Today’s release of the annual VIDA count, for literary magazines and book reviews, puts me in mind of a literary gender avenger version of Santa Claus coming to town, weighing whether children (aka magazines) have been naughty or nice. In this case, the question is less how magazine editors have behaved in school, and more how aggressive they’ve been in counterbalancing their blind spots by mindful solicitation of and interest in female writers.
And the judgment of who’s getting coal in their metaphorical stockings is up to us, the readers of these publications when presented with VIDA’s pie charts. We’re encouraged by VIDA to email the editors with praise or disapproval, and we can also help the magazines rectify the situation — encouraging agents, pitchers of book reviews, publicists and writers to do their part and put underrepresented writing forward for consideration.
Of course the “count,” which combines a gender breakdown bylines and authors of books reviewed, doesn’t tell the whole story. As the VIDA editors noted when they released their count this year, “the numbers don’t tell the whole story — but they do raise questions. We are working to develop an even larger picture by counting other sociological factors in an attempt to deepen the conversation and reveal more complexities and make connections as we proceed.”
In previous years, one question raised by the VIDA count was how difficult it would be to similarly “count” for race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background and other factors that aren’t as easily gleaned from a byline as gender is. This year VIDA staffers made their first attempt to survey for race, which proved difficult. Essentially, their methodology involved relying on women whose bylines had appeared in these “thought leader” magazines to self-report their race. The responses they got were few, but as the large purple columns that indicate “white” and dominate the other colors in the charts below demonstrate, even the scant results they did receive confirmed what most of us already know: these august publications, like much of publishing and journalism, lack diversity. Hopefully in future years there will be more data to mine and a broader discussion to have, but this is a start.
VIDA’s 2014 count does highlight some improvement. As we’ve noted before, The New York Times Book Review‘s numbers have been inching closer to parity for the last two years, with 909 male to 792 female in 2014. The New Yorker and the The Paris Review have also shown modest improvement since 2010.
Unfortunately for the most entrenched publications, like perennial “count” bottom-feeder the London Review of Books and to a lesser extent the New York Review of Books, their audience probably doesn’t match up with VIDA’s and they can continue to ignore the count. Still, their reputation as stuffy and male-dominated has probably now been cemented with younger readers, and future editors of these publications will probably have their work cut out for them.
As for the “larger literary landscape” of niche but respected literary magazines, which VIDA continues to survey, there’s no question many of these magazines are actually approaching equality year by year, with some fluctuations. Some magazines have led the way, and now others have followed. The field isn’t quite the sea of red with slivers of blue it once was.
When “The Count” first showed up, many people heralded the dawn of the VIDA era, while wondering whether merely counting would make any meaningful difference.
Clearly, for the magazines that care, it has made a huge one. It’s hard not to imagine even the most self-confident editor not being slightly haunted by the specter of those blue and red charts showing up each spring. And web culture has led the way in demanding change, too. When I began writing response posts to the VIDA count five years ago, most of my friends were low-level writers and editors. Now many of them have real heft at their publications in print and online and are working hard to bring new voices into the mix, because that value — diversity of perspective — has become a bigger one in journalistic and literary culture. We know real change is possible with some considerable effort, as the case of Tin House, and the TV host who tried to book 50% female guests, show us.