The VIDA Count 2013

February 24, 2014 | by | 28

Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses

First, the good news:

A couple of giants in the original VIDA Count have begun to move. While we can’t call it a trend or cause for partying just yet, it is certainly noteworthy that The Paris Review’s and New York Times Book Review’s pies have significantly baked up tastier for 2013.

The Paris Review’s numbers, previously among the worst in our VIDA Count, have metamorphosed from deep, male-dominated lopsidedness into a picture more closely resembling gender parity. While such progress is remarkable in one year, we are likewise pleased to note that we haven’t heard anyone bemoan a drop in quality in The Paris Review’s pages. Turnarounds like the Paris Review’s make it clear that with the right editorial effort, putting more sustainable gender practices into action isn’t too difficult for these magazines at the top of the major market heap. Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, also demonstrates what good can come when top tier literary outlets recognize the importance of presenting a balanced mix of voices by significantly increasing the number of female reviewers in the NYTBR in 2013.

So the mountains begin to move.

And yet–

(Jump to the Charts)

Two steps forward, one step back…

I know I’ve got the saying backwards, but I’m making predictions this go-round. Despite our best hopes, various oppressions don’t magically die out with a little effort. People raise a fuss, things change a bit, and then the next generation enacts a lot of the old sentiments. We certainly have come a long way from women not voting and from segregation, but backlash still kicks at Affirmative Action and women earning equal pay, to only very briefly highlight the cycle. We have not come nearly far enough. So this year, I’m looking for evidence of paradigm shifts, progress as slow undercurrents or great tidal waves, as the backlash ups the absurdity ante, and the fed-up are rallying. People are growing fond of pointing the absurdities out, and in the publishing world this year, the absurdities continue to show in the disproportionately sliced pies of 2013. I’m not just looking for a Wendy Davis filibuster here; I’m listening for the gallery of voices who refuse to shutdown when told. So we’ve got new publications to consider for 2013.

The pen being mightier than the sword and all that jazz…

It all starts with words. In an age where a few women wearing balaclavas can rankle a nation’s head with their 30 second “A Punk Prayer,” where a young actress must publicly, into a microphone announce her sexual orientation in a first world country to shine a light on oppression and bullying, where an artist posts portraits of her unapologetically unsmiling self, boldly denying objectification, where women with calculators and a year’s supply of journals and magazines can provoke angry words of dismissal (see Peter Stothard in reply, “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” and “while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”), we are still learning the power of our voices and the necessity of sustained practice. We hear that old habits die-hard. So does the perpetuation of “boy’s club” editorial practices, presumably made palatable with a dash of tokenism thrown in to appease. But those pies are starting to taste bitter with their missing ingredients and their lies by omission.

We know these publishing practices won’t die off by accident or with the simple passage of time, if we just accept them on their terms, remain silent and hope. While meritocracy is ideal, it is naïve to accept the publishing industry on the premise that editors simply select the “best” writing from all that is submitted, especially when many of the major publications consult their Rolodexes and solicit most of their work. Editors and publishers alike have vested interests in the work they perpetuate, especially where a dollar is turned. Their values may be, shall we say, often strongly influenced by the demographic who can buy them. VIDA has felt the resistance to those dollars when we’ve served up our pies.

Though we at VIDA have received our fair share of criticism now, it is the torrent of response, from straight up denials to speculative absurd claims about our intent (some reaching the anxiety pitch of Rush Limbaugh), which tells us we’re onto something insidious. And that unspoken something resists the daylight, fighting tooth and nail to trivialize and dismiss what these four years of counting have begun to turn into common knowledge: that women’s writing continues to be disproportionately omitted from the pages of career-making journals. George Carlin once said, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge. The owners of this country went to the same universities and fraternities, they’re on the same boards of directors, they belong to the same country clubs, they have like interests, they don’t need to call a meeting because they know what is good for them…and they are getting it.” So we are emboldened to carry on, asking questions, wondering aloud whose interests are disseminated and defended by those stalwart, outspoken editors and publishers who gloss over and even praise the myopic contents of their own male-dominated pages. We will continue to hold those pages to the fire.

I Count. You count. Because we all count.

We are learning how to choose our battles by example. Now more than ever before, I hear and see readers and writers publicly calling publisher’s catalogs and newspaper I Count Meme Students Countbylines into question. Publishers are self-counting and soliciting writers to change their own scenes. We are shining lights on sites of omissions, places where our voices are grossly absent, so that we can start looking elsewhere to fill the gaps with other realities. We’ve only just begun to ripple the placid guise of the literary landscape and, in concert with the many voices in conversation now, surface awareness of the bankrupt plot.

In a country where many major newspapers and journals are owned by the few, where great swaths of 51% of the population are excluded by historical practices that continue to be handed down and enacted by heads of magazines, VIDA hopes to upset traditions that leave women writers out of editors’ Rolodexes and off publishers’ forthcoming lists. We are no longer sitting still, divided by the false reward of token status. As unsatisfying as tokenism is, we hope our pies will cause similar discomfort for those publishers dangling that tedious carrot.

We’ve been challenged for wanting our suspicions confirmed. But the books we readI Count Meme Mags and the realities we share will no longer be dormant enclaves of singular perspectives. The blinders are coming off. Silence is no longer golden. We cannot look on while the literary landscape lies by omission. There are glimmers of hope, acts of encouraging measure…. and again, it all starts with words.

Abbreviated Breakdown

Pussy Riot, Ellen Page and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh remind us that activism is outspokenness. It can be the right words said at the right moment. In some cases, you create your moment, whether you’re walking into a cathedral in Russia for only a few minutes, standing in your tennis shoes for hours on end on the Texas House floor or pasting your image on Brooklyn’s streets. So let’s look to the journals and magazines of 2013 for reason to speak.

Pay attention, big dogs. Tin House continues to kick ass. It’s called: taking a stand and sticking with it. Separating the chaff from the wheat, the boys club from the many who think beyond the need to see their own reflections and get paid for it.

As noted, Paris Review must’ve noticed something was amiss because they are the most improved this year. Check out the leaps and bounds their pies baked from 2012 to 2013.

While Poetry has maintained the most consistent parity four years running, I’m wondering if there will be a tipping point of the atypical kind this year based on the new editor, Don Share’s social media efforts to get the word out about gender imbalance.

Boston Review has, likewise, succeeded with a decent year again. We like consistency heaps.

And from our new L3 VIDA Count (Larger Literary Landscape), Ninth Letter made our hearts skip some beats with the highest percentage of women at 62%. Conjunctions also offered up a nearly equal sign of parity to boot.

But oh, New Republic has managed its worst year yet since we began counting! Perhaps they are striving to up the ante for the shock value vote. I say, passé. They continue playing the same old hand, this year at a slower speed. Perhaps they think they’re sticking it to us when readers throw our pies in their faces?

Same old lie by omission for Times Literary Supplement. Now that their readers’ demographic is steadily changing, with whites predicted to be a minority by 2042, will the Times white male roster also go the way of the dodo?

And I’ll just call this corner of the globe, “Dudeville,” which is far more polite than what Urban Dictionary would dub any closed circle of men enjoying their “creative privileges.” Drumroll for the 75%ers: The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books (actually holding steady at 80% men for four years) and New Yorker. We get it: you’re mighty, unmovable giants.

Nothing ever changes, except when it does…

Luckily, we’re not stuck with the singular reading experiences set forth by publishing 80% men, and while many of the monoliths continue to frolic in John Cheever-land, we know that meaningful literature is not regulated by these tastemakers of yore. Why would they be? They’re big, full of money, and unmotivated to extend themselves beyond … well, themselves.

So this year, we look to small press publishers for the movers and shakers in our new secondary VIDA Count, the Larger Literary Landscape. Overall, we’re seeing a very different snapshot of writers writing. It is a healthier, more robust abundance of voices. Please consider these new pies, noting that seven of them include more women than men and the general trend towards parity which shames many publications in our primary VIDA Count. In the L3 Count, women writers are more respected. Their work is considered exciting and innovative. When it comes to pies, these taste a good bit better for their variety, innovation and encouragement. Many seem to be reading other realities and enjoying a literary world that isn’t solely focused on them. The pleasures and joys of literature can, in fact, be multiple as it turns out.

Ways to voice your support:

1.) Please consider using the editors’ email addresses on the pies to drop them a line. Your voice lets them know that readers are rallying, talking to each other and revealing the myth of their version of meritocracy. We will no longer passively accept a world where women make up more than half the population but men’s voices express the dominant views our children read in schools, or speak the world to US newsstands. The L3 VIDA Count already illustrates that this historical publishing tact is not the truth; not only is it possible for women’s words to be found in equal measure of valued publications, but our words are integral to developing understanding across identities and for plundering the gifts of human curiosity.

Even one line can be enough to make your discontent known: “We’ve seen your VIDA Count pies, and we don’t like the taste of your contents anymore.”

Or express your appreciation: “Your VIDA Count pies are delicious!”

2.) Join the conversation. Help us understand where you’re coming from, the issues that touch your writing lives, and network with other writers, reviewers and publishers like nobody’s business.

3.) Support presses that support women writers. Cancel subscriptions to publications that have no real interest in women’s voices.

We’ve all heard that change is slow and steady, but I’m learning that’s a false promise which also lies by omission. Change happens because individuals make it happen. We may feel like small readers and writers in a big world, but we shape the world with our voices. Our voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied. It may be time for each of us to sing our own “Punk Prayer,” filibuster the canon that continues to be shaped by others for our children, or take the stage and come out against the bullying some editors do simply because they have for so long. VIDA looks forward to evermore rallying cries for 2014 and to hear you among them. Thanks, as always, for every stand you take!

~~

amy king vidaAmy King teaches Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees.   Check out her latest blog entries at Boston ReviewPoetry Magazine and the Rumpus.

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28 Comments to 'The VIDA Count 2013'

  • This article is an intellectual outrage. It smacks of the old Soviet Unioon and it wouldn’t surprise me that many of these so called literary publications are filled with old 1960’s communists and young female robots without any real gender.
    Your only and I mean ONLY concern should be publishing honest, skillful, insightful writing. And I don’t care if all of it comes from left handed lesbians from Lithuania. I want the best minds, not a bunch of affirmative action losers.

    • Ander says:

      Richard,

      What you fail to recognize is that what we as humans tend to make certain assumptions about people, including that assumption that men are better writers than women. There are many, many men and women who are capable of honest, skillful, insightful writing, but when it comes to choosing who to hire, hiring the man is going to be a “safe bet.” It is not communism to recognize the effect that this tendency has.

      For you to be okay with these numbers, you would need to believe that men are better authors than women. At that point we can write you off as biased, since there are too many great women AND men authors for that to be true.

      Really you should have a problem with these numbers, because it suggests that the best authors aren’t being hired.

  • Fancy Birdukian says:

    Wow! Such great insight. Go give yourself a congratulatory blow job, Richard Iaconelli.

  • Amanda says:

    Richard,

    The good news is we all want the same thing: publishers focusing on honest, skillful and insightful writing.

    As much as you may not care about who is providing that quality writing, when publications are skewed towards one demographic, you risk missing out on unique and thought-provoking content.

    The point of VIDA is to expose biases that inhibit a vast spectrum of ideas and talent, and expand the horizons of all passionate and voracious readers. I’ll assume we have that in common, too.

    Finally, you will have a hard time persuading or shaming anyone when you reduce your opponent to “1960’s communists” or genderless “young female robots” (I don’t even…).

  • Nicola W says:

    Thank you for your sterling work on this. So helpful.

  • Sarah says:

    Could you coordinate with a journal or journals so they start keeping track of their submission and solicitation numbers by gender? It would make these numbers more meaningful.

    Anything you can do to address confounding variables instead of pretending they aren’t important would make your case stronger.
    Gender inequity is important, but relying on the numbers that are easy to get and then projecting onto them your narrative of callous editors is unfair.

    You need to find the numbers that will prove that the ratio of contributors is the result of actual discrimination instead of just a symptom of larger gender issues in our culture that might cause women to submit less or be less likely to respond to a solicitation. I’m not saying that those last two possibilities are the case, but until you design a statistical model that will address those lurking variables, what you’ve done here will always be far less impactful than you want it to be.

  • Sarah says:

    Oh! After writing this comment I just had a cool idea that might be a fun experiment. What about if:

    You get together a sample of 100 MFA graduates in Fiction and Poetry (the sample should be split evenly between women and men but otherwise random). Have them all send out submissions to the same journals at the same time, then you could have them log the responses they get.

    That way you could have metrics about how quickly they heard back, whether they were rejected or accepted, whether or not they got any feedback or requests to send again, whether or not the authors plan to send again, etc.

    That might give us some more insight on this issue.

    • Lynn Melnick says:

      Sarah, this is a terrific experiment idea, although unfortunately we don’t have the womanpower to conduct it right now. If you wanted to, we’d definitely be interested in the findings!

  • Spike Taterman says:

    Well now, how about a breakdown of those with an MFA or in the process of earning one versus those without?
    That’s what I want to see, because the MFA mafia shuts out nearly all non-MFA submissions. Prove me wrong–I beg you.

  • We love hearing new and exciting way to complicate the VIDA Count and the Conversation. Unfortunately, we are a handful of women, volunteering thousands of combined hours just to put out what we do!
    We seriously need some help. We’re happy to assist journals who want to apply our methodologies to their structures and conduct a self-count.
    Submissions numbers are mostly a red herring, being that the majority of pieces are solicited. So, to look at solicitation numbers, one must merely look at what appears in the journals.
    Trust me, if editors were soliciting 100 women and getting 2 pieces, they would be screaming it from the rooftops in the face of these pie charts.

    Jen
    Count Director

  • Kama says:

    Your VIDA counts doesn’t help with sex balance, just add more to the imbalance. The world is not black and white only.

    • The VIDA Count only seeks to offer concrete evidence of a disparity and then start a conversation as to why it exists, are we comfortable with its existence, and if not, how do we change it. We are doing just that. If the world were simply black & white, literature wouldn’t exist, and this is precisely what we are fighting for.

      • Julie Cochrane says:

        I’m not literary, I’m genre, but I write for a mostly male audience in a heavily testosterone-laced field.

        The best tip I can give fellow women writers is to look at your pie charts, know when the magazine you’re dealing with is a testosterone shack, an estrogen shack, or balanced.

        Know your market, know your clients.

        When you’re dealing with a testosterone shack, the rules of professional behavior are from the boys’ side of the playground. Have a thick skin, be flawlessly professional, don’t take things personally, and in social situations try to be “the kind of guy I’d like to go have a beer with.”

        Specifically, guys test other guys to see what they’re made of. Don’t take it personally when someone wants to see what you’re made of. Expect it.

        In writing, this means if someone thinks you might have potential, he just may give you a really harsh, blunt appraisal of exactly why something you’ve submitted is horribly bad. And it may well be excruciating but true. And he just may be trying to find out if you’re professional enough to not be a pain in the butt to deal with, later on.

        “Professional,” at that point, means “take it like a man” when someone in the business tells you your baby’s ugly. Swallow the pain, thank him for taking the time to look at your work and give specific, personal feedback. Try *hard* to mean it.

        Publishers like writers who are easy to work with, behave professionally, don’t whine, and will actually *listen* when they tell you how they want something.

        Anyway, that’s my two cents.

        Male writers are socialized to the rules of the boys’ playground, and it gives them an edge in any professional setting that is using those rules. If you want to neutralize that edge, learn and apply the rules.

        • Julie Cochrane says:

          Remember the boy back in school who wasn’t the top dog, wasn’t the top dog’s best friend, wasn’t the kid who always got beat up. Remember the guy with decent social skills who did things well, was mostly decent to people, and pretty much everybody liked him?

          Not alpha, not omega, just somewhere solidly in the upper-middle of the pack?

          That’s the best practical, social definition of “professionalism in testosterone-land” I know.

        • Scott says:

          what a fabulous run down on guys! its absolutely true. From the guys side of the playground, and in light of these charts, the question always is: how do women get anywhere or have any fun at all when all they want to do is play mamby pamby hopscotch?

  • Did someone say “young female robots?” Because I would definitely buy a journal filled with work by young female robots. That sounds awesome.

  • Nancy Fermanagh says:

    Just saying thank you to the Vida team. It’s trying having to deal with people who don’t really know how power structures work and how they serve to maintain the status quo, and being consistently polite and even-handed in response to uninformed opinions. Good job!

  • Ashley says:

    I just want to thank you for the work put into publishing these numbers. I have become a proud counter and have put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the subscriptions I pay for (and no longer pay for). Complaints of “incompleteness” with regard to submission numbers sound tinny when compared to the robustness of the conversation the VIDA Count has started and, most importantly, the changes already seen in publications like The Paris Review. Awareness is so important. I thank you for raising mine and everyone else’s!

    • Lynn Melnick says:

      Thank you, Ashley! The submissions numbers aren’t relevant to most of the pubs we count in the original VIDA Count, as the big mags gather most of their work through solicitation. The myth of the slush pile is just that. But, yes, we are pleased to see our awareness-bulding resulting in some change already!

  • Gwen Ulrich-Schlumbohm says:

    Wow- great way to truly see the gender gap. May I use your facts in my community college history classes?? Many of my students think we are “post-feminism” and have achieved equality. This takes a field and breaks it down in a wonderfully visual way.

    • Lynn Melnick says:

      Yes, please use our charts and anything else you’d like! And email us if you have any questions.

  • Jonathan says:

    Thank you for this amazing and important work! And kudos for your calm in the face of trolls :)

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