Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses
First, the good news:
A couple of giants in the original VIDA Count have begun to move. While we can’t call it a trend or cause for partying just yet, it is certainly noteworthy that The Paris Review’s and New York Times Book Review’s pies have significantly baked up tastier for 2013.
The Paris Review’s numbers, previously among the worst in our VIDA Count, have metamorphosed from deep, male-dominated lopsidedness into a picture more closely resembling gender parity. While such progress is remarkable in one year, we are likewise pleased to note that we haven’t heard anyone bemoan a drop in quality in The Paris Review’s pages. Turnarounds like the Paris Review’s make it clear that with the right editorial effort, putting more sustainable gender practices into action isn’t too difficult for these magazines at the top of the major market heap. Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, also demonstrates what good can come when top tier literary outlets recognize the importance of presenting a balanced mix of voices by significantly increasing the number of female reviewers in the NYTBR in 2013.
So the mountains begin to move.
Two steps forward, one step back…
I know I’ve got the saying backwards, but I’m making predictions this go-round. Despite our best hopes, various oppressions don’t magically die out with a little effort. People raise a fuss, things change a bit, and then the next generation enacts a lot of the old sentiments. We certainly have come a long way from women not voting and from segregation, but backlash still kicks at Affirmative Action and women earning equal pay, to only very briefly highlight the cycle. We have not come nearly far enough. So this year, I’m looking for evidence of paradigm shifts, progress as slow undercurrents or great tidal waves, as the backlash ups the absurdity ante, and the fed-up are rallying. People are growing fond of pointing the absurdities out, and in the publishing world this year, the absurdities continue to show in the disproportionately sliced pies of 2013. I’m not just looking for a Wendy Davis filibuster here; I’m listening for the gallery of voices who refuse to shutdown when told. So we’ve got new publications to consider for 2013.
The pen being mightier than the sword and all that jazz…
It all starts with words. In an age where a few women wearing balaclavas can rankle a nation’s head with their 30 second “A Punk Prayer,” where a young actress must publicly, into a microphone announce her sexual orientation in a first world country to shine a light on oppression and bullying, where an artist posts portraits of her unapologetically unsmiling self, boldly denying objectification, where women with calculators and a year’s supply of journals and magazines can provoke angry words of dismissal (see Peter Stothard in reply, “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” and “while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”), we are still learning the power of our voices and the necessity of sustained practice. We hear that old habits die-hard. So does the perpetuation of “boy’s club” editorial practices, presumably made palatable with a dash of tokenism thrown in to appease. But those pies are starting to taste bitter with their missing ingredients and their lies by omission.
We know these publishing practices won’t die off by accident or with the simple passage of time, if we just accept them on their terms, remain silent and hope. While meritocracy is ideal, it is naïve to accept the publishing industry on the premise that editors simply select the “best” writing from all that is submitted, especially when many of the major publications consult their Rolodexes and solicit most of their work. Editors and publishers alike have vested interests in the work they perpetuate, especially where a dollar is turned. Their values may be, shall we say, often strongly influenced by the demographic who can buy them. VIDA has felt the resistance to those dollars when we’ve served up our pies.
Though we at VIDA have received our fair share of criticism now, it is the torrent of response, from straight up denials to speculative absurd claims about our intent (some reaching the anxiety pitch of Rush Limbaugh), which tells us we’re onto something insidious. And that unspoken something resists the daylight, fighting tooth and nail to trivialize and dismiss what these four years of tallying have begun to turn into common knowledge: that women’s writing continues to be disproportionately omitted from the pages of career-making journals. George Carlin once said, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge. The owners of this country went to the same universities and fraternities, they’re on the same boards of directors, they belong to the same country clubs, they have like interests, they don’t need to call a meeting because they know what is good for them…and they are getting it.” So we are emboldened to carry on, asking questions, wondering aloud whose interests are disseminated and defended by those stalwart, outspoken editors and publishers who gloss over and even praise the myopic contents of their own male-dominated pages. We will continue to hold those pages to the fire.
I Count. You count. Because we all count.
We are learning how to choose our battles by example. Now more than ever before, I hear and see readers and writers publicly calling publisher’s catalogs and newspaper bylines into question. Publishers are self-assessing and soliciting writers to change their own scenes. We are shining lights on sites of omissions, places where our voices are grossly absent, so that we can start looking elsewhere to fill the gaps with other realities. We’ve only just begun to ripple the placid guise of the literary landscape and, in concert with the many voices in conversation now, surface awareness of the bankrupt plot.
In a country where many major newspapers and journals are owned by the few, where great swaths of 51% of the population are excluded by historical practices that continue to be handed down and enacted by heads of magazines, VIDA hopes to upset traditions that leave women writers out of editors’ Rolodexes and off publishers’ forthcoming lists. We are no longer sitting still, divided by the false reward of token status. As unsatisfying as tokenism is, we hope our pies will cause similar discomfort for those publishers dangling that tedious carrot.
We’ve been challenged for wanting our suspicions confirmed. But the books we read and the realities we share will no longer be dormant enclaves of singular perspectives. The blinders are coming off. Silence is no longer golden. We cannot look on while the literary landscape lies by omission. There are glimmers of hope, acts of encouraging measure…. and again, it all starts with words.
Pussy Riot, Ellen Page and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh remind us that activism is outspokenness. It can be the right words said at the right moment. In some cases, you create your moment, whether you’re walking into a cathedral in Russia for only a few minutes, standing in your tennis shoes for hours on end on the Texas House floor or pasting your image on Brooklyn’s streets. So let’s look to the journals and magazines of 2013 for reason to speak.
Pay attention, big dogs. Tin House continues to kick ass. It’s called: taking a stand and sticking with it. Separating the chaff from the wheat, the boys club from the many who think beyond the need to see their own reflections and get paid for it.
As noted, Paris Review must’ve noticed something was amiss because they are the most improved this year. Check out the leaps and bounds their pies baked from 2012 to 2013.
While Poetry has maintained the most consistent parity four years running, I’m wondering if there will be a tipping point of the atypical kind this year based on the new editor, Don Share’s social media efforts to get the word out about gender imbalance.
Boston Review has, likewise, succeeded with a decent year again. We like consistency heaps.
And from our new L3 VIDA Count (Larger Literary Landscape), Ninth Letter made our hearts skip some beats with the highest percentage of women at 62%. Conjunctions also offered up a nearly equal sign of parity to boot.
But oh, New Republic has managed its worst year yet since we began tallying! Perhaps they are striving to up the ante for the shock value vote. I say, passé. They continue playing the same old hand, this year at a slower speed. Perhaps they think they’re sticking it to us when readers throw our pies in their faces?
Same old lie by omission for Times Literary Supplement. Now that their readers’ demographic is steadily changing, with whites predicted to be a minority by 2042, will the Times white male roster also go the way of the dodo?
And I’ll just call this corner of the globe, “Dudeville,” which is far more polite than what Urban Dictionary would dub any closed circle of men enjoying their “creative privileges.” Drumroll for the 75%ers: The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books (actually holding steady at 80% men for four years) and New Yorker. We get it: you’re mighty, unmovable giants.
Nothing ever changes, except when it does…
Luckily, we’re not stuck with the singular reading experiences set forth by publishing 80% men, and while many of the monoliths continue to frolic in John Cheever-land, we know that meaningful literature is not regulated by these tastemakers of yore. Why would they be? They’re big, full of money, and unmotivated to extend themselves beyond … well, themselves.
So this year, we look to small press publishers for the movers and shakers in our new secondary VIDA Count, the Larger Literary Landscape. Overall, we’re seeing a very different snapshot of writers writing. It is a healthier, more robust abundance of voices. Please consider these new pies, noting that seven of them include more women than men and the general trend towards parity which shames many publications in our primary VIDA Count. In the L3 Count, women writers are more respected. Their work is considered exciting and innovative. When it comes to pies, these taste a good bit better for their variety, innovation and encouragement. Many seem to be reading other realities and enjoying a literary world that isn’t solely focused on them. The pleasures and joys of literature can, in fact, be multiple as it turns out.
Ways to voice your support:
1.) Please consider using the editors’ email addresses on the pies to drop them a line. Your voice lets them know that readers are rallying, talking to each other and revealing the myth of their version of meritocracy. We will no longer passively accept a world where women make up more than half the population but men’s voices express the dominant views our children read in schools, or speak the world to US newsstands. The L3 VIDA Count already illustrates that this historical publishing tact is not the truth; not only is it possible for women’s words to be found in equal measure of valued publications, but our words are integral to developing understanding across identities and for plundering the gifts of human curiosity.
Even one line can be enough to make your discontent known: “We’ve seen your VIDA Count pies, and we don’t like the taste of your contents anymore.”
Or express your appreciation: “Your VIDA Count pies are delicious!”
2.) Join the conversation. Help us understand where you’re coming from, the issues that touch your writing lives, and network with other writers, reviewers and publishers like nobody’s business.
3.) Support presses that support women writers. Cancel subscriptions to publications that have no real interest in women’s voices.
We’ve all heard that change is slow and steady, but I’m learning that’s a false promise which also lies by omission. Change happens because individuals make it happen. We may feel like small readers and writers in a big world, but we shape the world with our voices. Our voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied. It may be time for each of us to sing our own “Punk Prayer,” filibuster the canon that continues to be shaped by others for our children, or take the stage and come out against the bullying some editors do simply because they have for so long. VIDA looks forward to evermore rallying cries for 2014 and to hear you among them. Thanks, as always, for every stand you take!
Amy King teaches Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees. Check out her latest blog entries at Boston Review, Poetry Magazine and the Rumpus.
We welcome you to review our methodology for performing the VIDA Count.