This week marks the 10th installment of Editor’s Corner. Editor’s Corner is a VIDAWeb feature in which editors and publishers explore complex issues regarding sex, gender, race and sexuality as they relate to their projects. In this edition, Kate Angus from Augury Books speaks to us about aesthetic diversity, diversity of experience and the perplexing problem of unconscious bias. Angus is a poet living and working in New York City. Check out her work here and here. And don’t forget to check out Augury Books’s reading period for poetry manuscripts and short story collections open until the end of June.
For more information on Editor’s Corner contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On her project, role and publishing philosophy:
When I started Augury Books with a friend three years ago, our original intention was to–in as pure and objective a fashion as possible–publish the best new poetry we could, work that moved us aesthetically and emotionally, that surprised us out of our conventions. We wanted to find poems that, as in that Kafka quote, could function like “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” And we felt very invested in the idea of discovering work by writers we’d never heard of before–we wanted to be a conduit for new voices. Our original editorial questions often revolved more around how, as a new press, to find strangers who would trust us with their work, as well as how to finance our grand plans. We also wanted to make sure we were objective, rather than swayed by personal connections, so we cobbled together guidelines where our manuscript prize (which was reading-fee based) was restricted to submissions by people we’d never met, and when we had a little extra money left over, we solicited chapbooks from friends whose work we loved and felt was suited to our press’s collective aesthetics.
There’s been turnover in the editorial board since then, as is common with small presses. We’ve opened up to publishing fiction as well as poetry, and we’ve moved from having a contest to hosting an open reading period for poetry manuscripts and short story collections, but our standard practice remains pretty much the same. As our mission statement says, we are committed to publishing innovative work from emerging and established writers and we seek to reaffirm the diversity of the reading public. Part of that diversity is meant to indicate aesthetics– we have wide-ranging tastes–but it also is meant to include diversity of experience. And we still stand by the idea that close friends, colleagues and former students have to send us a query letter outside of our general submission months rather than submitting to us during our main reading period, since we want to make sure we won’t unconsciously privilege work by people we already know, particularly while we remain almost entirely funded by the small reading fee we charge.
Our catalog is pretty close to having gender parity at this point–we have five books out, two of which are by women. This was mostly by happenstance, but we have discussed gender in terms of our catalog in the past and I certainly wouldn’t want to lose our level of diversity. I’d love to publish more women, more trans and genderqueer authors, and more authors from a variety of socio-economic and ethnic / racial backgrounds, but that comes from a fundamental desire to publish more work we love in general, whatever the author’s personal background. What we want more than anything is to publish more titles–the more books we can send out into the world, the greater statistical likelihood that they will reflect the multiplicity of personal experience and aesthetic range that we are interested in.
On the current publishing climate:
There are so many exciting small presses out there doing so many amazing different things that I’m not sure I can make a general statement about the current publishing climate. I went to AWP in Boston this past year and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of tables stacked high with gorgeous new books–it would take many wonderful years to read through them all. In terms of publication, I feel like more new voices than ever before are being brought to the table now, which is great; it’s in distribution and reviewing–the modes of creating a wider audience for these voices so they can be heard outside of their extant smaller circles–where I think the problem really lies. I think independent presses have greater diversity than the larger publishing houses, or at least that we present that diversity without drawing attention to it or potentially diminishing it by placing it in separate categories–I haven’t seen the same issue with cover design and marketing for female poets as there is with the whole “chick lit” debate for fiction writers.
The first thing we look for is aesthetic quality of work–attention to language, associative leaps, emotional risks, etc. Once we’ve winnowed down to the work that most moves us, then, yes, we do start thinking about diversity. Certainly we’d never Google our authors to find out personal information, but if questions of gender, class, sexuality and race have been addressed (directly or indirectly) within the work itself, then that enters the debate. And it should since they are interesting and important parts of what shape us. Literature is, at heart, a way of grappling with what it means to be human and how we all manage to live in this terrible beautiful world, so of course we need voices articulating these experiences, as well as the more conventional narratives we’re already used to hearing.
While I think it might be much more illuminating to hear the thoughts of male editors and publishers about the underrepresentation of women in publishing, I have also noticed an unconscious bias in myself towards privileging the male voice or the male experience as somehow more “important.” I’ve had to dismantle this in my own approach and I can’t imagine I’m the only woman who has looked at her bookshelves and music library and realized that she had primarily been reading and listening to men. I think this comes from having grown up in a sort of silent self-replicating sexism machine. When most of your assigned texts at school are written by men, it’s hard not to start subconsciously believing that female authors are the ones you read for fun or as electives (Women’s Literature classes, rather than the standard curriculum), but male authors are the ones who count, the ones you write serious papers on. While I was eventually exposed to a more diverse reading list, I think those patterns were already engrained in my personal psyche and they seem to remain pretty set in our current culture as well–just look at Wikipedia’s recent removal of women from the “American Novelists” list to put them on the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. We still have a certain baseline setting where male writers are presented as the standard (i.e. where does one find the “American Men Novelists” subcategory list or the Men’s Poetry literature seminars?) and the effects of this kind of othering–the implication that female authors belong in a separate and thus implicitly lesser list–ripples out to younger generations; the writers and editors growing up now. It’s very hard to escape the idea that the male voice is the one that matters when it’s being presented to you that way as the overarching cultural narrative. I also sometimes wonder how much of the problem I myself might be, particularly when I look at which books I buy. I would never stop supporting the work of any author I’m drawn to, but I also want to continue to remember to ask myself questions about why specific voices speak to me and I want to make sure I go out of my way to seek out more diverse voices. This is when I really start to think about the importance of gender parity for reviews: if I read a review of a book I think I’ll find interesting, I’ll track it down and I’m happy to do that–I don’t want to stop doing that, but I also want those reviews to be of more diverse voices. And I want better ways in place to find authors who are not garnering mainstream attention.
On VIDA’s Count:
I’m not surprised by the numbers, I’m just incredibly saddened and enraged. I’m so glad that VIDA is counting them up and I can only hope that once editors really look at their own numbers, they start changing things, particularly by questioning who they reach out to solicit for work and why in particular what rises up from the slush pile garners their attention.
On A+ Lit People:
I love the work that Switchback Books, Alice James Books, Wave, Indiana Review, Barrow Street and Subtropics are doing in terms of having real diversity of aesthetics and experience. Coconut Books also and Tarpulin Sky. And it makes me very happy to see how, thanks to the VIDA count, places like The Boston Review and Tin House have made efforts to attain gender parity with reviews. And The Rumpus is great about talking about gender as well, and their Poetry Book Club is an excellent model of alternate ways of building an audience for really great work containing a variety of different experiences.
Kate Angus is a founding editor at Augury Books (www.augurybooks.com). Her work has appeared in places such as Indiana Review, Barrow Street, Subtropics, The Awl, Gulf Coast, Court Green, Third Coast, Mid-American Review, Verse Daily and Best New Poets 2010. She lives in New York where she teaches at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.