Doing the Math

Yesterday, Gayla posted some interesting thoughts on the Orange Prize, and whether it is—or isn’t—yet another way of fencing women writers into an orderly little corral. I’m inclined to agree with her that more than anything else it’s a kind of finding aid, in this case for some really high-quality and off-the-beaten-track literature. You can take issue with the classification method or not, depending on your agenda. Then again, I can’t remember a time in my adult life when basic feminist issues were so much at the forefront, and the political can’t help but bleed over into the cultural. In times of egalitarian unrest, the media needs to serve as a catch basin for people’s ideas, anger, and aspirations. And it’s not a bad thing that it’s catching some of the spotlight at the same time.

There’s always been a consistent thread of sexism running through publishing since it became an industry in the first place. Not that it hasn’t come a long way since the days of the old boys’ network of the ’50s and ’60s, and not that women don’t get a lot of play these days as reviewers, editors, and writers. But there’s still a certain long term inequity between the sexes in the world of mainstream literary journals, so deeply institutionalized it’s almost not really a thing. Until someone makes it a thing. And fortunately VIDA, a women’s literary advocacy and awareness organization, has been crunching the numbers for a couple of years now.

In their study, they looked at magazines that run articles, essays, and book reviews, getting gender stats on both the magazines’ writers and the authors of books reviewed. And it may or may not surprise anyone to see that the numbers are skewed in what looks to the naked eye, without doing the math myself, like an average of three men to one women. Some were an improvement on that; Granta’s overall count returned 34 women to 30 men, and the New York Times Book Review and Poetry came close to 50-50. But most of the better splits—The Paris Review, The Nation, Boston Review—were still a disappointing 2:1 in favor of men. And let’s not talk about the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, or New Republic—let’s just say if this were Thanksgiving and that was my piece of pie compared to everyone else’s, I’d stay home next year.

In fact, the numbers are pretty close to last year’s, which isn’t all that surprising. As VIDA charitably points out, change takes time. And the point here is to get the conversation going, which it has. In their press release, they explain that it’s not only happening but it’s appropriately heated:

Furious debates over the count took place in comment boxes, both nationally and internationally; women writers are discriminated against and should be righteously indignant; women writers are whiners and should simply write better books; women writers should write about more “important” subjects; women writers’ subjects are just as important as male writers’, dammit!; women writers’ subject matter isn’t inherently different than men’s, it’s just reviewed differently; women writers should submit more work to magazines; male writers should submit less; editors should actively solicit more work from women writers.

The main idea is that it be an ongoing discussion, until the day when the subject is such a moot point nobody needs to bring it up anymore. You know, like birth control. Or sending your kid to college. Or intellectual property rights.

Which is to say, not anytime soon. Keep talking.

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1 Comment to Doing the Math

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    March 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    “Keep talking” — Indeed and yes. Hope to see more comments on this here.

    Mine own disjointed comments: I adore literary award lists in general because I usually find something new to read. The longer the long list the better. Long live long lists. Period.

    But I am semi squeamish of the Orange List but perhaps less so than Nadine Gordimer who flat-out abjured her win in 1988. You can see her point I expect; why should she be given a leg up over her, er, fellow indigenous African writers (or others) of any gender? Doris Lessing and A.S. Byatt also have protested this list limited to female writers. Or, perhaps Lessing was loathe to be “limited” to a woman-only roster? She beat out all comers when she won the nobel in 2007 .I was even more squeamish about the Orange before the kerfuffle several years ago when stats were compiled as to number of men versus number of women published in each edition in the New Yorker.

    There was quite a hoopla with much breast beating and, er, discussion. Not to mention some uncivilized, er, discourse. Obviously the New Yorker published only what was perfect for them; thus, gender of writers had no significance. So they said. But, the New Yorker was shamed by the publicity and started publishing more writing by women. Although they will tell you that this kerfuffle had no effect whatsoever. But the stats will out. Far more women are published now in the New Yorker than six or seven years ago. I haven’t noticed any deterioration in the quality of the publication but I have seen more breadth.

    What does this mean? It is useful to make kerfuffle and press for wider inclusion of all sorts of wrtiers.

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