Some things never change. In very recent history, male writers were published in major literary journals with greater frequency than women writers.
Last year, the PDXX Collective brought you a response to an official count of this phenomenon as tabulated and published by VIDA, a national grassroots organization that investigates gender inequality in publishing. With this year’s VIDA Count just over a month out from publication, I sat down to interview the VIDA Count’s Director, Jen Fitzgerald, for a glimpse behind the scenes.
This year’s VIDA Count was conducted in the same way as last year’s, with VIDA volunteers compiling two different sets of charts: the annual pie charts and then new bar graphs that placed the past three year’s numbers side-by-side for comparison. Fitzgerald briskly approaches the task—which some might call unpleasant—of looking at the numbers that VIDA Count volunteers collected to review, review, and review that data.
I asked Fitzgerald what she wanted to focus on when she approached the VIDA Count.
“I was handed a pretty fleshed-out methodology. Board directors wanted to see journals broken down according to reviews and bylines. They wanted to understand who was reviewing, who was being reviewed, and who was writing creative pieces in these periodicals. . . We offered up a genre of micro-reviews. (These are all subcategories of reviews that are more like blurbs.) We isolated those because we believed that women would appear more in those versus the full-length reviews. We were wrong in that; men appeared more everywhere. . . When I was handed the task of running the [VIDA] Count, I went into each journal and I pulled out as much as I could and I began to understand the way that it functioned. We had to completely understand the way that the periodical breaks down its bylines.”
“It’s pretty complicated, actually, now that I think about it,” Fitzgerald added with a laugh.
In the end, though, VIDA presents a clear and comprehensive display that is immediately understandable to the reader. Fitzgerald said that the point of the VIDA Count was to achieve widespread accessibility.
“We like to call what we’ve started a conversation,” Fitzgerald said. “We like to think that the data lends itself to discourse, at least at its inception. Before you can fight a thing, you need to understand what it is. We have invited these literary journals, the writing community, and the reading community, to all come into this conversation to try to figure out what kind of inherent biases effect these numbers as well as whether we want to change it. Are we going to accept that men say things with more authority than women do? Where does that start? Does that start in adolescence? Does that start in kindergarten with the books that we’re given? That’s why this children’s lit count is so important: These books are framing our children’s reading for the rest of their lives.”
I asked whether the stakes for women writers were rising every year. Fitzgerald believed that they are.
“Some of the numbers have changed and improved if you look at the Boston Review or Tin House,” she said. “But there are still those perennial offenders. . .that just kept this disparity of 70 to 80 percent men [writers] across the board and it hasn’t changed.”
Fitzgerald said that her organization’s social media presence boosted at the time of last year’s results. Viewers of the VIDA Count even responded to last year’s results by posting pictures of themselves canceling their subscriptions—with a statement of “No, because of VIDA Count”—to the journals that were most guilty of gender disparity. Other readers posted the responses they’d received from the editors of the journals they’d written into.
“We have not encouraged any action at this point,” Fitzgerald said. “People are taking it upon themselves.”
This year’s call to action will be considered after Fitzgerald has completed what she calls her “infamous pie charts.”
I asked Fitzgerald, who is also a recent graduate of Lesley University’s MFA program in poetry, what she hopes for while she is gathering data for the VIDA Count.
“My hope is to find that one of them, somehow, will have managed to publish more women than men this year. That’s my hope. It hasn’t happened so far, but that would be my big dream. The best we can hope for is something closer to parity. VIDA does not seek a 50-50 gender split in any way. What we seek is for these journals to be upfront and honest about how they pick their reviewers, the books they’re reviewing, how they pick the writers who are on staff and to maybe look internally a little to see if there are any inherent biases that maybe they could bring to light, that maybe they would like to talk to us about. That would be huge. If one of them could reach out to us and say, ‘You know, we took a long, hard look at how our magazine was broken down [on the VIDA Count] for the past four years and we’d like to talk to you about why we think it is.'”
While we will have to wait until late February to see how literary journals represented men and women writers in 2014, Fitzgerald closed with a few words of encouragement for women writers who might be published with little to no obscurity.
“My advice [to women writers] is to make people care,” Fitzgerald said. “Keep submitting to the journals. Move in packs. When men are successful, they bring their buddies with them. . .Women, instead of accepting that they’re a token—that one woman who gets through—need to bring their friends with them. Talk up the people who you know are talented.”
Check back in with VIDA at the end of February and see their results. We’ll also have a recap here on the PDXX Collective once the results are posted. Stay tuned, and keep submitting your work.