Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Quest for Balance: Thoughts on VIDA's Count

There's been a lot of buzz in the last fews weeks over a count that VIDA (an organization devoted to female writers) did about the number of women who get published in literary magazines or reviewed by literary magazines in comparison to men. As you might expect, the numbers showed that men, in most cases, are getting published more and reviewed more. You can see the full charts and data here.

This study brings to light many issues, but also many questions. Anytime data is presented it is important to examine exactly what the data is showing and what the data is leaving out. You can see in the comment section on VIDA's website, that many state the need for more information and I do agree. How many women vs. men are submitting to magazines and publishing houses? This doesn't change the idea of representation, but it gets more at the root of the problem. Do women not feel encouraged to submit? Or are they submitting just as much as men, but not getting as many slots? Others brought up MFA programs and were curious how the statistics fall there. Are there more men or women in MFA programs?

From my experience, I have often felt in the minority in English departments. My undergrad in English literature, which I did at Hanover College, was heavily female. I was one of the few males in the department. At FSU, I felt a pretty strong balance between males and females. The year I entered, they took five poets in the MFA program and three were male and two were female. Most of my workshops felt well balanced in terms of gender. From what I've read or heard from others, I do not believe there is a great inequality in English departments or in MFA programs, yet on the publication side there seems to be inequality even with the missing information from the VIDA study.

This leads me to ponder bigger questions about inclusion. I firmly believe in publishing and reading a wide range of voices. This includes gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But how do you fully go about that as an editor of a magazine? Do you really say that half your magazine every issue should be male and female? What then do you do about race or sexual orientation (which is probably not 100% clear from their work or cover letter)? People estimate 10% of the population is gay, so does 10% of your magazine need to be gay? These are complicated questions and are further complicated by the prejudices of people.

In an ideal world, none of this should matter. Everything should be based on quality and the hope would be that it would all balance out in the end. We, of course, know that is not going to happen.

Quality should be at the forefront of an editor's mind, but that is all subjective. Many magazines do blind readings and therefore shouldn't really know if you are male or female. In the comment section on VIDA, some were discussing subject matter and they felt some editors were less accepting of what they deemed "female topics." According to the comments, these included family and the domestic life. These may very well be valid points, but may be hard to prove. I'm sure many of these editors would say they published the best of what they got.

There is no quick or easy solution to these problems. I don't feel that a magazine has to completely divide everything up evenly, but at the same time a magazine shouldn't repeatedly show such an imbalance unless that imbalance is clearly part of their aesthetic and clearly stated. For example, there are many magazines I don't submit to because they aren't interested in the kind of work I write or subject matters I address.

In this discussion, you also have to be careful of demonizing the other side. In the comment section on this study, there were a few people making very generalized statements about men. There is always that danger with any group that feels oppressed. I see it in the gay community and have probably been guilty of it myself. There is unfairness in the world and much of it does stem from the white straight male population, but it is also never fair to generalize that population. We have to all find a way to make the publishing world more diverse and inclusive of all people.

I hope VIDA will continue to do work like this and get the conversation going. These are questions and issues we should all be thinking about and addressing.

-Stephen (10%)


  1. Oh, I talk about this in my interview for you, which I shall send today.

  2. I don't think publishing "quotas" work, or are a solution. Being sensitive to the issue of balance is one thing in theory, another in practice.

    But I also think the many editors who claim to be "issue-blind" and seek only to print the highest quality are liars. Everyone has taste, everyone chooses things based on taste, based on hidden (sometimes unconscious) prejudice. Even choosing the "highest quality" material has elements of subjective response in it; nothing is ever totally objective, and pretending to pure objectivity is a lie.

    I think it far more honest, and perhaps worthwhile, for an editor to present a mission statement, or stance, regarding what they want to publish—a statement of taste, as it were—then to pretend that such things don't matter. Far better to know that a certain editor only likes one kind of material by preference; you might save both your own time and the editor's by not submitting. Far better to know that an editor or publisher is interested in certain other types of things; you might find a better match, that way, than by just shotgunning out blind submissions.

    In other words, better to know where people actually stand.

    Which, frankly, might solve the other issue as well: By knowing where to submit, the statistics are not going to be skewed by automatic rejections.

  3. Those are all great points, Art. I agree about mission statements. Thanks for joining the conversation.