Thursday, February 3, 2011


Women Get Published and Reviewed Less Than Men in Big Magazines, Say Red-and-Blue Pie Charts

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.

36 Comments / Post A Comment


Why bother addressing the editors? If certain prolific male poets who feel strongly about this issue would just quit circulating their own work for five years, the proportion of poems by women in the mix would rise. Ahem. Just saying. (Of course, that wouldn't help all that much with the gender disproportion in books reviewed.)


The assumption is one should submit to and read existing establishment publications. Social change speeds up when we found new ones and attract readers. Don't expect an establishment to act as anything other than it is.

And, why, here is the Hairpin, mostly for and by the ladies!


Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have a new book, building on the Numbers Trouble project: A Megaphone.


And! Spahr and Young's book is available at a discount with free shipping if you pre-order before Feb 15.


I find this post very interesting. It was a fun read. I'd like to know more about the story behind this post and article. What brought you to write about this? Do you have more artciles pertaining to the same subject? credit score government


But, on the subject of more female writers in the NYT book review: it bugged me though when Jodi Picoult started her NY Times thing. She's not a good writer. She's not the kind of writer who is reviewed in the NYT, male or female. She's really really popular and her books sell a ton of copies, but similarly super-crowd-pleasing, million-copy-selling copies by comparable male authors (like James Patterson) aren't reviewed in the New York Times Book Review either. Why should it start reviewing CRAPPY books just because they are written by women? I mean, you do not see Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Curtis Sittenfeld starting Twitter fights like this. Although an issue of the NYT Book Review guest-edited by them would be awesome. But Jodi Picoult does not automatically "win" this fight just because she is loud and a female writer.


Really? How can loud not win? My money is on loud and crappy to win.


OK loud, crappy, and SASSY wins.


To be fair, I'm not sure Picoult ever said WHY AREN'T YOU REVIEWING MEEEEEEEE? In fact, I think she has been reviewed, poorly. Her point was that women writers aren't being reviewed often, and that women writers are almost immediately shoved into pink/purple chicklit sections when many of the themes they write about are universal themes. As a woman writer with a big soapbox to speak from, she took the opportunity to point out the disparity that no one was talking about. She also points out that 'popular fiction' is overlooked due to snobbery amongst the literati. A different fight, to be sure, but one that has implications in the 'gender wars' when you notice that women writers are almost universally 'popular fiction.'
A quote from Jennifer Weiner that I liked from a Huffington Post interview about the kerfuffle:
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book – in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.


Lani--I agree with you that Jodi Picoult's not complaining specifically, entirely about herself. I do think though that part of her fight against the Times is that it's ignoring commercial fiction in its review section and she equates that to a certain extent with fiction written by women (the interview I'm reading is here, I think the one you mentioned: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/jodi-picoult-jennifer-weiner-franzen_b_693143.html)
So I think it's two different fights. Should the Times recognize and review more commercial fiction? Maybe, maybe not (although I might argue that it's more important for the Times to call attention to books/authors that people are less likely to already be aware of, and I think they do a pretty good job with their book publishing coverage in their business section). But that fight should really be kept separate from "Should the Times review more female writers," because female does not necessarily EQUAL commercial or chick-lit and I think the arguments made by Picoult and Weiner both sometimes fall into that same trap.
And then I'd say, again, that I want to hear from some different and less commercial female writers about this--again I'd mention Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, all of whom write about family and feelings--about what their experiences have been with this. For example, they have been successful but they are really, really talented and the women the New Yorker DOES feature--what do they think the experience is for other women who are writing in the same genre they are writing in, but who are not as well-known, and how would they compare those women's experience to that of male authors of a similar caliber? I think that'd be an interesting question.


You're right, it is in some ways two fights. But they ARE related fights. How many books written by a woman have been dismissed as popular fiction or chicklit without a second look based on their marketing strategy?
I don't think it's fair to place all the blame on the Reviews and the Journals. I think the problem is larger than that, women submit less for a variety of reasons, and when published are often relegated to a pink cover with a martini glass that never gets a second glance when it comes to a review.

Not being in the industry, I can't say this for sure, but I imagine boys clubs are boys clubs everywhere. I'm sure strings are pulled and calls are made to get books reviewed. Not intentionally keeping out women, but when reviewers and editors are largely male they are going to look for books that appeal to them or that they can relate to. And if the author was in the same writers workshop as your brother's friend, do you take an extra moment to look at it? Of course.


I don't know what the process is like at the NYT. I do feel comfortable saying, though, that many more women than men work in publishing, particularly in editorial. Of the many many problems the publishing industry faces--it is the industry I work in--I don't think its problem is being an old boys' club, though others may disagree. I think a bigger problem is, how do midlist authors without name recognition break through, or up (whether they're male or female)? If you're not already a Jodi Picoult or a Jennifer Weiner (or a Stephen King or a James Patterson), you're at a disadvantage in terms of getting published--is the disadvantage then greater if you are female? If I had to guess I would say it is not, but I'd be curious to hear what others think.



Therein lies the rub. There are more women in publishing. More women read and buy books. It may, for all I can tell, be easier to be published as a woman author. But what you're talking about is the great unwashed midlist.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen the Dean of American Letters and Jonathan Karp the Publishing Jesus of S&S and Dave Eggers the Dave Eggers of Being Dave Eggers and the vast majority of the "elite" figures in literary publishing are still male.

It's the glass ceiling, with a healthy dose of self-congratulatory conciliatory sexism. You can't call me sexist, I appointed a woman as my managing editor!


Ahh you know what I just realized? Dave Eggers should write his next book from the POV of a woman. A poor woman. Pretty sure that'd solve all the problems we've discussed today.


Heh, I just realized that syntactically speaking, I was railing at the fact that Dave Eggers is still male. The nerve.


Working in publishing and having worked at one point with THE women's genre, romance, I think there is also something to say for the role of agents in this whole business. It seems like today editors are doing less of the traditional editing role (having to concern themselves with marketing the book, etc) and agents are playing a larger role in shaping the initial manuscript. If the story can go one of two ways- more high-brow, literary fiction or more mass-market, obviously there is more money in the mass market version unless you have an already established name in literary fiction that has crossed over into a greater market. That is not to say that most manuscripts are that easily disected, but it's definitely easier and more profitible for writers to pump out genre fiction (i.e. Jodi Piccoult) than it is to write "the great American novel" every ten years. The big book publishers can't afford to take as many risks anymore, which is terrible but I think that the lists of smaller publishers may have more room and a greater appetite for it. But I do think that genre fiction and literary fiction are two different discussions; it's like comparing Sarah Palin to Shakespeare: both are entertaining but one will last a lot longer than the other.

Also, side note, I think it's deplorable that someone like Paul Auster gets accolades of praise while his ex-wife, Lydia Davis, who is probably one of the best writers I have ever had the pleasure of reading, barely gets noticed.


Another complaint that has been made a few times is that when women write novels about their experiences, and they are primarily domestic, then they are considered "women fiction" (and yes, that is a publishing category, at least with agents), but when someone like Jonathan Frazen writes a novel that features the domestic sphere it gets classified as something else. Female writers often face a prejudice that their writing is not universal and will only be of interest to other women, and there were a few thought experiments about how if FREEDOM had been written by a woman it is entirely likely that the main focus of the reviews would ignored the grandiosity of the novel. Its as if the public's perception of what women are capable of understanding is so limited that reviewers have to shoehorn women's books into those categories.

For people still in publishing, do sales conferences annoy you with their retro gender roles predominating how things are going to be marketed?


Oh, and also, as far as poetry subculture goes (especially the more avant-garde strains)...

In my other life I am both a (female) poet and a (female) editor of a poetry journal. I find that my journal publishes about 50/50 male/female poets. And I get submissions about 50/50 from male/female poets.

I find that as a female poet, I am much more inclined to submit work to a journal that publishes at least 35 percent other women (and preferably more like 50 percent). Like, you feel your work is more likely to find a home there.

But when my journal was just starting out, most of the unsolicited submissions were from male poets (there is this hard-core cadre of mostly male poets that just sends out SO MUCH WORK to just everything that puts out a call for submissions).

So I have really made a point (especially at the beginning, but this is really an ongoing project) of requesting work from female poets that I like and admire. And as my journal has been pretty much 50/50 all along, I do hope my journal is perceived as being open to female poets, and the percentage of unsolicited submissions from female poets has risen over time.


Fellow female poet, I salute you! That is wonderful. I've been considering ambiguous pen names (and really? Who does that!) for submissions, but it just makes me so sad/angry that I feel the need to obscure my gender. Maybe I'll just start looking for journals your way instead!


The other thing I've encountered is that female poets seem to pay more attention to a journal's stated goals as far as style and theme go. I've had women tell me, "Oh, I can't submit to your journal as I don't have anything that fits your topic." Men, on the other hand, don't seem to pay as much attention to the journal's topic/themes. I have to tell women, "That topic is just a guideline. I've read your work. It totally fits."


Look at JK Rowling - she didn't "come out" as Jo until the Harry Potter series was unshakably established. I'd guess that female writers are indeed rejected more, and disproportionately. Publishers don't think they'll sell to anyone but women.

I'm not a Picoult fan, but her points about Franzen were true. If Freedom were written by a woman, I think it would have been received very, very differently. (I kind of hate that book).


So does this data take every byline into account, or just the poetry and fiction? I know VIDA is a literature-focused outfit, but I don't know if that includes long form non-fiction. If so, it'd be good to see this data broken down a little more. While there are surely parallels, the worlds of journalism, criticism, and literary fiction all have their own unique challenges. Are female journalists doing a better job of breaking in than female poets, or are they all being equally shut out?

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