Race, Class, Gender & Sexuality in Indie Publishing

We invited editors and writers to participate in a series on issues and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in independent publishing. We asked them how these issues affected them as editors interested in publishing underrepresented communities, or writers who want to challenge dominant notions of identity.

I Can Think of Numerous Women: On the Conversation About Women, Publishing, and Numbers

by Posted on March 23rd, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Originally published at The Review Review as “Sexism in Publishing: It’s About More Than Just Numbers”



Inequality in publishing is finally getting its due attention. About a month ago VIDA released The Count, which compared the percentages of female and male bylines in literary and commercial magazines, revealing devastating data. Recently numerous writers have published related articles on many high-profile sites, including Slate,PBSMs. MagazineBitch Magazine, Jezebel, The New RepublicThe New York Times, and countless others. All over the Internet, writers are compiling lists of articles about sexism, bloggers are commenting, and editors are coming forward to talk about their publishing practices.

It’s an exciting time. Writers are asking important questions: Does my voice count? Am I and are writers like me getting fair representation in the public realm? Have I been held back and/or holding myself back? If I have been held back, why?

Similarly, editors of small journals and larger glossies are taking time to assess the history of their publications, asking themselves difficult questions: Do I fairly represent all voices? Are my reading preferences biased, and is that bias based on gender? Can I do more as an editor to ensure that everyone gets fairly heard? What is my role here, and how can my magazine become more diverse?

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a tangible wave sweeping through publishing. Dare I say, it’s a veritable movement.

All this makes me happy.

And yet, critic that I am, I’d like to pause for just one moment, lest we lose sight of something important: Content.

In the fever over which authors get adequately represented in bookstores, on shelves, in magazines, and in the pages of small journals, it is important that we also consider which characters get depicted within literary works themselves. Which heroes and which heroines? Fighting for which causes? Using which methods? And with what end results?

While editors and publishers might begin to seek out woman writers to balance their contributors lists, I worry that this effort may constitute little more than superficial change, mere window dressing on an otherwise dysfunctional social structure.

Thus I would like to caution readers, writers, and editors against putting too much emphasis on numbers alone. If, for instance, The New Yorker suddenly began seeking woman writers to fill its pages, that would be a good thing. But if these women writers wrote articles and stories that devalued women, that championed the limiting of women’s rights, or otherwise reinforced a patriarchal status quo, I would not call that progress.

Sadly, I can think of numerous women whose books, and the messages contained therein, actually hurt other women. Yes, they are women who are achieving success in male-dominated fields. Yes, they have gotten published. But I cannot say that their writing does much in the way of achieving equality between the sexes.

It’s unfortunate that the conversation should even create this either/or bifurcation. Women, like men, are complex creatures, holding a variety of political views and living across race and class spectrums. Women, like men, have a variety of tastes, and for every taste a different writing style, with different subject matter that interests them. How many women love to write stories from the points of view of men? How many men love to tell stories about women? (No one’s taught me more about what it is to be a woman oppressed by both class and gender than Gustave Flaubert!)

Nonetheless, the conversation has become about numbers for obvious reasons. When looking at the ghastly figures–in some major commercial magazines, women book reviewers a mere 4% of all reviewers–how could we not notice this stark suppression of female voices? How could we, as women, not feel hurt, outraged, demoralized, shocked, and frankly pissed off?

We can and many of us do.

Still, there is more to consider. If we wish to ensure that our reading material remains democratic, lively, relevant, and humane, we must look beyond the numbers.

Editors who have genuinely sought engaged subject matter and varied literary styles among submissions have observed that an equal gender balance arises naturally. This phenomenon was commented upon by Jeanne Leiby of Southern Review, Rebecca Morgan Frank of Memorious, and Joanne Merriam of 7×20, among others. Such editors work hard to produce journals that are not merely of a high quality, but which also display diverse characters in a range of milieus, stories narrated from various perspectives, and poetry in a range of styles. When diversity in content is sought, greater equality appears to be organically attained.

Similarly, writers interested in issues of social justice may begin by asking certain questions of their work: How do my characters define themselves? What gives their lives meaning? Do their struggles exist in isolation, or is society somehow taken into account? Are the characters fully-dimensional, with virtues as well as flaws, or are they composites of familiar stereotypes? Does the story’s end offer hope for change? Does the ending condemn the characters’ choices in some way? If you are writing outside your comfort zone, you may want to consider having people unlike yourself read your work and give you feedback.

Experimental and avant-garde writing often has explicit or implicit political messages. Because this genre usually emphasizes language and texture, deliberately de-emphasizing content, it’s much harder to talk about issues of character, story, or social milieu. The only thing I would suggest is that if you are writing experimental work, be sure to articulate–if only to yourself–your specific vision. Many feminist literary critics have spoken of experimental writing as inherently disruptive to patriarchy, in that it subverts traditional, linear narrative forms. On the other hand, several avant-garde poets have gone on to support Fascismt regimes. Unless you envision yourself as the next Mussolini, experiment with care.

Ultimately, determining the message of a particular work is a much more subjective and nebulous venture than tracking numerical data. In many cases, the more entertaining a work of art, the more difficult to unpack its meaning. Throughout history, the most oppressive political systems have found ways to disseminate ideology through the most beautiful works of art.

It makes sense that questions of fairness would begin with inquiries into how many women versus men are getting published. I do believe this is a start. The numbers revealed by VIDA have been absolutely appalling.

But this cannot be the end of the discussion.

After all, in time what will our nieces, daughters, and granddaughters remember—The story about yet another disgruntled male professor who cheats on his wife, written by a woman? Or the story of a woman who wants more from life than marriage and motherhood…written by a man?