What We Talk About When We’re Talking About “The Count”

October 1, 2010 | by | 8

Given the recent hullabaloo about “counting” that’s taken place in the wake of the Frazen debate, VIDA realized it was high time to talk about what the numbers mean to us, why we “count,” and the significance of the conversation itself.


Amy King: Similar to Betty Friedan and her peers sensing something was going on in the culture during the period that precipitated “The Feminine Mystique,” Cate Marvin’s and Erin Belieu’s public call to form VIDA last year hit a nerve, whose nature and remedies we are still in the process of articulating.  We are establishing our foundation and modes of address in a period when many think feminism is either defunct or reimagining itself.  In order to understand where we need to go, we might start by noting what drew each of us to respond to this call.

Danielle Pafunda: I edited an online journal for seven years.  In 2002, we were receiving perilously few submissions from women.  Because we wanted the journal to be exciting, varied, chaotic even!, we hoped for submissions from all corners (centers, margins, etc.).  It was my co-editor’s idea to run an all women issue, but not make a big deal about it.  We didn’t call it Women Only Special Issue of Women Writers Who are Female Girl Types or Lady Business; just loaded the issue up with great work by women, and launched it into the world.  Some of the contributions came from cold submissions, others from solicitation.  Anyhow, it worked wonderfully, and suddenly women were submitting in much higher numbers.  Over the course of our tenure, we published about 57% women, 43% men.  We never did as well as we would’ve liked when it came to race, disability, sexuality, or any other category of difference, but we did steadily improve our ratios, and became ever more attuned to the fact that the greater the pool of writers’ lived experiences (whether those writers work autobiographically, fantastically, experimentally, etc.), the more dynamic the final assemblage turns out to be.  I don’t imagine numbers are the whole story, but I do believe they profoundly inform the story, and so I count.

Susan Steinberg: I’ve always been aware of the gender disparity in the arts; I was a painter before I was a writer, and the numbers in the visual arts world very much resemble those in the literary arts.  When Cate and Erin asked me to get involved in VIDA, I was as thrilled about the opportunity to have a discussion about the disparity as I was about the possibility of making an actual change.  Too often, when attempting such a dialogue, women are told to stop complaining.  We’re told that we should be grateful for what we do have; things used to be much worse, after all.  And it’s true.  But does that mean we should stop in our tracks and pretend to be satisfied with a world that doesn’t view our work as equal to the work produced by men?  Now that VIDA is counting (and the numbers are alarming), it’s become painfully clear to me that while the dialogue is, in fact, much needed, we really must push toward a change.  Recent articles on the unevenness in publishing and prizes have raised a lot of questions:  Are fewer women writing?  Are fewer women submitting work?  Are fewer women attending MFA programs?  Are more women writing genre?  Are “women’s issues” less likely to be of interest to editors and prize judges?  A greater discussion of these, and other, questions will likely help us form our next steps.  I hope we can get to a place where the “all women issue” of a magazine is no longer needed.  With all due respect to Danielle’s journal (and I love that they increased submissions by women), I’ve seen a few of these issues in the past few months, and that kind of compartmentalization, in the midst of the usual “mostly men issues,” in my opinion, often sends the wrong message.


Cate Marvin: The particular polemic that’s already been entered into via Danielle and Susan’s contributions (is a woman writer a woman first, or a writer first? Must women writers identify as such, and why?) is one I am genuinely flummoxed by. I’ve always considered myself a writer first. Yet, the numbers would seem to demonstrate that such an assumption is flawed, if not naive.


VIDA launched “The Count” because it was time to see if the numbers actually bore out what writers (male and female alike) had long suspected: that most literary venues publish more men than women; that more men’s books are reviewed than women’s. It was time to stop speculating that things didn’t “seem” entirely fair, and find out whether we did in fact have reason to be concerned. Early on in the founding of VIDA, I spoke with several women writers who were interested in our venture; in doing so, I discovered that I was not alone in my habit of counting, by which I mean that when reading a literary journal, I couldn’t help but allow my eyes to run down its Table of Contents to perform a quick tabulation of how many works by male authors were represented in contrast to those written by women.

I soon discovered that a lot of women writers routinely perform their own version of “the count” when surveying anthologies, journals, book reviews, and awards. At the time I was unaware of Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s essay “Numbers Trouble”; nearly all of the women I was in dialogue with directed me to it. I was astonished to discover that a sub-genre of poetry (which I’ll refer to by shorthand as “experimental”) I’d have assumed would most fairly represent the sexes may be as biased as the more “traditional” sub-genres in poetry, as well as the more commercial venues for prose. I would later be struck by the fact that women writing in all genres are affected by this disparity.

This experience was akin to peering over a very high wall to gaze upon a neighbor’s backyard—a neighbor I’d always assumed was living the good life—and discovering that this neighbor’s life was, in fact, quite similar to my own.

Juliana Spahr: I co-edited a literary journal for ten years and we pretty much counted everything. Male and female and identifying other/against was just one thing we counted. We counted slush pile and solicited. We counted US and not US. We counted race and ethnicity. We counted queer and straight. And other things besides these categories. How much fractured language? How much narrative? There seemed to be no other way to figure out what we were doing otherwise. What to do with much of that information seems to be the big question to which I do not yet have the answer. Similarly, when I see a mainly male something or other, I don’t think oh good, that is something that is putting quality first; I’ll go read that. I usually think oh, there is someone who is, like me, unable to stop counting and unlike me, they’ve made some different decisions about what to do with their counting. I should also add that Stephanie Young and I wrote an article where, among other things, we told a history of and counted male/female representation in “experimental” poetry anthologies.

Amy King: I experienced the first tendrils of awareness as an undergraduate major in English and Women’s Studies.  But the disparities only really hit me later in grad school courses where I would witness ardent discussions take place in the name of male writers, and fewer “tamer” ones regarding the work of female writers.  Later, I read similar conversations on listservs and wondered why women’s work seemed to regularly warrant less-than-passionate and briefer considerations than that of our male counterparts.  Was female subject matter less difficult?  Not engaging enough?  Did women write in some sort of mysteriously benign or impotent style?   Just what is female and male content?  I began to try to discern which subjects were considered feminine versus the matters that men concerned themselves with in their work.  And so on.  I also recognized that these categories certainly can break down, as it is no hardship to find writers who try on an array of styles, grapple with assorted subjects, etc.

However, categories will persist, whether for marketing purposes and sales or simply to assure that all divisions remain clearly delineated in the world.   Women are still boxed in as writing a particular kind of fiction, whether it be “chick lit” or “mass market,” while men continue to dominate the nonfiction charts writing about the “business of the world.” Subject matter is most decidedly marked by gender in the mainstream bookselling business, and what lit my fire for VIDA was their response to the PW Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009 when PW was simply shrugging their shoulders claiming, “We just picked the best books,” as though they weren’t conscious of the fact that every book on that list focused on male imperialist adventures and exploits, men’s lives, men who designed war strategies and weapons, etc.  Their top 100 list isn’t much better; it contains books by only 29 women.  So for me, Publishers Weekly was implicitly making the public claim that “it just so happens that the most worthwhile books are about these male-identified subjects and are written by men.”  They might as well have been ringing out the old “‘HE’ is universal” bell of yore.

But I wonder how much these strictures are demanded and reinforced by the publishing industry and how “natural” such divisions really are.  Not to pick on him again but I’m thinking of Jonathan Franzen’s resistance to Oprah’s tapping The Corrections for her book club; he didn’t want the book to be dubbed “chick lit” or anything remotely similar, as though books liked by women inherently won’t be enjoyed by men.

Similarly, author Bev Vincent relays his experiences with an editor who tried to get him to remove the “girl” content from his memoir, “…the editor claims that my prose is ‘overly elegant,’ which is presumably his or her way of saying that a man would never write or think in elegant terms. Guess that means I write like a girl.”  He continues, “He didn’t seem to get the point that a major part of the critique was based on a faulty and biased impression about the way men think.” [Link – http://www.stephenking.com/forums/showthread.php/13988-Gender-bias-in-publishing]   I wonder if mainstream publishers have an unwritten formula or expectations for how men should write, especially to sell books?  And vice versa.  If so, these distinctions limit everyone, not only women, in their reading and writing.

Of course, genre categories are also ranked by importance, within which the hierarchy of gender is illustrated and enforced.  Women’s nonfiction is often relegated to lesser subcategories such as “Lifestyle,” “Gardening,” “Parenting,” etc.  These subcategories are not male-dominated; men’s nonfiction remains “Nonfiction.” Is there an equivalent category of “chick lit” for men?  How often does male-written fiction get quarantined in the “Mass Market” block?   I realize I’m only speaking about the obvious issue of subject matter here and that writing styles themselves have been dubbed masculine and feminine, another can of worms entirely.

I’ve gone on, but it feels like VIDA is opening Pandora’s Box or stepping into Alice’s rabbit-hole. One reply leads to so many more questions.  Have we been taught to “write like girls?”  Have men been conditioned to read like guys (i.e. “All children have short attention spans” means we give them only short books, thus fulfilling the prophecy)?  Is it possible that what we learn through counting can lead to larger questions and dissections? Where has it led so far?  What questions have arisen to date?  Why do you think so many are nervous about what “The Count” will reveal?  What types of resistances have you encountered?

Juliana Spahr: Amy, I’m going to drop most of your questions. Not for lack of interest but in part because I feel like I don’t understand the marketed world of fiction enough to answer them. But also in part because every time something like this comes up, say someone says something that we might call “sociological” about literature, something like “oh look, interesting, so few female writers in this or that list or journal or book series,” the “we just picked the best” response comes up. A lot of your questions are about what “the best” might mean. Does it mean something about how literature is categorized? Are male ideas seen as “better”? Do women write certain ways because of society? Because of certain hormones? Etc. And there are big debates we can have here and various positions we can take, that have been taken. And it is not that those debates are not interesting. They are. But at the same time part of me just wants to not even enter the debate because the “we just picked the best” response is so absurd. Because whenever anything is categorically skewed—whether mainly male or mainly white or mainly straight or whatever—it can’t really claim to be “the best” but is some other thing, some representational politics.

Danielle Pafunda: Oh, gracious, yes, Juliana!  I teach gender studies, English lit, and creative writing.  Often it is literally my job to explain to people how the canon was formed.  It is my job to encourage them to consider gender as a cultural construction, how this gender is inscribed on our bodies & rooted in our interactions, and how assumptions about gender inform every dang thing we do.  Happily, my students are intelligent, articulate, fun humans—I love discussing these issues with them, no matter what thread of the debate they champion.

In the literary world this is decidedly not my job, nor does it prove nearly as enjoyable to explore these issues with most of the folks who fancy themselves experts on great writing.  I used to patiently enter this fray, and I’ve got the utmost admiration for those taking up the mantle now, but lately I find it helpful to take a page from Twisty Faster’s fierce, wry I Blame The Patriarchy.  In her Guidelines for Commenters, Twisty advises us:

Do not use the comments section either to ask feminists to explain feminism to you, or to explain feminism to feminists… read seventeen books on radical feminist theory, and Google “mansplaining” before commenting here. I’m not kidding. See ya in 9 or 10 years! Thanks!

Something rings disingenuous in the defenses that proceed from “we just chose the best,” or “good writing is good writing regardless of gender.”  These arguments pretend not to see the very categories of difference that usher work worth reading into the world.  They invest in an outmoded genius transcending the body to commit great literature.  And they often trigger unbearably dull, profoundly irritating debates.  Blech.  I can feel the tug of this downward and absurd, as Julianna puts it!, spiral creeping up on me now.  Enough of that, then.  The gender disparity is indefensible.  It is its history, depth, breadth, effect, insidiousness, kryptonite, and demise I’m interested in.

Cate Marvin: And the fact is that the conversation we’re now conducting publically about numbers has been, for some time, subterranean— by which I mean it’s a topic many women writers have long spoken about candidly among one another. Frankly, I’ve often had a difficult time addressing these concerns with my male peers. My attempts to undertake such conversations have often felt, to employ a metaphor, as if I am trying to draw my friend’s attention to a very large animal, one that is verily hovering and heaving its foul breath just inches above our heads— an animal that, for all its apparent visibility, my male counterpart refuses to notice or simply cannot comprehend.

To say the numbers don’t matter is akin to saying that counting ballots in an election is pointless. Do we not, as citizens, feel entitled to understand the means by which an electoral outcome has been reached? It’s here that I wish to stress that VIDA’s “count” is by no means a blame-game. We know there are many factors that contribute to the fact there are more male writers engaged in producing critical prose than women. We hope that by discussing the numbers we can come to understand why this is the case. How can we encourage more women to enter into the conversation? How can we create alternative forums for such conversations?

The conversation only begins with the numbers. I hope we’ll learn more about the faces behind the numbers. At this point, I can only show my own. “Counting” is arduous work. It’s not a simple task, by any means. It involves collecting the data, which is a painstaking process, especially when one has limited resources and time. I have personally spent a great many nights combing through magazines, and then whole days in public and university libraries in order to gather data. And because every journal is a different animal, the manner in which we apply our analyses must alter according to the structure of each publication. “Counting” is not a blame-game because it not a game: it sure as hell isn’t fun! It is incredibly hard work, in that it requires one to address the various manner in which dominant genres and their sub-genres are divvied up by a particular publication. The act of counting can, in fact, be very depressing. One hopes to be surprised: to discover that one’s worst suspicions were merely suspicions. In fact, I’ve often found that the very magazines I’d been most certain would demonstrate a real gender balance do, in fact, fall far below my initial expectations.

Do I have personal stakes with my own writing with regard to these “major literary venues”? To be honest, not really. As a poet, I am accustomed to being invisible. I rather enjoy it. What I like (love) about literature is how it reaches back to the already dead and forward toward the not-yet-born. It speaks of the present, and not necessarily to the present. It’s not really my writer-self who cares about numbers—rather it’s myself as a person (woman?) who does not care to feel somehow (publically) obligated to agree with the assumption that women writers are fairly represented. They are not. Can we talk about why that’s the case? No? Why not? This conversation tugs me out of the territory (anonymous) I’ve long held fast to as poet. Poetry is not a commodity. We could have another conversation about how little poetry as genre is published and reviewed relative to other genres. The reason why most poets don’t bemoan this is because we don’t mind our obscurity. It gives us shadows. Such shadows are shelters. But that is not the issue here.

The issue is, frankly, that publishing, reviews of one’s work, as well as awards, all help to further a writer’s “career.” This means, simply, that one is granted, via such recognition, the following: JOBS (more money + health insurance = greater health = more time to write); GRANTS (more time to write); RESIDENCIES (more time to write); MONEY (more time to write) . . . in other words, all these things clearly  provide a means by which an author can focus more on his or her craft and thereby more fully recognize / realize / accomplish his or her vision. This is why I believe the numbers are important. It’s not that they impact / influence one’s ability to write, but rather that they determine who gets TIME to write.

Susan Steinberg: Tempting as it is to comment on each point, Cate’s final thought resonates with me most.  Regardless of how one defines literary success (some would say product; some would say process; some would say prizes), it is imperative to look at the numbers as the disparity is directly related to which artists are awarded both the time and money to make their art.  Simply put, if more men than women receive grants, teaching positions, publications, reviews, and prizes, then more men than women are being supported to make their art, and it goes around again.  Vicious cycle.

Amy King: In addition to the rewards writers receive and how often their work is reviewed, read, publicly discussed and applauded, the more the values represented and conveyed by that work are perpetuated and filtered into the culture.  That is, more visibility means more importance is assigned and attendance is given to specific kinds of voices, issues, interests, and modes of writing and thinking.   It’s why Mr. Jackson, as earlier cited, has to write his male-self in a very specific way to sell his memoir:  men are codified and must be represented within a textual framework that reflects a limited set of acceptable “male” interests, behaviors and values.

A focus on male-authored texts does a disservice to the literate world that reads those heralded, hierarchically-organized books.  If our counts evidence a primacy of male accounts of history, a focus on nonfiction depictions of notable men’s lives, an attention to the “universal” assumed in men’s fiction and other masculine modes of art and creation, then ultimately the literary world, and its apparatuses, has not actively created significant attentive room for the values, interests, and voices in work by women, let alone the variety of writing styles and modes characterized as feminine.   Of course, not all women fulfill or write from the perspective of the world’s caretakers, nurturers, and educators, nor are these roles only held by women, but we cannot fail to note the absence of many who inhabit and explicate from them with each count that is done.

Shooting for a more symbiotic or proportional equity by publishing, reviewing and awarding women’s words may be one of the first steps necessary to shift the current paradigm that disallows a *variety* of voices the visibility they’re due.  But I wonder if there’s a chicken-or-the-egg question I’m overlooking.  Do feminine modes of writing and “female” interests get subsumed or sub-categorized because they really are of “lesser” interest or do we view them as less important because they are reviewed and awarded less than men’s?

Some argue, even now, that the numbers reflect that women simply don’t write as well or about interesting subject matter – while others believe the count illustrates a bias still employed by male and female editors and reviewers alike.  Does the count reflect that we learn that bias as we grow up reading texts that are given more attention and are ranked in Danielle’s aforementioned canon?  What do the disparate balances in “The Count” really begin to illustrate?

Cate Marvin: I had lunch with the playwright Julia Jordan the other day. She is the author, along with playwright Sheri Wilner, of an article titled “Discrimination and the Female Playwright” (http://www.giarts.org/article/discrimination-and-female-playwright). In conversation, Julia raised several points that redirected my thinking on this matter of counting, mainly that sexism is not inherent only to men, but to women as well. This may seem obvious. Her points were illuminating for me, however, in that she offered a couple of examples of women playing a serious role in not taking themselves as seriously as their male peers: first, she discussed how her female graduate students tend not to regard their own future aspirations with much ambition. These female graduates are prepared to apply for jobs in which they will fulfill roles of support for other (male) playwrights, rather than striking out on their own. Second, we discussed how women dominate the publishing industry. It would seem that while women view texts by women as having merit, they recognize that they lack what they conceive to be their commercial value (for what they believe a primarily male audience desires). And this is a mistake on their part. According to the research Julia conducted (see her article) male audiences are far less interested in what women perceive should interest them, i.e., violence, naked women, etc.  While this is a poor summary of our conversation, I am trying to present it here because it reminded me that we cannot assume that men aren’t interested in women’s work. I happen to think they are. But which men? And which women are convinced that men aren’t interested in women’s work?

The point I am trying to make is that when we count we aren’t attempting to create a binary between men and women. We are interested in understanding the process by which men happen to be published more than women. Why is this the case? I think that people who are on the publishing side might be afraid to enter into this discussion because they fear they’ll be labeled sexist. But the fact is, we’re all sexist. I myself could not have arrived at this conversation without being aware of my own innate sexism. Erin Belieu, my co-director, and I have often discussed just how much we’ve come to realize about our own assumptions in the process of building VIDA. I can speak to sexism in reading and teaching literary texts – own up to it – because for much of my life I’ve primarily read and taught male poets. White male poets. So what do I do with that knowledge now? First, I accept it. Then I think about why that’s been the case. I could blame my education, but if I’m truly interested in changing how I understand the entire conversation surrounding this issue, I must take responsibility. And this is how I hope we can now enter into a very new conversation about bias in literature. Discomfort and defensiveness are the immediate responses one has when one’s own biases are called into question. But wouldn’t it be more productive to regard such matters in a more candid and receptive manner?

I fear I’ve failed to respond adequately to Amy’s initial question. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we can’t assume it is MEN who are “blocking out” WOMEN—but rather that both genders must claim responsibility for their own biases, recognize them, interrogate them, and help us all reach toward creating a more open forum in which we may discuss the “numbers”—what they mean, how they’ve come about, what we’d like, ideally, as a literary community (that is decidedly comprised of many parts) to change with regard to who we include in the conversations that are conducted in literary venues, review venues, etc.

Danielle Pafunda: In a happy bit of synchronicity (or proof that the issue is on everyone’s mind!), YA author Maureen Johnson considers, in this insightful and even-handed post, women’s/girls’ ability to read seamlessly across gender lines and men’s/boys’ discomfort with same.  Think about it! Girls read about young men battling in World War II, experiencing their first erections and wet dreams, beating the crap out of each other on a deserted island, suffering the pathetic whims of their two-dimensional feminine counterparts and align themselves with that main character—can hop right into his alien body and masculine subjectivity.  Imagine asking teenage boys to read graphic accounts of childbirth, clitoral orgasms, psychological girl bullying, or portraits of two-dimension ham-fisted sidekick guy friends.  Heck, imagine asking boys to carry a book with a pink cover.  Johnson submits that if we really want to increase the literacy of boys and men, we’ll teach them to, like the girls, read acrobatically.  Leap into the minds of characters from multiple walks of life, empathize with those situations considered feminine.  It’s a disservice to boys and men to ghettoize them the way we have (wink).  Why should they only have access to the experiences and concerns of those others most like them, when girls and women have access to the complete spectrum of human experience?  You know, when they finally start digging beyond the canon, top tens, and most widely reviewed titles.  Numbers correspond directly to exposure, and where one’s exposure is limited, one’s potential as human, citizen, worker, teacher, partner, friend, thinker, etc. etc. is sadly limited as well.

But, a meta-moment, if I may?  [steps to front of stage, calls for soft spotlight]: Good evening ladies and gentleman.  Some of you, having read this far in the conversation may have only heard “whine whine whine, boo hoo, poor me.”  And to you, I offer my most sincere “So what?”  We women writers are well used to being policed by characterizations of ourselves as big whiners and complainers.  I submit that we English speakers and writers should recognize whining as our original rhetorical form.  Any parent reduced to tears by a willful, whiny toddler can attest to this.  Men engage (gasp!) in whining as hotly and heartily as women.  They may couch it in more masculine terms such as “straight-shooting,” “telling it like it is,” or “editorial,” but c’mon, we all know it’s high grade whining, that whining produces squeaking, squeaky wheels attract the oil, and (sadly) oil = money and money = power.  For those of you who are planning to call foul on this “whine,” let me make it easy for you.  [clears throat, clasps hands demurely, puts on most nasal little sibling voice to address the literary world] “Cut it out! I don’t like this! Stop it, you guys!  It’s not fair!” [repeats ad nauseum, ad infinitum, considers converting to audio file for maximum effect].  I now return you to your regularly scheduled conversation.

Amy King: I’ll add to Danielle’s point with a quick anecdote.  My students wrote a journal entry in class the other day on physical suffering, followed by volunteer readings.  After a few students read, I began calling on people.  One woman replied that she didn’t mind reading but thought she shouldn’t since hers was “graphic” and about how difficult her periods are to endure each month.  Needless to say, she did read, and after the uncomfortable chuckling died down, a lively discussion grew that all genders participated in.  But the initial resistance was due to the notion that the men in the class wouldn’t “be able to relate.”

I really loathe that cursory assessment of any text, the idea that we must be able to “relate” to a book’s contents which inherently means that it must be about us as individuals or else what we read will leave us at a loss.  Of course, as Danielle points out, women continue to be taught to read “universally” while only men are considered to write “universally.”  Women’s fiction tends to get grouped in genre fiction, while men’s books are simply fiction.

I’ve noted this before, but as a litmus test of our educational systems each semester, I ask my new students, who are consistently an ethnically and gender diverse group, how many of them have read The Great Gatsby.  Inevitably, at least eighty percent of the class has.  But only about one percent has read Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book written within 15 years of Fitzgerald’s, and in my humble estimation, is on par with the same.  Hurston’s work is certainly canon-worthy and was originally well-received upon publication, but of course, the fact that the protagonist is black, female, and from a lower class “magically” renders the book ineligible for high school and college reading, despite the obviousness of its greatness.  It is a quintessential coming-of-age story, complete with adventure, drama, written in a compelling style, and yet, it barely rates “occasional” inclusion in high school curriculum and on college syllabi.  I’ve asked this question every semester for the past eight years with no real variation of the aforementioned results.  Whatever this system is that determines what books are to be read, it is still being perpetuated to the present day, however intentional or not and however much folks think we no longer need feminism.

At its most pragmatic and as Cate indicates, I think “The Count” is, at base, about pointing out our inherent biases so that we can begin to examine how they’re taught, how we learn them, and how we perpetuate them.  We may bristle to learn that we each perpetuate many biases, but blame-game aside, it seems to me we’re talking about a cycle that carries on under the radar, and it’s up to readers, reviewers, editors, teachers, anthologists, prize committees, etc. to become aware of what the numbers are telling us.  Which brings me full circle again, what are the numbers telling us?  What real work will these statistics do?  What have we seen so far?  I don’t know if we can offer ultimate answers yet, but we’re beginning… and if the recent slew of articles appearing regarding gender bias publication is any indication, conversations are sparking little wildfires of their own.

Juliana Spahr: The numbers do some work and yet not other work. And so I think that question you ask, Amy, “what real work will these statistics do?” is so crucial. And Cate talked a lot about self-education. And I’d echo that as one small answer. Counting the numbers of things has required me to change my own work. I’ve edited differently; I’ve taught differently; I’ve written about differently. And, at the same time, I’ve had to understand things more complexly. The numbers aren’t simple. But I sometimes worry that the numbers can appear to be an end or that they can distract attention away from larger questions. And I’d be dumb if I said to myself, well now that I know this and I’ve included work by women at 50% or close in some project or other, my work is done. At the same time, in response to that fairly mundane article that Stephanie and I wrote that I mentioned earlier, a lot of people said that it was the fault of women because they don’t send out their work or because they have children and are busy and they don’t do this or that or they do this or that. And I have yet to see any sort of numbers that say that women consistently submit their work less than men. I’m not discounting it but I’d have to see some numbers around it.

Susan Steinberg: I’m reminded of an American Lit course I taught years ago.  On the first day of class, prior to teaching a wide range of texts, both in the canon and out, I asked the students to describe the “average American.”  I listed their details on the chalkboard:  white, male, thirty-something, married (to a woman), with children, homeowner, dog owner.  That none of us fit this description didn’t seem to bother anyone until I mentioned it.  And then what.  Some of the students were embarrassed.  Some were defensive.  Some were fascinated.  Some didn’t care.  Truly amazing the biases which some didn’t even know they had.  Amazing, as well, that they were, all of them, even in their own minds, below average.  Yes, some of the students would perhaps become the persona on the chalkboard.  But most of us would not.  And on that day, while we were what we were, the problem, despite the varied reactions, was clear.

Perhaps this is where we are right now with The Count.  The numbers show a huge disparity, and that disparity is certain.  Many of us would agree that the disparity a problem.   But discussion of it provokes a range of reactions (look at the responses to any one of our articles) akin to that of my students, year back.  I believe that these responses (even the most discouraging ones) offer clues toward understanding why the problem still exists, where it comes from, how it’s perpetuated, and what we can do about it.  We still have a lot of work to do before we get to the “real work” Juliana mentions.  In the meantime we should continue, in Amy’s words, to spark the “little wildfires” that will hopefully provoke readers, writers, and the most uptight editors (especially those who wouldn’t have otherwise) to take a new look at the literary world and say, “This is totally fucked.”  That would be a start.

Amy King: I think we’ve touched on a good number of reasons as to why we’re grappling with “The Count” at the present.  We’re turning our suspicions into concrete evidence, so that we can ask ourselves and others, “Of what?”  This is a solid, accountable start.  It might be good to conclude our discussion here by re-visiting a question Cate posed earlier:  Can we, as public readers, educators, and reviewers, finally acknowledge and talk about why women writers are not fairly represented and why the resistance we encounter might point to larger politics at play?  Indeed, the causes of the disparities are extremely obscure and difficult to identify, and we’ve acknowledged that we don’t have any clear-cut answers … What might we ask of the public-at-large at this point?  What hopes may we express or questions might we pose regarding publishing and reading practices to further advance the inquiries “The Count” has clearly initiated?  Parting thoughts…?

Cate Marvin: Where I’m at right now in the most practical sense is that I have thousands of table of contents photocopied that can be found in various stacks in my office and home. I need to wrap up the grunt-work of gathering and fully updating every publication we chose to look at several months back. We knew, yes, that we were being ambitious. Just how ambitious, I don’t think we were aware. The sheer work is daunting (and I say this as a cheerful workaholic). Once that’s taken care of (easy enough to say, insanely difficult to do) we’ll have a better idea of what we’re looking at across the board. Right now we have ten volunteers who are assisting us in counting; by having a number of people undertake the work we can create a final tally that’s been well-scrutinized. Having more people count helps to develop the conversation, as well. It’s the conversation that makes me hopeful. Since VIDA began in August of 2009, I become more and more convinced that a new literary age is upon is—and this is because I am daily engaged in collaborative efforts with other women writers. I not only feel connected, I feel challenged. In fact, I am intellectually challenged by my VIDA cohorts on a near daily basis; this is because the people involved really listen to one another; we know that if we wish to affect change we must be thoughtful, candid, and honest in our responses to one another. The main thing I would ask of the individuals who comprise the “public-at-large,” which is really more of a recommendation, is that they be open to engaging in the kinds of conversations we’ve been speaking to here.

Danielle Pafunda: I want to say how delighted I am to be in conversation with all of you, and to be part of the more global discussion. Parting thought? As omnivorous, insatiably literate creatures, how can we fail to broaden our palates? The literary world provides us with an embarrassment of riches if we put forth the effort, travel a little further afield. Isn’t it, *grin*, getting rather ripe in this comfort zone?

Juliana Spahr: The numbers are only as good as how they might lead all of us to a more radical and international feminism. What that feminism looks like would, I hope, be some of the real work that the counting might provoke.

Susan Steinberg: Once all of our numbers are posted, I think we need to deepen our conversation of the gender disparity in the literary arts in order to focus on why, after all of these years, it still exists.  And I would hope that all readers, writers, and editors who agree that the disparity is, in fact, unfair, will join the discussion and help us to move toward ways to support and encourage the work of more women writers.

8 Comments to 'What We Talk About When We’re Talking About “The Count”'

  • Marian says:

    Thank you all so so so much. I’ve been engaged with ‘counting’ and women’s filmmaking for five years now, and it is absolutely wonderful for me to hear you engaged in familiar conversations about another art form.

    And, I think because of New Zealnd’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), there’s no need any longer for the counting here in NZ. I wrote a little bit about this, back in 2009 as my contribution to the conversation, as well as a thank you to IIML, after your response to the Publishers Weekly Top 100: http://wellywoodwoman.blogspot.com/2009/12/moving-forward.html. Hope it’s OK to add this here. I wanted to because I’ve read nothing else about transformative institutions and how they work towards long term change that benefits women writers, and would like to hear more.

  • Jen Fitzgerald says:

    The thought that resonates with me the most from this intense posting is the idea that we are TAUGHT from a young age what literature is. I was not aware of the preconcieved notions about art, a teaching of HIStory and how only male writers are considered to be objective enough to write for both genders. Women writers fill in the gaping holes left in prose by men. Women’s writing is cerebral, it is defiant and it is necessary. How can the publishing world have the audacity to tell women that if they intend to read a serious book they best pick a male author. I do not believe gender to be a sociological construct; it is very real and the more we deny it the more likely we will be to try to “act like men” because there is no middle gender where the two can meet, no androgeny that could be considered safe. No one wants to incite a “seperate but equal” doctrine, we know it is unjust on its face and simply does not work. What we need is a paradigm shift. To keep a generation of young men away from the works of Toni Morrison and Joyce Carrol Oates is to do them a great disservice.

  • Kristin says:

    On a couple of the questions Amy King raised: It is interesting that “fratire” wasn’t “needed”/accepted/etc. the way “chick lit” was. Science fiction is often published as mass-market, right, and is heavily authored by males, yet is there a distinction there, because it’s genre, often seen as campy, silly genre? Or male sci fi writers can escape that box, but even well-regarded-across-the-board female sci fi writers will always be “just” sci fi writers?

    Anyway, overall, my point is, I’m glad VIDA is talking this all out–and then wants to guide some action.

  • Melodie says:

    I never thought about The Count till I read this article earlier this month. Now I think about it every time I see some list of authors up for an award or whatnot.

    As far as my own relationship with the male/female disparity goes, I can tell you that as someone with a very feminine name (and possibly even silly!) name, I sometimes worry that people will disregard my work before they’ve even read it, because… how are you supposed to get into a serious frame of mind when you’re already thinking about The Dumb One from Josie and the Pussycats?

    Anyway all I know is, when I took a course on children’s writing a few years back, the instructor said that a boy will never read a book that was written by a woman unless he’s made to do so in school. There’s this automatic assumption that the material will be frou-frou or silly or otherwise Not For Him.

    Obviously that’s a bit of a generalization, but you know. It’s not entirely inaccurate overall. I don’t know what can be done about it, though. :-/

  • Lisa Bowden says:

    Great to see The Count conversation going on here and to know that there are watchdogs all over. We at Kore Press have been watchingdogging and grousing about this for 17 years, and publishing women exclusively because of it. Inspired by the Guerrilla Girls and their outing of sexism in the art world with statistics in the 80s, we’ve made a habit of counting ourselves (ie, since its inception in 1923, Time Magazine has never had a female managing editor). While Time is no literary venue, making the connection between the writing worlds and the questions of who gets published and read, where and why and in what numbers, is not a stretch. It definitely keeps fueling the fires of activism.

  • Wonderful discussion–thank you for the work you’re putting in on this. I was let here by twitter, someone suggested it after reading my recent post on why review equality matters. http://beyondthemargins.com/2010/11/micro-inequality-why-review-equality-matters/

    VIDA is so needed.

  • Will Smith says:

    I’m a big fan of counting, but I’m not sure what’s being counted. I turn in the LRB to read longish essays by women writers whose work I see regularly. Does that count as 1 piece and a brief review count as 1 piece?

    An academic journal that I edited for a while had 75% articles by women; I never counted until now. One sent the essays out to experts for blind review, copyedited and checked them, and published without caring about gender. But suppose the result was 75% men? Should that be “fixed”?

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