“Slippery Issues”: Women’s Writing, By the Numbers

Today’s post is the work of Prof. Valerie Vogrin, Associate Professor of English.  She is author of the novel Shebang,  numerous essays, and an impressive collection of short stories, including “Things We’ll Need For the Coming Difficulties,” which won a Pushcart Prize last year.  If you’ve read Valerie’s work, you know that doing so immediately transforms you into one of her fans, and this post is no exception.  Here, she writes from the perspective of a writer, a creative writing professor, an editor (she is a co-editor of the literary magazine Sou’wester), and a feminist. 

In 2010, the organization VIDA : Women In Literary Arts, stirred up the literary world by tallying and comparing the rates of publication between women and men in a number of respected literary venues in the U.S and Britain, such as The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.  Recently, they released the numbers for 2011 .

You can study the pie charts at your leisure, but (SPOILER ALERT!!) overall the results reveal  an overwhelming disparity (that is, more than 2:1) in the number of pieces written by men, the number of book reviewers who are men, and the number of books by men that are reviewed as compared to women.  (A better reason for cancelling my New Yorker subscription than the piles of unread issues I accumulated last year would be their overall stats: 613 men; 242 women.)

Many women writers I know share a bifurcated response to these numbers. We think: this is not news and this is shocking.

The significance of these numbers has been vigorously disputed. Among the naysayers who suggest these numbers are misleading and/or dismissible, the chief complaint is that editors can’t help it if they get more submissions from men than women. (Though there are also claims that editors can’t help it if men are simply better writers than women!)

I’m chagrined to admit that I too was initially waylaid by the “number of submissions” argument.  As a creative writing teacher, I am well aware of the various societal reasons my female writing students might habitually undervalue their work (and many of them do) and choose to write almost exclusively from the point of view of male characters (and many of them do). So at first it made a sideways kind of sense that the problem – though societal – was nevertheless strongly linked to the submission practices of women.

I am still sorting through the avalanche of responses to the VIDA stats by writers and editors. One thing that stuck out, though, was the number of publications who reported that their editorial policies were “fair” because the male-to-female ratio of published work was the same as that of submitted work. (I hope those editors don’t hurt themselves patting themselves on the back!)

As Katha Pollit said last February, “Editors matter.” These naysayers and backpatters are being egregiously disingenuous in their characterization of editing. Editing isn’t passive. It is neither a rule nor best practices that editors must or should sit back and wait for good work to come to them. Or that editors then choose from the pool of submissions based on some objective standards of excellence. Hogwash!

I’m guessing there were very few women editors who didn’t hurry to check their own tables of contents after the VIDA figures were reported last year. (I did.) Certainly, in the wave of responses a number of journals proudly reported their own ratios.  (Though not nearly as many as whom explained why the numbers didn’t tell the whole story or who insisted that they were doing the best they could.) But I’d like to think that more and more these editors will not merely congratulate themselves for gender parity in their own journals.

I hope that all editors are inspired by those who take action. For example, Dinty W. Moore, editor of the online creative nonfiction journal Brevity, announced last fall that the September 2012 issue would be titled “Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions after the VIDA Count,” a special issue guest-edited by Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich, and Joy Castro  “that aims to go beyond  regretting the numbers and find work by women, including transgendered women, that will further the conversation.”

Next year, my creative writing colleague Stacey Lynn Brown will join Sou’wester as co-editor. I’m very excited to report that her very first suggestion was that we produce a special issue next Spring entirely devoted to the work of women (details to follow). Yet I don’t offer this information up in the spirit of self-congratulation, but of determination. I vow to continue to examine my own editorial mindset and reading prejudices. I vow to support the writing of women in as many ways as I can. I vow to persist.

Meanwhile, I’ve already cancelled my New Yorker subscription. I really just can’t have all those slippery issues gathering dust on the shelf beneath my coffee table.

Valerie Vogrin

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