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How does it feel to be a problem? The Vida Study

A few years ago – 2007, I think – I organized and moderated a panel discussion on habeas corpus and the brazen disregard with which the Bush Administration’s then-recent actions treated the issue. The panel, moderator aside, was quite brilliant: Corey Robin, David Cole, and Aziz Huq each took turns briefly and incisively providing historical context for the habeas discussion, delineating the legal foolishness of the Bush Justice Department’s legal stance, and invoking a series of historical comparisons that put flesh and muscle onto what could’ve been a quite abstract conversation.

When I used to curate public programs, especially those of a political nature, I always took pains to create a dynamic tension between the speakers. Despite my political beliefs, I never wanted to convene a group so like-minded as to make the discussion sterile. I’d failed this time. Every conservative I approached either ignored me or refused to participate. I’m speculating, but I assume they expected an ambush. That wasn’t the case, though. I wanted an honest, substantive discussion of complex, difficult issues. Striking out repeatedly, I donned the cloak of devil’s advocate myself (quite literally, my political sympathies cried) and posed a series of questions grounded in the Bush Administration’s legal arguments, all in the hopes that the discussion wouldn’t devolve into some sort of Z Magazine dramatization. I’m happy to say that we had a good event, though that’s more due to the honesty and integrity of the speakers than any deftness or nuance on my part. At the conclusion of the talk, though, one audience member approached me and said something like, “Thank you for putting this together. But I have some questions. Why weren’t there any women on the panel? Do you realize that you never called on a woman during the question and answer period ? Why not? Did you do that on purpose?”

She was right on all counts. We were a bunch of guys talking, and though fully one third of the evening was devoted to questions and many women had raised their hands to be called on, I only entertained questions from men.

The first question – why no women speakers – didn’t bother me too much. I’d assembled the panel rather quickly in response to something called the Military Commissions Act. In my planning I’d contacted NYU’s powerhouse Karen Greenberg, but she was, unfortunately, unable to participate. She’d suggested Aziz, and I went with her suggestion. David Cole was at the time preparing to argue some of these issues before the Supreme Court, and Corey Robin was doing work very much related to the topic, and he was a close colleague and the first money in. Not bulletproof explanations, but at least I’d tried, not only with Karen but also with several other potential panelists. Besides, I knew this was a flaw; when putting together other events I always recruited female speakers.

The audience member’s other question – why had I not called on women during Q & A – was much more of a fist to the face. The fact that I’d overlooked the female audience members had not occurred to me.  I w as stunned silent for a moment, and then I engaged in a bit of forensic reminiscing. Since this was my first time out as moderator, I’d been quite anxious. The room was full past capacity and I had to run the discussion and make sure there were no problems with event logistics. I hadn’t thought about Q & A protocol, and when it came time for questions I’d called on the first hand I saw each time I opened the floor. This seemed fair to me – a way of making sure I didn’t play favorites with friends and colleagues during the questions. But I hadn’t given even the barest consideration to gender parity in the Q & A, assuming that wasn’t an issue as long as I called on the first person out of the gate, if you will.

The audience member responded along the lines of, “I believe you – I can tell by the look on your face that you never thought about this, so I know it wasn’t deliberate. It’s something to think about, though.” I told her my theory about calling on the first hand I saw, and she said that perhaps I should be more deliberate when calling on people. She may have said more, but I’m not sure. In any event, she was right.

I mention all of this because VIDA: Women in Literary Arts recently released a damning study that reveals a deplorable absence of female voices from the pages of our most prominent publications – The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and on and on. Time and again both authors of books under review and the reviewers themselves are men. As VIDA writes on their site:

The truth is, these numbers don’t lie. But that is just the beginning of this story. What, then, are they really telling us ? We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity. Many have already begun speculating; more articles and groups are pointing out what our findings suggest: the numbers of articles and reviews simply don’t reflect how many women are actually writing.

Take a look at the study. The pie charts they’ve assembled are shocking.

The VIDA study is in many ways a blunt instrument. There are several factors that need to be considered before this study could call itself definitive (the percentage of women vs. men that pitch themselves as reviewers against the percentage published for instance). VIDA knows this, and they’re refining their study. Regardless of its few shortcomings, the staggering differences between male and female representation in our most prestigious publications prove undeniable and depressing.

I write about books quite frequently, and I know that I write fairly and with integrity. The process whereby I am assigned a book to review possesses integrity, too. When I’m asked to review a book, I gladly accept as long as there are no conflicts and the subject falls within my capacity to render a worthwhile opinion. And when I pitch titles to my editors I apply these standards plus I select titles that seem particularly interesting to me, and that I have every hope will turn out to be engaging, beautifully written, essential contributions to the culture. If not, why bother wasting a bullet? There are so few pages devoted to books these days, that I would rather not waste the time and space on something that doesn’t need to be in print. This doesn’t always work out since I usually pitch review ideas before I read the book, but it seems essentially fair. But now VIDA has me thinking.

Over the past four years I’ve published around 30 reviews. Of the books I’ve reviewed, only four were written by women (I reviewed a fifth, but the editor killed the piece after the book ended up bearing no resemblance to what the catalog copy promised). I’m afraid to calculate the percentage on that, but it’s bad. Now, I tend to write about charlatans, scoundrels, raconteurs, and criminals, at least when I get to choose. Part of me thinks that many more men write about these subjects than women. And even if that instinct is wrong, I can confidently say that when I am looking for books to review the above considerations – interest in the subject and hope that the book is good – guide my decision-making. But as with my faulty selection of audience questioners, those criteria now seem suddenly wrong. At least incomplete.

To be fair to myself, when I look at the titles I’ve pitched but that were not picked up, my numbers rise considerably. I pitched more books by women than I’ve been asked to write about, but the number remains far from equal. Interestingly, with one exception I’ve never been assigned a first-time review with a new publication when I’ve highlighted a female-authored book as a potential first review. Also to be fair, most of those places have never given me an assignment at all. Perhaps I should always introduce myself to new markets by pitching biographies of Charlatan Heston penned by former Navy SEALs.

There’s no willing conspiracy here as far as I’m concerned. The people I’ve written for are, without fail, inspired, smart, engaged advocates of literary culture. Besides, I tend to select the majority of books that I review, and these days I tend to get assigned what I pitch. “It’s not you,” I now say to my editors and to the world, “it’s me.” But when it comes down to it, I’m obviously, however minor, part of a problem, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with this humiliating revelation.

Keep it in mind? Certainly.

Do better, sure, but what does that mean when I’m writing about what interests me, and to select books by women due to their authorship seems, well, a diminished way of approaching my work? That said, I’m sure some people will say I’ve always done that.

Realize that even when you’re lucky enough to participate in an enlightened realm of public discourse that that discourse remains enmeshed in a cycle of thoughtlessness, the result of which is unequal opportunity? Without a doubt.

Does anyone have any questions?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Alm February 25, 2011, 7:20 am

    While I can’t disagree with your own experience, since the proof is in the numbers, I’m not sure I agree that women are as absent from the discussion as much as you suggest here. The Atlantic publishes reviews of books by women, sometimes written by women, all the time. It also publishes plenty of work by men writing about women’s writing, women writing about men’s, etc. It seems very egalitarian. Same can be said of the New York Times Book Review and any of the other literary publications I read regularly.

    That you’ve only reviewed six book by women in the past two years, out of 30, might simply be chalked up to what interests you. I see no problem with that. If you began writing about women’s writing more deliberately, then you might start compromising some of your own standards for the sake of good politics. This isn’t to say that women can’t write books you’d enjoy, but why force it?

  • Rebecca Lehmann February 25, 2011, 9:30 am

    David, your response, holding forth The Atlantic and New York Times Book Reviews as examples of supposed gender equality, belies the seemingly invisible nature of much gender disparity. Both of those venues were included in VIDA’s count: the Atlantic with over 75% male reviewers and authors, the NYT Book Review slightly better with around 65% male reviewers and authors. You can look at the numbers for yourself on VIDA’s website, linked to above in Micheal’s post. I find it so interesting, though, that both publications seemed “very egalitarian” to you in recollection. This is part of the problem. The publishing industry is unfairly skewed towards men, and unfairly excludes women, and these numbers prove it, but most people don’t “see” it. That’s why VIDA’s count is so important. In confirms what those of us women who have been trying to get work published have often suspected: that it is easier to publish if your name is “John” or “David” and your poem is about hitting on or bedding women, or your review is about the some macho novelist’s newest book, than if your name is, say, “Monica,” or “Jane,” or your poem has an inherently female voice, or your review is about a novel by a woman.

    WHY is this? In my opinion, it is because people have a tendency to select people like them. This is why affirmative action exists, because the white dudes who were running everything kept selecting other white dudes to join their ranks in upper echelons of business, academics, politics, etc. I assert that the same holds true in publishing. Male editors are probably more likely to chose writing by men. It reminds them of themselves, if makes them feel like they are still relevant, whatever. I’d be interested to see VIDA add in the genders of the editors of the publications they have profiled, and take into consideration whether magazines and journals edited by women have better track records with gender parity, or not. I suspect they do.

    • David Alm February 27, 2011, 5:21 pm

      Rebecca – I can’t help but discern in your response to my comment a certain antagonism. If you want to engage this discussion, I am more than happy to do so. But to use phrasing like “I find it so interesting that…” strikes me as condescending and unnecessary.

      Secondly, I had not reviewed the study, as I was rushing out the door and merely wanted to submit a reply to Michael’s post before I left. I’m glad to know that my recollection of those publications is not in line with VIDA’s statistics, but such statistics still do not mean that women are absent from the “conversation.”

      Finally, this is clearly an important an emotional issue for you. It is for me, too, and while it’s true that “white dudes,” as you call them, have for years been the arbiters of culture, it’s also true, in the current age, that in certain industries — publishing, academia, and journalism among them — it can be a disadvantage to be a white man.

      Plenty of people refuse to acknowledge this, and even take great offense at the suggestion. But frankly, I don’t care. Until we can have honest discussions about workplace inequality, in all its forms, we are merely touting ideologies.

    • David Alm February 28, 2011, 7:39 am

      Rebecca — Your comment that “VIDA’s count… confirms what those of us women who have been trying to get work published have often suspected: that it is easier to publish if your name is ‘John’ or ‘David’ and your poem is about hitting on or bedding women, or your review is about the some macho novelist’s newest book, than if your name is, say, ‘Monica,’ or ‘Jane,’ or your poem has an inherently female voice, or your review is about a novel by a woman” is both simplistic and inaccurate. Statistics only show trends and currents, and cannot account for specific situations. It’s simply not true that “Sally” can’t get her poem published because “Steve” submitted one too, and all those good ol’ boys at the literary magazine are chomping on cigars over rare steaks and having a big laugh about it.

      As for “macho novelists,” how many recent novels by men have been by men you’d call “macho”? I’d hardly call David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, or J.M. Coetzee “macho.” Moreover, why do you think it’s the name “John” or “David” that gets a work published and not the quality of their work, or even its marketability? I know plenty of men who have had enormous difficulty publishing their work, and it’s often quite good. I can only assume it’s because there’s no market for it.

      The point is, it’s hard to get published — period. Just because some guy gets a book published about “hitting on or bedding women,” as you say, such a formula is not a sure thing, nor is it all anyone reads. Any literary review will prove that.

      What if I were to claim that the only way for a woman to get published is if she put herself through college working as a dominatrix while addicted to heroin? Such a book exists, a memoir by one of my colleagues at NYU, but is that the only kind of story anyone cares to read about? Of course not.

  • Amelia Robertson February 25, 2011, 12:09 pm

    Previously posted on mwashburn.wordpress: I respect this point of view, and find it somewhat common and honest. I understand why thematically a male rogue figure is enticing to male writers and reviewers and not so much to female writers. But why are there not more female reviewers? Are there not more equally worthy themes available? I would say one way an individual could address this would be to seek out and read female authored books in a search for what is excellent and this will produce leads and a wider concept of what good is in literature, as well as what influences are out there. I could recommend a pile of female poets, and with some thought a few in fiction, essay, or philosophy.

    • Michael Washburn February 25, 2011, 12:11 pm

      hey there Amelia,
      thanks for your note. your points are well taken. as for your question, though, i have no idea why there aren’t more female reviewers. i suspect, as the VIDA study so powerfully insists, that there *are* female reviewers out there, but that they aren’t getting the chances. if you want to see a silly response – or sillier than mine, i feel — check out jonathan chait’s thing in The New Republic abt the VIDA study.

      as for the point that’s a bit more pointed toward me, again well taken. first let me say that what i review and what i read don’t map directly onto each other. as a professional critic i only review nonfiction. i obvs read much more widely than that, and i read many more female novelists than my blog post would suggest. (i’m always open to suggestions, so please feel free to send those along. my email is michael.a.washburn@gmail.com if you want to follow up.) as for the legitimate claim about the worthiness of themes and seeking out good female writers, i’m prompted to say a few things. first, there are without a doubt equal – no, superior -themes. of course, of course. as for seeking good stuff out, which we all try to do, this brings up the perils of professional reading and writing, at least on a freelance basis. most anything i’m going to review i don’t read until i know i’m going to get paid for it. this is an economic necessity since it takes so long to read a book the way it needs to be read if one ‘s going to write about it. also, in order to satisfy my editors timelines, i’ve got to pitch titles – or be assigned them – at least a couple months before publication. in order to sleuth out things that exist in other realms, i’d have to request a lot of galleys that would never be reviewed. first, this would make me feel bad. second, this would waste publishers resources, always scarce in any circumstance. i know, i know, there’s hole in what i’m saying since, after all, i’ve got to make a selection process anyway, but to me it feels like i’m saying something.

      and please don’t think i’m trying to dodge the point or that i think the blog post (written yesterday on a flight from NYC to KY) about my naive “ah ha” moment speaks to the larger, more pressing issues raised by the VIDA study. if anything, i could be accused of ignoring the actual issue by focusing on myself. that wasn’t my intent, but a few ppl have sent me notes to that effect.

    • Jeff McMahon February 25, 2011, 11:38 pm

      Amelia and Mike,

      Please have a look at Contrary’s Index of Reviews. Our Review Editor, Cynthia Newberry Martin, and most of our reviewers are female (four out of six in most issues, sometimes five out of seven). Our reviewees are closer to equitable. The authors of original poetry and fiction we publish in each issue, too, are usually equitably divided among the genders. We don’t have quotas but we try to be vigilant for inequity. Now, we have much more work to do on other varieties of diversity…

  • Amelia Robertson February 25, 2011, 12:31 pm

    Addendum: I agree with Rebecca Lehmen that people tend to select people like them. I have seen this anecdotally along gender, race, sexuality, economic and to a lesser extent religious lines in my previous experiences with working in roofing, agriculture, and to a lesser but real extent in academia. Until college, I could probably count on my fingers the female authors I had read. The fact is that leadership and gatekeeper positions are currently overwhelmingly held by males in our culture, and in my opinion on the reason why that is not quickly changing despite the openness of law and popular opinion, is that it is slightly more comfortable for men to communicate with other men. This discomfort creates a slight disincentive for (single?, white?, hetero?, protestent? or agnostic?) male leaders to chose female successors or leaders (or any individual who is visibly quite a bit different than themselves). A common appearance is often an accurate predictor of, and can be confused with, a common background that does tend to make communication easier. So what could incentivize a shift without tokenizing? I’m not sure I know. But I think part of it has to do with those in gatekeeper positions reading and engaging with the presence of other voices, so that when a review is done, or a person is hired, it is neither a token gesture nor an affirmation of the (relatively comfortable) status quo. A reviewer who wants to try to review more books by women might have to read a lot of books written by women not worth reviewing before they can predict, previous to publication, a female authored book that they would likely want to review. I think it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it’s easier to make predictions about a population with which you have familiarity.

    • Cynthia Newberry Martin February 26, 2011, 9:01 am

      Amelia, all points well made. When I started reviewing books for Contrary in 2009, I decided to review only debut novels by women. No tokenizing involved. And I have not been disappointed yet. Another one of our reviewers has just decided to focus on collections by minority writers, a category that will include women.