COUNTING: Amy King Talks with Tin House Editor Rob Spillman

Amy King:  Thanks so much for being in touch with us here at VIDA.  It’s heartening to hear that the 2010 VIDA Count served as an impetus for change at Tin House.  Can you describe your initial reaction when you first saw the numbers?



Rob Spillman:  I was surprised by the disparity. Before the numbers came out, we had consciously sought balance, but not in a systematic way. Not to make excuses, but 2010 was our most out of balance year. If this had been 2007, when we did a whole issue called “Fantastic Women”, featuring women who push the surreal envelope, the numbers for that year would have been skewed in the other direction, giving another limited view. I think it is important to look at all publications over time.


AK:  How have your thoughts and responses changed since that year?  What steps have you taken to address “the numbers,” if any?

RS: The numbers were a kick in the pants, in a very good way. I’ve been editor of Tin House since the beginning, back in 1999, and the numbers spurred us to take a deep look at our submissions, from the slush to solicited manuscripts, who we are asking for work and what they are sending us. Our unsolicited submissions are nearly 50/50 consistently year to year, and our acceptance rate is also 50/50. Agented submissions average closer to 2/3 men versus 1/3 women, with acceptance rates around 60/40. Interestingly, the number of agents who are sending these submissions are 2/3 women versus 1/3 men. We were also surprised to find that although we solicited equal numbers of men and women, men were more than twice as likely to submit after being solicited. This even applies to writers I’ve previously published. Another surprise was that in our Lost & Found section, where writers champion out of print or under-appreciated writers, men and women were three times more likely to write about male writers.

What these numbers tell me is that I don’t need to solicit male writers nearly as much as female writers. I also have started pointedly asking L&F contributors “Are there any under-appreciated female writers you would like to champion?”

AK:  While we recognize that our methodology is by no means exhaustive nor complete, can you say a little bit about what you think the numbers imply?  Or what people might infer from the results of such tallying?

RS: I think the overall numbers from all of the magazines speak for themselves. There is pervasive bias, both conscious and unconscious.

AK:  What advice would you give other editors?  Any specific pointers or things to watch out for?

RS: Passivity. It is all too easy to sit back and wait for what comes in. If you don’t actively seek change, then stasis sets in and the status quo remains.

AK:  Do you consider your response to be a means of “joining the conversation,” as we have dubbed it at VIDA?

RS:   Absolutely. And conversation is and should be going in many directions—between VIDA and Tin House, but also within Tin House, and between Tin House and our contributors, and throughout the publishing world.

AK:  Can you tell us a little about your editorial vision at Tin House?

RS: To find the best voice-driven work from around the world. I want to be surprised, and to be proven wrong. If I have a pet peeve (say, second-person stories), I love when a writer makes something I generally don’t like into something I have to admit is brilliant.

AK:  Please provide a sample [include links?] of writing from Tin House or some authors you are happy to have included.

Any underrepresented writers other journals should be aware of?

RS:  I love writers who push the form. We’ve run two essays by Jo Ann Beard that I’m particularly proud of. It is always gratifying when writers we’ve published first go on to publish multiple books, writers like Nami Mun and Monica Ferrell. Recently I’ve been taken by the work of Namwali Serpell. She is originally from Zambia, now lives in California and is writing some unclassifiably interesting stories. Brittany Cavallaro is a young poet we’re all excited about.


AK:  As you know, you’re the first to grace the pages in our new series of editor interviews at “For the Record.”  Are their other ways we might go about engaging editors?

RS:  I think the conversation is important. And “the numbers” are a great place to start. Again, I think the statistics over time are most important because they will show progress or stasis or, worse yet, setbacks to equality. What I would throw out there is a challenge to ALL lit mags to publically display their numbers every year. You may say that you look at work by women and men the same, but if you are consistently publishing three quarters men, then you need to look at your methods and biases. I bet that if you put out requests for numbers, a large number of magazines would send them in.

AK:  Are there other magazines or journals you would recommend in terms of quality of writers as well as egalitarian inclusion?

RS:  Yes, numerous. Including One Story, A Public Space, BOMB, and The Common. I’m always on the lookout for new magazines, and am impressed with Gigantic and The Normal School.

AK:  Do you have any recommendations for VIDA as we proceed to deepen the conversation and continue to look at various publications and the work they put into the world?

RS: More events, conversation, and statistics over time. My hope is that other publications will not just look at their publication rates, but will also examine their submission and solicitation numbers.

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Rob Spillman is Editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fourteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O’Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies, and was nominated for the 2010 Utne Magazine Independent Press Award for Best Writing. He is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books and co-founder of the Tin House Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.