Is This Thing On? VIDA’s Count and the AWP AftermathBy Erin Hoover
March 12, 2013
Know any writers? Facebook and Twitter much? If so, you know that last week VIDA announced its 2012 Count. For three years, VIDA’s pie charts have shown in stark relief the gender bias at several top-tier literary publications. Yet for many of the writers and publishers engaged in heated discussions about The Count at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston, the “real story” was in VIDA’s three-year comparisons, which looked at publications’ numbers since the first Count in 2010.
VIDA found that The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and The Nation were publishing either the same consistently small number of women over a three-year period—and in some cases, fewer women now than before. As Amy King wrote in VIDA’s “mic check” on The Count numbers, many editors have clearly chosen to ignore—or even disdain—the tallies.
VIDA’s all-volunteer staff, along with thousands of VIDA supporters who care about creating a publishing landscape that values all writers, now find ourselves standing at a microphone, asking: “Is this thing on?” “What I find so staggering about these numbers,” said Meg Wolitzer, who read for VIDA on Saturday at AWP (and who looked at the rules of literary fiction for men and women last year for The New York Times), “is that many publishers seem to be saying: ‘Scream your little head off. We don’t care.'”
Three years into counting, VIDA’s challenge (and my challenge, contacting journalists to ask them to cover VIDA’s story) has been to provoke a larger media conversation beyond the ho-hum “more bad news from VIDA” response. Unfortunately, the “conversation” seems to be missing the voices required for a story. For the most part, The Count has been met with a wall of silence from the publishers whose numbers most demand a response. This is understandable, but it is another example of bad behavior. As VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu put it at VIDA’s “Numbers Trouble” panel at AWP on Saturday: “They’re trying to ignore us to death.”
For “Numbers Trouble,” VIDA engaged publishers at AWP (some of whom performed their own tallies) and advocates to dig into The Count. To the mostly-female audience in attendance, it became clear at the panel that reversing gender bias depends on making it conscious. As E.J. Graff noted, “Not thinking about it means reproducing what we’ve got.” VIDA’s Count is not just disappointing information, as some might suggest, but a call to action—extending from editors who aren’t publishing women to women who may not submit their work as often as men for a variety of complex reasons. “If magazines aren’t getting submissions from women, they might ask why,” Katha Pollitt suggested. “Perhaps women are saying, ‘why would I throw myself at that wall?'”
Over the history of the VIDA Counts, publishers have pointed to a male-dominated submissions pile. Danielle Pafunda has already written extensively on why the submissions numbers don’t count on VIDA’s website, and nationally best-selling writer and VIDA Board member Cheryl Strayed has added for this Count: “People suggest that women don’t submit work to magazines often enough. Then how has a fantastic magazine like Tin House managed to rise in The Count with no negative effect on the quality of its content?”
Good question. In contrast to other publications, the editorial team at Tin House has put in the effort to change their numbers—and they have done it. The three-year comparisons also show that magazines like Poetry and Threepenny Review have noticeably improved. But such improvements depend on systematic change at a publication, as Tin House‘s Rob Spillman told VIDA. It is not enough to call up a couple women who have already been widely published in The Count’s aftermath. All is not well because a few magazines have achieved a parity of sorts—or because a few “special women” have been invited into the circle of success referenced by Adrienne Rich, and by Erin Belieu in Thursday’s “Second Sex, Second Shelf” AWP panel.
By mostly reinforcing white male dominance, the vitality of whose voices are heard and passed on is at stake. “Literary venues who aren’t paying attention have fallen in my estimation,” said Cheryl Strayed. “Their increasing irrelevance to readers is turning them into dinosaurs.” Many publications claim to want to publish “only the best writing,” but isn’t that up for debate? “For me, it’s about publishing experiences that are distinct from my own,” said Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, at “Numbers Trouble.” Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, asked: “Do you care if what you are reading is by a man or a woman? Should an editor care?”
The answer to both questions, for VIDA’s supporters, is yes. VIDA co-founder Cate Marvin announced at AWP that VIDA plans to disseminate subscription recommendations on a national level to promote publications that consistently strive for gender balance. This year, VIDA also included contact information for the editors of magazines that were counted, and included in their pitch to the AWP audience a plea to contact those editors and pressure for change.
“Instead of being angry about it, we have to get active about it,” Elissa Schappell said at the VIDA reading on Saturday. But AWP is just one audience at one conference, and the push for activity needs to be heard beyond that room. We know what we’d like editors at top-tier publications to do. For women writers, getting active means submitting more, and submitting again if we’re rejected. For everyone who cares about these issues, getting active means telling offending publications that we won’t subscribe to them (or continue to subscribe) unless they respond thoughtfully to VIDA’s Count. How else will we be heard?
I have to admit that looking at Harper’s history, for example, I get the feeling, however erroneous, that their editors really are sneering at submissions written by women. Just today I was thinking of where to pitch a particular essay, and Harper’s was top of my “this fits them” list, but internally I am shrinking: why bother? And that is a problem, especially if a lot of women writers are responding similarly. All the more sad since Christina Nehring, an incredible female writer, published some of the best stuff I’ve ever read in Harper’s over the years. Without more people like her, will they become irrelevant?
My question as a (female) writer is: what do the publishers of these magazines say in response? Do they take your calls?
I wonder what would happen if Eula Biss refused to publish another essay until the numbers improved significantly and more publications came forth with a public 5-year-plan.
Interesting piece, and the M/F thing is clearly a problem.
I’m not a statistician, but I’ve used statistics most of my adult life (as tools).
One issue I see here is that no attention is paid to N (the sample size).
If you look at the graphics on the VIDA site and compare (say) Boston Review’s book reviewers (8F, 11M, for about 42% F) with The New York Times’ (327F, 400M, for about 45% F) you might say — well, they’re about the same. That’s an accurate statement.
But now let’s talk tactics (or strategy) for equalizing the sex ratio. To have equal numbers of book reviewers (a worthy goal) Boston Review needs to add only 3. But the NYT has to add 73.
I can imagine putting pressure on, or helping out in some way so that Boston Review finds 2 or 3 or 4 more women reviewers. That seems totally doable to me. But it’s pretty hard to see how the NYT’s going to find 70-odd new reviewers. If they got rid of 70-odd men they could equalize things, or maybe some combination of losing men and adding women would work.
My point is that the NYT, or any of the big shops, are going to have a hard time shifting their sex ratios very much — even if they wanted to.
Now look at the Paris Review, where the numbers are very small indeed for essays and interviews.
One fewer woman interviewed and there would be none, which would look very bad.
I’m reminded here of an area of population genetics (yeah, I’m an anthropologist) that concerns itself with what can happen when population sizes are very small — that genetic information can be completely lost from the population, or completely fixed in it, because of random events rather than because it’s favored (or not favored).
Look at Tin House, with 6 women reviewers (30%). If three of them stopped reviewing (for whatever reason) the F percentage would fall below 20%.
What would it take for the TLS M:F ratio to fall below 20%? A whole lot of women would have to leave — a number large enough to make that an unlikely event.
Bottom line? I think VIDA could give a clearer picture of this genuine problem by factoring in size. Everybody’s feet should be held to the fire — I hope nobody thinks I don’t believe that — but stuff’s going to happen in those little shops that can’t necessarily be attributed to willful blindness or sexism, just because they’re little.
And making changes in the big shops will be hard, no matter how much goodwill there is.
Finally, I think that “Authors Reviewed” is potentially misleading as presented. I think what you ought to show is the deviation of reviews by gender from the general proportion of men and women who publish books. I’m sure there’s a reasonable way to get that figure.
NY Review of Books — 22% F
London Review of Books — 27%
TLS — 25%
NYT Book Review — 33%
Let’s suppose (evidence absent) that in the US and UK about 40% of books published are written by women. In that case, the NYT would have the best record, and the NY Review of Books, the worst. But without knowing the proportion that each shop has deviated from, we can’t know who’s being even-handed and who’s not.
I submit that the sex ratio for books reviewed is meaningless without context.
And if you look at the small shops, it’s the same thing as above. One or two more M reviews could kill the F proportion (or it could go the other way) and in neither case would it really mean anything. At the big shops — sure, it would mean something.
I had better assert that I’m not being a contrarian or some kind of denier. Everything I know suggests that gender bias is a real problem in the literary world. And I think that VIDA’s performing a valuable service here. I just think the brush being used is too broad.
Nate Silver . . . where are you?
What a wonderful Count Inquiry!
I absolutely believe that “N” should be taken into account, but what about f ?
The frequency with which a periodical is distributed must be considered if one
is looking at overall size as it translates into ability to affect noticeable change within a short period of time.
The example you have offered, The New York Times Book Review is a perfect starting point for this equation.
This is a weekly journal, meaning f = 52 (without taking into consideration the two double issues a year, “Summer Reading,” and “Holiday Reading”).
If there were to be an increase of 1 Female per issue, then this journal would be nearing parity.
1 X f = 52 or 2 X f = 104 This can alternately be looked at as 1.5 X f = 78
For The Boston Review f = 6. An expectation of 1 additional female every issue would tip the scales entirely in a different direction.
We can also create our own variable of W (weight, ie., metaphorical weight placed on appearing in a journal that publishes infrequently/publishes limited pieces per issue).
You mentioned the Paris Review. If one additional woman appeared in each issue, that would be four women per year whose careers had been furthered by appearing in a highly respected journal.
As to the “Author’s Reviewed” section…
It would be nearly impossible to ascertain all of the books published in a single year. The variables are off the charts. Would we count all genres, romance, sci-fi, text book, self-published? If not, then would VIDA be making judgment calls on what is considered “literary?” How could we collect information about all the small presses throughout every country? Even the Library of Congress is limited to books with ISBN numbers. This very question had been the hinge on which the conversation swings. Who is deciding what is literature, what gets reviewed, and what is fit to print? The answers reveal our own systemic sexism, male and female alike.
Please feel free to contact me with any further questions or concerns.
It’s really interesting, isn’t it?
I was talking with my partner Ruth about how a person might whittle down “all books” into something manageable. As you point out, it’s a horribly difficult task.
I wonder if the people at the big shops who receive the books for review keep any sort of records? It’s a different metric, but it would be awfully interesting to know whether M:F reviews published accurately reflect M:F books submitted for review. I’d guess not.
And reading what you wrote about “f,” I realize I may have misunderstood some of the VIDA figures. I assumed that “reviewers” meant “reviewers on staff,” rather than “reviewers who wrote at least one review,” which is perhaps how you used it. Or is it “total reviews by gender?”
Finally, I’ll ask you (Jen Fitzgerald) whether you’ve ever explored the work of Edward Tufte? He writes and lectures about ways to present quantitative data visually. The guy’s a genius. If he’s new to you, cruise over to his site and be amazed. There might be useful ideas there for your presentations.
Sometimes TNB accepts links and sometimes not. Let’s see if it’s an accepting state:
It seems so.
I will definitely look into Tufte. Thank you for that.
The book reviewer numbers reflect printed reviews. Many of these periodicals do not have a “staff” of reviewers and instead use more of a freelance approach, soliciting works as needed.
What I wouldn’t do to get my hands on that total number of published books….
Thank you for this discourse. I don’t always get to discuss the dissemination of hard data. I could talk about these numbers for days!
I think it’s time to stop giving our money to publishers who are ignoring women.
Talk about them for days? So could I, because the issue’s based on two difficult areas I dearly love: sampling and gender.
Sampling. I’m supposed to be finishing a very long novel and being a book designer for a micropress (woman-owned; 3 books published, one in press; 3F, 1M), but I’m going to find some time to consider how we (see how I’ve dragged you into this, Jen?) might sample publications.
A complete enumeration’s out of the question. But it seems to me that finding ways to sample isn’t out of the question, and maybe get a reasonable estimate of books published, by gender. It seems possible to me.
There might be a semi-automated way to assign gender. In a previous life I had reason to write software that tested gender against first name (as a check) and used a file of something like 15,000 first names assigned to M F or U (the unfortunate Unisex names). If I had a list of authors it wouldn’t be hard to run it against the name-gender list and (apart from U) it ought to do well.
So. Anyway. Back to working on the cover.
One thing struck me as troubling, and I’m not sure what you would do about it. But the more a person is aware of a possible bias, the more tendency there will be to give up and drop out. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be for me to submit if I thought that simply due to my gender there is little hope that I would succeed. I feel that way anyway, as 99 times out of 100 I get rejected when I submit, and so I find it very hard to generate the effort needed to continue. Hmmm. The more you publicize gender bias, and the more women are aware of it, the more difficult it will be for them to get themselves to submit. So, hmmmm. Of course you have to publicize the issue to correct it. This is a very sad thing.
I have been a literary editor of little mags and my small press since 1953. I have personally gone from believing women couldn’t do Art and Literature (as taught to us at our all men’s Columbia College) to understanding that as oppressive and disgusting. It has taken a lifetime. The NYR, TLS and their ilk are part of a capitalistic patriarchal and hierarchical system that of course discriminates. How can it not? I can’t think of many safe places for women or gays or African Americans or anyone Amerika has marginalized, and all those I can think of are created by the marginalized minorities. The progress that has been made simply highlights the oppression that exists.
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