In their 2011 critical compilation, A Megaphone, Mills professors Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young confront the collective shrugging-of-shoulders at the pandemic dearth of women writers in literary journals. The two poets admit to, at times, wondering “if this is all in our paranoid, self-marginalizing minds, if we are just imagining a nonexistent disenfranchisement.”
Well, it seems the literati have frozen mid-shrug—it’s no longer possible to deny the disparity. On February 2nd of this year, VIDA — an organization supporting women in the literary arts — published The Count 2010, a statistical analysis of women writers published and reviewed in influential magazines. But even VIDA, who seems to have rocked the boys’ club status quo boat with the publishing of its study, has contributed to myth that the literary world can’t stand up without its men.
In thirteen journals document by the VIDA count—including publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Threepenny Review—women got a measly third to a devastating fifth as much play as men. (But Spahr and Young already knew this; in their 2007 essay, “Numbers Trouble,” they found that, between 1906 and 1999, women poets were included in anthologies at a rate of 22 percent.)
Since the release of those haunting red-and-blue pie charts, blogs, comment boards, and literary journal websites have exploded with responses—dismay, anger, beleaguered acceptance, and the all-too-common skeptical request for “more information.”
These latter bloggers and editors, including Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus, wanted to know whether the low publication rate correlated with a low submission rate by women. Wouldn’t that be a convenient way to excuse the dominant wash of male editors from taking responsibility for this disparity?
Juliana Spahr told me, “Even if women are submitting less and the numbers are a twice removed sign, they still indicate something. And this ‘something’ might let individual editors ‘off the hook.’”
In the interest of getting off the hook—or perhaps because they truly wish to transform their journals—editors at Tin House and The New Republic, both targeted in the VIDA study, crunched some more numbers, and found that (1) writers with agents or a connection to an editor tended to be male, (2) women writers were less apt to re-submit when solicited, or after having a piece rejected, and (3) published women authors are in the minority across the board at both behemoth and independent publishing houses.
So lit mag editors can clear their names and pass the blame on to publishing houses, agents, and the very women writers themselves who are so afraid to submit, right? They can rectify the unpleasantness by strongly encouraging women to submit to their journals (as many have done), right?
What needs to be rectified was best said by Vermont-based writer John Walters in a comment on the VIDA website, “…there’s still an unspoken, and quite toxic, assumption that books by women are ‘women’s books,’ and somehow not universal.”
Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press, blogged in response to the VIDA study, “Male writers nearly always read only men while women read male and female writers because they are marginalized so they have to read outside the margins.”
The only way women writers are going to believe in their right to be widely published is by seeing examples of widely published women writers. We’re not fools. We look at the track record of magazines before we take on the mental and emotional strain of sending in our work. And the only way male editors are going to be reprogrammed to respond to women’s writing as anything more universal than “women’s writing” is by experiencing it as an indispensable part of the literary canon from an early age.
VIDA is trying to address all this, both from the hard-lined statistical angle and from a social approach. At this month’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Conference (a massive annual gathering of literary types) VIDA hosted the event, “VIDA and the MEN Who Love Us: Reading and Dance Party,” which featured sixteen male authors reading their favorite female authors.
Wait—what? If we’re celebrating women authors, why give the men the stage and the mike, and why list only their names on the flyer?
A colleague guessed VIDA might have spotlighted men in the event because of the dance party following the reading, which they likely wanted to be co-ed.
I thought back to the various all-women panels and readings I have attended, and how any self-identified women-focused event couldn’t attract two male audience members to rub together. Maybe VIDA had earnestly intended to tout the fact that men do read women and men should read women—or maybe they just knew this was the only way to get men to attend a reading of women’s writing—if men got to hold the mikes.
Apparently, it’s not a dance party if there are no men—and I’m not talking about dance parties.
Jessica Langlois received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills in 2010. Read more of her writing on her blog, http:// www.asupposedlyfunthing.com/.