Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Counting Gender

I've spent the last nine months serving as poetry editor for a new lit magazine called Animal. It's a fun magazine with a specific focus and format, which makes my job as editor difficult at times. We only publish one poem, one story, and one essay each month. This means I send a lot of rejections. I've worked on other magazines in the past, but I've never been the only decision maker for a section. In the case of Animal, I read each and every submission myself, and I make the decision of who gets published and who doesn't.

Over the last few years I've been following the actions of VIDA, which is an organization that "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." It was co-founded by a former professor of mine and my thesis advisor in grad school Erin Belieu. Most notably they began doing what they call "The Count." If you haven't been paying attention, let me explain. They calculate how many women vs. men get published in various well-respected journals and magazines. They also count the number of reviews of books written by females and compare it to the reviews of books written by men. Their findings have been unsettling. Most of these journals and magazines heavily favor men.

The Count has been the subject of numerous articles with various points of view. Some have gone on the defensive simply saying magazines publish "the best of what they get" and others have proposed that perhaps less women submit work. These "ideas" are often just as troublesome as the results of The Count. Also note that some of these editorial decisions are being made by women as well as men (it's not simply men keeping women down).

I don't mean to rehash all that has been written on this subject, but I will say that The Count has been on my mind for various reasons. Some argue that journals and magazines should care about showcasing a balance between female and male writers and that magazines are simply publishing what they "like" not "the best." This is fairly easy to do when it comes to reviewing books. Review more books by women, but when it comes to editing a journal it gets a little more complex.

Using my experience as an example, I realize that I often don't know the gender of the author submitting the work. Sometimes they include a bio that is gendered. Sometimes their name is clearly a gender specific name. But many times the author really could be either male or female (a lot of people use only initials). If you are purposely trying to keep your journal balanced (and by balanced I'm not implying an exact 50/50 split each issue) should you require that authors specify their genders? This could be asked about race and sexual orientation as well.

These are the kinds of thoughts that have been on my mind recently, which then led me in a different direction. While I admire the work done by VIDA and the conversations it has started, I also wonder the effect something like this has on the trans and genderqueer community. This community is currently fighting for a place at the table in the publishing world. How do you count a trans writer or someone who doesn't conform to gender standards and doesn't see themselves as male or female? While some might say, this is changing the conversation, I would say it is part of the conversation we should be having. An over focus on gender sometimes leaves a large gap where various groups of people get lost and once again excluded. Even the gay and lesbian community can often feel excluded from these conversations, because they often seem based in a very heterosexual battle.

What The Count shows is that there needs to be more diversity out there and that these well-established and respected journals need to make an effort to seek out work by not only more women, but writers of color and the LGBT community as well as those who don't identify under one of these labels. But doing this is going to take a lot of effort and might require that some publications diversify the kind of work they publish.

If one looks at the list of magazines and journals VIDA examines, you will find that many of the publications can be rather narrow in the work they publish. I've been published in many places, I have a book, I recently won a big award, but not a single one of these journals has ever accepted my work (yes, I've submitted to many of them). Perhaps part of this conversation should also be about why we continue to hold some publications in such high esteem if they aren't really showcasing the writing community. Perhaps we've let them get away with this.

Thankfully, there are a lot of amazing journals and magazines out there that aren't included in The Count. It seems part of the response to these issues is to support these other publications and help them rise to the "level" of the often over-hyped publications. I love reading The New Yorker for it's articles and commentary, but most of the poetry is boring and not a great example of what is happening in the poetry world. The same can be said for many other publications on the list.

My thoughts on these issues are always changing and evolving and I'm thankful to VIDA for making people come face to face with these numbers. We need more conversations about all of these issues.

-Stephen (Counted)


  1. This is an excellent post, and I've had the exact same considerations. In editing ADRIENNE, I really want to make sure I have a fair representation of People of Color, not just white women writers, but that is much more difficult to intuit from bios and samples, yet asking for race seems strange as well.

    Also, poetry magazine is often championed as one journal who gets their gender equity right, but the editor of that journal told me to my face that my poems would be more interesting if they were about men instead of women, and that seems like a much more dangerous attitude to have about poetry.

  2. Ya know, I hadn't even thought about the transgender community with this, but very true. Unless someone specifically spoke of being queer in their piece (and is the speaker necessarily the author) I wouldn't even know in many cases. Hmmm. Got me thinking.