Erin Belieu: The VIDA Count and Women in Publishing
Author: Julie Levine
May 11, 2013
“We should think for ourselves and have a diverse and healthy and dynamic literary setting in this country that isn’t about worshiping a small group of white straight guys […]”
Erin Belieu is the author of three books of poetry: Infanta (1995), selected for the National Poetry Series, One Above, One Below (2000), and Black Box (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In addition, she co-edited The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (2001) with Susan Aizenberg. She is currently the director of the creative writing MFA program at Florida State University, and formerly served as a managing editor for AGNI magazine. In August of 2009, she and Cate Marvin co-founded VIDA, an organization that “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” Since its inception, VIDA has received significant media attention, particularly for “The Count,” an annual report of the number of women versus the number of men that are reviewed and published in major literary magazines such as Boston Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. The report revealed that many of these magazines publish and review substantially more men than women. Erin Belieu graciously took the time to discuss all things VIDA-related with Lambda Literary.
What actually inspired the VIDA Count?
Cate Marvin and I are co-founders of VIDA. Cate had gotten a hold of me in an email that she sent to a very small group of women. It was this kind of manifesto about her frustrations with the fact that she felt the feminist conversation in the contemporary literary community seemed to have died away. In this long email, which was really sort of a short essay, she asked what’s happened to the state of feminism in literature, and if she was the only one who felt isolated and kind of lonely with these concerns. At the end of that email she said please feel free to pass this on to anyone else you think might be interested in reading it.
Being the literalist I am, I decided to forward it to about 300 people that night, who then forwarded it to God knows how many other people. By the time Cate got up the next morning her inbox was deluged with responses from writers saying yes, it’s about time, what can we do, what should we do? She called me the next morning, and from that conversation we said okay, I guess we have to start an organization. So we did, that day.
As Cate and I were trying to put this together, one of the things we [discovered] is that women, whether they were completely conscious of it or not, were often counting tables of contents. They were looking for how women are represented in some of these major market magazines, literary outlets, and prizes. So we thought, well, why don’t we just simply find out?
We put together a group of women to work on this. People have no idea how difficult doing the Count is, especially for a volunteer organization. It’s basically a year-long process of doing this, doing it right, recounting and recounting. We release it every March in conjunction with the AWP conference where all these writers are together and we can have a conversation about what’s happened. We are counting until the very last minute to make sure the numbers are right. We’ve usually got about a dozen women in various places working on it.
The biggest argument there seems to be about the Count is that more men are submitting to magazines than women, so it would make sense for the numbers to reflect this. But regardless of this argument, when I look at the specific publications that are represented in the Count, I don’t see them as ones that are accessible for new and emerging writers, male or female. What is the Count and VIDA’s position on the role that new and emerging women writers play in this debate?
That’s a really good question. There are a number of different things that it brings up. The first one is, if you’ve decided that you want a life in writing and this is what you care about, why shouldn’t you set your sights as high as possible? Why wouldn’t you want the audience and access that such publications bring you? There’s no reason to assume that you shouldn’t be trying to get into these places.
And if you look at writers throughout history, 24, 25, 26-year olds—I mean, how old was Keats when he was writing his major works, right? I tell my students that they need to be ambitious and not assume that they can’t be a part of that conversation; that they should be part of that conversation. Another thing my teacher told me a long time ago that I always took to heart was that it’s not the most poems published that wins, it’s the best.
One of the other things VIDA has done is bring up questions for every kind of identity in the literary world, [particularly] women of color and gay women. I feel like we have so many wonderful allies in the gay community who have been essential to helping VIDA do the work we’ve been able to do. And for writers of color I think this re-galvanizes a conversation for them as well. It seems like VIDA has brought up a lot of conversations and I think it’s really important for emerging writers to ask where they fit into this and how this affects their future.
But in order to get in a place like The New Yorker, you have to have a book out, a chapbook, or you have to have been widely published, right?
No, it doesn’t work that way. Well, I mean sometimes it does. I was the poetry editor of AGNI magazine for several years, which is a pretty well established magazine. I think most of the editors I know get a big kick out of discovering people because there’s a big rush in being the first to publish somebody. It is more difficult to break through but it’s not impossible. When editors see somebody new come through in their slush pile they’ll note it but they’ll probably reject it because they want to see how deep [that writer’s] bench is. They want to make sure this isn’t a one-hit wonder, because accepting somebody establishes a kind of relationship with them. They’ve published them, so they’ve created a commitment, whether that’s a purely psychological idea or not. My advice overall to writers, both men and women, is to submit to the places whose work you really admire, submit to the places whose company you wish to be keeping, and let them get to know you and don’t give up.
Knowing what you know about the skewed editorial process, what other advice would you give those submitting to “high-water” publications?
I think maybe sometimes a cover letter that says I’ve appeared in A, B or C will maybe get you a second look or a slightly closer look from an editor, but the truth is, if they look at the work and they just don’t like it, it doesn’t matter how good your bona fides are. And some of that is frustrating.
Sometimes my students send to magazines not based on any kind of real knowledge of the magazine and what kind of aesthetics they have, because it’s big name, but they don’t really know anything about the magazine. One of the things that, having been an editor for years, used to drive me crazy is that people all wanted to be in the magazine but it didn’t appear that any of them were reading the magazine. That’s a frustration. The culture of magazines is such that sometimes unfortunately too many writers see magazines as simply a service bureau for their careers, but that’s not what the magazines think of themselves as.
I tell my students that if you look to the art then the things that you want can often come from that. But they always have to look to the poetry first. The other thing I tell my students is that you can sleep your way to the middle but you can’t sleep your way to the top, so it doesn’t matter how connected you are. What makes a life in writing is your artistry and your devotion to your work, and that’s true no matter what your sex organs are.
Which is why VIDA isn’t calling for quotas. We don’t want quotas because that’s not how art works. But we do want people to be conscious of their gender bias and we want men particularly to be more open, and women who’ve been trained in a patriarchal system to be open to other voices, because they don’t always realize how parochial their tastes are, or they’re too afraid to like something on their own. Like, oh we all love Cormac McCarthy or, oh we all love Philip Roth. Well I like Cormac McCarthy but I don’t love him and I certainly don’t like Philip Roth, and I’m okay with that. We don’t all think one thing. We should think for ourselves and have a diverse and healthy and dynamic literary setting in this country that isn’t about worshiping a small group of white straight guys that a very small elite group of tastemakers have decided is the shit.
I talk to other women and I think submitting is a little different for them—and people have been saying this too, that if women are asked to submit again, they’re less likely to do so than men.
Well, let’s stop and examine that for a moment, because people often assume things anecdotally that aren’t true. If there’s anything the Count has taught me, even when you give people quantifiable information, they’ll look at it and say it’s just not true, or they’ll start looking for any kind of intellectual gymnastics they can put the numbers through in order to deny the discrepancy.
But anecdote is not fact, so when this conversation annoyingly has moved toward, well women just don’t submit as much, are we sure about that? Do they submit initially as much as men do and then realize at some point that they’re never getting through that door and so they stop? How likely are women to be accepted? There have been all kinds of gender studies done on how people perceive names. The gendering of names. What would happen if editors all took a pledge to completely make blind decisions with no idea of gender? What would happen to the acceptance rates? And what would also happen to submissions?
I’m not willing to accept it until someone shows me evidence of this, this anecdote that women submit less. If it were true, then that would lead to another conversation. There’s a couple ways we can think about it: women are inherently timid or lazy, which I think anybody who’s ever had a mother knows probably isn’t true, or we can say, there’s something about the atmosphere in literary publishing that has made women feel hopeless about their ability to compete. Sociologically we know that women—though it’s better than it used to be—still are not taught to compete, or more, there’s not the expectation of competition for girls that there is for boys. It starts at a very early age. And the girls who do compete naturally are often punished, and we see that in adult women’s lives by the way politicians and women in other public positions are treated. For instance, Deborah Copaken Kogan has that article in The Nation right now about her experience as a woman in publishing.
I read that. That was hard to read because it was disheartening.
It’s absolutely brutal, but what is also more brutal, I think, or as brutal, is looking at the comment thread, which just [contains] the most vicious misogyny. I mean not even sneaky, just nastiness. So any woman who puts herself out there, the reaction, this sort of how dare you reaction, is stomach churning.
It takes a very armored kind of person to race towards what she knows is often going to be some pretty brutal treatment. I’ve experienced that myself as a woman who is a pretty well known feminist in the literary community. When my last book came out there was this notion that everything I was writing was autobiographical, which also gets done to women frequently. Like, everything that happens in one of my poems happened to me, right? Because I didn’t make anything up, it’s never an act of imagination, it’s just my diary or something. And then in a number of comments on the Internet, people were making comments about my fitness as a mother. How many times do you hear a male author being called out as a parent for something he imagined in a book? And I wonder, why is it appropriate to treat women’s writing as this as autobiography?
Presumably you have contacts with a number of editors. Does VIDA have plans to try to figure out how many submissions from men versus women there are and then explore that avenue?
We’ve talked about it but it would be almost impossible to do. Even if we had the money and the resources, like maybe if the NEA could take on a nationwide systemic study over X amount of time, it would be wildly expensive, and still would be really hard to move forward with such a thing. Which magazines would you include? What constitutes a “literary” publication? What would be a statistical sample? One of the reasons we chose to do what we do, at this moment, is that it’s much more available information [on publication rates] than trying to figure out how many women submit to magazines.
[A study] would also mean that every single one of these magazines would have to cooperate and be willing to expose themselves. The people who are doing well are always willing to share their numbers. People who are not doing well frequently don’t want to draw attention to the fact. It’s gotten better now because VIDA has become a kind of cultural force that seems to represent a lot of feminist thought, but especially when we were first starting we couldn’t get that. Now they feel like they have to take us a little more seriously, but still most are not rushing forward to share their internal information with us. We did do a count of Best American and all of the different genres, and we’ve done counts of a lot of the prizes. In the last two years the numbers have been slightly better but that could be a statistical blip. So we’ll keep counting.
One of the things we can usefully look at is how many women win major, career defining prizes, and those numbers are atrocious as well. So, getting around this submission idea, who’s winning the major prizes and awards that give you the time and space and reputation to be able to build your life as a writer? All things being equal, there are women who have gotten their books into print and they submitted, clearly, to presses, but they still can’t, more often than not, win the major prizes. That’s what the overall history of the prizes tells us. And that’s not just true in literature. That’s true in journalism, that’s true in every kind of writing except for children’s literature, which is dominated by women.
What kind of plans does VIDA have for the future in terms of trying to help women be more represented?
There are a couple of different projects. We’re thinking through what we can do about membership because right now VIDA doesn’t have a specific sort of membership program, but that’s something that we’re hoping will be finished by the end of this year. We’ve got a couple of different people working on this because it’s a big question about how we want membership to look and how we want it to function. Once we have an actual membership, I think we’ll be able to talk to that membership and find out what services would be of use to them. I also think we are very committed to the idea of mentorship and trying to find ways to start mentorship programs, whether that’s starting campus chapters of VIDA so that women writers at the MFA and PhD level can come together to be a support system for one another. We’re also working with a group of pretty well established women to try to found a writing prize—like they have in Britain for women writers—to bring serious attention to the issue and to the good work of women writing in all these different genres.
The real thing we’re working on right now is fundraising so we can start putting some of these programs in place. In this economy, it’s a lot of work trying to find ways to do this. I think we’re at a moment culturally where it’s more likely to happen now and I think people are taking this issue very, very seriously.
And in future counts are you trying to look at other publications?
We’re not sure yet. We’re still dealing with the media reaction to this Count and that’s probably going to go on for another month or so, if it’s typical of what’s happened in the past. Then the executive board and board of directors will get together to talk about whether we want to include others. Basically the Count has become enough of a kind of cultural event that there are a few magazines that are now writing to us that want to be included in the Count even though they must know their numbers aren’t very good, I assume because they want to be considered one of the elite. It’s interesting that some magazines actually want us to count them now, because they want to be considered as tastemakers and gatekeepers, too. I guess some think all press is good press. We have to be really careful to not be manipulated in that way, either, but I do think maybe we can open our Count up to the bad and the good. You know, really featuring those magazines like Tin House this year that had gone on record as saying, this matters to us, we realize our numbers weren’t great and we took steps to really affect change. Tin House has gotten an enormous amount of press and attention because of this, and they have done better as you see in the Count. We’d like to feature people and not just bring negative news but bring positive news too, to show that there are people who really care about these issues. Why not praise as much as point out the difficulties, right?
Obviously VIDA is seeking gender equality in the publishing world, but aside from this, what are the organization’s more long-term goals?
What VIDA is seeking is greater gender awareness, not perfect 1-1 equality. As I said, we don’t believe in quotas. But what I hope will happen is that if people really do as I’m talking about, which is open their minds to other kinds of writing and to other voices, if they examine their bias and think about why they’re making the choices they’re making, they will become much more open to other kinds of writing that’s equally excellent. Most of the time aesthetic narrow mindedness and gender anxiety is people feeling insecure about their own taste and self definitions, right?
Look at the way girls are raised. I don’t know about you, but when I became a lover of books, I didn’t care if I was reading about girls or boys. I just wanted a great story. I wanted something that moved me and I realized, probably unconsciously, at a very early age, that if I wanted to be a part of the world of books I needed to be able to read from lots of different positions. I couldn’t always just be a white girl. I believe this is now changing from everything I’ve read about it and my own anecdotal experiences of having a young son in grade school—I think boys are now being taught to be more open about the idea of who the point of view of those books they read is from. We still have a long way to go with that, but whether they like it or not, women who want to participate in literature have always had to learn to read across gender at a very early age or else they don’t get to participate in the cannon. How many things from the canon are you excluded from reading if you’re only interested in reading books that have a female protagonist?
Yeah, that’s true. But hopefully that’s changing since the 1960s.
Yeah. If VIDA ever developed to the point of having these kinds of resources, I’d really like to start a program for grade schools, because the more I am involved in this, the more I realize these habits start at a very early age, and that one can sort of gently lead.
My poor son has been the experiment. I don’t ever want to take the pleasure of what he cares to read away from him, but I do sort of gently try to open him up. He and I read together every day and I sneak in a female protagonist now and then. At first he sort of thought it was odd, like well, I want to read a book that’s got a boy in it, and I said well, why don’t we just see what happens to this girl, see if you find it interesting or not, and if you don’t like it we can read something else. We read The Hunger Games and we read all the Harry Potter books. Once he discovered Katniss and particularly Hermoine—he just thinks Hermoine is the bomb, you know? She’s the smart one and she’s really powerful. I guess he was 10 when we read that. That Christmas they had those Harry Potter wands that you could buy in stores as toys and they had a choice of wands, you know, Ron’s or Harry’s or Voldemort’s but the one he wanted was Hermoine’s. I thought, that is a really positive sign, because my son Jude, he’s straight. I mean—I love him the way he is. I tried everything I could to make him gay but it just didn’t work out that way. Okay, I’m joking. A little. But to have this typically boyish, straight male boy picking out a Hermoine wand, it gave me a little anecdotal drop in a very positive bucket.
That’s what I really would love for VIDA, to have an outreach with young girls, for empowerment but also for young boys to teach them that women’s voices have value—but in a fun way. If I had hammered at Jude and been like oh, we have to read books about women written by women, well that would have taken every bit of joy out of reading for him. We still read plenty of books that have male authors with male protagonists but I can tell now that he just doesn’t make that much of a distinction. I think parents reading to their children—being aware as they’re reading to them—may change VIDA’s numbers more than anything else can.