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.