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Where Are the Women Writers? (ASME Edition)

The cofounder of VIDA's byline inequality survey weighs in on the dude-centric list of 2012 National Magazine Award finalists.

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

MJ: What does the Count tell us, and what can it not tell us?

EB: One of the things that is brilliant about the Count is there's a gorgeous simplicity to it. There's something really stunning about those pie charts, right? At VIDA, this was the beginning of the conversation. We did not go into this thinking we knew the answer to something and this was going to illustrate it, because this is a complicated issue. But you can't deny the starkness of such an incredibly wide discrepancy. We said, wow, this really appears to be of interest. Let's have a conversation about this, what it means.

It's been a little bit frustrating for us that people have just wanted to dismiss it. What you're talking about are people's unconscious biases. What I've learned over the last couple years doing the Count is that I could have Jesus Christ himself come down and say, "Yes, the ladies are right, there is discrimination in the literary world, just as there is in every aspect of life. Gender bias is profound and woven into the fabric of pretty much every part of our lives." And there would still be all these people in comment boxes and articles saying, "Well, these numbers don't mean anything."

"The established majors are the tastemakers, and what they're telling us about their tastes is that they don't like women. And they need to."

Well, maybe we don't know exactly what they mean yet, but I'm pretty sure they mean something. And it's not something positive for women writers. Even if it were true that women were submitting fewer pieces then men do, then why is that? Let's have a conversation about that. Is it because women are inherently slothful? I think anybody who's ever had a mother knows that that's not true. Most of the women I know are busting their asses. Working and taking care of a home and, in my world, trying to do their creative work on top of maybe wanting to raise a family and trying to make ends meet. They're not standing around eating bonbons.

MJ: A similar argument, put forth by the Guardian's books editor, is that women have a confidence problem.

EB: For women it is true, so often they don't want to be seen as aggressive. It's the double-edged sword that you've seen someone like Hillary Clinton face: If you put yourself out there, you're a bitch, you're shrill, you're hysterical, whatever. Maybe it's true women don't want to put themselves out there in a critical way because the payback is pretty ferocious. I'm not telling anybody anything they don't know, but what can we do to change that?

VIDA's whole mission is predicated on the fact that we're going to go ahead and believe that people understand it's important for the world that women's voices be represented in the mix. For the future. We don't move forward based on only one half of humanity's experience. Slightly less than one half, I might add.

MJ: What's the overall trend? Are things improving for women?

EB: For a lot of women, this is the worst of times. There's that picture that's going around the internet of this strong, interesting woman standing there with a sign saying, "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit." I wasn't alive for it, but I have this idea I'm living somewhere around 1967 with this cadre of old white men sitting around telling me what I should do with my body, as if the last 35 years of feminism had not occurred. And it does sometimes feel like a war. I don't want to toss that word around, but there's a kind of psychological war on women that's turning into a legislative war on women.

At the same time, so many of the women that I know aren't sitting on the fence anymore. I see all of these women, especially younger women, saying: "Yeah, I'm not going to be in the closet about this anymore. I'm a feminist." All of the women I know are organizing and talking to each other. It just feels like there's an energy moving in a certain direction. I'm sorry it had to come with these attacks on women's agency.

"We all know that social media and internet magazines have fundamentally rocked the hierarchy of these old gray ladies."

You do not want to wake the sleeping giant that is women's intelligence, ability to organize, ability to multitask. You do not want to piss a lot of women off. For a long time we've been taking care of business. While men were being visionary, we've been running everything. And we can really jam up the system pretty good.

MJ: Elsewhere, when questions of gender equity in publishing come up, I've heard conservatives say, "Oh, please! Mass fiction is a woman's world, women are readers, they're the consumers of the media, and as a result media is tailored to their sensibilities." There are people who say we've done a good job of bringing out the Edwidge Danticats, Zadie Smiths, Alice Munros, going back to the '60s and '70s.

EB: You wanna make lists? That's why we count. Look at the presses, at what the lead books are on presses. Look at who wins the awards, who wins the prizes that allow them to have more than an initial career, to have a mid-career and a later career. Do I think it's changing? The National Book Critic's Circle Awards just came out, and they were very positive in terms of the number of women who were represented and won. I haven't counted yet. [Laughs.]

People have a different idea of what it means for women to fully equally participate. Some people see one or two or three women doing well and they say, "There's not a problem." Jeffrey Eugenides—and this bums me out, because I really like him—he got up in front of an audience in California and said, "Oh yeah, the thing with women and publishing. I work out…I'm on the elliptical next to a famous woman writer at my gym, so you know, they're everywhere." Really? Really? That's your anecdotal evidence for the fact that there's some sort of parity?

MJ: Does it make sense to be looking at publication records of these storied, dead-tree publications in an internet age? It seems like Occupy and other phenomena have shown us that if you get locked out, there are so many ways through the door now, online, creating a brand for yourself.

EB: I want that sort of new energy, that new focus. I think we all know that social media and internet magazines have fundamentally rocked the hierarchy of these old gray ladies, as they were. It's funny that they call them ladies. [Laughs.] But at the same time, I don't think that's good enough. There are always going to be gatekeepers, and you always have to keep an eye on the gatekeeper.

Having a poem in The New Yorker means something, for good or for ill, as opposed to the Snotty Rabbit Review or whatever—which could be totally awesome, but at the same time it doesn't have that kind of impact that allows you to buy the time and make the space to pursue. As writers, you and I know, it all comes down to time and space. If you don't have your time and space then you just don’t get your work done. The established majors are the tastemakers; they've taken it upon themselves to be that. And what they're telling us about their tastes is that they don't like women. And they need to.

MJ: David Remnick sounded downright wounded when he saw your stats on The New Yorker.

EB: I like the fact that he just owned it. He didn't waffle. He was like, "Wow, that sucks; we need to do better." And I feel like the The New Yorker does that every five years, but it'd be great if they came out and said how they planned to do better.

We'd like to be helpful. We'd like to partner with these places. A lot of editors are like, "So few women writers submit." Would you like us to put you in touch with some? Because I know a lot of them. I know some fantastic writers. That list is deep, so call me, David Remnick. Call me because we can help, and we want to help.

We don't want this to be a negative conversation. We want positive gains to come out of it. But you know what? Civil rights made people uncomfortable. Gay rights made people uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to change your perspective. If you've discovered it's something you need to care about, then talk to VIDA. We'd love to be of use. That's what we're here for.

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