Who Counts When We’re Counting? (Or, put your money where your mouth is)

The grass-roots organization VIDA, which does wonderful work in supporting female writers in the literary arts, has taken up a project that most literary writers, unless they’ve been living in caves for the past few weeks or months, have heard about by now: The Count. Vida counted the percentages of male and female authors in a number of literary publications to demonstrate in clear, incontrovertible terms the lack of gender parity in the publishing world. Most of us women writers suspected that the playing field was not entirely even, but the numbers (Harper’s Magazine’s female writers make up only 21 percent of the pool?!) were really quite shocking. And thanks to Vida’s groundbreaking efforts at pointing out that lack of parity, authors, editors, and publishers are beginning to engage in important conversations about the state of writing and publishing in America.

But I think what’s been painfully missing in these discussions is the fact that many writers and readers are willfully blind to the world that exists outside of Granta, The New York Review of Books, The Boston Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, New Republic, Harpers, Poetry, and the handful of other publications, mainly of East-Coast pedigree, that Vida selected for its count. When pressed by curious readers as to why certain publications and publishers that are very friendly to women writers (like the phenomenal Sarabande Books, for example, which self-reports that 54% of its authors are women) weren’t counted, Vida responded that “We just couldn’t count every journal and press, so we opted to look at a handful of the most prominent.”

The most prominent.

Now there’s something that deserves a little more consideration, I think. What makes this handful a selection of the most prominent journals? Age? (the count includes publications as young as 12 years of age.) Affiliation? (the counted publications seem largely independent.) Circulation? (I’ll give you that–these publications certainly make the rounds.) Or could it really come down to quality–or perceived quality–of writing?

If quality is the key, it leads me to wonder whether Tess Gallagher’s work is really less spellbinding when it appears in The Los Angeles Review than when it appears in The Sun, or whether Dana Gioia any less an important American poet in the pages of LAR than in Poetry magazine. We think that Benjamin Percy was just as promising a new, young voice when we published him as he was when Graywolf released The Wilding. And we think Lucia Perillo’s work in LAR is just as tremendous as it is when her poems appear in Tin House.

At LAR, we conducted our own count. We know we’ve been champions of women’s writing for many years, and our numbers don’t lie. Here is the breakdown for 2010, and for the first half of 2011.  Issue 7: 45% women, 55% men; Issue 8: 42% women, 58% men; Issue 9: 54% women, 46% men. We’ve also dedicated issues of the magazine to legendary West Coast women writers such as Judy Grahn, Eloise Klein Healey, and Wanda Coleman. We’re staunch supporters of the best writing the West Coast and the nation has to offer, and we believe that such writing comes from men and women alike.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not knocking Vida. I think they’ve done an admirable job in getting the discussion about parity off the ground, and as a woman writer, I thank them for that work. But I would like to pose a question: where’s the love for publications–ones that publish fine work by such important writers as the ones I’ve named above–that are getting gender parity right?

I’d like to suggest that the writers and readers who take gender parity seriously might put their money where their mouths are, and support publications that are answering the call to publish equitably.

Send your work to editors who publish the best that men and women writers have to offer. Spread the word to your reader and writer friends in order to make those journals the new model of prominence by keeping them around and keeping them read. And for the love of literature, subscribe to publications that actively champion women writers.

13 Replies to “Who Counts When We’re Counting? (Or, put your money where your mouth is)”

  1. I agree with you. I like what VIDA has to say because I want the world to change for women writers. I also believe that we must keep writing anyway, to hell with the count. Nobody seems to notice most women writers and if you’re an editor,it’s even harder.

    I do not believe that I’ll ever be published in the New Yorker or Granta or any of those places that publishes mostly men, but that certainly won’t stop me from writing.

  2. Thanks, Kate. The entire topic of The Count is tricky, because I think that what they’re doing, challenging the establishment, is a very important way to bring about change. That said, it’s just *one* way to bring about change. (And I do think it would be unfair to demand that VIDA address every way. They’re one organization, one voice in a larger conversation.)

    But as organizations that support women, I think we need to make it clear to female writers that there is a market for them, and they don’t have to shrink in light of Granta’s and The New Yorker’s numbers. (I too won’t stop writing, but if I were a new writer just dipping my toe into this world, I don’t know–maybe I’d be so discouraged by the count that I might have stopped sending out.) It’s important to say to women, “hey–you’re welcome here.” That’s one other way to create change: building community.

  3. I’d like to believe that it’s the quality of work that gets writers published, but not all journals operate that way.

    Speaking of counts, it would be interesting to do a “count” based solely on journals that read blind–they remove the names from manuscripts before judging them. But even that method is not foolproof. There are some stories where the gender of the author is easy to spot.

    I’d also be interested to know what the percentages of women and men are among submitters … and editors. That might help determine if there is bias at a particular journal. It’s funny you blogged about this–earlier today I was wondering about gender balance among editorial staffs. I pulled out a few university journals I picked up at AWP and started counting. The tally was 65% women and 35% men. A totally unscientific process as the pool was too small, but now I’m keen to keep counting.

  4. Here’s another stat that seems to more directly comment on our culture. But then, I believe the VIDA “study” had the same purpose in mind.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, men spent more than twice the money women did on Valentine’s Day purchases.

    Perhaps parity begins at home.

  5. Joe, Initially, I thought it might be more telling to look at submission numbers as well, too. However, after I attended a rather eye-opening panel at AWP (one on with a focus on publishing and writers of color), I recognized that that might not get to the heart of the matter, either.

    One of the speakers mentioned the perplexing problem of representing Latino writers in our journals. He acknowledged that many of us editors are expressing a desire to publish more Latino poetry and prose, but just aren’t getting that it in our submissions. He echoed our question: “how can we consider the work if writers never send it to us?” His response as a Latino poet was surprising: “how can I send the work if you never consider it?”

    I realized then that the forces of the slush pile are really much more complex than I’d imagined. I like to think of slush as the most democratic force in publishing. But I wasn’t aware of the kind of mistrust, the suspicion, that can be a factor as well.

    The editor of Tidal Basin Review was also present, and she made a claim that surprised me at first: she said it’s harder not to publish a diverse population than it is to publish a mostly white base. How did her journal get to the point at which writers from every population in the nation were sending her work? She made it clear in her mission statement that she wanted to see work from everyone.

    It seems so simple, now that it’s been laid out for me. Sometimes it takes saying “you are welcome here!” to overcome the sense that one’s work isn’t going to receive consideration.

    I think that, if there’s a disparity between the amounts of work women and men submit, there’s more to the story than mere numbers.

  6. This is a great response. I wonder if it would be possible to have journals participate in a badge system that says “We count!” or something, where they commit to being held responsible for equity in publishing. Perhaps if journals publish their percentages, this might help them work toward changing their image so that writers feel welcome to submit.

  7. I love that idea, Laura. I think that’s a fantastic thought. As an editor, I’d welcome that accountability.

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