Biting The Hand: VIDA Women Discuss Their Selection For The Best American Series

Amy King: We’ve arrived with the numbers for the Best American series, interested to see how women fare on the “Best American” front. Parity has eluded us again. Moreover, your work has appeared, at some point, in these anthologies, and now you’re playing for Team VIDA! While our goals are to point out imbalances, query and explore the implied bias, I’m wondering if you all feel a little conflicted, as though you’re biting the proverbial hand that feeds or, at least, has praised you?

Cheryl Strayed: I don’t feel conflicted at all. In fact, I hope that the editors of the Best American series take it as a compliment that we’ve looked at their numbers when it comes to gender. We counted them because they count. It’s a series that matters not only to poets and writers, but also to the culture at large. When I first heard an essay of mine had been selected for inclusion in the series—in Best American Essays 2000—it felt like the biggest thing that had ever happened to me professionally, and it was. It made an actual difference in my career. It gave my work a national audience before I published a book. A lot of opportunities that have come my way can be traced back to my two essays that have appeared in Best American. Editors called to ask me to write for their magazines because they read those essays, or people editing anthologies got in touch to see if I’d like to contribute; colleges have invited me to give a reading or a talk. I am indebted to Robert Atwan, who edits the essay series, and I don’t in any way see our count as a condemnation of his or any editor’s work. Rather, our count is—and always has been—an opening to a conversation that I imagine the Best American series editors are going to be interested in having. We aren’t saying: shame on you. We’re saying: look what we found.

Danielle Pafunda: I love thinking of us—members, supporters, volunteers, directors—as Team VIDA, but we don’t play against anyone. We play for literature, for women writers. I think, I hope people get that. Myself, I was honored to appear in three editions of Best American Poetry, and equally pleased to see poems from the online journal I edited appear in the series. One of my poems was a sort of vigilante epistle to a difficult health insurance company. How I loved imagining someone from the company might actually read the poem; the chances had gone up exponentially! Anyhow, curating a Best American edition is no small task. Full disclosure, here—in graduate school I had an assistantship that allowed me to work for David Lehman, the Best American Poetry series editor. While I had fairly limited contact with BAP, I do know that each year’s editor read an incredible number of poems, committed to reading the year’s publications. Seriously, I can only imagine the hours, pots of coffee, and internal struggles that go into the selection process. The introductions to these volumes make evident the care each editor takes in constructing his/her own rubric for best. I’d hope that editors already attending so thoughtfully to the process would welcome our interest. As Cheryl says: look what we found. Also: look what you might consider next time! Best is a shifting and subjective appellation. If we want best to stay fresh, then it’ll help to look at what’s been done, what’s yet to do.

Erin Belieu: I agree wholeheartedly with what Cheryl and Danielle say here. Being in Best American Poetry the times I’ve been chosen has had very positive professional ramifications for which I am grateful. I like feeding my kid and paying my reverse mortgage and the reality is that the BA series means something significant to deans and publicists and presses. But those of us involved with VIDA have always believed in this conversation as an inherent opportunity. I won’t pretend to be na?ve and suggest that I don’t know that such conversation can make some people uncomfortable. Examining long held views about one’s aesthetics, feeling anxious about opening up one’s experience to other voices that challenge the often unconscious aspects of our belief system—well, I’m afraid that is part of the necessary process but not something most humans run towards with their arms open. I certainly don’t. But isn’t that what writers and people who love literature should be striving for? A meaningful agitation that reveals more of the world each time we question ourselves? If I wanted to feel comfortable I’d find another line of business.

Adrienne Su: Like my fellow VIDAs, I’ve benefited greatly from being in Best American. As a result, I ought to be at least somewhat conflicted about this Count. But because VIDA doesn’t seek to accuse individual entities, and because it’s the job of the creative writer to explore the junctures at which we’re unable to speak with full certainty, I’m having a hard time finding the conflict. If I were more of a pragmatist, I might say yes, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. But we think the writers and editors involved in Best American are better than that. We think they’re likely to respond thoughtfully, not defensively. Plus, we’ve made long-term sacrifices to become writers; it makes no sense to compromise on what we view as important. It’s also my hope that the conversation will invoke more broadly relevant issues than those of the literary publishing world. Maybe the imbalance has more to do with U.S. laws on income tax and family leave, for instance, that tend to derail women’s careers, than to do with the sexism of any person or organization, and literature is just one of many areas in which the problem is expressed. We would love to have this discussion, and we’d love to see it begin with the venerable authors who took time away from their own work to sift through mountains of literary journals, looking for “the best.”

Amy King: You each express gratitude and no fear in publishing these numbers. But the numbers, as we’ve seen, are certainly read by many as an indictment. These Best American numbers are imbalanced and will likely curry similar reception. Can you speculate why the most immediate response is often defensive? We continue to frame our findings as conversation starters; how can we push past this wall of defense and what avenues might we follow?

Danielle Pafunda: As Erin says, we’re not catalyzing this conversation na?vely. Examining a publication’s imbalance renders its editor(s) vulnerable to criticism. While we’re clearly tracking a system of disparity, a global imbalance, the people who operate within that system are going to feel called upon to defend their methods. The people with the most power will likely feel we called them out personally. That’s a sincerely lousy feeling. Heck, we’ve all been there. When someone notes a gap in my syllabus, my list of contributors, my bookshelf, or my circle of friends, my instinct is to prove my decency and defend my choices. But that’s really very boring. Through the graciousness of good friends, colleagues, and those writers I admire (and perhaps through a perverse attraction to the discomfort Erin describes), I’ve learned to pipe down and recalibrate. Flailing about with my injured ego does little to advance a rich, diverse, dynamically intersectional experience of being human. If I don’t shy from the ugly feelings, I can stop conceiving of myself as central and the center of society as a fixed position. I can try on new lenses and turn my focus to the margins, which margins can in turn become exciting new centers. I wonder how else the system might function and what I—if only in my small, plodding way—can do to change it. One trick is to remember that even as we critique the culture, we’re products of it and we have to live here. Let’s not worry about defending ourselves on that count (ha!). Instead, let’s get out of this well-worn rut and reproduce the culture in exciting new ways. Start the conversation here:do we want to see writers from a broader range of subjectivities? Or here: what do I mean when I say good writing, the best writing? Or here: what would it take to get more women (writers of color, queer writers, writers living with disability, etc. etc.) in print?

Adrienne Su: Danielle is right on the mark: it’s only human to defend oneself. We also live in a world where, thanks to media developments, it’s increasingly possible to cluster with like-minded people. As a result, we get used to the norms within our specialties. I do, as much as anyone else. I’m reminded of a job I had many years ago, as one of several editors of a language-arts magazine for middle- and high-school students. While my colleagues and I were not shaping the elite literary landscape as the Best American editors do, we did have a hand in shaping young minds. Knowing that girls would read stories about anyone, but boys would read only stories about boys, we had to be sparing in the proportion of girl-centered stories we published, and to place them in the middle or back of an issue. With boys lagging behind girls in school, and at-risk teens one of our target audiences, this was a priority not just to sell magazines but to help keep kids in school. Thus I got used to the practice and accepted it. Fast-forward twenty years, and I’m the mother of two girls who love to read but have observed with disappointment that books (along with movies and TV shows) for young people are much more often boy- than girl-centered. Although, as one lowly editor for a brief spell, I couldn’t have changed children’s literature by myself, I have to admit to them my complicity in the situation, along with the grim fact that they’re going to find the same imbalance in literature for adults, especially the literature regarded as “serious.” If we run this conversation well, the editors of the publications we count will know that we’re asking them to join us in a larger effort to question the larger culture – the culture in which a boy is afraid to be seen reading a magazine with Laura Ingalls Wilder on the cover – and see what can be done to change it, for everyone’s benefit, not just women writers’. We count them because their influence is profound. We can’t do it without them.

Amy King: Since the notion of “criticism” seems akin to finger-pointing, and perhaps is not even ultimately productive, do you think we should move on to a more “forward-looking” response that offers up challenges to editors and reviewers alike? Is it possible to articulate practical, tangible suggestions that might motivate a broader range of inclusion that extends beyond “count your numbers”? What about publications that have writers on Rolodex? Their publications aren’t generally open to submissions; they call regular staff and freelance writers with assignments, which narrows the possibility of changing their usually male-heavy rosters for some time – what can we ask of them?

Cheryl Strayed: I think editors who solicit writers for their publications have the greatest capacity to create gender balance on their pages. They aren’t sitting around waiting for women to send them work; they’re asking writers to write for them. Any editor worth his or her salt knows that there are oodles of incredibly talented writers who happen to be female. Our count is a way of broadcasting what many women writers have been speaking of privately for years. We’re saying we see this. We notice that women aren’t being published in the same numbers as their male counterparts. If speaking of the imbalance publicly is what it takes to get editors to update their contact lists to include women writers they’ve overlooked because they never much considered gender, then we’ve done our job. I think I can speak for VIDA when I say that we’re not interested in making editors to feel miserable about what’s happened in the past. We’re interested in compelling them to do better in the future.

Danielle Pafunda: Well said, Cheryl! Let me add: demonstrating that gender imbalance in publishing is a global epidemic does more than relieve editors and reviewers of a heavy individual blame. Its primary purpose is to demonstrate a cultural phenomenon. And, yes–wage gap, healthcare, mommy tracking, lack of lady CEOs, and so on–it feels ever so DUH to point out the disparity inherent in each. Happily, with these numbers we’re pointing out a cultural phenomenon we regular citizens actually have the power to change. Immediately! The next issue, the next best-of list, the next set of reviews. We’re opening up an opportunity to work for change and see that change in the blink of an eye. Instant gratification and social equality in one fell swoop? You betcha! To take advantage of this offer, we’ll just have to figure out what’s mobile in our publishing processes. We’re smart folks. If we rely on staff writers, we can figure out how to change the content. If we rely on submissions, we can figure out how to more effectively solicit. The hard work of editing takes mettle and ingenuity. Our editors have these resources at the ready and need only come up with smart new ways to apply them.

Erin Belieu: As a person who edited for several magazines over the years, I know finding more women to write for a publication isn’t a particularly difficult task. It’s having the will to do so that’s more problematic. Which gets back to VIDA’s mission—generating thoughtful, proactive conversation about this and other related subjects. Shaming people is dull and humorless and never really changes anyone’s heart or mind (or so my 18 years being raised in the Presbyterian church leads me to believe). Again, I hope the editors we reach will come to see this as the interesting aesthetic opportunity that it is. Not much heavy lifting there once you decide that it might actually be interesting to hear what the other half of the world has to say about their various experiences of the world.

Adrienne Su: Counting looks like finger-pointing, but numbers are necessary to demonstrate the imbalance. Even self-identified feminists may need numbers to see clearly. I include myself in that group: When VIDA first formed, I gathered the novels strewn around my house and “counted” myself. (Because my genre is poetry, my novel-reading habits are probably more like a general literary reader’s than my poetry-reading habits are.) My “novels to read” were about 90% male-authored. I’d had no idea. Here I was – VIDA committee member, poet for whom gender and motherhood are important subjects, professor whose courses usually draw more female than male students – unconsciously favoring fiction by men, probably because, as a casual follower of fiction reviews, I simply remembered the books that got the most attention. Perhaps we need to be more consistent in contextualizing our “challenges” to editors and reviewers and making connections to the reason inclusiveness matters: what the culture proclaims to be important shapes everything, not just what people read in their leisure time but how they vote, how they use language, what values they teach younger generations, how they spend time and money, and how they treat people over whom they have power: employees or potential employees, students, patients, children.

Amy King: This is very encouraging, but what do you say to those who resist with, “Why should I solicit and publish women writers just because they’re women?” or “Even when I solicit women, they don’t send as often as men?”


Danielle Pafunda: I find both those questions misleading and disingenuous; they’re easy ways to shift the burden, but don’t do much to improve publications. Why would balancing the scales require publishing writers “just because they’re women?” We’re not so few or far between, nor are we so universally wretched as that question suggests. Step 1. read work by women, step 2. publish the work that appeals. If an editor carefully and extensively, attempting to account for some of that gender bias we all bear, and still can’t find work by women writers s/he considers publishable? Good riddance to someone not qualified for his/her job. As to the second question: I haven’t had this experience myself, but perhaps, in many cases, women are less likely or able to respond to solicitations due to a complex set of economic, social, cultural, familial, and literary factors. Why not simply solicit a greater number of women? Keep asking until we get work we love? Sometimes we editors get odd notions about what’s fair, what the rules of the game should be, and how our hands might be tied. We’ve got to shake off such limitations! There’s no rulebook, and insofar as there are protocols, we define them. We decide what’s fair and good, best for the publication. If we care about these discrepancies, we won’t fabricate silly obstacles, but will instead work out the most effective way to create that ideal, dynamic, irresistible publication. The collection of work that speaks to many via many, embraces the new, respects its lineages, and generally knocks the socks off.

Adrienne Su: 1. You shouldn’t solicit and publish women writers just because they’re women. VIDA doesn’t want that any more than you do. 2. Women don’t send as often as men for a complex range of reasons, as Danielle suggests: for a start, women on average still bear a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, even when working hours are equal, and yet they are still paid less than men with the same qualifications. Another reason women send less often is that savvy writers read publications to which they might send work, then submit to those they deem likely to be sympathetic to it. If a publication’s table of contents is heavily skewed toward male authors or subjects generally considered masculine, its editors can expect to see fewer submissions from and about women. Writing time is hard enough to get; many publications won’t read simultaneous submissions; writers seeking tenure are under pressure to publish sooner rather than later. As a result, many send to places where acceptance looks more likely, even if those publications are lower-profile than the ones VIDA counted.

Amy King: I think that’s enough to start with – thank you. Looking forward to hearing the thoughts and ideas from other writers, editors and readers on these issues!