We Count

sidewalk graffiti, Greenwich Village

VIDA* recently released its statistics on published work along gender lines in major literary magazines. If you haven’t heard by now, the results revealed that men dominate. By a mile. Consistently. Across all magazines. What ensued is a wave of dialogue about the disparities, one that VIDA* begins by saying:

“But as these facts come to light–no longer imagined or guessed at–so does the truth of publishing disparities, the unfortunate footing from which we can begin to change the face of publishing. We are no longer guessing if the world is flat or round; we are wondering how to get from point A to B now that the rules of navigation are public and much clearer. Questions long denied will lead us to new awareness, to challenge current publishing practices, and to query the merits of selection on the level of individual publications and review journals alike.”

The Southern Review’s Jeanne Leiby did a count of the litmag’s past publications (as well as its submissions). The count revealed a slight favor towards male writers…and the submissions reveal the same. The result? More questions than answers from Leiby:

“I’m pleased with these numbers, but I still have more questions than I have answers. I want to know why there isn’t parity in the slush pile. Are there simply more men writing? Or are there more men submitting? I’m seeking a way to see the larger landscape, the whole industry, the biggest picture possible to give context to what we’ve discovered. What are the percentages of women and men in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of male to female literary agents? What is the ratio of female to male editors? Publishers? Does the gender of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? Some of these statistics shouldn’t be too hard to come by, and gathering the numbers is an important first step. VIDA has shown us that there is a problem. Now what can we do to fix it?”

Brevity also jumped into the discussion, with a concerned, but brief post about their most recent issue, raising again, more questions than answers to the issue of gender disparity.

And Kartika Review, the litmag for which I was Fiction Editor, did a quick count of all of our past issues: 49% of the published literary work was by male writers, and 51% of the work by female writers. We didn’t do a count of the submissions–we haven’t been tracking gender. Did we favor women? Or is this a reflection of our slushpile? Do Asian Pacific American women (for our litmag is an APA-focused litmag) submit more often? But then again, the slush pile isn’t all writing from Asian Pacific Americans–we’ve published a number of works written by non-Asian Americans, Kelly Luce and Jill Widner included.

As a litmag editor, I didn’t let gender or ethnicity sway my decisions–but I was still very conscious of each issue’s selections. Was there a balance between gender? I tried very hard to achieve that–sometimes going so far as to reach back into the slushpile to select an additional piece (but not replacing pieces) to do so. Was there equal representation between all the regions of the Asian diaspora? Though impossible to represent every region of Asia (Southeast Asian, South Asia, West Asia, East Asia….), I was conscious of representation throughout my tenure as Fiction Editor.

As Fiction Editor, I was also conscious of my position as a gatekeeper–a bouncer, if you may. We at Kartika Review are humble enough to fully admit that we’re not the “hot club” on the street–we’re the small, neighborhood dance club off the beaten path. The line outside our door may not be as long as those of other litmags. But–I was still a doorman/bouncer.

And I felt, many times, like the bouncer in “Knocked Up,” played with apologetic brillance by Craig Robinson, admitting the entrance system is unfair, “It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.”

Sometimes, I swear, I wish I could include that quote in my rejection letters from Kartika, which I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated dreaded sending out. As a fellow writer, I felt like each rejection letter was a sucker punch sent out into the universe.

Editors and agents are gatekeepers. We have responsibilities to art (we have to pick the very best), and we also have social responsibilities (we have to be conscious of what our selections represent).

What few people, if any, are bringing up around the VIDA* count is that publishing does not only have gender disparity issues–I feel there are issues around race, too. (Yes, I’m going there). The awesome, always-keeping-it-real-who-can-now-add-Pulitzer-Prize-Winning-to-his-descriptors Junot Díaz, alluded to this issue of representation at AWP. In my friend Elizabeth Browne‘s AWP summary she admitted, “I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (‘there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white’).”

I love that VIDA* has opened the door to a dialogue that needs to begin in earnest. I love that VIDA* has opened the door wider to consciousness about gender disparity in publishing. That we have questions to answer. Important questions to answer. Because these questions might, and hopefully, lead to self-examination and revision of our processes. Because these questions will wake a publishing conscience.

But I think we must also apply these questions about equality to categories beyond gender. I am going to take the liberty of taking Jeanne Leiby’s thoughtful questions and add color:

“Are there people of color writing? Are writers of white European descent submitting more than people of color? What are the percentages of people of color and whites in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of literary agents who are white to literary agents who are of color? What is the ratio of editors who are of color to editors who are white? Publishers? Does the ethnicity of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? If there is a problem…what can we do to fix it?”

I quailed before posting this–because I’m no activist in the realm of activists. But this is also an excellent opportunity to broaden the discussion. This is an excellent opportunity to DO something, even as my friend Margaret La Fleur uses these numbers to address HR3 (the “no taxpayer funding for abortion act,” not even for rape victims, not even when the mother’s life is at stake).

We all count.

*Vida is also the name of my friend Patricia Engel’s awesome, unblinking, critically acclaimed (by the NY Times, even) story collection, one you should buy and read.


Filed under Fiction Editor, literary magazines, Literary Rejections, Publishing, Writing

21 responses to “We Count

  1. Re: Kartika. By a totally unscientific unreliable quick human scan of 1,000 subs, it’s roughly 50/50, and doesn’t seem too far off from the actual %s tallied for published pieces.

    I wonder also whether most APA male writers are first attempting to submit to the so-called “hot clubs” while more APA female writers are open to submitting to us, the neighborhood dance club off the beaten path.

  2. Nice post.
    I actually would like to write a post on this as well, though not sure if I’ll have time. What I wanted to examine is what Sunny touches on above and what was the subject of a panel I attended at AWP. Do women writers sell themselves short in terms of where they submit AND how they handle rejection? That is, if we get rejected do we take it more personally than men do and thus assume it’s our work that’s the problem not, for example, the needs of the mag at the time or the ms. reader’s bad day, etc. The people on the panel (all female editors of well-known lit mags) seemed to think the answer is yes, that women do submit less, take rejection more personally, and are less likely to talk up their past successes when they need to.
    As a side note, one editor on the panel said she actually gets criticism because her magazine tends to publish more women and writers of color (though she said the mag doesn’t aim for that on purpose), which I find kind of unbelievable.

    • @elizabeth I love all your points. To further your point: Hedgebrook, for the record, is an all-womens’ writing residency…and it invites more writers of color than most writing colonies (though certainly not a majority)…and thus is labelled as a writing colony that “favors writers of color” and has its share of criticism out on the internet. It’s pretty amazing that it is criticized in that way.
      Not too long ago, I put up a blog post on how my male writer friends do handle rejection in a markedly different fashion than me/women: https://czilka.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/rejection-man-woman/

    • Elizabeth, if that examination you mentioned is ever memorialized by you in an article, link me! I want to read.

      Female writers absolutely censor themselves more than men, and are their own worst gatekeepers. An emerging female writer might think twice about submitting to Paris Review, for example, because “it’s probably going to be a waste of stamps anyway.” Their male counterparts, however, don’t see it that way. They think they’ve got a fighting chance EVERYwhere.

  3. Nate

    I’m surprised, but at least encouraged by the consistency of the submission to acceptance ratios, if not the disparity in M-F. Just to round out our info, how many things did KR publish by non-Asian men? I’m curious how many non-APA men feel comfortable submitting to an APA lit mag vs. non-APA women.

    Junot Diaz is right on, but why should AWP be any different than the rest of American higher education? Rich & upper middle class writers in the US are mostly white and have better access to quality education than everyone else, not to mention the generational wealth required to sustain themselves (and their families) as they hone their writing skills and carefully select their opportunities. A private college costs ~$160K, public ~$30-40K (w/o living expenses) and how many of those students are going to borrow another large chunk of money for an MFA (most will need to) and then fly out to AWP while they have all of that interest accruing on a huge debt– a debt which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy? (It makes me want to raid the minibar just thinking about it!)

    When you structure a national education system so that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth… chances go to the haves and the have-nots need to do virtually everything perfectly and/or be a genius (like Junot Diaz), and put themselves in hock for most of their adult lives just to go to school, well then you see what we end up with at an education-focused writers conference!

    • HI Nate: I know we published at least one piece of fiction by a non-APA male writer. The real question, however is whether or not non-APA males would write a story concerning another race/culture and go outside of their own realm? And if so, what kind of story would one write?

      Many of the non-APA women married into APA households, or spent extensive time traveling in Asia, and thus informed their creative work. I did read works by non-APA men and published at least one–but to be honest, much of what I read were travelogues extolling the “exoticism” of Asia (I don’t think they were aware of this) that bordered on being offensive.

      And yes–the factors involved run far and wide and deep. But it’s good to start thinking–because thinking precedes action.

      • Nate

        Certainly, confidence through familiarity is a huge issue here. The reality is that most non-APAs experiences with APAs are rare and fleeting indeed –particularly outside of HI, the West Coast, and the East Coast Megalopolis. Personally, I’m up to my eyeballs in APAs all day, every day, but even then I am usually hesitant to go there. Yet, if I don’t, who (besides APAs, of course) will or even can? I would expect that an overwhelming majority of non-APA writers are not confident, culturally competent, and skilled enough to pull off the APA experience. Conversely, most APA writers live, by definition, in multiple cultures every day of their lives.

        • @Nate: well, that’s what it’s about. most non-APA’ers don’t have to understand the APA experience…whereas most APAs have to understand the mainstream experience. Kartika is an APA litmag–there are plenty of litmags for writers who don’t want to address anything having to do with the APA experience. (and believe me, we always get a handful of pieces written by non-APA folks that have NOTHING to do with anything APA-related). Writers are not required to write the APA experience…but so many times, APA writers (who write mainly about the APA experience by default), feel they have to write the mainstream dominant experience in order to be heard. I hope I’m making sense.

        • Nate

          I get you and understand how sad it is that gatekeepers close the doors on so many worthy voices. I guess that I look at mainstream American culture as our common ground, not as my culture, e.g. you grew up on Cheerios and kimchee, I grew up on Cheerios and squirrel. Perhaps you didn’t like Cheerios and I’m still very naive about most people’s APA experiences, but does that make any sense at all?

        • Nate

          Oh, and I asked about nonAPA male submissions because I am honestly curious, as someone who writes an APA story on occasion, about how many nonAPA men attempt to publish in an APA journals. I know that KR doesn’t care who writes for them as long as it is good, but personally I’d rather not publish than publish in a place created for APA voices– it just feels to me, right or wrong, like a place my WM privileged ass has no place being. Not unwelcome there, but unnecessary. On the other hand, it seems that women are generally more comfortable crossing racial/cultural lines like that.

        • I laud every writer, and everyone, who goes out of their comfort zones to explore different spaces. I’m Jewish, and yet an outsider as someone whose ethnicity is Korean, and as a convert–and I am hyper-aware of my “inauthenticity” and perceived inauthenticity as a Jew. (I’m also writing a novel that centers around Jewish themes). It’s hard. But I think it makes the world better for people to cross lines and try on different hats. Sometimes we may end up stepping on some toes, but that’s better than staying in our own corners.

          I wonder why, if that is the fact, white males of European descent attempt to publish in non-APA journals than females? A cynical part of me thinks, “Because they don’t HAVE to–” but there are probably way more genuine reasons than that.

          I always love your input, Nate. 🙂

        • Nate

          Thanks. I love having a place here to talk about such things.

          You’re so right, it is hard! I have the coolest parents in the world, awesome (and patient) APA friends, and the acceptance and love of the APA side of my family –and even with all that going for me I can tell you that it has taken me half of my life to come from born and raised in a place with zero APAs (and I mean absolutely none) to where I feel I can write about APAs with a genuine story to tell. It really has to be about so much more than nastiness or power or laziness or even ignorance, though it is definitely about those things too.

          As for the Jews: if they signed you up, then they ‘ll just have to live with you 😉

  4. Jeanne Leiby

    Hi, and thank you for this wonderful post. I completely agree with you about broadening this discussion in as many ways as possible. I’d like to look at our numbers again in terms of people of white European descent and people of color, but we simply don’t have the statistics, and I don’t want to make assumptions based on names. It was hard enough trying to figure out if some of our submitters were women or men. But I’m hoping this conversation started by VIDA keeps moving forward and outward, encouraging all of us in the editing/publishing business to keep a close eye on how we are shaping what people read. Again, thanks. Best, Jeanne

    • I don’t want to make assumptions based on names. It was hard enough trying to figure out if some of our submitters were women or men.

      But it’s worth doing anyway.

      At MIT we just finished hiring for a junior faculty position that received something around a hundred applications. MIT (and federal?) policy requires us to report the gender and ethnic breakdown of the entire pool, despite applicants’ not being required to report their gender and ethnicity. So the committee simply guesses based on the name and any hints in the application materials.

      Granted, it’s hard. (The professor we hired is named Sasha Costanza-Chock. If that was the name you got at the top of a fiction submission, you’d be stuck. Is the person male, female? American, African-American, Italian, Dutch, South African, Croatian-Magyar?)

      But statistically, you can ignore the ambiguous names — there are enough certain names in the sample. So, if 80% of writers who submit to a journal have clearly male or female names, you can be confident in applying the male/female ratio of that 80% to the remaining 20%. Don’t ignore the opportunity to get good data just because you’re unsure about the 20%.

      Another big thing — and this discussion is evidence — is that this is an important enough question that there’s likely research funding to be had — as well as existing, available numbers — for exactly this kind of end-to-end study. Any school that accepts students paying with federal loans has to report the students’ aggregate gender and ethnic breakdown, and can likely do so at the program (e.g., M.F.A.) level. Direct marketers would have the numbers on gender and ethnicity of subscribers to major literary magazines and may get a tax write-off by making data available for a study. A smaller-staffed journal could sample, say, two months’ of submissions. And with some ambition, one could pitch an N.E.H. grant to fund a survey of writers, asking about gender, ethnicity, frequency of submission, number of publication credits, etc. Put those all together, and you’d have a clearer picture of where, when, and why men get their publishing advantage, as opposed to the otherwise-good VIDA study, which merely proves that that advantage indeed exists.

    • @Jeanne: Thank you for touching base and for your encouraging words! May this be the start of something big(ger).

      @Andrew: Big picture thinking! I like.

  5. What interests me more is a disparity in race or, more to the point, what a person of color considers when submitting work. Is my story too black for the lit mag? Am I remaining true to my own sensibilities if my story isn’t black enough? Why would a non-black person care to read a story which displays a slice of the “black experience?” Of course, the questions that matter: is my story good? And does the editor think it fits his/her publication?

    I can’t argue against socio-economic differences between races which may cause an underrepresentation of minorities within MFA programs, for example. An extension of this whole VIDA discussion, however, is the minority writer’s experience within the MFA. For every Alexander Chee, whose writing was nurtured at Iowa, there are others—my wife, for example—who are told to tone down their work, to remove references commonly known within minority groups, to make the work “accessible.” Makes sense, I suppose. Keep pouring your perspective—black, hispanic, asian, whatever—into your work and you’ll have a hard time landing a spot within “mainstream” lit mags.

    And of course, how do you argue against such a rejection? The editor can say, “It doesn’t fit the publication”—which might be true—but you’re really arguing against the tastes of an editor—worse, a reader. One may ask, “Well, why does the rejection need to be more than a rejection? Why make it about race or gender?”

    Because a person can get away with reading books only by white men and still be considered “literate”. He/she can skip books by women, by writers of color, and still feel at home at AWP, or an MFA program, or within the margins of a lit mag. Therein lies the justified vitriol expressed by women writers—and soon enough, writers of color, or gay writers, or whomever—when viewing VIDA’s results.

    Anyway, to quote Family Guy, I gotta go do some black guy stuff. Thanks for letting me rant lol.

    • Nate

      I love this.

      To the MFA point, I would love someone to do a study of interactions during workshop discussions based on race/socioeconomic/etc. and breakdown of characters, cultural themes, the works.

      • @Nate: I was lucky to have attended an MFA program that has had a number of faculty connected with VONA (http://voicesatvona.org/)…and so I was fortunate that race would occasionally come up in workshop and, depending on the instructor, be skillfully handled.

        …but overall–I gotta say…race is NOT something that comes up often in MFA workshops–and if it does, it is squelched. Or the writer of color is often made to feel like a weird, smelly unicorn.

        Once, I was told that I was LUCKY to be a writer of color, because we had more privileges, and that our experiences were “more interesting,” and the white writer told me, “I wish I was a person of color, because you have more interesting stories.”

        This writer then commenced to write a story written in Ching-chong-ese for a workshop. I heard people were speechless in workshop.

        • Nate

          @CZ: Wow. Sounds like speech was needed!

          Ha, unfortunately good writing and schlock are both color blind!

          I would invite that writer to move to No. Korea: more interesting, wish granted, have fun!

          Re:MFA race study: I guess I was thinking that because race can’t be relied on to come up what we need is something to stimulate a serious industry-wide discussion, something more like: positive vs. negative comments made from one demographic to another (quantifying the “sweaty unicorn” phenomenon?), m vs. f protag in stories, ethnicity of protag/ethnicity of writer, socioecon of protag, education of protag, lines of dialogue/character’s race, all kinds of stuff like that. I’d really like to see a real, blow-by-blow mathematical breakdown of what MFAers do and say. I think we could learn a lot about the limitations of workshop (and higher ed in general) by seeing what we do to each other and who is afraid or empowered to write what. (Now all I need is lots of money, lots of help, and lots of permission.)

          Cross-culture wackiness: I actually had a good samaritan APA writer tell me during workshop that a Vietnamese American man would never punch someone, he would spit on them. Her exact words: “Asians are big spitters!”

  6. Pingback: Women, rejection, and the VIDA numbers « Fog City Writer

  7. Pingback: RIP Jeanne Leiby | 80,000 words

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