women don’t send as often as men for a complex range of reasons. I couldn’t agree more.
What we are probably looking at are the symptoms of how women are viewed and treated in American culture, and that publishing figures found by VIDA are indicative of a cultural problem, not the problem itself. Still. We want to say and do something meaningful rather than recycle the same old rhetoric. Let’s make that simple effort.
So: women writers: send us your stories, poems, and essays! Your work is always wanted here.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.