In August 2009, Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu founded VIDA Women in the Literary Arts, a grassroots organization dedicated to furthering the voices of women in American literary culture. According to their mission, “VIDA seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” Mostly, though, what they do is piss people off.
On February 1, 2011, VIDA published their first Count, a mathematical breakdown of the gender disparity in publishing. That first year, VIDA counted the representation of male and female voices in prominent publications like The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review, noting the review attention given to books written by men versus those written by women, the number of male versus female reviewers, and the number of male versus female writers with bylines. The numbers were disheartening, and no where near equal.
The inevitable questions arose, and with them suspicions. Maybe women writers are published less because their writing is of inherently lesser quality. (Try again.) Maybe women are published less frequently than men because men submit more than women. (The submission split is perhaps 55 % male to 45% female: the problem comes mostly from solicitations.) Maybe writing by women, especially about women, is taken less seriously. (Consider the “pink ghetto” in journalism, the different book covers designed for books by women as opposed to those by men).
Linda Holmes put it well for NPR:
Now, this kind of thing could be happening for lots of reasons, and like a lot of really complicated problems, it likely doesn’t involve anything that anybody is doing on purpose, and therefore it doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions through simple resolve. How several hundred books make it into a publication in a given year is the result of countless conscious and unconscious choices by readers, by authors, by book publishers, by reviewing publications, by reviewers and editors — it’s an incredibly complex and unwieldy problem to try to get your arms around. You don’t have to believe anyone is out to get women writers in order to think it’s important to ask the question of what the factors are that bring us to that point and to suggest that it’s not a great place to be.
The problem the VIDA Count highlights is complex, and solutions will be involved and will require careful attention and humility from many. The first step, then—and it is only the first—is to recognize the problem for what it is and where it lives. If it lives at your magazine, do not become defensive and deny the problem, but neither should you self-flagellate or tear your clothes and cover your body with ash. Simply recognize the problem. Say, “Hello, problem, I’m sorry we had to meet like this, but I hope that we can work together now. I don’t want to be enemies.” Then devote yourself to putting in the effort to change the situation. As Audrey Bilger writes for Ms. Magazine, “Solving gender imbalances takes daily work—the kind of work an individual might put into breaking a bad habit. It’s not enough to say you want to change; you need to look in the mirror, acknowledge your shortcomings and take action.”
The action I can take—aside from volunteering for VIDA’s 2013 Count, which I am doing—is to pay attention to the gender breakdown of publications I work for. This is my second year on the editorial team for the semi-annual literary magazine Meridian, and I blog here for Carve. My personal impression, simply from reading the stories we publish, as well as those we seriously consider, was that Carve is providing a plethora of women writers’ voices, but I wanted to look at the numbers to be certain, and to keep us accountable.
Our Carve Count began with our latest issue (Fall 2013), and I tallied our male and female contributors back through 2007, when our current Editor, Matthew Limpede, took over the reins. In those seven years, Carve published 93 stories, and of those, 36 were by male writers and 57 were by female writers. Women contributed a little over 61% of Carve’s stories from 2007 through the present.
Of course, gender is not the only important variable to keep in mind. Roxane Gay recently performed a count of her own, published at The Nation, in which she noted the representation of white writers versus writers of color from various backgrounds in four of the U.S.’s most prominent book reviewing publications. This is her second year performing such a count.
It is important that we hear from a variety of voices and consider perspectives from a variety of backgrounds and experiences because, as Joan Didion put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” “Words,” Slavoj Žižek writes, “are never ‘only words’; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.” I personally believe intensely in literature power to teach empathy, and as such, make it a point when I teach to expose my students to writing from people of various genders, sexual orientations, races, classes, levels of abledness, and other backgrounds. Often they likely don’t know when they are reading work by a writer of color, or a disabled writer, but I know, and I feel that their access to such voices makes such people, to them, a little more human.
While I don’t know numerically how many writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, and writers from other minority categories we’ve published during that time, I was very proud, when I joined the Carve team, of the numerous complex stories we’ve published that feature LBGT-related material. Our 2012 Esoteric Award sought stories with queer subject matter, and last summer, Resident Blogger Rio Liang posted “A Gay Pride Guide to Carve’s LGBT-Themed Stories.” As for differently abled writers, though this content is not available on our website, the Premium Edition of our Winter 2012 issue included a nonfiction piece by a disabled writer, along with an interview with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities about their annual creative writing competition.
I’m sure we, like nearly every publication, could do better when it comes to providing voices from writers of color, or from disabled writers, or from writers of non-normative gender identities, but we have these issues in mind at Carve. We know the problem is out there, and we try our hardest to ensure such disparities don’t also find a home here.