Yesterday, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released their 2011 Count. The data, a count of how many male and female writers are represented in a number of prominent literary journals, book reviews, and cultural magazines, is startling (if you haven’t been to the website yet, here it is). Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about sexism in the literary world, especially after Meg Clark’s guest post on the Rejectionist’s blog on the subject of Jonathan Franzen’s article in the New Yorker hating on Edith Wharton because she “did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty” (read an abstract of Franzen’s article here, and Clark’s response here).
Not that Franzen deserves a response. I’ve written him off as an ass not worth reading after his take on being an Oprah’s book club pick (“…I had hoped to reach a male audience…”). Whatever, dude. But after the VIDA statistics, I feel a need to speak up to defend myself as a female writer with literary ambition, and to defend all of us who write because we have no other choice. Damn the man, save the Empire, and all that jazz.
Growing up in the nineties, I always assumed sexism was dead. Isn’t that why we had the 70s? Abortion was safe and legal, birth control was available, we had two female justices on the Supreme Court, and if we didn’t have a female president, well, that’s because people born in the 80s weren’t eligible to vote yet.
Spice Girls (“Girl Power!”) ruled the airwaves. Meredith Brooks told us it was ok to be a “bitch.” Nobody could touch Alanis Morissette with a ten-foot pole. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” refused to leave the Billboard charts. Women ruled.
How could I know then that in 2012, women still earn only 70% of what men do even for the same job, that “administrative assistants” are secretaries by another name, and that currently only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women. We are losing female reproductive rights by the day. And (on average) 60–80% of the stories, book reviews, and book reviewers published in our major cultural magazines are written by men.
I don’t think the editors at The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New York Times Book Review are intentionally sexist. I mean, there can only be one Jonathan Franzen. These statistics represent a literary segregation complicated by several factors including but not limited to readership and submission numbers. But why is this the case? Why are female writers simply not being published at a higher rate?
First, let’s look at the implications of these figures. I took the VIDA test and examined my own bookshelves. When you point a finger, three more point back at you, n’est-ce pas? I consider myself a feminist; I participate in the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice; I’m writing my dissertation on female novelists of the Romantic period; and 42% of the novels on my fiction bookshelf are written by women.
One could say that compared to the VIDA Count, my number isn’t bad. But why isn’t it 50-50? Based on my interests, why aren’t my numbers 60-40? 70-30?
The VIDA numbers do not simply represent the interests of a few select people at the top of the masthead. They represent the way in which our culture is shaped. Checking the front of the little mag sitting closest to me, I see that only 2 of the 8 authors mentioned on the cover are women. Before the VIDA Count, I didn’t even notice.
One of the major projects of feminist scholarship in the humanities is the recovery of stories not told. Like it or not, our reading tastes are still being shaped by Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of stories written by women. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a satire of the Gothic novel (a genre enjoyed primarily by women), features a man who must teach his future wife how to read. And lest we forget, George Eliot’s essay in The Westminster Review entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” is a scathing critique of both the women who write “frothy novels” and the men who think that ladies can only write froth. Leaving aside all accusations of elitism, Eliot’s essay reminds us that it is indeed frustrating and tiring to fight the literary battle on both sides: on the one, to defend what women read, and on the other, to defend what we write.
I doubt we would see men accusing the romance novel industry of sexism; but after all, romance literature is “women’s fiction,” and we all know that escapist literature doesn’t matter. Leave the ladies to Harlequin Press; we men have more important things to read.
Perhaps I am being disingenuous. I doubt that male readers formulate this sentiment consciously. But I can’t help but feel that literary scholars 200 years from now will have to perform another recovery project much like the one archivists are doing now for the 18th century. Haven’t we learned anything?
Various commentators posit different reasons for the VIDA Count disparity. One, that women are drawn toward different genres and thus don’t read things like The New Yorker. Another, that female writers don’t submit as frequently to these magazines because they are discouraged by the statistics on the table on contents. Perhaps editors aren’t as interested in stories female writers write. Or perhaps women write less frequently because they are still looking for Virginia Woolf’s “room of their own.”
None of these theories is correct. All of these theories are correct. We must find the cause of this disparity and root it out. We must be the change we desire.
Let’s leave the pearl-clutching and the hand-wringing aside. But let’s also take literary fiction seriously. And let’s continue the conversation the VIDA Count inspires. I’d love to hear what you think.