May 31st, 2011 / 2:00 pm

VIDA has tallied the gender (im)balance in The Best American series. In their press release they ask, “What careers stalled because gender bias plays a role in preventing a writers’ work from reaching a national audience?”

It’s a scary thought. Is it also a fair question?


  1. Mike Meginnis


  2. Adam Robinson

      I think so too.

  3. Adam Robinson

      I think so too.

  4. Mike Meginnis

      I’m really proud of VIDA, honestly. I feel like they’ve done more good work for writing and reading in a short time than just about any organization I can think of.

  5. karl taro

      in the case of BASS, every writer for the last 20 years save annie proulx has read blind, ie. no byline on the stories they are seeing (obviously, they may have read some or the stories in their native habitats before judging). does that free BASS from accusations of gender bias? 

  6. Bat of Moon

      A good question. I recall one other exception in the last decade: Stephen King wasn’t satisfied with the stack of finalists sent by the series editor, so he searched out additional stories, resulting in a volume with more genre elements and less psychological realism than usual.

  7. Bat of Moon

      If there’s a gender problem, it doesn’t appear to lie with BASS, but perhaps with the others, such as the essay volume, which has a big gender imbalance. The practice of having editor read blind may well have an effect.

  8. deadgod

      Things are a bit complexified by looking at the genders of guest editors:  Of the Essay volumes, the 29% representation was chosen or ‘chosen’ by 11 women/25 total editors (44%).  Of the Poetry volumes, the 39% representation was chosen or ‘chosen’ by 7/24 (29% women).  Of the Short Story volumes, the 48% representation was chosen or ‘chosen’ by 16/33 (47% women).

      The “best” short story writers of the last quarter-century seem to have as much a chance of being selected by a woman as by a man.  The “best” essayists are close to as likely to have been chosen by a woman, but a lot less likely to be a woman.  The “best” poets are more than twice as likely to have been chosen by a man as by a woman, but 2 of 5 poets chosen are women.

      So . . . what?

      There are other factors to be considered in drilling down:  Is it the same small group of women who’re “best” (in some particular writing category), but different men most times? – or vice versa?  (In other words, what’s the self-fulfilling effect, with particular respect to gender, of a reputation?)  Have magazines been receiving roughly equal numbers of submissions from women and men?  What about trends – comparing, say, individuated groups of five-year duration?  (In other words, has what should be done already been or partly been done and is taking effect?)

      Yes, discouragement on account of identity is a “fair question”.

  9. Janaka

      Well what’s interesting there, especially if they’re the only one who practices blind reading (and I don’t know if they are, though I’m almost positive BAP doesn’t) is that BASS had the most equal gender division of all the “Best” anthologies…

  10. Roxane

      It is a fair question. It was surprising to see how much more balanced (relatively, generally speaking) the Best  American anthologies are than the magazines they draw their work from. 

  11. bobby

      I think that BASS may be ” more balanced (relatively, generally speaking) than Best  American anthologies are than the magazines they draw their work from,” is a great point. I would like to see factoids and percentages for some of those magazines. 

  12. Roxane

      Some of those statistics do exist:

  13. Mike Meginnis

      Well, BASS worked out pretty well, so I wouldn’t accuse them of anything, but it’s extremely easy for reading blind to still give you a gender skew, because our literary culture values masculinity so much. So it isn’t enough to just read blind.

      We read blind for our first contest at Puerto del Sol and it did lead to four women winning and one man though, come to think of it.

  14. LM

      I don’t think VIDA has actually done any studies on the percentage of literary fiction published anywhere? There 2010 “the count” focused almost entirely on book reviews and book reviewers gender, not on the fiction published. Most of the magazines covered don’t even publish fiction. 

      The few magazines that do publish fiction that they covered also publish lots of poetry and non-fiction and they lumped it all together as overall contributors. Would be interesting to see what the gender break down for short fiction was. Presumably better than non-fiction, based on Best American totals. 

  15. LM

      Don’t basically all literary magazine contests read blind? 

  16. Andrew

      One might also trace the gender imbalance back to the language in which the stories are written.

  17. LM

      Whoops, I misread you as saying BASS not the best american series overall. 

  18. Marc

      Examining only one genre in an award anthology series that supports several is pretty tough.

      I did a blog post about gender in award anthologies back in Feb.

      I looked at BASS, Pushcart, O.Henry and New Stories from the South. Disparity is certainly there, but not as highly represented as it was in the earlier magazine list VIDA examined.

  19. Anonymous

      “Have magazines been receiving roughly equal numbers of submissions from women and men?”
      Bingo.  That’s the statistic that would really be enlightening on all these fronts—the acceptance/rejection percentage across sex. I don’t know how that info could feasibly be gathered, though. In BULL’s case, even with our specified aim, I’d venture to say the percentage is pretty much equal.

  20. Janaka

      I don’t think it would be THAT hard to come up with at least an approximate data for gender and submissions, but it would require editors to do their own *honest* research into their stacks… and of course some guesswork based on names. So unless magazines want to undertake that project for their own edification / vindication, it’s unlikely we’ll see the information.

  21. Roxane

      Its really not that hard to compile this information if you log submissions or use a submission manager. After the VIDA list came out last year, many magazines did the work and tallied this information. Now, you cannot always tell gender based on names but for the most part, it’s doable. I know The Southern Review did this as did Brevity I believe. We did it at PANK. I can’t remember the others. It’s time consuming and kind of annoying but also pretty interesting and useful.

  22. Yes

      Southern Review definitely did (and found basically identical imbalance in submissions and publications in their journal. 60-40 for both, I believe)

  23. Mike Meginnis

      Yes — my point wasn’t that we were special, just that reading blind did seem to improve our gender balance somewhat. But that’s a very small sample. I suspect on average it wouldn’t make a difference.

  24. Mike Meginnis

      Yes — my point wasn’t that we were special, just that reading blind did seem to improve our gender balance somewhat. But that’s a very small sample. I suspect on average it wouldn’t make a difference.

  25. bobby

      Also, I wonder what the gender demographics would be for accepted submissions vs. rejected submissions. That could really help put these numbers into a more manageable context (or could make it worse, I wasn’t a math major). 

  26. MFBomb

      I find it very, very hard to believe that BASS is read completely blindly when so many of the stories a) come from the same five magazines and b) so many of the writers are already well-established or pegged as “the next hot thing.”

      It’s more likely that the series editors read non-blindly and then present the series editors with a list of “finalists,” since an examination of the trends of winners simply doesn’t support a completely blind process.

  27. MFBomb

      *Sorry, I mean, it’s more likely that the regular editors read non-blindly and then present the series editors with a list of “finalists.”

      By then, there has been ample opportunity for bias to occur; one might argue that the damage has already been done when Amy Hempel is choosing between a “blind” Charles Baxter story published in Glimmer Train and a Mary Gaitskill story published in the New Yorker.  Do people really think that everyone gets a fair/equal chance with BASS?

      I’d like to see someone do an analysis of a) the number of stories in BASS that actually represent non-middle class or rich people b) the number of stories that could safely be considered “realistic” c) the number of stories from writers without a book or no more than one book and d) the number of stories that appeared in journals that went to press no more than two times per year, since usually, half or more of the stories are chosen from journals with the biggest budgets, circulations, and press runs.

  28. MFBomb

      Yes, BASS might as well rename itself, “Best American Short Stories of Psychological Realism,” since almost all the stories are of that variety.

  29. deadgod

      Well, the opportunity to consider that ratio – accepted to rejected, separated by gender – would be precisely the reason for keeping track of the gender ratio of submissions, right?

      If more women-written submissions are being rejected than men-written submissions (or more men-written submissions are being rejected), given whatever imbalance obtains in gender-of-submissions then:  a)  either women don’t write as ‘well’ as men, according to those (gender-blind) editors (or men don’t etc.); or b)  there’s some kind of prejudgement along gender lines (whether of the writer‘s gender, or of the writing‘s ‘gender’).

      [Whether you were a “math major” is irrelevant:  dudes can do math; chicks can’t.  You gotta get outa the house more, sis/bro.]

  30. deadgod
  31. Dawn.

      It’s a reasonable question. Gender bias plays a role in the discouragement or advancement of pretty much any profession for pretty much anyone. We almost instinctively exalt the masculine over the feminine (yay social conditioning), so even if the submissions are read blind (which I highly doubt BASS submissions are read entirely blind), readers/editors are more likely to gravitate toward work that is more recognizably masculine in some nature, whether that’s found in the story itself and/or the gender of the writer. Honestly, what bothers me most about BASS is the almost endless display of rich white hetero people in general. But I won’t devolve into that rant. I’m going to drink a beer and watch 30 Rock instead.

  32. D.

      And yet despite the fact that this annoys me, I still know that BASS will have a broader range of work than any sci-fi, fantasy or other genre anthology. 

  33. MFBomb

      I’m not necessarily talking about the exclusion of “genre” stories from BASS (even though I was responding to a post that referenced Stephen King).  I was more or less responding to the notion that the majority of BASS stories are works of “psychological realism.” A typical BASS story is neat, clean, tidy, and follows all of the rules.

  34. Bat of Moon

      I was using psychological realism as shorthand, but neat, clean, tidy, and follows all of the rules is good too.

  35. Tom Beshear

      It’s my impression the preselection process by the series editor has a lot to do with why most stories come from the same few magazines and why the next hot things are well represented. Plus the types of stories–neat, tidy, etc. That appear.

  36. MFBomb

      It’s telling, though, that “psychological realism” is shorthand for many frustrated readers and writers today as “safe” and/or “boringly competent.” It suggests, I think, that being “safe” and “boringly competent” is often rewarded in today’s market.

      A lot of the “realism” I read today is nothing like the “realism” of the past, realism that was often experimental, progressive, and socially-engaged.  Much of today’s realism feels aesthetically and thematically safe, nostalgic, and devoid of soul or heart. James Baldwin as a realist, but goddamn, there is major suffering and blood on each page.

  37. Dave K.

      What makes written work recognizably masculine, exactly? Is it a passive/active voice thing, or a matter of content? I hear a lot about our collective tendency to prefer masculine writing, and while I’m not doubting that, some operational definitions would be helpful.

  38. Marc

      Let me play Devil’s advocate. It’s not a fair question:“What careers stalled because gender bias plays a role in preventing a writers’ work from reaching a national audience?” At least not in the case of the BASS anthology. I don’t know what a “national audience” means for a literary awards series. Not anymore. A few thousand, perhaps?

      Take the case of Rebecca Makkai. For the past four years in a row she’s had a story included in BASS. It’s great but does this make her a household name for literary fiction? Does she have an national audience because of it?

      Her first novel is out in June and she happens to be a damn fine writer, but having four stories in BASS did not ensure that it would get picked up.

      The whole idea that an author’s career can be “made” or “bumped” by simply having a story in an awards anthology or that it might “stall” out by not including it is based on pretty dated ideas of what it means to be a successful writer. I know plenty of writers who’ve done quite well for themselves independent of winning awards or being included in award anthologies. I also know folks (including me!) who’ve managed to place work in an awards anthology and not be able to publish a book.

  39. postitbreakup
  40. MFBomb

      Good points, Marc, which makes me wonder: is gender alone the biggest concern here, or is it aesthetics and its relationship to gender, because, I’m sorry: female AND male writers who write psychological realism like Makkai–usually about middle-class people–aren’t that rare in literary magazines and award anthologies.

      I like VIDA, but sometimes, they remind me of all of the middle and upper class first and second-wave feminist types who were so busy focusing on women that they forgot how class and race intersected with gender (and, in VIDA’s particular case, aesthetics). Why doesn’t VIDA ever dig deeper? It seems like they always stop at cherry-picking.

  41. postitbreakup

      There’s no way to better avoid the endless displays of rich white heteros than watching 30 Rock.

      (I like that show a lot, but couldn’t resist the set-up.)

  42. Marc

      My guess is that since VIDA is still pretty new they need to start at the top and work their way down. Nothing wrong with that, but I do feel you in regards to the type of fiction constantly favored in the biggest lit journals and award series. Writing anything other than psychological realism about white middle to upper-class folk is viewed as an outlier in publishing.

      I can think of many workshops that aggressively approach gender issues in stories. But I can’t think of one where issues of class are dealt with at all. There’s that nasty assumption that the only people who read fiction are the white middle and upper class, and this assumption often has the added negative of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to publishers and publishing.

      Authors who chose to focus on class issues often find themselves searching a long time for a publisher.

      A hick like me makes for a strange bedfellow with you Kafkaesque types. Yet in terms of how the writing world views our subjects I can assure you that we’re both wholly alien to the norm.  

  43. MFBomb

      “A hick like me makes for a strange bedfellow with you Kafkaesque types.
      Yet in terms of how the writing world views our subjects I can assure
      you that we’re both wholly alien to the norm.”

      Great point.  Also interesting to note that a lot of Southern writers seem particularly influenced by postmodernism and/or have aesthetics that are anti-realist (e.g., Powell, Hannah (RIP), Richard, Saterstrom, to name a few).

  44. karl taro

      i think we also need to track the gender imbalance in the non-literary world as well

  45. Nyem

      Heidi Pitlor has been the series editor of BASS since 2006: it’s worth noting that since then, it’s about 50/50. I think this speaks volumes about the tremendous work she has done during her five years in this capacity.

  46. Dave K.

      Which raises the other question of how MFA programs full of (generally) middle class people should engage class issues they haven’t really experienced or observed very much. I think they should, obviously, and I try to poke at class issues in my own work, but it’s such a big and sensitive topic that I’m not always sure how to do it without sounding like a false sympathizer or a dilettante. Steampunk makes it easier in a lot of ways, but it’s still hard to do effectively.

      Should, for example, our characters work in factories? Or retail? Should they live in basement apartments or with roommates, or (shudder) their parents? Where is the separation between reality and stereotype regarding class differences in America? And is the outdated industrial rhetoric still used by Marxists even applicable in a country whose industrial economy went belly up 3 decades ago?

      Like I said, I’m sympathetic to the core issue that class should be a factor in modern fiction. But I’d like to hear some thoughts on how it can be done without sounding fake or didactic.

  47. MFBomb

      This seems like a legitimate concern, though it can go both ways–as either the result of bullying or intimidation by people who want to control what others can say or write about (a major issue concerning our society’s dialogues on race, class, and other identity politics/categories) or just an excuse to be safe.

      The way I see it: any treatment of class in a writer’s work–assuming it’s any good–should feel organic and natural.  Ideas are interesting in fiction….if the fiction is good and moves the blood, so if the writer really cares about moving his or her readers in an interesting, artful way, values honesty, and strives to be a complex humantitarian, then readers will, or should, believe in the writer’s work. 

      I think it’s all about being more than “a writer,” and a person of the world.  Too many writers seem satisfied with writing “competent” stories and being “writers,” but why is it that so many of the writers who stand the test of time always seem to transcend their writing?

      Faulkner, Baldwin, Robinson, Morrison…these are all great, passionate humanitarians with original, worldly vision, mot mere “writers.”

      Much of these issues, then, need to be addressed at the institutional level.  Why do so many MFA programs lack the courage to be different? Why are so many of them the same? Why do so many MFA/AWP people circle the wagons whenever someone dares to criticize creative writing in the academy? Even if some of those criticisms are over-the-top, they are too common and prevalent to be entirely dismissed; and yet, The Old AWP/MFA Guard is completely satisfied with its “this-isn’t-a-perfect-model-but-its-all-we-got-so-shut-up-and-quit-your-bitching” line of thinking.

      Just lazy and cowardly if you ask me.

  48. Dave K.

      Thanks for that, MF. I agree with you about the importance of “organic and natural” writing, and I think intentionality plays a big role in writing. I just think Americans in particular lack a lot of class-conscious vocabulary because our culture is so determined to pretend that it is classless. I’d imagine a lot of us simply don’t know where to start, which is why I think the discussion should go deeper than “we should say more about class.” And you’re absolutely right about the benefits of not playing it safe regarding form and content. The fun part of being an artist is breaking rules, and I think a lot of MFA programs (and not just writing MFAs) have forgotten that and just transitioned into basic training for academics.

  49. deadgod

      Well, that was the gist of the joke.  Women in physical-science research, engineering, and mathematics might wish they had the problems qua gender that women writers (and women artists in general) face.  Perhaps a priority of objectified practicalities among people in these fields militates against articulateness on the subject of identity-based disincentivization* by those so disincentivized* — but you remember the Larry-Summers-at-Harvard-on-“chicks-in-science” media kablooie . . .

      *Lovely words.

  50. male and female and masculine and feminine « Southerly

      […] (I promise I won’t use the phrase ‘sausage-fest’, not once, I promise.) As Adam Robinson poses on just about my favourite literary website, HTMLGiant, “What careers stalled because gender […]