In 2009, VIDA started a conversation about the visibility of women in publishing. For the past three years, VIDA has published lovely, useful, but seriously depressing pie charts on the ratio of female to male writers, reviewers, reviewed authors, and bylines from many of the big literary publications: Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, London Review of Books, New Republic, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. http://www.vidaweb.org/vida-count-2012-mic-check-redux Our compadres at Drunken Boat, Tin House, and Harvard Review have also joined in with their own stats, with Tin House being particularly supportive of VIDA’s mission.
Intrigued by what results Contrary might produce, I went through and did my own VIDA count for Contrary. Doing a project like this with Contrary is actually more difficult than you think, because we court work that challenges the conventional categories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. After sorting, there is the matter of gender, which is often, in this complex world of ours, a fluid body.
The numbers fascinate me. We published two creative nonfiction pieces in 2012 and one in 2011, all by women. Seven of the ten poets we published in 2012 were women, nine out of 14 poets we published in 2011 were women. In 2012, six out of 13 of the fiction authors I published were women. In 2011, four out of 13 of the fiction authors published were women, with one author of indeterminate gender. In 2012, 11 of the 15 reviews were by women, and seven of the books reviewed were by women. In 2011, 11 of our 20 reviews were written by women, and of those 11 were of books written by women.
So on the VIDA scale, we’re doing well. But what, exactly, does that mean? It’s not as if we sit down every issue and decide consciously “I want to add a woman’s voice, let’s run this story instead.” So how is it we fare so much better than other publications?
As I mentioned, we attract work that blurs lines and breaks boundaries. We’re always open to publishing the previously unpublished. We’ve been around a long time and we’ve managed to survive a lot of debates on the legitimacy of publishing quality literature exclusively online. We’ve outlasted a lot of literary trends. We’ve managed to deliver great content with no turnover of our core editing staff. Two of our three editors are women. We’re free, our submission process is free. We pay our contributors. Being online gives us that ability to be accessible. But most of all, we’re champions of voices that don’t get heard in the mainstream, or even in the academic literary world. We publish that lonely, brilliant poet on a mountain top who would be overlooked at other publications. And for whatever socioeconomic reasons, that poet is just as likely to be a female as a male.
Before I congratulate us at Contrary too much, there is a kind of accident at work when we accept a piece. All of our submissions are subject to the discernment of the editors. So while we feel inclusive, and we think we have what VIDA is after, there is, likely, a great swath that we are ignoring, too. Who are we not publishing? Roxane Gay at The Rumpus http://therumpus.net/2012/06/where-things-stand/ is doing a count of writers of color. I did one for 2011 and 2012 for Contrary, and our numbers are troubling: only 4 writers of color in fiction and poetry respectively were published in the past 2 years. In 2010, we featured Sherman Alexie and published at least 6 authors of color. And though VIDA is focused solely on the presence of women in publishing, we would do well to also be aware of our exclusions of non-white writers as well. We want Contrary to reflect the world, not just our world.
Frances Badgett is Contrary’s fiction editor.