The 2019 VIDA Count

 

The times in which we live urge us toward voice. Audre Lorde—poet, activist, black woman warrior—spoke of the need to “transform silence into language and action.” Decades later, her words still resonate. “My silences have not protected me,” she wrote, and “your silence will not protect you.” In truth, if we are to “survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america,” the times demand a collective rising up, and each time we choose to be accountable, to testify, to show up, to be responsible for one another, we are breaking that silence of which Lorde warned.

In the past weeks, we have seen people taking to the streets, choosing to break silence. As I sit at the kitchen table and write Breonna Taylor’s name on cardboard, I think of Lorde’s call to action, for I know that Breonna’s story—a black woman asleep in her bed, shot by police—will get lost, will get buried, will disappear into the abyss, into the pit of the dragon, where all our stories go, if we do not call her name. I press into the cardboard and outline Breonna Taylor in black ink, over and over, until my pen is dry. Later, when the crowd surges into chant, Say her name: Breonna Taylor! it does not bring her back, but it means that we have begun to demand accountability of those who have sought to erase her being, and also, that we have begun to consider our own role and responsibility in what it means to ignite change. But more importantly, it means that Breonna Taylor and others like her rest in more powerfulness.

The politics of the world of arts and letters have always mirrored the inequalities, injustices and precariousness of the world at large. In the 19th century it was the reason Harriet Jacobs struggled to secure publication for her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself; why a century later, Zora Neale Hurston disappeared from literary circles without a trace, and why Alice Walker felt driven to go in search of her grave; why coalitions such as Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press emerged in the 1980’s; why today, so many deserving women’s texts—across the globe—remain unpublished or out-of-print, waiting to be retrieved, and why we must not let the word-sisters among us die in obscurity before we call their names and give them the full readership and attention they deserve. It is this urgency which drives VIDA to keep record of our numbers and hold the publishing world accountable.

There is power in who gets counted, and how, and by whom.

I write this in a year of U.S. census—a year in which we are being counted, a count which will inform future understandings of this moment in time. Historically fraught with contention, the census is, nonetheless, an important and influential undertaking. There was a time when a black person was counted as three-fifths of a whole, a census “compromise” which benefited southern slave-holding states and which continued until after the Civil War. On the other hand, in the 1850s and early 1860s anti-slavery advocates used census data to counteract pro-slavery arguments that slave numbers were decreasing. There is power in who gets counted, and how, and by whom. I write this, too, in a year of pandemic and at a time when health statistics and the analysis of those statistics matters, and when—for those who pay attention—the rising numbers of COVID cases urges caution. The VIDA Count is no less. Each year it sheds crucial light on our literary landscape, rendering its inequities more visible, and at the same time, rendering the progress we’ve made visible as well. These statistics are a way of keeping track, of guarding the backs of women, nonbinary and trans writers, of questioning the status quo; in addition, these statistics invite our dialogue, for dialogue leads to the path forward.

Since the conception of this project, VIDA has consistently sought to expand its reach, reevaluating its approach and sharpening course; and, such as the times are, there will likely be further course corrections still. The latest concern with shaping a more intersectional publishing community, one which pushes beyond gender to engage multiple measures of accountability, is a natural evolution of VIDA’s earlier efforts, and is in exigent dialogue with current conversations around race and social justice. Gloria Anzaldúa—another fierce woman writer who we should not forget—said, “Activism is engaging in healing work;” she also said, “May we do work that matters. Vale la pena, it’s worth the pain.” Anzaldúa’s words hold a world of wisdom for us as we navigate our journeys as writers, as activists, as shapers of the world of arts and letters. I write with gratitude to VIDA and all of the organization’s administrators and volunteers for the enormous work of calling our names—collecting, documenting, recording and disseminating this, and all preceding counts.

Marcia Douglas headshot (Photo by Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado)Marcia Douglas is the author of novels, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, Madam Fate, and Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells as well as a poetry collection, Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom. Her awards include a Creative Capital Award, NEA Fellowship, and a U.K. Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: a Novel in Bass Riddim was long-listed for the 2016 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. She is a Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Ten years ago, VIDA began the difficult task of quantifying a glaring absence. The work of the VIDA Count emerged out of a need to supply evidence for what many already knew—personally, anecdotally—to be true: that women were overwhelmingly underrepresented in the pages of major publications and on the short lists for prestigious literary awards. With ten years of such evidence now compiled, we can say with confidence that this has been and remains the unsurprising truth of the publishing industry. And although we have seen growth —in some publications more than others—over the last ten years, we know that even when women are represented, they tend to be overwhelmingly white and cisgender—women who hold various levels of privilege.

Over the years, VIDA has strived to pursue intersectional rigor and nuance in our work, to resist a cis-centric approach to counting, and to find new ways to measure, expose, and break down the barriers to access that historically marginalized writers have faced and continue to face in literary publishing. In 2014, we launched the Women of Color Count, and in 2015 expanded this into the Intersectional Survey—a monumental undertaking that unfortunately produced minimal results. Since then we’ve strived to improve our methodology to collect meaningful and accurate data on the lack of diversity in the literary landscape, but after several consecutive years of low survey response rates which yielded scattered and often confusing data, we realized we would need a new approach.

To this end, VIDA is launching a new series of Intersectional Roundtables, which is our first step in pursuit of a more meaningful intersectional conversation. These roundables are designed to allow for qualitative analysis on the myriad of ways multiple identities have affected writers in the literary community. Every other month, beginning this fall, VIDA will invite writers from historically marginalized communities—and the many intersections of those identities—to discuss their experiences on a variety of topics, from publishing to writing programs, mentorship to conferences, and anything in between.

Going forward, we are also developing a new survey to attempt to track quantitative data on race. As in the previous Intersectional Survey, we will ask writers to self-report their race, but unlike in the previous iteration, we will survey men as well as women and nonbinary writers, and will focus specifically on race so that we can use the data to analyze the intersections of race and gender as barriers to access in publishing, rather than tracking a myriad of distinct data points. Our hope is that narrowing the focus of our survey will allow us to increase participation and accessibility, and that by looking specifically at race, we’ll be able to point more directly to the ways in which racism and white supremacy manifest themselves in literary publishing. The results of the first VIDA BIPOC Survey will be released in 2021 along with the 2020 VIDA Gender Count.

Lastly, as we close out the first decade of the VIDA Count, we felt it was time to update the list of publications included to better represent the current literary landscape. As PEN Centres around the world begin conducting their own VIDA Counts, we will narrow our scope to include only publications based in the United States—so this Count is the last time we’ll present data on Granta, London Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement. We also say goodbye to journals that are no longer in print: Tin House and The Normal School. Publications whose print frequency have waned significantly will also be removed, leaving room for a new group of contenders from throughout the U.S. The new list of publications will be announced this winter.

Over the past decade, the Count has transformed fundamentally. What was once a tool that attempted to reveal the gender inequalities of literary publishing in a strictly binaristic sense is now embracing its function as something far more complex and organic—an evolving process for more accurately naming the many inequities within literary publishing, as well as the way that publishing itself upholds and reproduces the violent systems that breed those inequities on the page in the first place: white supremacy, neocolonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy to name a few.

As we reflect on these ten years of work, we are eager to carry forward the unrelenting spirit of the Count into the next decade, and to build upon the radical momentum it has gained in the last few years. We are as excited by what the future holds as we are by the lessons of the past, noting that the start of our next ten years of work signals a kind of return. The Count began in part as a way to lend quantitative strength to anecdotal truth—now, our attention has come back to anecdote and conversation, so that we can more fully understand what the numbers alone don’t capture. And so, the new era of the VIDA Count begins, again, with the work of refining and pursuing our definition of what it means to count.

The Main Count

The Top Three

Only three publications from the Main Count published 50% or more women and nonbinary writers. Tin House, who we praised last year for making sustained changes over the last decade, tops the list for the very last time. With 60.15% women published in their last year, we are truly sorry to see a publication like them go.

The most shocking on the list, and at number two: The New York Times Book Review, who, for the very first time in ten years, published more than 50% women (53.78% to be exact). Their slow increases over the decade keeps us hopeful that this is the start of a new era.

Although Poetry published 47.11% women, they once again dedicated space to nonbinary writers (4.59%) just barely pushing them into the top three. While a significant decrease from last year (9.6% nonbinary writers), we’re hopeful that another decade of data will show the magazine’s dedication to increasing visibility of nonbinary authors. As the ultimate gatekeepers of poetry, they have a responsibility to the community to be actively representative. After being criticized for their pathetic response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement—and called out for their mistreatment and tokenization of BIPOC poets—some changes are already underway over at the Poetry Foundation. It will be interesting to examine the data that arises from the 2020 BIPOC Survey, and to begin to gauge the extent to which they are listening to the BIPOC poets holding them accountable.

The Bottom of the Barrel

Hello again The Nation (39.86% women). Welcome back Harper’s (36.68% women). Hello again to you too The Atlantic (36.55% women) and The New York Review of Books (33.37% women) and the London Review of Books (32.64% women). Y’all are exhausting. 

Harper’s made it two years out of the bottom of the barrel, but they’re right back in, while The Nation and The Atlantic have never, in ten years, published more than 40% women. 

Hey, D.D. Guttenplan of The Nation, maybe you can do what Katrina vanden Heuvel never could? Though with vanden Heuvel as editorial director, it’s unlikely. 

As for The Atlantic, is it any surprise? Just last summer EIC Jeffrey Goldberg “misspoke” [insert eyeroll here] in an interview with Nieman’s Lab when he said, “It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males.” And yes. That’s a real quote.

Despite the new co-editors claiming it would be a “priority” to work on increasing the number of women who grace their pages, The New York Review of Books published only 33.37% women. While we all slow-clap at finally, finally, breaking 30%, this pathetic showing is no surprise. After ten years of counting, it’s clear that The New York Review of Books still does not value women’s voices. 

With their bronze medal last year and silver the year before, the London Review of Books gets the gold, again, for being the absolute worst. Coming in at 32.64% women writers, we think it’s time to dust off this quote from EIC Mary-Kay Winters, which the LRB actually used in their defense in a statement they sent in 2014 when they were invited to discuss the lack of female representation in their pages with the BBC’s “Open Book”:

“When […] Mary-Kay Wilmers, gave an interview […] in 2001, she put it this way: ‘I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities. And they’re not so newly arrived in the country. They’re not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please. They’re going to write their pieces and to hell with the rest. And I don’t think women think that way.’” 

Yes, they really thought this was a good reason why they had so few women book reviewers. And there hasn’t been a change in the last six years. Mary-Kay Wilmers is still the Editor and the LRB is consistently at the very bottom of the VIDA Count.

Middle of the Pack

The remaining publications in The Main Count published between 40% to 49.99% women and nonbinary writers.

The Threepenny Review finally broke 40% women writers (41.13%). It’s no secret that Threepenny founder and editor Wendy Lesser does not see the value of this data, and, in 2018, had this to say about the VIDA Count:

“I do not think it’s useful to classify writers—or, for that matter, editors—according to gender. I try to view each Threepenny Review writer as an individual, with something special to say that only that writer can say in that way. It doesn’t make sense to try to replace those individual viewpoints with more ‘representative’ or ‘fairly distributed’ people, because there is no such thing in literature.”

Where do we even start?? 

In a decade of counting, we’ve noticed some interesting similarities among editors who devalue the work of our annual Count. One is their remarkable ability to see beyond identity and “view each […] writer as an individual.” Call us skeptics, but this superhuman editorial eye doesn’t seem like it’s working too well. It took you 10 years to give at least 40% space to women writers. If the “individual” response as an editor overwhelmingly and consistently favors men—across an entire decade—what does that say about your editorial eye?

Another common thread: this anxiety of “replacement” that Lesser reveals here. There is a worry that by shining a light on inequity in literary publishing, we’ll begin a trend of replacing “good” writing—those “individual viewpoints”—with *checks notes* more diverse writing. It’s funny how calls for equitable editorial practices are often equated with a decrease in quality. After all, who actually gets to have an individual viewpoint?

We expect similar anxieties and defenses to flare up with the release of our 2020 BIPOC Survey. A chorus of white gatekeepers crying out, We only publish good work—it’s not our fault that the majority of it is written by white people! We’d love to be proven wrong, but ten years of counting has given us our doubts.

The middle of the pack also includes The Paris Review (45.34% women, 3.11% nonbinary), The New Yorker (45.03% women, 0.10% nonbinary), Boston Review (44.95% women), Granta (42.72% women), and The New Republic (41.70% women). While some of these publications have steadily increased their gender representations, specifically women (looking at you The New Yorker!) over the last ten years, the lack of nonbinary representation is clear.

The Larger Literary Landscape

The inclusion of the LLL debuted in the 2013 Count. These smaller literary magazines have, for the most part, consistently dedicated page space to women writers.

The Good

18 publications from the Larger Literary Landscape published at least 50% women or nonbinary writers, many exceeding 60%. Looking through the past seven years of data, it seems clear that the large majority of these publications dedicate space to both men and women writers. 

Some notable publications like Missouri Review and Prairie Schooner are consistently at the top of the pack and we congratulate them for ensuring space to women and nonbinary authors.

The winners of our “Most Improved” awards goes to The Believer and McSweeney’s Quarterly. It seems the hiatus and restructuring at both worked! Our first Count of McSweeney’s saw women writers at 23.21% in 2013, where 2019 had 56.9% women and 1.72% nonbinary writers. The Believer came in at 34.8% women in 2013 and 58.08% women and 1.8% nonbinary in 2019.

Goodbye to the Normal School, with kudos for a notable improvement since the first LLL Count (36.11% women published in 2013, to 60.98% women and 2.44% nonbinary in 2019).

Jubilat led the pack in providing the most space to nonbinary writers (5.43%) in 2019. Conjunctions (4.39%), Colorado Review (3.9%), Ninth Letter (3.8%), and Virginia Quarterly Review (3.45%) follow behind. VQR in particular has shown some commitment to publishing nonbinary authors, including more than 2% nonbinary writers for three years in a row. While this consistency is encouraging, we hope to see more representation outside the gender binary next year from all the publications we count.

The Bad

Overall, Southwest Review is the only magazine that we deem “worthy” enough to make it to the bad list. At 33.33% women writers this year, it seems important to note they have never published at least 50% women and nonbinary writers. 

Other offenders for 2019 include Harvard Review (61.54% men), New England Review (63.24% men), and New American Writing (62.75% men); though it’s worth noting that most of these journals have fluctuated over the years, rather than having a consistently bad track record. Still, less than 40% women and nonbinary writers in 2019 is enough to put them on our watch list.

Be sure to check out our new interactive charts to see the breakdown of each publication in both the Main Count and the Larger Literary Landscape!

Want to support the VIDA Count? Help us by making a tax-deductible donation today.

“Women” includes cis and trans women. “Men” includes cis and trans men. People who are both trans and nonbinary are counted as “Nonbinary.” For the purposes of the VIDA Count, we do not differentiate between cis men and binary trans men, so as not to invalidate binary trans men’s identities, and with the understanding that many men experience oppression across various axes that impact their experiences of and access to male privilege.

“Nonbinary” is used as an umbrella term which includes people who are nonbinary, agender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, two-spirit, or another identity outside of the gender binary*. “Unidentified” is used when there is not enough evidence to reasonably determine a person’s gender, as well as for anonymously-written pieces and pseudonyms that cannot be traced back to a real person.

The VIDA Count team strives to not misgender anyone; however, it may be possible that a nonbinary person has been incorrectly identified as male or female. Our data is sourced from information available to the public, with the recognition that although this may not always accurately account for someone’s private or personal identity, it will presumably be the same information available to the editors selecting their work.

VIDA acknowledges that early iterations of the Count were cis-centric and at times trans-exclusionary. Therefore, it is possible that data from previous years does not accurately represent the number of nonbinary people published, and that trans writers maybe have been misgendered and miscounted. Unfortunately, current leadership does not have detailed enough records from VIDA’s early years to confirm or correct this.

On the Count charts, “Microreviews” refers to reviews of a significantly shorter length, which are typically not credited to reviewers and may be grouped together in a section—for example, “In Brief” in the Times Literary Supplement or “Briefly Noted” in The New Yorker.

“Translators” refers to the translators of poems, essays, stories, or other written features within a given publication, and are counted in addition to the original author. “Translators Reviewed” refers to the translators of books that are reviewed within a given publication, and are counted in addition to their corresponding “Authors Reviewed.”

We do not count editors’ introductions, letters to the editor, advice columns, Q&As, comic strips, visual art, or puzzles.

We strive to keep our methodology as consistent as possible; however, each publication has its own characteristics and therefore its own specific counting guidelines. If you would like to know more about how a specific piece of writing or publication was counted, please contact questions@vidaweb.org.

The VIDA Count is conducted entirely by volunteers. We always strive for accuracy and take steps to ensure careful and consistent data collection; however, human error is possible.

Some of the data on previous years’ historical comparison charts was incorrectly transposed, and some of these inaccurate charts that previously appeared on the website have been removed. This year’s ten-year and seven-year historical comparison charts accurately reflect the data that was collected from 2010-2019.

For more information on how the VIDA Count is conducted, please visit: https://www.vidaweb.org/faq/.

*We recognize that these terms are not synonymous and account for many different experiences of gender. But, because each of these genders are hugely underrepresented in the journals we count, collapsing all genders that exist outside the binary into one category allows us to collect more meaningful data.

VIDA COUNT TEAM

We would like to thank the members of VIDA who worked tirelessly to put together the 2019 VIDA Count.

VIDA COUNT DATA COLLECTION

Hannah Berk
Maureen Boyd
Julia Calagiovanni, VIDA Count Coordinator
Jennifer Didik
Christina Djossa, VIDA Count Assistant Director
Emmalie Dropkin, VIDA Count Coordinato
Jess Engebretson, VIDA Count Coordinator
Lisa Fry
Amber Dania Gallant
Jessica Guzman
Sara Iacovelli, VIDA Count Director
Quinn Carver Johnson
Emma Lo
Dee Loeffler
Addy Mahaffey
Katharine Perko, VIDA Count Coordinator
Kelly Lynn Thomas, VIDA Count Coordinator
Tess Wilson, VIDA Count Coordinator

VIDA COUNT FOREWORD

Marcia Douglas

HIGHLIGHTS & OBSERVATIONS

Christina Mun-Lutz

Overviews