Why It Matters That Fewer Women Are Published in Literary Magazines

What Women Really Think
Feb. 2 2011 4:57 PM

Why It Matters That Fewer Women Are Published in Literary Magazines

As Meghan O’Rourke writes on Slate , VIDA's new count of magazine contributors by gender is distressing . Or maybe it’s simply depressing. I suppose it depends on how optimistic you were before you glimpsed the numbers. (Disclosure: I recently became a member of VIDA, though I did not orchestrate the study.)

VIDA tallied the number of writers appearing in both general interest magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic and at literary magazines such as Granta , The Paris Review and Tin House . And as Meghan notes, the literary magazines tended to have slightly more equitable gender ratios than the others. Even so, according to VIDA’s count, women make up only a fraction of the contributors to some of the country's most prominent literary magazines. Some may be tempted to ask whether this really matters. Who reads these magazines, anyway? Aren't women out there in droves buying books by female authors for their book groups, literary journals be damned? Isn't there Oprah? (Actually, no: Even Oprah’s book club has been short of lady writers lately.)

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Literary magazines matter a great deal. Let's begin where most aspiring writers begin: with a manuscript. If this manuscript gets accepted by, say, The Paris Review , our writer will not only be blessed with new readers, he will be eligible for such honors as the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Voices. He might get a fellowship or a residency at a famous colony where he might work surrounded by mentors and peers. He might get an agent, and later, a book contract. This book might then get reviewed, win prizes, and provide him with rich soil from which to grow.

If this writer is female and cannot get her work published by magazines (because magazines are-unconsciously or not-privileging male writers), she won't be on the radar for fellowships, prizes, agents, publishers, and yes, reviews. Of course, there are other avenues; many successful novelists don't publish in literary magazines. But short story writers and poets simply must.

Literary magazines editors work tirelessly, often for little compensation. What they do is truly an act of altruism and love. May they all be blessed with large subscription bases so they can continue to keep literary culture alive. But why are their gender ratios so terrible? Why is one prestigious literary magazine publishing fiction by women at a ratio of one to five? (Yes, it's actually that bad.) Do men simply write better? As someone who avidly reads and reviews, I really don't think so.

Is it possible, instead, that we're so deep into this cycle of recognition and reward that we simply see writing by men as more literary? And if so, is it only out of habit or is something more insidious at play?  Might the problem start the minute we see a male name on a manuscript, or read about a male protagonist? A novelist friend of mine once told me that she fears writing a female narrator for this reason, so she never has. Are men covering territory that editors have come to see as more worthy, more culturally important? Not all women write fiction about family, and not all men write stories about the wilderness, but there might be a kernel of truth buried in these generalizations.

My own rough count of fiction editors at prominent publications reveals that the majority of final decision-makers are men. Is a bit of mirror-gazing occurring? Are male editors more likely to see their own concerns in men’s writing? If so, this bias may cut both ways: My work has frequently been championed by female editors. But for now, the gatekeepers of literary culture-at least at magazines-are still primarily male.

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