February 28th, 2012 / 4:13 pm
Behind the Scenes & Web Hype

VIDA numbers I’d like to see

It’s disheartening and necessary to see the same VIDA numbers every year, but I’d also like to see three different (and more difficult to obtain) statistics next time.

1. A gender breakdown of articles and stories submitted & pitched to magazines. In my experience with slush piles, they can be quite male-heavy and I’ve heard the same from editors.

2. A gender breakdown of books submitted to agents and publishers. (See above)

3. A breakdown of how many books written by men are marketed as “literary” or serious works versus how many by women are marketed as such. This, I think, is the one of the biggest and harder to tackle problems. Books written by women get a picture of a bare shoulder or a pair of legs on it and then men don’t buy it and “serious” reviewers don’t want to review it. Pretty simple. Pretty much a bummer.

4. A gender breakdown of how many male writers are solicited by these magazines. Because, you know, your short story probably isn’t going to make it out of the The New Yorker slush pile. It just isn’t. We know the major magazines (hell, even a lot of the smaller ones) are made almost exclusively out of solicited material. We know that. And because of the same problems that the VIDA numbers point out each year, editors know less women they want to solicit.  So, yeah, it’s a vicious cycle, blah blah blah, but one thing you can do about it is be a woman and work hard and submit everywhere until you cannot be ignored.



  1. Helen

      That one thing you can do about it is pretty disheartening in itself: there is no way to fight the system, so just be the best you can be, and you’ll eventually be one of the few who gets noticed. I think I’ve heard that argument before. 

      Not that I have any of the answers though.

  2. Roxane

      I was just writing a post about this so I will just comment here instead.

      All datasets are incomplete but that doesn’t discount the relevance of the VIDA numbers. Submission queues are heavily, heavily skewed male but because we already know this we have to advance the conversation beyond the notion that the gender breakdown is parallel to submission rates. We know there are as many women writing as men writing. This is an editorial problem, not a submission problem. If the submission rates are so skewed, we, as editors, have to go find the writers we wish to see represented. Frankly, we don’t need any more numbers. The annual count serves one purpose–to remind us of how stark the disparity is. I also look at some of these numbers, where the gap between men and women is as yawning as the Grand Canyon and honestly, who gives a damn about any other statistic? The numbers are embarrassing. The numbers make it seem like we’re on a goddamned unicorn hunt when there are women writers EVERYWHERE doing serious, literary and critical work.The numbers are always going to be what they are until editors work actively to change them.  And yes, the one thing we can do as women is be relentless. I couldn’t agree more. There is a lot of evidence, though, to indicate that you can be as relentless as you want and still be ignored by certain publications and that’s a problem too.

  3. Leigh Stein

      Danielle Pafunda addresses the solicitation issue, too: http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1521

      I agree with Roxane re: unicorn hunt! 

      Interesting quote from David Remnick on the VIDA page, I thought. I worked at the New Yorker and saw how many female editors there are (lots! fiction editor, art editor, art director, Shouts & Murmurs, Talk of the Town) but there is still one head honcho in charge of everything that goes in that magazine, and that’s him. 

  4. Leigh Stein
  5. Catherine Lacey

      I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing you can do, but it’s one thing that you can do…. It’s all anyone can really do, right? And there will always be a lot of writers that will never really get noticed at all, male and female. I think a lot of women (for probably a bunch of reasons) get discouraged more easily than men when faced with that fact (or these VIDA numbers.). Of course, I can’t back that up with anything other than anecdotal evidence, but I believe it to be true. 

  6. Anonymous

      Oh thanks for sharing, Leigh! 

      Submissions & solicitations data is proprietary, and thus much harder to come by. It’d certainly be interesting to see editors & publishers attend to and share those numbers, but we’d have to read that information thoughtfully (for the reasons I outline in my Montevidayo post: http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1521 — and it sounds like we’re on the same page, Roxane!). I appreciate your call to action, Catherine, and I for sure like to take up as much space as I can manage. When editors/publisher say the same, though, I think it’s poor practice for them to put the onus back on women writers. Editors & publishers can improve their publications and own their ratios as they see fit, and we can critique and celebrate them for their efforts as we see fit.Rob MacDonald–love that Sixth Finch pie! 

  7. Bobby Dixon

      (Comment attempt #4)

      I’ve deleted what I’ve been typing a few times now. I found it hard to articulate my feeling that I don’t think these publications are as culturally relevant and that the indie publishing community is way more relevant but I have nothing but a hunch or even hunchlette to defend this thought. 

      I’m going to read the Montevidayo piece and maybe this will make more sense to me.

  8. Christopher
  9. Shannon

      What disturbs me most often is that this:

      “All datasets are incomplete but that doesn’t discount the relevance of the VIDA numbers” needs to be said over and over and over again.

      I am also really glad you said the last bit too Roxane. Not enough people say that despite it being true. 

  10. Leigh Stein

      An interesting idea, but unfortunately the big guys are where the money is at. Even if women are equally represented in indie publishing, even if indie publishing is more “culturally relevant,” the VIDA pies show that male writers are making $ writing for these publications more often than their female colleagues just by sheer ratio. Also, a NY Times review sells books, and if those are books are by men, again: more money for dudes. 

      Anecdotally, I’m published by an indie (Melville House) and a couple weeks ago, my editor joked that I should be a headhunter for women novelists: almost all of their unsolicited submissions are from men. 

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  12. Michael J. Martin

      #4 – Although not entirely based on gender, I wonder how many readers a lit mag would garner if it explicitly stated it only published solicited submissions. Makes me curious of many lit mags only have a slush pile so that writers continue reading and buying subscripts, etc.

  13. Bobby Dixon

      I get that that is where the money is, and I’m curious about money and writers because I think it is an interesting thing. Like, if I wanted to make money as a writer, don’t I just look at google trends, look at hash tags, read up on Information Needs of adults (or children) and figure out what my demographic would be, then pander to it. Or, become a copywriter, get paid. 

      I feel like there may or may not be more than just luck that affords writers hefty paydays. Not sure. 

      I’m not trying to dismiss your comment, but it’s a thinking point I think over often. 

  14. Anonymous

      I think that’s a little extreme. You seem to imply that only writers not at all interested in money should be in the lit game. Or at least that any writer that would like to make money making lit is basically deluded. It’s not like anyone thinks they’re going to make millions with their intricately sketched day-in-the-life’s. Yet if you can get paid for something you’re doing anyhow, that’s always a nice thing, and seems like a worthy enough goal.

  15. Bobby Dixon

      I didn’t think you were antagonistic. I don’t think that “that only writers not at all interested in money should be in the lit game. Or at least that any writer that would like to make money making lit is basically deluded.” But I can see how you inferred it. 

      Because the thing is, the other consolation instead of money is popularity, self validation, influence, attention and stuff. The desire to make a complete stranger feel a thing or visualize something or encounter a texture is a pretty strange desire, but is not a bad desire. 

      I think about these things and then look at the Vida info wonder what to do w/ myself. 

  16. Anonymous

      It definitely seems like they could go deeper on these results sometime. Even an online survey about how did each book come about (solicited? unsolicited? a person previously published?) would greatly illuminate the situation.

      The whole thing seems like one of those “greater than the sum of its parts” situations and that’s why publishing houses may not be feeling the need to do anything radically different … and why women may not be submitting more. For example “if you know that you are not going to be listened to, why speak?” is a question that may be there at an unconscious level. I think the “fuel” that comprises debates, discussions, commenting, buzz in any culture is often taken for granted as it’s usually already there for male talent. But it’s all related, because book reviews generate that climate and I see these numbers hold for both reviews and published works.

      What’s absurd is that: 1. Women are the primary readers of fiction, and 2. two of the most blockbuster, era-defining novel cycles of the past 20 years has been female-authored (Harry Potter series, Twilight series) and 3. Many of the most clearly exciting writers today are female

      I guess I’m hoping “social media” and “self-publishing” will gradually steal steam from the established platforms. But I agree, money is important.

  17. Leigh Stein

      The people who are getting published in The New Yorker, or The Atlantic, are professional writers, making a career (or trying to). They aren’t hobbyists. I think my original point was fair to make, that if the most lucrative outlets for professional writers are hiring (paying freelance) more men than women to write for them, let’s figure out why this is happening and what we can do about it. Because it isn’t fair. 

      Do you think Jonathan Franzen makes $$$ because he looked at google trends and figured out his target demographic? Hilarious. 

  18. Don

      We (heysmallpress.org) crunched our own numbers for 2011 and found the following:

      We reviewed 87 books. 31 books written or edited by women (36%), 51 books written or edited by men (59%), and 5 anthologies without named editors (5%).

      We conducted 5 interviews. 2 interviews were with women (40%), and 3 interviews were with men (60%).

      Our Best of 2011 list featured 2 books edited or written by women (13%) and 13 books edited or written by men (87%).

      Compared to publications like Harper’s or the London Review of Books, we are doing well, but we could be doing more to seek out the amazing books by women being published by indie presses.

  19. deadgod

      Who was the head honcho at The New Yorker before Remnick?

  20. deadgod

      The gender disparity of article and reviewed authors is well-known to those who read magazines (though demonstrable numbers can be the thin edge of an argument wedge).  How can the conversation be concretely advanced beyond a similar disparity in submissions?  I mean, should a smaller – much smaller? – pool get ‘equal’ representation?

      We know there are as many women writing as men writing.

      Do we?  How?

      I don’t mean to suggest that fewer women than men should write, nor that more women than do shouldn’t offer their work.  I mean to ask whether the question is really one of silenced people, or of silent people–which would call for quite different action.

  21. Leigh Stein

      Tina Brown (now EIC of the Daily Beast): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tina_Brown

  22. Bobby Dixon

      No, I think he probably used metacrawler instead. 

  23. Smock

      I have to respectfully disagree with Roxane above that we “know” that there are an equal number of male and female writers. The disparity in most of the VIDA numbers is so large I’m sure we can agree there is a problem here beyond an accurate representation of the field. So I am not disagreeing there is sexism involved or a problem. 
      But do we really know there is an equal number of male and female writers? And what does “writer” mean in that context? The magazines that show the greatest discrepancies are ones that mainly offer politics, journalism and criticism. Are there an equal number of men and women trying to work in those fields? In my personal experience working in various writing fields, I find that highly unlikely. 

      Few jobs or professions have an even gender breakdown, and inside of the world of writing I’d expect very different numbers depending on the type of writing we are talking about. 

      As deadgod suggests, this is important because it affects what our solutions are. Figuring out how to get more women involved in doing journalism and criticism is a different question than figuring out how to give the ones that are doing so equal opportunity. 

  24. deadgod

      –yes; I’d thought your point in mentioning that Remnick is the “one head honcho” was to highlight his gender, but the previous editor was a woman, was the thrust of that (rhetorical) question.

      Myles’s excerpt (at the VIDA page) is bitterly comical:  women “have” to be seen supporting male poets in order not to be contaminated by the label feminist.

      Truly disgusting:  Santodious making a (tiny) show of Phyllis Schlafly’s endorsement of his candidacy.  She was a very prominent – a powerful – social-conservative voice in the ’70s-’80s — a woman telling women and men that female inferiority, as presented and recommended by the Bible, ought to be a political teleology.  (You see the vastness of the dissonance?)

      I think that’s a real-talk problem today:  getting women comfortable with agreeing publicly with the tenet of – even with the word – “feminism”.  Gender equality of opportunity is basic, no?  — Equality of opportunity is a basic principle–and not merely (?) a squabble over spoils in, say, publishing–, or, as with social conservatism, it isn’t.

  25. Eyeshot

      Susan Sontag said that literature is not an equal opportunity employer. Once you treat lit like an equal opportunity employer, you kill it. (They already kill it with AWP, treating lit like a neurology convention.) Editors don’t edit for the money. They do it because they have a momentary excess supply of enthusiasm and energy and passion. If selections are made on anything other than what they deem merit, why would they do it? Many women are crappy writers. Many men are even crappier. Pretty much, both men and women, generally, are crappy crappy writers. Who cares about crappy reviews of crappy books or crappy stories in crappy crappy lit mags. Even the New Yorker’s fiction, for example, has seemed mostly crappy for a dozen years in part due to its international emphasis. As an editor of the crappiest lit site ever on the internet’s green earth, I’ve rejected pieces by thousands of women because they were CRAPPY with a capital freakin’ K. Same with men. Such crap out there. I’ve surely accepted more pieces by more men than women because I found them less crappy than all the crappy submissions I’d received at the time and therefore I posted them. Good mags/journals are subjective and skewed and extreme. (REMEMER THE IMMORTAL WORDS OF MARK E. SMITH: “the evil is not in extremes, it’s in the middle mass.”) The people associating themselves with this sort of stuff, the ones really clamoring about it, are the ones frustrated that their crappy crappy writing doesn’t have more exposure and so their complaint etc seems like cries for attention and, with more attention (more twitter followers and FB friends!), more authority, although it’s authority based on everything other than their work’s merit. My opinion on all of this doesn’t matter due to my external genitalia, but maybe everyone of all genders will appreciate that if you’re a writer and a reader who really wants to fight these powers you might want to think about directing your energy to remotely larger societal ills. Within the lit world, this might be something, but macrocosmically this seems like some minor First World crap. And yet I post because publications are not gender-balanced publications and to argue in favor of any sort of regularity or anything other than an editor’s intuition and insight is, in my crappy opinion, arguing in favor of mediocrity, which is the single worst enemy of lit.

  26. Nick Moran

       I feel like The Paris Review has this policy de facto. When’s the last time some nobody got past their slush pile?

  27. Anonymous

       “but macrocosmically this seems like some minor First World crap ”

      I’m sure that you think freedom of speech and inequities in the opportunity for personal expression are also “minor first world crap.”

      “The people associating themselves with this sort of stuff, the ones
      really clamoring about it, are the ones frustrated that their crappy
      crappy writing doesn’t have more exposure”

      Honestly out of everyone posting here you sound like you have the biggest chip on your shoulder. The reason this discussion is even getting the attention it is comes from how cool and clinical the numerical breakdown allows it to be. And you’re also assuming that only writers care about this, when I think the opposite may be more consistently true. Readers get shafted bec. they’re on the receiving end. For example, many talented writers bend to popular formulas bec. they know they likely won’t get a “literary” book deal. Yeah I can search out female-authored titles or African American-authored titles in the ghettos of “chick lit” or “street lit” but why should I have to? Quality suffers a lot when diversity of perspectives is curtailed by something as pedestrian as prejudice, which isn’t even what people are jumping to here. I’ve seen your faux-elitist argument in countless places. Yet no one else here is talking about crap writers. Get over your aff-action bullshyte.



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  29. marshall mallicoat

      there’s a gender disparity in literature because literature is a goddamn video game

  30. Trey

      oh ok

  31. Eyeshot

      My argument is idealist. The ideal is towering literary artistry regardless of who wrote it. Quality in literary writing (I don’t mean journalism or genre stuff) is a function of perception, instinct, talent. As someone who’d self-ID as a reader primarily, diversity is less important to me than towering literary artistry. *Truly* excellent work will always find its readers.

      I’d like to see the “cool and clinical” percentage of women who are top editors at major NYC literary publishers and the percentage of women who are top literary agents (Binky, Susan Golomb, Nicole Argati, Elyse Cheney, Denise Shanahan, Julie Barer — that’s just off the top of my head). The names I tend to see whenever I receive the old Publishers Lunch seem mostly to belong to women.

      Also, unless a journal or mag is published by the US Government maybe, it’s not an infringement of the freedom of speech if you’re rejected from the New Yorker or if the Atlantic doesn’t review a book. There is no barrier to the dispersal of speech.

      Enjoy your day.

  32. Knockout Literary

      Catherine: I ran Knockout’s numbers for our last three issues (http://blog.knockoutlit.org/?p=160) to see what our submissions-to-gender ratio was, as well as our gender-to-publication ratio. Our submission ratio skewed male (about 60/40), but our publication to gender ratio was fairly proportionate. (We beat the spread once, and fell below it twice.)

      I think that it’s unfair that all of the onus of achieving equality is being put solely on editors, as some of it belongs to the female writers themselves. If, as Roxane says, that editors are on the frontlines of the fight, then the slush pile is often the ammunition. For KO, that’s the case; the magazine that doesn’t solicit all that much work (at least not anymore; it’s just too damn time consuming ). So other than saying “Women of the world: Send us work!” what exactly can one do? (By the way, I said exactly that at the end of my post.)Even that felt a bit strange, as it felt a little paternalistic and cheerleadery. 

  33. Nate Martin

       God, can’t you women just shut up and write better?

  34. Trey
  35. Anonymous
  36. Mark Danowsky