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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

‘Numbers don’t lie’: Addressing the gender gap in literary publishing

When VIDA — an organization promoting women in the arts — released its statistics about how many women versus men are published in a variety of magazines and book review sections, the results were not exactly news. Every so often someone will count up bylines and find that at many major publications — from the mighty New Yorker to the arty Tin House — men heavily outweigh the women.

VIDA's website

And it’s not the simple arithmetic that stops the heart. If you start tallying up the substance of women’s published work — whether women are writing 10,000-word feature articles, or whether they are responsible for the shorter filler pieces — it gets even more depressing. Or look at the topics that women are writing about. Frequently you’ll find that the only articles with female bylines are about marriages and sex and divorce and child care.

VIDA states, “The truth is, these numbers don’t lie. But that is just the beginning of this story.”

As a reader, as a writer, as an editor and as a woman, these numbers mean something to me. I just haven’t figured out what yet. So I decided to talk to the editors of some of these publications, to critics and to publishers, to find out the story behind the numbers.

The literary world is an interdependent ecosystem, made up of literary magazines, publishers, critics, websites, awards, agents, MFA programs and writers’ retreats. Each one helps to nourish the others. The magazine culture is where a lot of this starts — they can find new talent and nurture it, helping the writer to slowly build their audience and material. Smaller journals like Little Star and Noon tend to be personally curated by their editors, and so their lists trend toward the obscure. Places like The New Yorker, of course, can make a writer’s career, not simply with the exposure, but also — let’s be honest — their money can be a wonderful encouragement.

Agents and publishers go through literary magazines to find new talent — both fiction and nonfiction — and so they are perhaps the first step to building a career for a new writer. What they choose to publish will affect the system as a whole.

I wrote to Christian Wiman, the editor-in-chief of Poetry, to ask him if he had read the VIDA statistics, and if he found them troubling. “When the VIDA stats were announced, we were certainly aware of them, though I wasn’t surprised.  As I say, I do think there is a gender imbalance at major magazines, and I agree with those who think that this is a problem.”

Poetry almost reaches equity in the VIDA pie charts, and in the category “Authors Reviewed,” women outnumber men (by two). Wiman has worked hard in his eight years as editor to keep those numbers up. “I tried to raise [this issue] several years ago when I took over Poetry. I commissioned an article from Averill Curdy that wondered why there were so few women critics in the poetry world, and then we ran several responses from well-known poet-critics of an earlier generation such as Eavan Boland, Mary Kinzie, Sandra Gilbert and others. It’s taken a while, but a shift has slowly occurred: as the VIDA stats themselves reveal, half of our reviewers are now women.”

But the greatest disparity remains in women’s poetry published in the magazine. Wiman quibbles with how the numbers are tallied but admits there’s a problem. But he points out — and this is going to be a familiar refrain as I talk to more editors and publishers — that the number of submissions by men heavily outweigh the submissions by women. Men send their material to magazines more frequently than women. Wiman reports, “The last time I did a formal count, the numbers were something like 65 percent to 35 percent. I don’t know why this is.”

STOP SMILING's website

I wondered if the gender breakdown of the editorial staff had any effect on the numbers. The top three editing positions are held by men, while women occupy lower positions like editorial assistant and reader. But as I talked to J. C. Gabel, editor and publisher of the now shuttered STOP SMILING magazine, he reported that he thought his magazine was “too male oriented,” and yet the staff was evenly split. “STOP SMILING was largely edited, laid out, designed and art directed by women. It was 50/50 overall, but there were a lot more male section editors.”

I approached Gabel to discuss these figure because he is launching a new biannual magazine venture — the revamp of the old Jazz-Age magazine The Chicagoan — debuting this spring. (Full disclosure: I’ve signed up with the magazine as a contributor and its fiction editor — which makes me responsible for any future gender imbalance in my section.) I wanted to know if these issues are addressed in the planning stages of a new publication.

But first I wanted to know what he considered to be “too male oriented.” He wrote back, “Too many over-indulgent sports stories. Too many scantily clad young nubile things profiled, usually promoting an unwatchable film. Too many stories about grumpy, hard-boiled writer types, many of whom happen to be old white men. Not enough of a female voice throughout the pacing of a magazine: how the stories flow, front to back.”

That orientation eventually affected his audience. “Things started to skew from 60 male/40 female to 70/30 toward the end-run of STOP SMILING. For The Chicagoan, we’re hoping to target woman more at the outset; they buy and read the majority of magazines in this country with a few exceptions.”

As for the debut lineup? It skews a little male. But that’s something that needs to be addressed on an issue-by-issue basis. When people start to talk about quotas, the conversation gets condescending fast, the implication being that women’s writing is somehow inferior, or women editors are somehow inferior, and they would never make it on their own merits. “I deplore the word ‘quota’ in all contexts,” Gabel tells me, and I agree with him. Awareness of the issue has helped to build up Poetry’s female contributor list, and Gabel is going into his work on The Chicagoan knowing what can happen if a magazine slants too far in the direction of one gender.

Gabel wants more women writing for the magazine, which is the same thing that Wiman said. But with submissions dominated by men, this opens the door to questions about the responsibility of women writers, and just how much work an editor is expected to do to find female contributors. Wiman wrote, “There are as many, if not more, good women writers as there are men. But you have to work harder to get the women. Again, I’m not sure why this is. The VIDA results are a good place to initiate that conversation, though.”

These conversations raised some issues that I’ll be addressing in next week’s installment, when I talk to publishers about the books they’re releasing.

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.