Why the VIDA Count is only Part of the Solution

The VIDA Count is a powerful and necessary project that analyzes the data of gender of inequality in literary journals.  And while the yearly results are sobering, horrifying, and eye-opening, and while they confirm what many of us have known all along about the publication industry, at the same time, I believe the VIDA Count project also has its own methodological issues and blind spots.  These issues outlined below do not in any way detract from the value, the validity, and the crucial importance of the project, but I do think they can expand the discourse.

1.  As Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) explained in Flavorwire, despite the clear importance of literary journals striving for, and actualizing, gender equality on the page, there are reasons why gender inequality can happen in even the most feminist-minded literary journal.  For one thing, female and male writers respond differently to rejections and solicitations.  According to Spillman, male writers submit a 100% of the time when solicited, women, only 50%.  And male writers are four times more likely to resubmit after a good rejection than female writers.  Equally problematic, female agents are more likely to submit the work of male authors than female ones.  Additionally, both female and male fiction/CNF writers are more likely to submit work with male protagonists.  Much of this is obviously acculturation, which can be changed when more and more journals include the work of women, and when female writers are encouraged and even expected to become writers as male ones already are.  Hopefully someday the VIDA Count will render itself obsolete.   But until then, we have to keep fighting.

2.  Just as importantly, male stubbornness and male privilege are obviously connected to the skewed publication statistics.  Many teachers consciously and unconsciously encourage male communication in the classroom (which is incredibly hard to quantify) by allowing them to dominate classroom discussion, interrupt female students, repeat earlier comments, and write unfocused essays that often show less polish and control of language.  Some teachers also have failed to create adequate safe space--for less vocal students, introverts, and students with different communication styles, for example--to explore new ideas out loud, process information in their own way, and communicate differently than in classroom sound bytes.  And some teachers and parents (un)consciously reinforce patriarchal codes of cultural male centering by (un)consciously encouraging male students to be "leaders" in the classroom by greenlighting their communication and (un)consciously dismissing, limiting, controlling, and/or confining female student communication.  Pedagogy connects to the publication industry in a very specific way here:  when many male writers (myself included) get rejected, we think the fiction readers or fiction editors that rejected us are (probably) idiots, world-weary wannabes, and captious assholes.  We tend to assume they're wrong, not us.  By and large, many male writers do not doubt themselves or their writing ability because they've been encouraged and celebrated from an early age (I'm probably the only male fiction writer I know who was openly discouraged in college from writing fiction).  But many female fiction/CNF writers respond very differently to rejections I think, which is how they can sometimes take themselves out of the slush pile, which is bad for the industry.

3.  One of the most important aspects of the VIDA Count is also one of its primary weaknesses:  it focuses almost exclusively on literary journals.  And while literary journals are a necessary part of the arts subculture in America, they're also very limited to a certain extent in terms of cultural impact.  Novels published by both indie and major publishing houses are the major players here for the simple reason that in addition to good PR, excellent editors, and a media-savvy business manager, publishing houses can also give writers minor fame, an advance in the absurd range of $150-$2 million, and a fast track to tenure track positions at prestigious universities all across America.  For exactly these literary, financial, professional, and cultural benefits of publishing novels through respected publishing houses, I think the VIDA Count is a crucial but incomplete project that could really affect positive change in the publishing market by focusing its number crunching on books, which can radically change writers lives in a way that literary journals simply cannot.  No one can live off an essay published in The Georgia Review, but many commercial fiction writers, and a select elite list of literary novelists, could live off their writing, their art, and their talent, if they wanted to, which means there's a lot more at stake in book publishing in terms of representation, quality of life, and professional equity.  More importantly, while many readers who aren't writers read novels, they don't generally read literary journals.  The biggest demographic of literary journals is . . . ourselves.  But a published novel can be a demographic magic bullet that cuts across class, racial, and even educational lines in a way that literary journals can't.  For these reasons, I think the VIDA Count can do much more with its collective statistical analysis. 

4.  In the other direction, the numbers for the publication of APIA novels shows a surprisingly strong counter-current to the overrepresentation of male authors, which I think is both good and bad.  For example, based on fairly thorough (but definitely incomplete) research conducted for my dissertation appendix, I discovered the following things concerning Asian American novelists, which shocked me:

One, there were over twice (approximately 2.36 times) as many published Female Asian American novelists as male Asian American novelists between 1992-2012.  Two, female Asian American novelists published over three times as many novels as their male counterparts between 1992-2012.  Three, 77.7% of all female Asian American novels were published in major publishing houses.  Four, 56.2% of all male Asian American novels were published in major publishing houses.  Five, in direct comparison, female Asian American writers published 4.25 times as many novels in major publishing houses as male Asian American writers and 1.55 times as many novels in academic or independent presses as male Asian American writers.  Six, only 22.2% of all female Asian American novels were published in independent or academic presses.  Seven, conversely, 43.7% of all male Asian American novels were published in independent or academic presses. Eighth, there has only been one male Japanese American literary novelist published in the past twenty years.

Now obviously, there were a number of deliberate constraints in my research that had to due with connecting this data to the central argument of my dissertation.  But as a hapa fiction writer, this is in fact my reality.  For one thing, my data only dealt with APIA novelists, intentionally excluding short story writers, CNF writers, poets, and essayists, to name a few.  For another thing, I included reprints in the same time-frame (1992-2012) because for many readers, those novels might as well be new works.  For still another, I deliberately relied on novels that were locatable because I was partially focusing on how the constructions of APIA masculinity and the orientalization of APIA fiction in general affect the cultural imagination.  So while an APIA scholar might very well locate several unknown APIA novels in that 20-year range, very few non-scholars would.  In any case, if this data holds up (and only more research and new time-frame ranges will tell), the VIDA count could expose the gender inequalities not only within the market of literary journals, but also the gender, racial, and cultural inequalities between genres, sectors of the publishing industry, publishing houses, and even within certain racial and cultural frameworks like APIA publishing.  Furthermore, further statistical analysis could very either contest or reinforce my own research which shows a strong cultural tendency to gender the APIA novel in a way that seems very orientalist.

5.  The majority of editors and agents in the New York publishing industry seem to be white college-educated women.  I'm not sure if that's still statistically true anymore, and even if it were, I'm not sure how it would be proven, but if true, and if the vast majority of literary journals continue to have white male editors (two big ifs for sure), this parallelism suggests a potential gender correlation between the dominant gender of the editorial staff and the dominant gender of published authors (i'm not sure how the numbers work for non-APIA authors).  And the obvious conclusion of that potential correlation would be that both literary journals and publishing houses need to show greater equality in their publication list, both in production and aspiration.  Sometimes, though, this equality must move in opposite direction.