Conversations on gender and publishing

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Earlier this month, VIDA, an organization for women writers, published a survey of 14 literary-focus magazines, tallying gender representation in overall contributors, book review writers, and authors reviewed. They found a stark over-representation of males in all categories, a result that is perhaps not surprising but until now had not been mapped in such clear statistics.

Questions raised by this data include whether women are reviewed less because they publish less, and if so, do they also pitch their work less? Do women write content that is overlooked by male-centered publications? Answers to these questions are influenced in part by the demarcation between commercial and literary writing.

Meghan O’Rourke, who has written in Slate about the unconscious nature of gender bias, recently posted these thoughts on the VIDA data:

The world of novels, we often hear, is a feminine one—book buyers are predominantly women; novels and memoirs by women and about women's lives often do extremely well commercially. (Think of Eat, Pray, Love and The Lovely Bones.) So you might shrug and say—what's the problem? But VIDA's study raises questions about how seriously women writers are taken and how viable it is for them to make a living at writing. As we all know, small rewards and affirmations have a concrete but unquantifiable effect on one's writing life. So does silence.

Margot Magowan writes in Ms.Blog about her experiences as a talk radio producer and the difficulties she had convincing women to present themselves as experts on a topic on-air. She concludes:

Change will continue to be slow for women until they recognize that their stories and their viewpoints are important. All the producers and editors and media magnates in the world can’t help women get their voices out there until they decide to try. And keep trying.

At this year’s AWP conference, Lois Roma-Deeley led the first-ever panel on development of an AWP Women’s Caucus. The mission of the Caucus includes support for all genres of creative writing specific to women writers, as well as a forum for dialogue about feminist literary perspectives. In her blog, Ciao Poetry, Roma-Deeley emphasizes actions women writers can take to improve their situation. An abbreviated list includes:

Take an active part in the literary community. Become an editor. Write book reviews…. Support--with money--small presses that support women writers you admire. Write literary criticism which helps to shape the literary conversation. Become a critic --a close reader--with standards you can articulate and defend….We must define the literary conversation on our own terms. Stop waiting for wholesale approval and admit the possibility that very likely we may never get it.

Not all feminists are women. Paul Cunningham, poet and editor of Radioactive Moat, blogs about attending the Women’s Caucus panel. He writes:

As one of three white males who attended this panel, I was thankful for the panel’s call for efforts of collective feminism and I am incredibly supportive of the creation of such a caucus.

Author Paula Kamen, writing in Ms.Blog, reflects on her experience at AWP:

Wandering the exhibit halls housing literally hundreds of publisher tables, I soon discovered one of the strongest feminist presences there: a posse of independent presses specializing in woman-centered poetry.

She mentions several small presses that are feminist-focused or feminist-inclusive: Switchback Books, Kore Press, Alice James Books, and Sarabande Books. Read the comments that follow her post to find more small press recommendations. I like the suggestion to double the good deed by buying these titles at a local feminist bookstore.