For a long time Alec Connon thought that there was no gender imbalance to redress in contemporary literature: How wrong he was.
By Alec Connon
I am a male writer who has lived with his feminist partner for several years now. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that over the years we’ve had a few passing conversations regarding gender politics within the world of literature. Our most recent conversation on the topic coming after I bemoaned the fact that as I trawled through grant awards and magazine submissions, I noticed that I would occasionally come across grants and magazines that accepted submissions solely from women. But never (or very rarely) was the reverse to be found.
‘That’s not equality,’ I moaned.
‘No, it’s fighting for it,’ she replied.
And I frowned, bit my tongue and quietly thought: But this is literature! Surely, this is the one court where women already reign. Surely everyone knows that there are more women readers, more women buying books and therefore, surely, more women selling books. And what about all those bestselling great female writers: Donna Tartt, Liz Gilbert, Erin Morgenstern, Barbara Kingsolver, JK Rowling, Alice Sebold, Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James. If anyone needs help, surely it’s all us poor, struggling male writers?
But then I learned about Vida – and how wrong I was.
VIDA is a research driven organization that spends a great deal of time every year compiling over 1000 data points from literary journals, publications, and press outlets.
And guess what? You’ll never believe this but…the VIDA data reveals some fairly major gender imbalances at publications both in the US and abroad. Influential magazines such as The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, The New Republic and The Nation have all had an overall ratio of 75 men to 25 women, both in terms of those doing the reviewing and those reviewed; in 2010 The New York Review of Books covered 306 titles by men and only 59 by women; The New York Times Book Review covered 524 books by men compared to 283 books written by women.
So the numbers are clear. My partner was right. I was wrong. There is very clearly still a need to fight for gender equality within literature. In my defense, however, I wasn’t the only one to whom this was a surprise. Rob Spillman, editor of northwest literary magazine, Tin House, described the numbers as being “a kick in the pants, in a very good way.” But, more importantly the numbers also acted as the catalyst for Rob and Tin House to alter the way they do things: “The numbers spurred us to take a deep look at our submissions,” said Spillman, “from the slush to solicited manuscripts, [we’ve reconsidered] who we are asking for work and what they are sending us.”
And the result has been dramatic. In just a few years Tin House has achieved something much closer to gender parity in its publications.
However, as the former editor of literary magazine Crab Creek Review, Kelli Agodoon, explains, the reason for this discrepancy may not be entirely the fault of conscious biases of the publishers: “The big revelation was that men and women submit their work differently,’ writes Agodoon. “[…] if an editor of our press rejected work from a male writer, but wrote something like, “This came close. We’d like to see more of your work.” on the rejection note — we would usually receive another submission from the male writer within the same month and sometimes even within a few days after he received his rejection. When we sent this same note to a woman writer, she might resubmit her work in 3–6 months, but more likely, we would not hear from her until over six months to a year later. Sometimes, she will not resubmit at all.” One thing that could explain this discrepancy however, is a phenomenon known as “The Confidence Gap,” which shows that women have less self-assurance than men, and that this hinders women’s success.
The confidence gap is not the only piece of the puzzle though. There is also the unconscious bias of the publishers themselves.
An article came out this summer that told the story of a woman who couldn’t get her book noticed by publishers until she began submitting the same book with a male name. Then the tides turned. “One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent.” Where Catherine’s book was deemed too “ambitious,” George’s book was “clever.” I’d venture a guess that isn’t the first or the last time that’s happened to a female author. In fact, there are numerous cases of women submitting their work under male pen names in order to get published. I just didn’t think (until recently) that was still a necessity in 2015.
The reasons for why ‘George’ succeeded where Catharine failed are not, however, straightforward, (as many female literary agents preferred George’s work to Catherine’s) but are instead nebulous and insidious: part confidence gap, part unconscious bias, part dozens of other factors. But perhaps the important thing here is that publishers acknowledge that it does exist, and, regardless the reason for it, they start making plans to counteract it.
For if they do not, and the status quo remains, then what will this mean for our daughters? What will it mean to them to look at the literary landscape and find so few women’s voices succeeding in a meaningful way? What would that be telling them about their hopes and ambitions for the future?
Well, one thing that it might be telling them could be, “Don’t bother resubmitting your work. It probably won’t get published anyway.”