March is Gender Equality Month, as well as Women’s History Month, which makes Monday’s release of VIDA’s “The Count” all the more timely. The Count tracks the number of female and male bylines, book reviewers, and authors reviewed in a variety of national magazines and literary publications, tallying them and displaying their findings in simple pie charts. Sadly, the results aren’t shocking – men far outnumber women in nearly every publication – but the lack of progress is.
When VIDA first tallied these numbers three years ago, the project read like a straightforward shock to the literary conscience. Surely after editors and publishers saw the stark disparity in bylines displayed so clearly, they would more proactively invest in the work of women writers. At the very least, it seemed likely that these literary giants might be motivated by shame. How could allegedly forward-thinking publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, or The New York Review of Books not acknowledge–and then work to change–the quantified gender inequity they perpetuated? Perhaps naively, I was convinced these pie charts would incite a culture shift in publishing.
When I first stumbled upon VIDA’s website a couple years ago, I was both horrified by and immensely grateful for The Count. Its simplicity is one of its greatest assets, and it speaks volumes about which perspectives we hear loudest, and which we don’t. And ever since I found The Count, I find myself doing my own every time I pick up a magazine and flip through the contributors section. At the very least, I imagine I can’t be the only one who finds The Count contagious.
There is undeniable value in this practice, whether or not the change VIDA might have hoped for has occurred. In lieu of a shift in the numbers, The Count has spawned a robust conversation about parity in publishing. Some feel the lack of information about the number of male versus female submissions is misleading, while others suggest submissions numbers are irrelevant when it comes to an editorial commitment to diversity. Over at The Rumpus, Roxane Gay began her own count to see how the numbers looked for writers of color (results: grim). Gaye found that nearly 90% of the books reviewed by the New York Review of Books are by white writers.
In spite of the fact that men still far outpace women in having their work reviewed and published, we have VIDA to thank for this valuable conversation, and for the other counts their work has inspired. Now, it’s time to move beyond talking about it, acknowledging it, and debating the numbers. It’s time to take action. For starters, Annie Finch has some great suggestions in her piece, “How to Publish Women Writers.” If editors feel their submission numbers from women are low, she suggests, it’s time to start actively soliciting work from women writers. Jim Behrle recommends the publications called out by VIDA publicly pledge to make changes, adding, “I’ve read enough poems and things from dudes in my lifetime. Let the lady writing flow!” Alyssa Rosenberg argues that those seeking change need to develop a list of specific asks for editors, since the numbers alone haven’t been the powerful force we had hoped they might be.
Whichever path we choose, we’ve got work to do. We don’t live in a world populated predominantly by white men, so why should we settle for a literary world that projects their voices loudest? I, for one, am just going to keep on writing.
What do you think about The Count, and what we can do to change these numbers? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.