I want to talk to you today about a Flavorwire article I read eight years ago. It’s an old article, yes, but (1) it’s still relevant today, and (2) it made such an impact on me that I’m still thinking about it eight years later. I also want to point out that, while the 2014 article spoke to gender disparity in publishing, the lessons I took from the article apply not only to women writers, but to any marginalized writer whose confidence in submitting to literary journals or querying agents has taken a hit.
The 2014 article is called “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count.” As its title suggests, the article is about two literary magazines included in the 2013 VIDA Count. But what I found shocking when I read the article eight years ago was not so much the VIDA Count itself, although that is fascinating too. What I found more surprising was something it unearthed about the ways marginalized writers internalize and respond to rejection.
The VIDA Count is a look at disparity in the makeup of contributors to magazines and literary journals. The Count is undertaken by the VIDA organization. In 2013, VIDA’s focus was on gender inequality, but today, VIDA’s mission is more inclusive and intersectional:
VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) is a non-profit intersectional feminist literary organization dedicated to creating transparency surrounding gender imbalances and the lack of diversity in the literary landscape. VIDA also aims to amplify historically-marginalized voices, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); writers with disabilities; and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals.
The VIDA organization tallies the makeup of contributors to top literary magazines and journals. In 2013, it did so in terms of men and women, tallying their numbers in terms of bylines, reviewers of books, authors of books reviewed, interviewers of authors, and authors interviewed.
One of the journals featured in the 2013 Flavorwire article, Tin House, did well in the count. The other, The Believer, did not do so well. Tin House published its last issue in June 2019, and The Believer is set to publish its final issue early this year. Both of these journals are quality, well-respected literary journals. The contributions of these two journals have been life-altering to the literary world, and their presence will continue to be missed by readers and writers alike far into the future. The Believer‘s legitimacy and commitment to do good were never in question. Rather, the article points up how insidiously disparity can creep into the most well-intentioned of organizations.
In 2013, The Believer‘s overall count was more than 65% men, less than 35% women. A pretty even split between men and women in the interviews and interviewees category helped it out. Drilling down, 82% of its book reviews were written by men, 72% of the books it reviewed were written by men, and 72% of its bylines belonged to men. No one was more surprised by this than The Believer itself. Its editors said:
We were totally thrilled and honored to be included in the VIDA count because we read it every year, and every year we’ve wondered, ‘how would we fare?’ We always thought we’d fare pretty well. Our masthead is 40% women, and one of our driving editorial principles is to produce as diverse a magazine as we can every month. So we were surprised when we saw our VIDA numbers.
It’s important to note that, since 2013, The Believer has worked to steadily flip those numbers. In the latest VIDA Count (2019), The Believer‘s overall numbers were approximately 58% women, 40% men, and 2% non-binary. The Believer should be applauded for its efforts–it’s easy to talk the talk, but it takes dedication and unwavering commitment to undertake the real work of creating lasting change. The Believer will retire this year with an admirable and inspiring legacy.
But what I found most shocking about the 2014 Flavorwire article were the statements provided by Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House. While Tin House did very well in the VIDA Count, Spillman pointed out some interesting challenges the journal faced in achieving its good numbers:
At Tin House we take a conscious, systemic approach to gender balance. In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out.’ But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men. There were many factors contributing to this, including that males submit 100% of the time after being solicited, versus 50% of females, men are four times more likely to resubmit after an encouraging rejection, female agents send more male submissions than females (go figure), when given the option both men and women writers chose to write about male writers 80% of the time, etc.
To its credit, Tin House had done its homework and had then gone out of its way to achieve gender equality, which is absolutely necessary when disparity is so deeply ingrained.
Spillman explained the steps Tin House took to reverse the trend:
[W]e made some systemic changes–soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.
Reading that article in 2014, I realized that, yes, the changes in the publishing industry must come from within. Change doesn’t just happen. The steps Tin House took to solicit and encourage women writers and the steps The Believer took to turn its numbers around had to be taken in order to break the cycle. Those steps need to be taken with writers of color and other marginalized writers as well. It feels hopeful that, today, publishers are beginning to take them.
The thing is, extra effort must be made to encourage marginalized writers to continue to query agents in the face of rejection and to keep submitting to literary journals and magazines because, all too often, these writers rarely see themselves in such publications, so why would they submit to them? It can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s encouraging to now see literary journals offer free submission portals or free submission periods for writers of color or to offer submission periods during which they only accept submissions from writers of color. They are showing their commitment to publishing writers of color.
At a recent seminar I attended, an older, white, male writer bemoaned the fact he’d received a rejection from a well-known journal with a note indicating the journal was currently focusing on amplifying the voices of writers of color. He felt it was unfair. Shouldn’t my piece be judged on its own merit? he wondered. Not by the color of my skin? Ironic questions, really, considering the state of the world. But the fact is, white writers, like me, have had the advantage for a long, long time. So yes, as we work to level the playing field, we are going to (hopefully) lose that advantage. Tomorrow, as the publishing industry makes room for others, it will be a little more difficult for a white author to get something published than it is today, and the day after tomorrow, it will be a little harder still, until someday, it’s equally as difficult for all of us, and we can all bemoan our rejections together. We have to be so much more than okay with that because it’s so much more than fair and so long overdue.
But I digress, and here’s the biggest point I want to make for any marginalized writer out there who is struggling with rejection: Spillman’s comments reminded me that no one needs to break free of systemic constraints more than we do ourselves. Generations of conditioning have taught marginalized groups not to enter the race. I can easily imagine the paralyzing doubt or fear that may play into, for example, a woman’s failure to resubmit to a journal after receiving an encouraging rejection. I’ve felt it. Did they really mean it when they asked me to try again? Are they just being nice? Can I write anything better or more suitable than the piece they already rejected? Can I rise to the occasion?
I have no doubt that centuries of being collectively told we are less than is deeply ingrained in our psyches and plays no small part in our reactions to rejection or our inability to fully believe or accept any encouragement that accompanies that rejection. I am reminded that, while we absolutely can’t do this without the commitment of publications like Tin House and The Believer, we have to continue to step up in the face of fear and self-doubt and rejection because all of us belong. We must enter the race.