Commentary by Rebecca Woolston
As a writer of fiction, and a female writer, I have been told time and again that women don’t get published. I can’t tell you where or who exactly planted this seed, but it seems to me that being told you won’t be published is an experience of any writing workshop; being told you won’t be published especially because you are a woman seems to also be an experience female writers share. So I began this project looking for numbers that could tell me the ratio of women to men publications. Just as I was starting the research, the 2013 VIDA Count was being released. All data compiled in this post for magazine/journal’s women to men publication ratios are from the VIDA Count. Let me explain why: VIDA takes their count from major publications, ones that are in the market capital of publication; places that mark one’s success in the industry. These are the places we come to understand as places we need to get into, if we want to be a “successful” writer. So if we are told that women don’t get published, where is it that I, as a young, female writer, can look to get my work out to the public, to share my stories with people I think might want to listen?
Before I get into the numbers, I’d like to share a bit of encouraging news. I found plenty of articles discussing white men as being the only ones published in high numbers, but as I was reading I thought, “There has to be more hope than this.” PolicyMic’s article, “8 Historic Moments For Women in Literature From the Past Year,” pointed out that 4 out of 5 authors on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2013 were women—one of them being Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That’s encouraging. I decided I’d start by looking up the VIDA Count for the New York Times Book Review. From 2012 to 2013, female authors reviewed rose to 243. That’s huge. In 2011, when VIDA first started counting the authors reviewed by the NYTBR, only 273 women were reviewed, compared to 520 men in that same year [chart 1]. In the last two years alone, there has been a dramatic shift in women getting published, according to the VIDA Counts.
I looked at a few other counts in order to get a wider range of numbers. In addition to the NYTBR, I looked at the count for Poetry, The Paris Review (both fiction and poetry), Harper’s Magazine, and Tin House. I wanted to look at the numbers according to gender that are being published, compared to the total numbers of reviews in the NYTBR. What if women were, in fact, getting published in larger numbers, but the NYTBR just wasn’t reviewing them? In 2010, Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner accused the New York Times of being a “boy’s club.” The assault began with the review of Jonathon Franzen’s new book Freedom. After doing further research, it seems Piccoult and Weiner were upset that the Times wasn’t giving enough attention to writers whose writing is literary and commercial. That’s a whole other discussion, but I was curious, is it true that the New York Times is a “boy’s club?” Most likely. Brown University did a study that found 72% of all books reviewed by the Times were written by men (Slate.com). VIDA’s numbers seem like things are looking up over at the Times.
In 2013, the NYTBR hired a new editor, Pamela Paul. Paul replaced Sam Tanenhaus, who served as editor from 2004-2013. Though this might look hopeful, having a female editor doesn’t necessarily translate to more women being published. In an interview with Paul, “Pamela Paul Talks Future of New York Times Book Review,” she never mentioned having more books by women reviewed or even acknowledged the disparity in the first place. She also didn’t hint towards it during the few times she brought up the publishing industry as being “in a flux.” This is not meant as an attack on Paul, but rather an unfortunate example that female editors don’t always equal female publications.
VIDA’s count for Poetry Magazine doesn’t look as drastic. In 2011, the publication had 134 women and 179 men as their overall published authors. In 2012, the count was 166 women to 207 men. 2013 shows 172 women and 180 men. So the numbers are going up, but what about the number of submissions? Overall, 2013 only published 352 authors total, compared to 373 published in 2012 (a far cry from 313 published in 2011). We see a general increase in publications since 2011 and women have been steadily climbing in Poetry, almost matching male publication by 2013 [chart 2]. Poetry Magazine is currently edited by Don Share, who replaced Christian Wiman in 2013. With Share as editor, women have had a steady increase in publications at the magazine.
As noticeable in chart 3, The Paris Review’s fiction numbers from the VIDA count are as follows: 2011 published 4 women and 9 men, 2012 published 5 women and 10 men, and 2013 published 14 women and 11 men. Currently, women publications are the majority at The Paris Review. TPR poetry count shows 13 women, 29 men, and 2 anonymous in 2011; 11 women to 48 men in 2012; and 29 women to 28 men in 2013 [chart 4]. The current editor-in-chief is Lorin Stein, who took over in 2010, replacing Philip Gourevitch. Lorin has demonstrated that women in both poetry and fiction in The Paris Review have nearly matched men in 2013.
In Harper’s Magazine [chart 5], the 2011 overall publication count is 42 female to 141 male. In 2012, it was 31 women to 158 men, and 2013’s overall count is 54 women to 155 men. I don’t expect to be in Harper’s. The overall publication in Tin House [chart 6], however, looks promising for women. There isn’t a 2011 count, but the 2012 numbers show 70 women to 67 men, with 2013 showing 79 women to 62 men. It looks like Tin House and Paris Review (fiction) are great places to be.
My goal here is to try to give myself a little more hope as a female writer and to try and find places where women are published so that I know where I might be more successful in that endeavor of my writing career. While I can’t argue against the numbers that women are still largely published less than men are, I’d like to expose what VIDA isn’t teaching us. All of their data is complied into pie charts, and pie charts always represent a whole. What’s lacking is that these types of charts are harder to read as a year-to-year comparison and should be shown with percentages, not numbers. In a bar graph, years are next to each other and white space is prevalent, even blinding at times, and a line chart shows the rise or decline of numbers from year to year. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and respect what VIDA is exposing. They are gaining an awareness, which is exactly what VIDA aims to do. What is not being communicated is how to overcome these depressing numbers.
My recent attendance at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs 2014 conference surprisingly offered a potential answer. I was at a panel with author Roxane Gay and she said she is tired of counting; that we need to help each other out and stop spending so much time tallying. She offered an analogy: one person is on a ladder (the publishing ladder) and needs to pull others up onto it; that we need to support and encourage and push each other into the spotlight. So why do we let publishing companies and statistics like the VIDA Count teach us that writing and publishing is a competition between gender and race and friends? It’s a concern for me since I plan to teach in a university setting. To do that with an MFA, I have to be published, which means I have to be recognized in the market in some way or another. To gain tenure as a professor, I have to be published with a PhD. Writing and publishing should be a community, and thankfully it seems like the community is building and becoming more supportive. For women writers, our answer might be to make the choice of turning away from capital and simply help publish each other. The emergence of more women-centered magazines is encouraging and I worry less about seeing my name some day in The New York Times or Harper’s.
“In Which The Critical Flame Dedicates One Year to Women Writers and Writers of Color” by Daniel E. Pritchard
“It’s Time for a More Inclusive Book Review” by Ron Hogan
“We Are Many. We Are Everywhere.” by Roxane Gay
“This Is Not About Your Understanding” by Alyss Dixson