I briefly tweeted back and forth with Jodi Picoult around the time she beefed with the New York Times Book Review regarding the lack of review coverage for Chick Lit and Women's Fiction. I knew Ms. Picoult from my former life as a bookstore events director and remembered her when she was a mid-list working mom author with a much smaller following than she enjoys now. And I was like, "Hey Jodi! Your books sell great! What do you need a New York Times Book Review for? Poets like me don't get your kind of distribution, publisher-committed dollars, or review attention in many of America's daily newspapers. Or get sales like yours. Maybe we could slip poetry chapbooks inside every book of Chick Lit!" You know, that kind of thing. I mean, I get it. I was being kind of a dick, but still. It would be nice for all professional writers who take what they're doing seriously and spend tons of time alone indoors typing with no one else around to at least be noticed by the Alleged Book Review of Record. It would be nice for all writers to be recognized in this way. Although I used to be a publicist, too. And ahem "mixed" reviews in the New York Times Book Review aren't much fun either. Ahem.
Ms. Picoult took me in stride. But she may have been on to something. Yesterday VIDA's counting project results were released, and they paint a rather dispiriting pie chart of women's representation in the Major American Literary Magazine set. Women in these magazines, almost across the board, are grossly underrepresented. I've had my doubts about this type of counting project in the past, and I've wondered before if men are just overwhelmingly submitting more work to literary magazines and therefore being accepted more. As a small-time literary publisher, I get 10 times more work from men than I do from women, possibly because men are less hesitant to submit work en masse. They're perhaps less afraid of being rejected, more willing to put themselves out there, or more certain that their work will be greetly fairly and accepted. But with the release of these numbers, I feel like the pressure to defend counting pales in comparison to the pressure that ought to be put on these publications going forward.
If they aren't receiving enough poems, stories, and articles from women, how can they change their policies to get more? Are women being rejected disproportionately? How can that be addressed? At least in poetry, the quality of poems I receive from women and men is generally very similar. Almost identical. Do women have to go back to the bad old days of renaming themselves "George Sand" to get a fair shake in Literary Magazine publishing?
I'm a fan of baseball statistics. And of the old Bill Parcells post-game aphorism that "You are what your record says you are." These numbers are deeply depressing, along any rubric. The annual AWP conference is in D.C. this weekend, and I hope people will ask editors from Tin House, Poetry, and Paris Review what their plan will be to rectify these numbers. Get whatever they're promising in writing. In blood. With naked, embarrassing photographs. I don't know what their reaction will be, or what kind of promises they can make that would assure me. There seem to be systemic problems in the ways literary magazines accept and publish work, just as there seem to be giant problems with the ways the editors at the New York Times Book Review choose who they review. 438 men reviews to 295 women reviews in the 2010 New York Times Book Review. I don't know what the breakdown of book publishing in America was last year, but I'm pretty sure there were lots of books by women that could have filled that gap. Sam Tanenhaus, the Review editor, was smugly quiet on Picoult's rather prescient criticism. Something is up. What is he going to do about it as an editor?
At the time, I suggested that Picoult and her cohort Jennifer Weiner guest-edit an edition of the New York Times Book Review, and I think that would be the very least the Book Review could do now. I think all the publications that VIDA calls out with stats should pledge to make big changes. I suggest Only Publishing Women for the next five years or so. This is not a joke. There's plenty of opportunities out there for men to publish, and I'm sure my fellow fellows wouldn't mind taking a little time off from being in the New Yorker in the interest of evening the playing field and establishing some female writers. I'd have to start reading some of those magazines if good writing suddenly started appearing in them.
The Boston Review tweeted me back today "We will certainly discuss it." Well, by all means, certainly do. It's OK for us to discuss how writers are treated and what responsibility editors have to make sure their contributors aren't disproportionately one thing or another. We're all adults here. Maybe there needs to be a different way of handling submissions to a literary magazine. Maybe there needs to be more outreach to women writers. Maybe more women need to be in editorial positions (and assistant editor positions) at these publications.
Maybe these magazines need to have specific issues dedicated to women's writing, 40 women writers under 100, something like that. Maybe magazines should go back to publishing lists of the people they've received work from and rejected. Transparency is necessary in the process, because the outcome has been disturbing and there's little doubt that something has to change.
I'd say fire all dudes in charge of these magazines and make them awesome matriarchies. I've read enough poems and things from dudes in my lifetime. Let the lady writing flow!
Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's great "Numbers Trouble" illuminated the wild disparities of women's publication in America's "experimental" magazines. In 2007. And now VIDA's numbers in 2010. Do you believe there's ever been a year in the history of these publications that has been any better representative of 2010? Did they all simultaneously have "a bad year"? Probably not.
I'd say this to all women writers: start submitting to all these magazines today, because they're on the clock to make some serious changes.
Jim Behrle will appear at this weekend's Fake AWP in Brooklyn.