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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.


  • guest

    Is there a gender gap even now?
    We see more and more women entering education, entertainment, and entrepreneurial areas. Many educated women have already entered Executive, Legal, and Administrative Fields. Some are active in Politics and holding challenging positions like Governor, Supreme Court Judge, Secretary of State, Attorney General, etc… Some women have taken up high stress jobs such as Critical Care Nurses, Police Officers, Firefighers.
    Education makes all the differences.

  • Paul Montgomery

    Men make up the vast majority of poets, painters, and singers because these are seduction activities. Men compete and women choose. Also, these occupations are riven with uncertainty, of income and accomplishment. Men are more comfortable with risk-taking. It all boils down to gender differences, whatever the cause.

  • anon

    just a note – the link to the The Chicagoan goes to the website of an apartment building.

  • Sarah Norman

    Very interesting! Thanks for the in-depth thoughts. Those pie charts were horrifying. I had to put them on my blog, my twitter, my facebook, my everything. Perhaps I am naive, but I found them really surprising.

  • Stevjohnson30

    “Men send their material to magazines more frequently than women.”

    Leave at that and get over your tired, decades-long fantasy that life is unfair to you. YAWN.

    “Poetry almost reaches equity in the Vida pie charts, and in the category “Authors Reviewed,” women outnumber men (by two).”

    OH MY GOD!! That’s so unfair to men. Where is your article about that grave injustice?

  • Emily

    I’ve been eagerly following the response to the Vida statistics, which depressed but did not entirely surprise me. Nor am I entirely surprised to hear Wiman’s comment that submissions from men tend to outnumber submissions from women–as I do think it’s probably true that women are less likely to submit work out of a fear of failure, which just underlines what a thorny and difficult problem the statistics present.

    I really appreciate the thoughtful response to the statistics here and on Bookslut. The Vida statistics have provoked a lot of questions, for me, and I hope that people continue to talk about them. For one thing, I’ve been curious about whether and to what degree age plays a role in this. Is the gender (im)balance for younger writers/reviewers the same as it is for older writers/reviewers? If not, is there a possibility that the situation could change in the future?

  • Emily

    Whose decades-long fantasy? Studies have long shown that women read more fiction and buy books more often than men. There tend, these days, to be substantially more women than men entering English and creative writing programs. So when a study shows that just about every literary magazine in the U.S. publishes far more creative work and book reviews by men than by women, shouldn’t we at least ask questions as to why that might be the case?

  • Guest

    So what if women want to write about mostly marriage-sex-divorce? There’s something for everyone. We need different subjects and one is not more important than the other.

  • guest

    Ok, you question that and I’ll delve into how unfair it is that;

    “There tend, these days, to be substantially more women than men entering English and creative writing programs.”

    Deal? Then you we both get to drug ourselves with pseudo-indignation/victimhood.

  • Brian Meeks

    I found the article really interesting. Here are my unscientific and a anecdotal thoughts.

    Perhaps it is the process which differs between men and women?

    Again, I don’t have data, but I have a female friend, who writes. We have known one another for about a year and were both starting books. She carefully crafts each sentence, laboring over every word choice. When she is done, her chapters are wonderful. She has added maybe 20K words over the last year.

    I write every day, 365 days/year. I have completed the detective story I was working on when we met, started and completed (70K words), the follow up, and tomorrow will start the 3rd. I have also written another 200K words worth of blog posts. I even have a publisher for the first.

    We both put up our writing on our blogs. Me daily, her once per week. If I were to objectively analyze our writing, I would conclude hers is of a higher quality. A much higher quality. In fact, I would need to stand on a ladder to reach her. (She is cute, so it might be worth the risk. I digress)

    Which makes me wonder aloud (or in type as the case may be), Perhaps the quality of the work, on the whole, of the women is better?

    Isn’t one Harper Lee worth 100 novels by lesser men?

    In reading your article, it doesn’t appear that there are great barriers to entry, for the women writers. Those you spoke with, seem to have a desire for more women. If there were road blocks, then they should be addressed. If it is simply a matter of quality vs. quantity, then I am not sure if it makes sense to ask my friend to be average, but produce more, just to balance the scale. I am more than happy writing average stuff and she could only be happy, being brilliant.

    So those are my thoughts, adeled as they might be, but I hope it adds to the discusison.


    Brian Meeks

  • Emily

    I don’t think anyone’s claiming victimhood, necessarily, here, though. People are looking into an imbalance and trying to find out reasons why this is the case. Maybe you’re just trolling here, but why is it so threatening that people are even looking at these statistics and trying to find out the reasons for them? The fact that fewer boys than girls enter college English and writing programs is itself interesting and worthy of discussion, and I certainly wouldn’t preclude anyone from doing so. There are, in fact, currently lots of educators troubled by the fact that many boys seem less interested in reading than girls are, and trying to find ways to address that problem.

  • John Nelson Leith

    Anytime you find disparities in representation without demonstrating a mechanism of unjust exclusion or discrimination, attempting to address it as a problem in need of solution amounts a quota, whether we want to call it that or not.

    Moreover, the assumption that there’s something in need of fixing any time general demographic ratios fail to materialize in specific situations is itself an irrational, politically motivated prejudice. Imagine someone wringing their hands over the fact that representation in motherhood is 100 percent skewed to one gender over the other. Sexual differentiation goes beyond sex itself: men and women have social and cognitive differences as biologically real as the fact that women have wombs and men don’t.

    Over 90 percent of workplace fatalities are men and, despite the fact that losing one’s life is far more significant than failing to get a short story published, I would be the first to say that most of that 9-to-1 disparity is probably explained by the different decisions men and women make based on the gendered chemistry of their brains rather than by cultural biases that merit corrective action.

    Seeking a 50/50 split in every role simply guarantees a quota-driven dilution of quality, sometimes promoting undeserving men, sometimes undeserving women. How about we focus on promoting good writing, and leave the investigation of gender distinctions to peer-reviewed science?

  • Drew Patrick Smith

    I feel like what the VIDA numbers and Crispin is trying to get at is the whole glass ceiling problem that essentially amounts to men always getting more than women in any business. Getting published is simply the writing glass ceiling – as well as that pesky more male editors at the top, more female editors as assistants.

    If you look at the numbers in the majority of job categories, men make more money in the same positions, men tend to get promoted faster, and men are less likely to be terminated during layoffs. Study after study has shown this. One study can be wrong – multiple studies over a long period of time cannot.

    I think it’s been the hope of artists for a long time that creative fields buck these trends – that innate talent is what causes sucess, but that’s not the case. There’s still a system in place, and our culture still skews towards the male end of the spectrum.

    And this is coming from a male.

    More thoughts on the blog:

  • Grace

    I know. That part bothered me, too. She implies it’s “depressing” that women write about marriage-sex-divorce, and would be less depressing if they wrote about something else. This seems to be a pot-shot at women who write these topics and not at publishers. I don’t know where she gets her very subjective “statistic” either: “*Frequently* you’ll find the *only* articles written by women are about…”

  • Grace

    And is she talking about women’s magazines or literary magazines? Last I read, most women’s work in literary magazines (the subject of VIDA’s Count) is not about marriage-sex-divorce-childcare.

  • guest

    Victimhood is blatantly connotated throughout the article.

    “why is it so threatening..”

    Have your logic second-guessed by a male and run straight to the
    ‘threatened’ card instead of working through the details of the argument. I’m not threatened, just tired of this constant attack under the guise of feminist heroism.

    “I certainly wouldn’t preclude…”

    Oh, you wouldn’t? Well in that case we can move forward. We were all worried you were going to preclude us from doing that. The phony war continues, even in a field that women dominate from kindergarten on. There’s just one aspect of it (literary fiction) where men hold an edge and immediately the alarms go off over how women are being oppressed. The proof; they dominate every other aspect of it, so there must be oppression or else they would dominate all of it. Your proof contradicts your whole phony gripe.

  • guest

    Just another Glenn Beck alias, making as much sense.

  • Carol

    If you’re so busy looking at what’s fair, you might be neglecting what’s fine.

  • Cedar

    Talent isn’t always so neatly divided. Some very good fiction is being written by collaborators, one female, one male: the Rutledge novels by the team known as Charles Todd, for example, or the recent “Deep Creek” by the pair of Princeton writers who work under the joint pen name of Dana Hand, which the Washington Post named as a Best Novel of 2010.

  • Jim

    fix your own issues steve and stop projecting.

  • Bonita87

    Is it that women want to confine themselves to these topics or that editors think it’s what the public wants to hear women write about? The New Yorker just published an essay by Tina Fey about her conflicted feelings over whether she should have another child. I felt I’d read often essays on that particular topic both in their pages and in the Atlantic’s pages. Perhaps editors assume we want more Mommy War type essays. Surely there are other topics that Tina Fey could also address.

  • Diane

    Look at Nora Roberts. She publishes a number of books, researches for her books, hires a nanny for her kids so she can write, writes daily….. . You can generalize, but why? Oh yes. And who is the wealthiest author of them all? Who wrote the Harry Potter books? She researched for her books, and not mild research, either.

  • Diane

    Women do not write mostly about the above topics. One thing is clear. Perception is often skewed.