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.