Dispatches | June 06, 2011

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 YorkerHarper’sThe 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.