Wednesday, June 8, 2011

VIDA Reveals Gender Bias in Best American Series (and responses)

The following is an excerpt from VIDA's discovery of gender bias in the Best American Series. To read the full expose click here. For a discussion of Split This Rock's gender breakdowns, see the next post.

In the Best American Poetry Series, the percentage of women published in the anthologies was 39%. In twenty-four years of the Best American Poetry anthologies, there were only four years in which the number of published works by women were greater than those by men. ...

The Best American Series Count has given us more data and more angles from which to evaluate the state of gender in publishing. It has discounted some of the positions used to explain or support the disparity found in our 2010 Count, while supporting some of the others. And it has raised additional questions that must be asked in our ongoing discussion.

Clearly, counting alone is not enough. However, raising awareness is the first step toward affecting change. We hope that as we continue to disseminate the data, ask the difficult questions raised by our findings and engage in rigorous dialogue with members of our shared literary community, we’ll be embarking on a path toward parity in publishing.

There have been a variety of responses to the VIDA count. Here are a few. Please post more in the comments:
From The Poetry Foundation's Harriet Blog: Why it matters, of course, from writer and board member Cheryl Strayed: “The Best American series is the Academy Awards of the literary world. Publication there is often the most meaningful credit a writer has to offer when seeking further publication or a job. When I look at these numbers, I have to ask: What careers stalled because gender bias plays a role in preventing a writers’ work from reaching a national audience? What price do women writers pay in financial terms and cultural esteem?”

We have to say the data are hardly surprising–the anthologies aren’t known for being progressive aesthetically, either–but this isn’t an issue of progressivity; more largely, numbers trouble is something to be aware of.

From a comment on the VIDA Website: I am a young, female writer hoping to break into the genre of nonfiction. Numbers like these make me feel foolish, and then I wonder how many other young women picked up these compilations, literary magazine and periodicals and felt the same way. How many of them stopped writing because of it? To stifle an entire gender is reprehensible , but at least they are not doing it with our permission, or compliance, anymore.

From Danielle Pafunda, in the VIDA author discussion: As Cheryl says: look what we found. Also: look what you might consider next time! Best is a shifting and subjective appellation. If we want best to stay fresh, then it’ll help to look at what’s been done, what’s yet to do.

From The Missouri Review: One of the things worth noting here is that over the time period examined, BASS has always had a female series editor. Should we be surprised, then, that BASS has published and acknowledged more women compared to the other two Best American series? The same (male) series editors have been running Poetry and Essays for twenty five years. But do remember, the decision ultimately lies with each year’s guest editor: if we point to the series editor’s gender, we also, then, need to look at the gender of the guest editor. What’s the breakdown there?

Best American Essays: 12 women, 13 men

Best American Poetry: 7 women, 18 men

Best American Short Stories: 16 women, 17 men

Here, Best American Poetry looks quite bad. Again, it is also the only one that doesn’t have a short-list. But look at Best American Essays: plenty of women have been the guest editor. During that time period, only once has the guest editor selected more women than man (Joyce Carol Oates in 1991), and most years, it isn’t even close. Does that seem odd?

At The Missouri Review, and presumably at the other literary journals and magazines that first publish the work appearing in the Best American series, the sole criteria for publication is whether or not the writing is good (digression: I realize calling the work “good” or even discussing our criteria for “goodness” can become tangential, but I’ll try to stay on topic). Last year was my first year working on our Editors Prize. We read and re-read and discussed and argued and questioned. Including our winner, we published three stories that were originally Editors Prize submission. All three are written by women. Our prize winner in the essay is male; we published two other essays (non-contest) in our recent issue, both by women. Did the gender of the writers ever come up? No. At no time, not once, was the gender of the author mentioned. That’s not our criteria. In the same way that we don’t care about the race or ethnicity or MFA program of the author, gender is one of those things that, as literary editors, we don’t worry about.

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