Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Living La VIDA Loca (Sorry)

Yesterday VIDA, an organization devoting to promoting women in the literary arts, released its annual slideshow of pie charts representing the proportion of female to male publication in literary journals and book reviews, including The Atlantic, Granta, Harper's, the LRB, the NYRB, the New Yorker, the Paris Review and the Nation. It was not remotely news to anyone that far more men than women write for these publications. Reactions were varied, and ranged from knee-jerk to profound. Some men piously proclaimed that their publications needed to do better; some women found the idea that women need affirmative action to succeed "offensive." Some people interpreted this data to mean that "America's Top Magazines" are "Still Not Hiring Women". But here's the thing: these magazines are only "America's Top" in the sense that they are the most culturally elevated; they are certainly not the "top" in terms of circulation or in the rates they pay their writers. Could it be that part of the imbalance is caused by the fact that women are choosing not to write for these magazines? Due to … the fact that they have free will, and are not just passive victims of an unjust system? It's not difficult to imagine why some women (and men) might not want to write for these magazines: They do not, on the whole, pay well or assign articles with reliable frequency to, pretty much, anyone. If your options include: waiting a year or more for the legendary septuagenarian editor of a historically important book review to tweak your prose so that you can someday receive a check for 50 cents a word, or spending an evening hanging out with a movie star, writing about it for a sorta-vapid glossy, then cashing a check that pays your rent for four months, who is to say which is the wiser choice? That's my issue with this tally, anyway: it doesn't allow for the idea that women have agency, and they might be choosing to avoid having bad (albeit prestigious) jobs.

I'm not denying that both high and low culture need women's voices, but maybe it's worth considering that we might want to leave these print dinosaurs to the rapidly-aging crew of men who've dominated them since they founded them, and decamp for spaces where there is no shortage of women's voices. Or, hey, we could stop waiting for their magazines to accept us and start our own! We can work to unlearn the values that make us feel we need that mainstream high-cultural stamp of approval. We can work for places that want to hire us or pay us and not be snobs about it. Instead of pleading for admission to an often lame-seeming club that doesn't want us to be members, we can ignore the club's existence and watch it fade into obsolescence. I don't want to play a sad game that only a bunch of sagging middle-aged white men play!! (Squash?) IF BOB SILVERS DOESN'T WANT ME, THAT'S HIS LOSS AND I'M STARTING MY OWN REVIEW AND IT'S CALLED THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF EMILY BOOKS!!</counterintuitive take>

Okay, but for real, obviously some things about some of these magazines are great and they should certainly work harder at, um, not ignoring the voices of half of humanity. But getting a bunch of male editors to phone in sound bites about how chastened a pie chart makes them feel doesn't seem like the first step towards accomplishing that goal, to me. I dunno, WHAT DO YOU THINK?


26 Comments / Post A Comment

Matt (#26)

Literally the only story worth reading in the last Granta was the Alice Munro.

Matt (#26)

And she's Canadian.

Matt (#26)

And Granta is British.

Matt (#26)

And the Paris Review is … Parisian?

Matt (#26)

Don't mind me, just trying to tease an email out of Choire.

Emily (#20)

@Matt haha um the LRB is also not … American. DOY. Don't mind me, I'm basically just typing!

logan (#2,811)

thank you for writing this emily! i feel empowered by your response to this news, which, as you said, is not news. i, also, would much rather write for (and, ahem, read) the new york review of emily books.

NinetyNine (#98)

5 out of 6 comments so far are from white men. REPRODUCING THE HEGEMONY.

Matt (#26)

Take that back; I'm hardly a man.

atipofthehat (#797)

I wonder what the slush pile pie charts would look like?

Many of us are no longer interested in writing for these publication. (I've been published in some of them, and wasted time trying to appear in some of the others.)

atipofthehat (#797)


Maybe it was the spellin

Matt (#26)

Forget it, hat, it's a comment thread.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

"Now lissen hear, Porkpi"

Mr. B (#10,093)

I put myself through frequent guilt trips over the low percentage of books by women on my shelves. I hope that helps!

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Mr. B Me too :( But I have been listening to more music with lead female vocals. I know, it's not the same thing.

now known (#221,764)

And its youngish writers in general that deal with issue I imagine. On one hand you grow up dreaming of seeing yourself in the pages of x mag and x mag is a shadow of its former self ran by self-protecting (and sometimes corrupt) upper middle class white men determined to hold onto their offices until they're wheeled out in a stretcher–and only deputize the most intellectually incurious possible replacements. On the other hand, if one of these old codgers actually accepts your stuff: hey-o!

Ben@twitter (#170,994)

What do you expect the male editors to do apart from emit chastened sound bites?

They're not going to admit that they tend to prefer writing by other men.

They're not going to admit that they're subconsciously biased towards submissions with a man's name on the top.

They're not going to hypothesise that men put more effort into getting published in 'prestigious' journals because ultimately male sexual success is based more on perceived status (albeit by a variety of community-specific metrics).

Imagine the shit-storm if they said any of the above things, although I'm sure they're all true to some extent.

jfruh (#713)

Whoa whoa whoa tell me more about this "paying your rent for four months by writing for vapid glossies" business. I'm good with words and lack dignity! But wait, can only LADIES do this?

melis (#1,854)

@jfruh I'm even impressed by fifty cents a word. I would not scoff at fifty cents a word!

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@melis Factor in the research, it's about $2.50 an hour.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The pie charts are a good start. What about the presses. Then, map gender of reviewer to gender of author reviewed. Then, assign proportions to the stories — cover stories, columns (hi Mary Beard!), brief notes all have the same weight here. Then… survey the women reviewers and find out whether they pitched their pieces or were on assignment.

(In my mind this is the Slate editorial meeting on VIDA.)

Annie K. (#3,563)

I don't know, Emily, I don't think anything will help. Maybe if we just write like natural-born killers.

alorsenfants (#139)

Maybe our women writers have prioritized differently? Writing good (better!) books?

Was this where the dialogue about whether Jonathan Franzen was the best living American writer or not… saw that go by somewhere this week? And I declined to say anything then — but oops, maybe I have now!

Anyway, so few good magazines anyway (though I did find it took three hours to get through the latest Lucky Peach yesterday – fabulous) — we'd rather read The Awl.

Especially when Emily's around!

Best from C'ville,

davidwatts (#72)

what are these glossies that will pay my rent for four months, and what is the email address of their editors?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Dude, they already have enough dudes.

bmeyer77 (#219,924)

this article empowered me.

and i'm not a woman.

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