book publishing

Would It Kill Ya to Publish Some Women?

VIDA’s annual report on gender inequality in book reviewing and literary magazines reveals some good news. But some publications prove they’re immune to shame.

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Every year VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, releases the “VIDA count,” numbers that make the whole publishing world squirm because it offers a rundown of how many women and men are published in, or have their books reviewed by what VIDA considers “the most prominent critical/and or commercial literary venues.” Those publications offering the highest profile for writers, and thus, the greatest advancement in the publishing world. We’re talking about: The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, The Paris Review, and The Nation.

From the very beginning, reactions to the count were varied. Some editors were horrified—Impossible! How can this be! Others were chagrined—We promise to do better! And then there were those editors who rocked back in their leather chairs and sniffed, “Good work rises,” and chuckled sotto voce. “Ladies, ladies don’t get your knickers in a twist.” More than a few just rolled their eyes figuring that the VIDA count was a one-time deal. They shrugged. “This too shall pass.”

But VIDA isn’t going away. Since its inception four years ago, VIDA has gone from being a gang of rogue female poets with calculators and a love of pie charts, to being at the forefront of a movement bent on exposing gender inequality in publishing and jackhammering the foundations of the patriarchal publishing establishment. VIDA has been instrumental in arming critics of business-as-usual sexism who choose to protest and lobby for publishing more bylines by women and increased coverage of women’s books with hard data.

From the beginning VIDA’s goal was to educate the masses. As well as to shame, annoy, anger, and spark conversation among writers, publications, and readers, but mostly, armed with these numbers, incite action. The count this year will continue to do all of the above.

The numbers represent what many of us have been informally tracking all year long: Are you surprised to learn that 75 percent of the writers published by The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, and The New Republic are men? Or that The New York Review of Books mans up at 80 percent?

Yeah, it isn’t just you wondering how many issues of The New Yorker had gone by without more than one major piece written by a woman—a short story. A poem. How many issues of The New York Review of Books it took before they found it in their hearts to publish more than one essay by a woman, or even critique a woman’s work. (That banging you hear, that’s the sound of the editors nailing 2x4s over the manor windows.) And someone should wake up the editors of the The New Republic, who had their worst year yet, and let them know it’s not reading women that lowers testosterone.

The good news is that some big players have stepped up to the plate. The most high profile, and arguably most important, has taken place at The New York Times Book Review, with the appointment of Pamela Paul as the editor, and her push to not only cover more books written by women, but dare to flaunt the gender lines and have women review books by men and vice versa. (So far, there have been no reports of men producing breast milk after reviewing books written by women.) The Paris Review, that stalwart haven of patrician white male privilege, was once among the worst, but they’ve reinvented themselves this year. And founding editor, the inimitable George Plimpton is not rolling over in his grave; I imagine he’s applauding editor-in-chief, Lorin Stein.

Poetry magazine has for four years been the most consistent in maintain gender parity, and the Boston Review is another consistent performer.

Magazines such as Tin House, who responded to the 2009 blast of gender imbalance in their pages, launched a mission to double their efforts to solicit work from female writers, which put them at the top of list in 2012 and near the top again in 2013. Tin House being one of the few magazines that actually publishes more women than men. [Full disclosure: I am one of the founders of Tin House, now the editor-at-large, and married to Rob Spillman, the magazine’s editor.]

Another positive development, VIDA has now expanded the count to include L3, or niche magazines that have distinguished themselves as important to “the larger literary landscape.” It’s heartening to see the 7 of the 13 magazines surveyed skewed female. Among them, Calalloo, Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and New American Writing. Most impressive, newcomer Ninth Letter put up 62 percent. Resting at the bottom: McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly, and The Normal School.

There is the idea that “good work rises.” Whatever is being published is simply the best work out there. Which isn’t true. A good deal of the work that is published in magazines is coming from agents who statistically submit more stories by men than women. Particularly ironic as it’s a profession dominated by women. A good deal of work is solicited. When one considers the bottom line, and of course it’s an issue, editors are inclined to pursue those authors who will sell the most copies. It’s a vicious cycle. Fewer women appearing in publications that garner the most attention equals less critical attention. A lack of critical attention results in other prominent outlets failing to publish or review the work of women. Without critical attention women cannot build a career or a reputation, without these women are not nominated for awards that can make a career. Not to mention put food on the table and keep the electricity burning.

Critics of VIDA hiss that all they are doing is shaming people into publishing women, and that’s not fair. Not fair to them and not fair to their readers. I would be curious to find out if The Paris Review’s subscriptions have fallen off. The number of angry letters Conjunctions has gotten for striking a healthy balance.

I don’t see how it is shaming. No one is giving away T-shirts with the faces of the editors of The Nation, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The National Review, or The New York Review of Books proclaiming: I Don’t Support Gender Equality in Publishing! Or, Women Writers: Just Not As Good as Male Writers.

These publications have a right to publish whomever they choose. If they want to publish the same gaspers they’ve been publishing since the 1950s or people who pee standing up, that’s their prerogative. If they get off on reciting Norman Mailer to each other while combing out their powdered wigs, or sip the blood of suffragettes out of the skull of Jane Austen, while grumbling about uppity females, so be it. 

The truth is people who don’t care what others think of them can’t be shamed by them. Go ahead scream your head off. These editors, snug in their musty towers, can’t hear you. They’re not listening. They don’t really care. Why? Because caring would mean they would have to attempt to change. Shudder. They’d have to actively work to rectify the gender imbalance in their pages. And why do that when they are among the most successful profitable publications in the country? If it aint broke don’t fix it! 

No, if you want to make express your unhappiness with these publications, if you wish to cause them discomfort, hit them in the wallet. Stop supporting magazines and publications that don’t publish women. Subscribe to magazines and publications that strive for gender equality. Buy books written by women, read books written by women, review books written by women, teach books written by women. Repeat. Go to the VIDA site. Get on your feet, raise your voice, and do something.



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