Gender in Literary Land, a (somewhat) Feisty Response

Like almost everyone else in the literary world, I recently read Vida’s article discussing the apparent gender disparity prevalent in prominent literary publications like The New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic Monthly, and many others.

Specifically, Vida examined 15 major venues and examined each publication’s output for the year 2010. In most cases, they then detailed the overall number of authors/writers printed in the venue, and the gender breakdown of those authors/writers. In almost all of the cases, there were far more male authors than females. This was also true when Vida examined the number of reviewers present at each venue and each reviewer’s respective gender. Again, there were more males (by far) than females.

While I understand why this issue has gotten so much attention, I don’t find the data particularly convincing, at least not convincing enough to justify the (implicit) claim that women are discriminated against in literary magazines and publications.

First, it’s not clear what the overall gender breakdown was for those submitting to the magazine, and whether there was gender parity to begin with. Furthermore, in terms of reviewers, it’s not clear how many reviewer spots that each particular literary magazine/journal offers, and how many applicants they received, and it’s not at all clear that the applicant pool mirrored US demographics. (In other words, can we really assume that 50 percent of the folks who wanted to be reviewers were female and 50% were male? On what grounds?)

Much of the hand-wringing seems to stem from the assumption that the applicant pool was evenly divided, and that a significant portion of female authors/reviewers were passed over, but that’s a big assumption to make without any proof. Of course, that proof could only come from the magazines/venues themselves. Big claims require a lot of evidence, and so far Vida hasn’t provided it.

The same line of thinking applies to the gender of the folks being reviewed in these venues. Do we know, for instance, that the books submitted for review broke down 50/50? If not, then we can’t expect to see a 50/50 split in the stats, as the VIDA information seems to assume we should.

This brings up a bigger question–and one that I’ll probably catch hell for even mentioning: For literary magazines and literary-minded publications, is strict gender parity an end in itself?

And before one responds with a resounding yes, why focus simply on women? If one paged through any one of the venues listed, I’d be willing to bet you”d be hard pressed to find other subsets of the population represented in numbers that are proportional to U.S. demographics.

For instance, of the 265 writers overall in the Boston Review, I doubt that 33 of them were African-Americans, which would make up a representative share of the overall population (12.5% in the last census). The same is no doubt true for other groups of the population.

In other words, much of the commentary about the VIDA piece seems to stem from the assumption that the demographics of literary magazines and venues should mirror that of the wider population. Should it?

I’m of the opinion that it’s up to the editor (or editors) to decide what they want to include and whether they want demography to play a part.

In the literary magazine that I run with Jeremy, we try to run roughly a 50/50 mix of GLBTQ writers and straight writers. We did so because that wasn’t a magazine we’d seen before, because we both care a lot about GLBT issues, and because we thought it’d make for some interesting pairings/contrasts, but we certainly don’t expect other editors to follow our lead.

Rather, I (at least) think editors should edit as they see fit, and a venue’s readers should determine whether the particular approach is successful.


  • Brianna says:

    I think the decisions should be based on the quality of the piece. If a martian wrote it, who cares, if it’s quality? I’m all for women getting their due, but honestly, if they are churning out crap just to get published and make a statement what’s the point? I think the bigger statement should be turning out quality work.

  • Kathryn says:

    But who judges quality work? Overwhelmingly, quality work is still male work (and has been throughout history). Maybe not to specific individuals, but a story dealing with male issues (which is more likely to be written by a male) is considered universal while a story dealing with female issues (more likely to be written by a female) is considered niche and genre. It’s more likely to be called “crap.” I’ve sat through enough gender-divided workshops to have some anecdotal evidence, even if I can’t point to a study.

    But on the other hand, if we require studies for who is doing the submitting, it seems, to me, a bit like a way to avoid looking at what is absolutely a more complicated issue. Because I’m not sure that research exists (judging by the quick Google search I just did). When we have these across the board numbers of who is getting published, when women do the majority of the book buying, I think it’s just writing this problem off to put it down to the unsubstantiated argument that women must not be submitting enough, or must not be submitting enough good stuff. It might be true, but if the lack of studies for the bias makes the bias not true, how can the lack of studies for the reverse refute the argument?

    That said, I don’t think there’s some widespread conspiracy where editors have this agreement to reject pieces authored by females, but I do believe there are absolutely bigger issues at play here. And I agree that the conversation should be included to discusses races, ethnicities, sexualities, classes, etc. But it seems to be a refusal to look at the bigger problem when it’s so easy to dismiss the Vida article. After all, without the research, who’s to say that women aren’t submitting 60%? Why does the automatic response have to be that women just don’t do enough, just don’t write well enough?

    The answer, then, in my opinion, isn’t to shoot for some magic quota number but rather to be aware of the bias that exists in each of us, and in society as a whole. And I think that if we all did this, we’d see those numbers shift toward a balance that makes women (or other groups that have traditionally been discriminated against) feel less like their voices go unheard.

  • Kathryn says:

    Friend of mine posted this just a bit ago:
    Assuming I copied and pasted correctly on my iPad, it’s a link to some stats of who is being published in the first place, and a look at what that means.

    • Asa Maria says:

      Awesome article Kathryn, thanks for sharing. I especially like this part:
      “The VIDA numbers provide a start toward an answer: Of the new writing published in Tin House, Granta,and The Paris Review, around one-third of it was by women. For many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract. Do women submit work to these magazines at a lower rate than men, or are men’s submissions more likely to get accepted? We can’t be sure. But, as Robin Romm writes in Double X, ‘The gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male.’ If these gatekeepers are showing a gender bias, there’s not much room to make it up later.”

  • Sara says:

    Well, you were less feisty about it than I was.

    In short – I agree that working simply on a quotas system just to be more inclusive, regardless of the work in question, is a bit silly.

    But of course, it’s a complex issue.

    To be fair, we’re all complicit in ignoring one group or another in some way, but I’m still apt to get cranky.

  • Brett says:

    “I think it’s just writing this problem off to put it down to the unsubstantiated argument that women must not be submitting enough, or must not be submitting enough good stuff. It might be true, but if the lack of studies for the bias makes the bias not true, how can the lack of studies for the reverse refute the argument?”

    Kathryn, I’d disagree that I’m writing off the concern; I’m certainly open to the possibility that sexism is inherent (even rampant) in the literary world. I just don’t think that VIDA has provided an adequate amount of evidence.

    VIDA’s position is predicated largely on the assumption that an equal amount of women submitted work to these magazines/applied to be reviewers.

    Operating under this assumption, VIDA examined the venues and found there was a large gender discrepancy (that’d be a great band name, btw).

    Nevertheless, the claim that sexism doesn’t follow–yet–as we don’t have the necessary information.

    In logic, it’d break down to a simple modus ponens argument, if P, then Q. P, therefore Q.

    (1) If women submitted work to the venues as often as men, then the magazines are biased.

    (2) Women subjected work as often as men.

    Therefore, the magazines are biased.

    But VIDA hasn’t given us any evidence for that first premise.

    I’m not going to simply take their word for it, or simply assume that there is a 50/50 mix (or higher) for these publications, as I have no idea what their slush pile looks like.

    In addition, there is a wider issue that was pretty fuzzy: VIDA doesn’t let us know what the breakdown of the work was–how much was fiction, poetry, non-fiction, journalism, etc.

    That’s a serious omission, in my view, as one can’t realistically expect an even breakdown across all types of writing. (There are probably more male foreign correspondents in Afghanistan for the Atlantic, say, than females. That’s not inherently wrong, is it?)

    If that’s the case, then this may have skewed the numbers somewhat.

    Finally, I tried to avoid any discussion of quality of the work itself, as VIDA’s argument rests entirely on a question of quantity, not quality. (I therefore attempted to avoid the issue of quality of work altogether, as it is irrelevant for our purposes.)

  • Asa Maria says:

    I read VIDA’s presentation of their research very differently than you Brett. I didn’t get the impression that they were advocating for a 50/50 gender distribution in terms of publications or book reviews. My impression is that they’re asking the question: “Considering how many quality women writers there are out there, why aren’t more of them getting published?” and “When they are published, why aren’t more of them reviewed?”

    “Numbers don’t lie” means, to me, that the huge difference between the male/female figures shows that something is going on in the literature market and it’s time to start investigating what that something is.

    I couldn’t find your assumption that “VIDA’s position is predicated largely on the assumption that an equal amount of women submitted work to these magazines/applied to be reviewers.” anywhere on the page where they presented the data. I didn’t interpret their position to be anything close to that. Instead what I see and “hear” in these numbers is an opening for discussing the reasons behind the discrepancy that is proven in the slides. It’s an opening for looking at questions like:

    Are women not submitting their writing because they don’t think they’ll get published anyway? Are we as a society judging “good literature” by standards that automatically give people writing about issues more relevant to males a leg up? (And I think Kathryn has a really good point here. Lots of discussion out there on this topic shows that we actually do, and have done so through history.)

    For me, the VIDA numbers was a huge wakeup call, or more accurately a moment of shock. In the MFA program I attended, at AWP, and in terms of finding venues for my work, I have not gotten the impression that being a woman would work against me. I’ve had female professors, I read female writers, and lots of speakers at AWP were women. To all of a sudden see that in the more prestigious magazines and newspapers, there is a HUGE difference between genders that is not reflected in what I think of as “my writing world” is a big shock.

    It makes me ask why there is such a difference and it makes me want to see other people ask why there is such a difference. The data VIDA provided supports those of us asking, because it shows that there are grounds for these questions.

    • Brett says:

      While you may not have assumed that a 50/50 mix was expected, VIDA states outright that we should strive towards “equity” (which I’m taking to mean something like a proportional breakdown vs. the population at large, which would be 50/50, give or take a few percent).

      (The specific line is “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.”)

      Assuming that VIDA is out for something like equity, 50/50 doesn’t seem unfair, especially given that most of the comments on VIDA’s page seemed to indicate that a 50/50 “score” was admirable.

      Consider this comment on VIDA’s page:

      “I guess we should all subscribe to Poetry. It’s the only one with more than 50% score.”

      But let’s assume you’re right and a 50/50 mix isn’t necessarily what Vida’s after. OK, but I think we can agree that they’d like things to trend toward more even ratio, right?

      In other words, VIDA’s study indicated that there was a significant discrepancy between genders in these publications (the HUGE difference, as you put it). And all parties agree that this difference is a bad thing.

      All I’m saying is that this discrepancy could be explainable, and the explanation may not be as dire as we are assuming.

      That is to say, VIDA’s slides only show an APPARENT discrepancy until we know that women submitted roughly equally to men and that work by men (and their books for review) were chosen far more often than work by women.

      In essence, this whole issue is a matter of proportion. If folks submitted disproportionately, then it may not be surprising to see a discrepancy (and that discrepancy wouldn’t be an instance of sexism).

      Of course, if women DID submit at an equal rate to men, then YES, it is sexism and that’s a serious problem. But as things stand, VIDA’s data doesn’t prove that, so saying that VIDA’s slides are evidence that “being a woman works against you” is premature.

      Nevertheless, I agree with you wholeheartedly that VIDA’s done us all a service, as this has raised some interesting questions.

      The most obvious is–well, DOES being a woman make it less likely that you’ll be published in one of the big magazines? Only the various magazines/venues can give us the data to ferret that out. We need to know the gender breakdown of all folks who submitted work to see how that panned out. I’d be really, really interested to see that. If they compiled that data, then you may well be right and being a woman may harm your standing. I’d be entirely willing support that argument, but not without more information.

      With that said, that’d be a lot of work to drum up, and the venues might not want to do so, esp. if the evidence is damning.

      (I started to do with Knockout’s submissions and dear lordy, that was a fiasco. Our submission pile is a Gmail inbox. Not exactly the most conducive vehicle for organization.)

      Then again, given these venues often have submission managers, maybe they could come up with this info pretty quickly.

      Anyway, my very rough VIDA-like data comes out as follows:

      In our first issue, we had 36 men and 7 women. These were all solicitations, and we solicited more men than women (and men were more likely to send us work, for whatever reason). Nevertheless, we knew that this issue needed some more balance, and we set out to correct this in the next issue.

      In our second issue, we opened up submissions to the gen. public, and things evened out a bit more, with 19 men in the issue and 15 women.

      In the third issue, we ended up with 23 men and 12 women.

      As for work that we receive in the slush pile, we tend to get work more by men than women. Why that is, I don’t know. We’ve been actively seeking out work by lesbian writers, and by trans writers, but we don’t get such writing as often as we’d like.

      • Asa Maria says:

        I think you make a good point in that the VIDA data does not statistically prove that sexism or gender bias is contributing to the discrepancies we see in their slides. (I still can’t figure out what “over all” means and how it’s different from “cover to cover” so I’m not giving any statistical weight to those.)

        As you say: “If folks submitted disproportionately, then it may not be surprising to see a discrepancy.” The link that Kathryn contributed above contains some numbers of an informal investigation of how VIDA’s numbers of book reviews may be proportional to how many books by women are published. And it raises some really good questions on whether or not this is related to women not publishing stories in lit magz.

        But, I still think that any discrepancy this large needs more investigation and that these slides (and our postings) are opening up discussions and questions that wouldn’t have happened without them.

        Your VIDA-like data is very interesting. Especially the part about more men than women in the slush pile. I’d be very interested in seeing how the submissions numbers pan out over literary magazines in general.

        But as you say: “With that said, that’d be a lot of work to drum up, and the venues might not want to do so, esp. if the evidence is damning.” So, I’m not holding my breath for there to be a resolution to this issue or even a clear explanation of the difference in numbers.

        I also don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a 50/50 ratio without knowing what the submission gender distribution looks like. I definitely consider myself a feminist, but don’t want special rights, just an even playing field.

  • Brett says:

    So has anyone run Willow Springs’ numbers?

  • Kathryn says:

    I crunched some VIDAL numbers very quickly…. For the overall stat in all the markets, for the number of book reviewers, and number of authors reviewed, the percentage came out to between 25 and 30 for women. And the more I think about this, the less the issue is about percent published versus percent submitted. It’s so much bigger. Here are the questions I came up with: What’s the average writer woman’s incentive to submitting somewhere that doesn’t often represent female voices? So then when submissions are skewed…well, it’s the chicken and the egg argument. But assuming that, yes, men really do submit two to three times as much work, isn’t that a situation that itself demands attention? As one commenter said, what is it about the culture of writing that pushes women away? What keeps so many of us from attempting, in this hypothetical situation, to legitimize our work through publication? To me it keeps circling back to how we view the topics most frequently selected by a gender, which in itself probably deserves closer inspection. But that’s an entirely different can of words.

  • sassjemleon says:

    could these numbers be so skewed in these major literary markets, where more money is available, because women are still not expected to be the bread winners, and the lingering perception that women can get away with literary endeavors without having to be as financially ambitious as a man?

  • Marcus says:

    Brett, kudos for you to being willing to help start this conversation. I’m very much in line with your post, as I feel there’s not enough data to come to any conclusions. Which, as you’ve pointed out, is not the same thing as saying VIDA’s study is meaningless/wrong/etc. It is simply a good building block.

    In the interests of helping, here are the numbers for the last issue of SpokeWrite, which is a regional journal my press puts out (or did put out; it is temporarily on hold).

    We published 23 total writers. 12 were men, 11 were women. In poetry, there were 8 men and 8 women. In fiction, 5 men and 1 woman. In nonfiction, 1 man and 3 women. (Some authors published in multiple genres, that’s why 8 + 8 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 3 =/= 23.) I was in charge of selecting the fiction and nonfiction, meaning I chose 6 men and 4 women, with a heavy skew in either genre. I don’t have an explanation for this.

    Our submission process is maybe even more messy than Knockout’s, but from what I can actually track down, there were a total of 27 fiction submission: 19 men and 8 women. There were 15 nonfiction submissions: 8 men and 7 women. So in prose, a total of 27 men and 15 women yielded 6 men and 4 women. Acceptance rates: 22% for men, 27% for women. I don’t have a clue what the poetry numbers were.

    I don’t know how helpful that is, but maybe it gives some perspective on a local vs national scale. I can crunch the numbers on our back issues, and might do so before we relaunch later this year. I’m curious now.

    Our cover art was by a woman. Does that help?

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      First, thanks for the math explanation, because I just sat here for a full 30 seconds trying to figure out how 8+5+1=12, which I suppose teaches me to read before stressing about how I’ve forgotten how to add.

      Second, I’m starting to wonder if the numbers from the publications with a smaller sampling don’t mean that much until you can look at, say, five years’ worth of data. But those bigger publications, where the total number went into the hundreds…that’s what worries me, because I doubt it was much different last year. Whereas in your example, Marcus, taking on two more writers of one gender starts to skew the results. I’m not trying to say your numbers of 12/11 mean you don’t have a gender bias…rather that some of those publications on the VIDA list that only had a sample size of, say, 25, probably don’t tell us much.

      That’s all I’ve got for tonight. I just finished a big book edit, so my brain is mush. Okay, I’m done talking. Carry on.

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