Why Vida’s “The Count” Matters to Me

The results of Vida’s The Count 2010 reveal a shocking, though not really surprising, disparity–weighed heavily in favor of men–between the numbers of male and female writers published, reviewed and reviewing in some of our most prominent literary magazines. As one might expect, a myriad of articles, essays and blog posts have begun to appear that attempt to explain the numbers–some to explain them away, some to explain them as a way of moving forward. Katha Pollitt’s piece appeared in Slate; Eileen Myles has one on The Awl; Jessa Crispin has a piece on PBS.org; there’s a piece on Ms. Magazine’s blog by Margot Magowan; Annie Finch wrote a blog post called “How To Publish Women Writers: A Letter to Publishers about the VIDA Count” on Her Circle Ezine; Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, has written a blog post about his attempts to get that magazine to address the gender imbalance; this post on Alas links to a couple of other responses; and I have a feeling I have just skimmed the surface of what’s been written since The Count was published.

Ironically, when I first read the “The Count 2010,” I had just set aside a similar, but much smaller scale counting project of my own that I was planning to write about in a blog post that, for a variety of reasons, never got written. I had two magazines in front of me. One was Time’s issue of November 29, 2010, with a cover story called Who Needs Marriage?; the other was The Economist’s end-of year 2010 issue. I had not even read Time’s cover story yet and I was already wondering how it might have been different had it been written not by Belinda Luscombe, but by a man. Not that I anticipated there would be anything wrong with the way Luscombe handled the story, but it just seemed to me so obvious that a cover story about marriage would have been assigned to a woman–because relationships is one of the things women are expected and therefore traditionally assigned to write about–that I could not help but wonder what a male perspective would have brought to the article that a female perspective would have missed.

Then I began to wonder what kind of perspective I would find in The Economist. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Actually, I wondered if my assumption that the perspective offered by the articles in The Economist would be overwhelmingly male would turn out to be true. So I counted. The notes I took were unfortunately lost in the wave of papers that swept over my desk in the beginning-of-semester craziness, but I will tell you that the ratio of male to female writers that I found in that issue of The Economist was in keeping with what Vida found in the magazines and journals they surveyed.

The question I wanted to ask in the post I didn’t write was how different the world might look through the lens that issue was intended to provide if more of the writers providing the analysis in it had been women. It’s crucial to realize that asking this question is not merely an abstract intellectual exercise, nor is it simply the first step in achieving some kind numerical parity; what does and does not get seen because of who is doing the seeing matters to each of us in very material ways, even if we are unaware of it. Our governments make policy based on this; curricula are written based on this; laws are passed based on this; we make decisions about how to raise our children based on this; about the food we eat and where we live; how we spend our money; and I could go on and on. Who gets published, in other words, and why, and what kind of writing they are able to publish, is or ought to be a matter of personal concern for everyone, not just the people who are trying to get their words into print.

That’s how I feel about “The Count 2010.” It’s personal for me, not out of some abstract commitment to equality, but because I would not be the person I am today had it not been for the women writers whose work I read and reread in my 20s and 30s. I owe to Adrienne Rich, for example, as I recently wrote in a post called Why I Am a Pro-Feminist Man, not only the healing I have achieved from the sexual abuse I suffered as a young boy, but also the commitment to feminism that has helped me be in the world in a far more ethically meaningful way than I think I would otherwise have been. On the Who I Am page on my website, I wrote briefly about the poet and essayist June Jordan and the role she played in my life as a teacher; but it was reading her poetry and political essays that made the greatest impact on me, because I learned from her work how to write explicitly out of a political engagement with the life around me, in the largest sense that the phrase “political engagement” can be understood.

Other names that would appear on the list of women writers who have been important to me include Andrea Dworkin, Rosalind Miles, Kim Chernin, Julia Alvarez, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sallie Tisdale; and I could go to my bookshelf and start to list the women whose books have been important to me in more recent years; but making the list is not the point, or at least it’s not my point here, since I wouldn’t say that making such a list is unimportant. Rather, my point is that the odds these women had to beat in order to get published were also odds against my becoming who I am today, and so the odds against women being published that The Count demonstrates are in existence today are also odds against someone somewhere (multiplied many times over) becoming who they would be if they had the opportunity to read the work of those women. Those odds are not fair, and that is something that all of us should take very personally.

Cross-posted on The Poetry in The Politics and The Politics in The Poetry.

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2 Responses to Why Vida’s “The Count” Matters to Me

  1. 1
    anne says:

    Great post. Your list of influential women is heartening. How typical is that, though? It seems that the default standard is still male, eg that “relationships” is seen as a female issue rather than as a people issue (as if men don’t have them, or at least don’t have problems with them). I wonder if even female editors are affected by those norms.

    And if it’s all a question of fairness, to whom should the publishers be fair, the writer or the reader? If they depend on subscriptions, they will want to please the reader, though they may have an imperfect idea of who that might be and of what that reader might want to read.

    BTW, what issue of The Economist are you reading? The one we get here in UK only very rarely has author attributions.

  2. Hi Anne,

    BTW, what issue of The Economist are you reading? The one we get here in UK only very rarely has author attributions.

    I went looking for the issue, but it has disappeared. I just can’t find it. But it was an end-of-year issue that I was not able to find listed on The Economist’s website–though I admittedly did not look very hard.