‘It Isn’t Rocket Science’: ‘Tin House’ and ‘Granta’ Editors on How to Run a Publication That Isn’t Sexist


Last week, the literary world was yet again unsettled, if unsurprised, by the release of the VIDA count, our yearly reminder of the gender prejudices that seem to be systematic to most literary-minded magazines and journals. We reached out to several of the worst offenders to ask where they thought they had gone wrong — and get an update on the Forward‘s similar interviews from 2011, in which many editors promised to do better — but got very little in the way of responses. So we decided, instead, to reach out to the editors of the publications that actually had managed to show a relatively gender-equitable byline distribution in 2012. The good list is short: Tin House, Granta, and Boston Review all made good showings, with Tin House in the lead (the journal also has the distinction of being the only publication with more female than male writers in any category). In an attempt to work this all out, we asked Tin House‘s Rob Spillman and Granta‘s John Freeman to tell us why their magazines succeeded where so many others failed.

“I was very surprised by the numbers, particularly Harper’s,” Spillman told us. Indeed, we found their abysmal ratio of female to male writers almost alarming, especially considering editor Ellen Rosenbush’s 2010 assertion that things were on the mend: “When I became editor of Harper’s Magazine last year,” she said, “one of the first things I announced to staff was that I’d like to see even more women writers” in the magazine. “After VIDA’s initial count three years ago,” Spillman said, “you would think others would move toward gender equality, or at least make a gesture toward it. It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out.” So why not?

“We did a thorough analysis of our internal submission numbers and found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts. So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute. We also adjusted our Lost & Found section, which featured short pieces on under-appreciated writers or books. We had been asking 50/50 writers, but the subjects were coming back 80/20 male to female, meaning that both men and women were writing about men versus women writers. We then started asking both male and female writers if there are any women writers they would like to champion. It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance. Again, these are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Hell yes, Tin House. Way to identify a problem and take active steps to rectify it, rather than just assuring everyone gravely that we all need to do better, and leaving it at that. We also find it pretty fascinating that women — at least the women who submit to Tin House — are so much more polite than their male counterparts, even when it’s to their detriment. Could this anecdote have something to do with the greater systemic issue? Do female writers suffer from the same setbacks in getting published as the professional women Sheryl Sandberg describes in her controversial and endlessly discussed new book, Lean In?

For Granta‘s John Freeman, it was even simpler than all that. “We are of course very pleased by [how we performed in the VIDA count],” he told us, “but Granta has no secret for how we maintain these percentages. I don’t force myself to think of Louise Erdrich, or Karen Russell. Or some of the writers who are on our upcoming Best of Young British Novelists issue. In fact, it is hard for me not to; to me, they are simply the best out there.” Yes, yes they are. Now if only everyone would realize it.