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?