Part I: The Party
A few years ago, I attended my first New York City Literary Event: a launch party for a prestigious literary magazine's new season. I had not been invited. Instead, I was the plus-one for an extremely talented young woman, whose work had been selected to appear in the journal. I was, in short, arm candy. That night, it would not be important that I was a writer myself, nor that I desperately wanted to have good conversations with all the well-connected people to further my own career. They wanted to see Kim (and each other), not me. My job was to put on nice clothes and smile a lot, keep conversation going when it lagged, and offer Kim a socially acceptable place to retreat to between bouts of meeting famous and successful writers.
This was only my second visit to the city and, lifelong Midwesterner that I am, I felt very Country Mouse indeed. I'd obviously read any number of books about New York — one can hardly avoid it — and I discovered that all the descriptions were true, if insufficiently italicized: the buildings were so tall; there were so many taxis. The pigeons were everywhere. The people were well dressed. When we found the building where the party was held (on the twenty-fourth floor), there was a security guard with a list in the lobby, who looked like a part-time model playing a security guard on "Gossip Girl." It seemed to me a blessing that he let me through at all, and without asking if I was really intending to wear that jacket upstairs.
We'd arrived fairly early. The room was mostly empty, and two women — the Editor-in-Chief and another editor at the journal, each with her own successful independent writing career — approached Kim immediately: I smiled, was introduced, and made sure to look interested in what they were saying, which wasn't difficult. Every now and again, I said something pithy and then got out of the way. I was doing quite well, I thought.
As the evening proceeded and the room filled, I began to see how many of my preconceived ideas of New York Literary Parties (based almost entirely on the films Wonder Boys and The Good Shepherd) were wrong. It was not a smoky collection of dinner jackets and bearded professors making passes at their graduate assistants. There were, in fact, women everywhere, mostly in their thirties and forties, talking quietly or excitedly in small circles of other women. Many of the men were standing beside them, a little out of the circle — like me, they'd come as dates. It seemed that there were far fewer examples of the opposite setup (which I estimated based on who introduced whom to the group), and one of those instances was a man with his high-school-aged daughter: a downright charming take on Bring Your Child to Work Day. And many of the couples had simply attended together; they separated and reconvened, each holding his or her own among the mixed crowd.
Where was the haughty Ivy League aristocracy? Where were the backhanded compliments and disdainful glares? Where were the Alpha Males? Three hundred feet off the ground, looking at the bright red NEW YORKER sign in the distant skyline below, I felt that the old boy's club of Updike and Mailer had given way to an NPR utopia. The new world had arrived, and I was eating its baklava on little black napkins.
A few months later, VIDA — an organization "founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women's creative writing" — did something that troubled many people: they counted the articles and book reviews in major publications in the previous year, tracking the sex of the writer. In the case of book reviews, they tracked the sex of the writer of the review and of the book itself.
The report is worth looking at. I found it genuinely shocking. In summary: it's 75-80% dudes. Across the board. Some magazines are higher, some lower, but, for the most part, if you're reading a general-interest, literary-minded publication, you're reading three or four men per woman.
[Ed. note: The Inclusive has featured 24 male to 9 female former or current staff writers, accounting for 73% and 27%, respectively. When including the number of contributors both male (8) and female (4), the number of total females who have had pieces featured on this publication sits at a paltry 29%. Management acknowledges the inherent irony here, as we are called "The Inclusive" and appear to be anything but.]
I was halfway through my MFA in poetry when this report appeared, and I was baffled. In our office, the women were outperforming the men in every category: writing better, writing more, and submitting their work more often and with better discipline. And they were publishing more often, and generally in higher-tier journals. I'd become used to this atmosphere — and used to reading about women surpassing men in college, and certain segments of the workforce — and it hadn't occurred to me that my program's cross-section could be so far from a representative sample. I couldn't think of any reason why it should be.
Members of the literary community responded variously, perhaps predictably. A lot of people wanted more data, claiming that showing just the results presented an incomplete picture. Submissions data, in particular, was called for — if men are submitting work at four times the rate, some argued, then a gender-blind editorial process would publish men at four times the rate. Similar arguments appeared regarding book reviews, saying that publishing houses were putting out catalogues that were mostly male, so of course magazines would review a fair distribution of the catalogues. There were other questions: could there be better ways to measure relative editorial emphasis? If, for example, an issue contains one woman's twelve-page piece and three men's four-page pieces, which gender is privileged?
Many were angry: we (if not the world, then at least the very educated, very progressive publishing world) were not supposed to have this problem any more. Some were bewildered, and apologetic. We would have to try harder.
Section Two: The Party with the Lights Off
An hour and a half into the party, Kim pulled me off to the side. She was tired from a constant stream of introductions and shifting conversations, people appearing and disappearing apparently at random, pulling her off to meet someone else and tell them about the PhD programs she'd applied to. The lights had dimmed as the room filled up, removing the glare from the tall windows. The servers at the open bar told us that they were running out of plastic cups, so we should hold on to ours if we wanted more wine. We did.
"Is that Famous Poet?" Kim asked, using the poet's actual name.
It was. Famous Poet was on the editorial board at the journal, and was one of the advertised readers for the night. I'd been looking forward to hearing him, finally, in person. "You should go introduce yourself," I told her, "or get one of the other editors to introduce you." She considered this, and sipped her wine. "He was involved in selecting your poems, after all."
"We'll see," she said.
She would not get the chance: the scheduled program started presently. The Editor-in-Chief stepped forward and called for the rest of the lights, and the room went dark except for the glow of the coming year's cover artwork projected on a screen. Everything seemed suddenly different.
Perhaps it was just the strange lighting, or the subtle changes in posture as people in the crowd felt they no longer had to worry about being noticed. Famous Poet returned to the woman he'd arrived with — thirty years younger, four inches taller. She sat down and he settled into her lap, reaching his arm around her shoulder to stroke the back of her neck.
I looked around the room, and this pairing began to seem less exception than rule. While I'd been sipping wine and being agreeable, my small utopian vision had been replaced with, well, the past. With what I had expected. And I was forced to revise my assumption that the man I'd noticed earlier had brought his daughter: as the Famous Poet read (and all of us laughed) the man stood close behind the young woman, arms around her waist, thumbs hooked in her belt loops.
Two specific features of the writing life made me, at a very young age, want to be a writer. One was the writing (and I'll roll reading into this), which I loved, and love. The other: special dispensation.
Successful artists and performers (including athletes) are not bound by the same social rules. They can wear strange clothing without reprisal; they can keep their own hours. As long as they produce (which is, no doubt, a serious requirement) they are free from the demanding and time-consuming job structures that everyone else is expected to conform to. They can be late and no one complains. They are — and this is certainly what captured my eleven-year-old fancy — universally accepted as special, as above the concerns of normal folk. Their motives need not be questioned.
This privilege, of course, extends. We let them use illegal drugs, and subject them neither to the legal punishments nor the loss of social standing that those drugs bring on others. In fact, we do the opposite: we call them prophets, we say the drugs are essential to their work, their transcendence. We let them declare all female writers, past and present, inferior; we let them beat their girlfriends.
A few weeks ago, Jonathan Franzen published an essay about Edith Wharton in The New Yorker. Franzen claims a deep admiration for Wharton as a writer, and professes a deep sympathy for her as a person — which, he notes, is noteworthy because she is not a particularly sympathetic figure, since she was (a) independently wealthy and (b) not pretty. He introduces her not-prettiness as a "potentially redeeming disadvantage", but this potential, for Franzen at least, is not achieved:
An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do. To the contrary, Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she'd looked like Grace Kelly or Jaqueline Kennedy
He proceeds to give a careful interpretation of three of her novels from the assumption that her not being pretty guided all of them in different ways. The House of Mirth, for example,
...can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn't be.
This is a major work of English Literature — so good that it was well-regarded even in a society that actively and openly believed that women should not (indeed could not) engage in serious matters — that he has chosen to interpret through the critical lens of Regina George's Burn Book. I do not mean to say that House of Mirth is beyond criticism; no book is. Rather, I mean to point out that Franzen has taken a book which gives, as all great literature gives, thorough treatment to human tragedy, and decided that what it's really saying is that its author couldn't deal with not being hot. Franzen has received a little criticism for this piece, and a large check from The New Yorker.
Section Three: The After-party
Famous Poet's reading was different for me than I'd expected it would be, from having heard audio recordings and seen clips on YouTube, because I watched him disentangle himself from his young companion in order to approach the podium and give it. The whole night was different for me than I'd expected, both for the ways it met my expectations and the ways it dodged them. The glimpse, at the beginning of the party, still haunted me.
Around the same time Franzen's essay hit newsstands, VIDA released The 2011 Count. The graphs contained within are extremely similar to the graphs from the previous year.
The old arguments resurfaced — we don't have submissions data; an editor's job is to put together the best possible magazine, not to meet a quota. These are not bad or foolish arguments. They are defenses against an accusation of sexism, claiming that something other than personal gender bias accounts for the publication of four men for every one woman. They may even be mostly right in that claim, but they are missing the point.
First of all, there are blunt prejudices in the world — even in the publishing world — and we cannot ignore their existence or influence. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, responded to the vast gender disparity in his journal by saying "while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS." Romance, of course, and Chick Lit: you know, girly stuff.
Stothard's response articulates what is really a pretty common idea: that women read certain things, and are concerned with certain things, and have no real standing outside those zones. There is Women's Lit, the argument says, over there: in The Women's Review of Books and on that big shiny table in Barnes & Noble with all the Twilight stuff on it. Women's Lit, in the form of romance novels, is outselling all of us men, by a huge margin. And if the ladies want to read ladystuff that has good sentences, there's that Egan woman, right?
It's difficult not to descend into sarcasm in the face of this attitude, because it is genuinely absurd. If a person openly announced that African-Americans, for example, were categorically uninterested in real literature, that person would be publicly censured and fired from his job — and rightfully so. That is a kind of bias to which we as a culture have become quite sharply attuned. We accept the significance of its dangers and respond, when we see it, with force. But, for some reason, we are willing to accept that genders can be reliably and rightly stereotyped upon.
An enormous number of people read, without objection, Franzen's piece on Wharton, which people would think it literally farcical to read The Corrections as a psychoanalytic guide to Franzen's personal insecurities (perhaps someone is writing that for McSweeney's right now). For that matter, Franzen's argument made it through The New Yorker's notorious editorial process. And Peter Stothard is still pushing out Literary Supplements.
It is foolish of us to believe that the VIDA numbers have nothing to do with sexism, and foolish to allow blatant sexism to proceed because we'd rather believe we're culturally beyond that sort of thing. Stothard should be fired for his track record of prejudice and callousness in the face of it. If you subscribe to the Times Literary Supplement this is a fine reason to cancel. A similar response is, in my mind, perfectly justified in the cases of Franzen and Naipul: neither is so good a writer (I doubt anyone is) as to deserve a free pass for this — and, furthermore, if this is what they think of the inner lives of women, perhaps they are not such great a depicters of human life after all.
But there is a subtler and more insidious issue, hidden in the folds of the Submissions Data argument. Many magazines have come forward and willingly released their own data, showing that they get far more submissions from men than women, and presumably exonerating them from charges of gender bias. For myself, I'm willing to accept these exonerations at face value — but, as others have said before me, that's only part of what's going on. I applaud an editor for unbiased reading of a slush pile (surely a difficult thing to do) but such sifting is only part of an editor's responsibilities.
Arguments for gender equality are not based in the idea that men and women are the same, but rather that they are equally valuable. Men and women are quite different from each other indeed — in physical makeup, biochemistry, cultural conditioning — and those differences are especially important in literature: an endeavor built entirely on sharing perspectives that cannot be shared in any other way. A publication (such as, it must be said, this one) that is 75% male is rather unlikely to be the best possible collection of work, because it pretends either that there is no difference between men's and women's perspectives, or that the men's perspective is the more worthy: that it can stand for everyone.
No one can seriously argue that men are better writers than women, or that men's writing is inherently larger in scope or wider in universality. Nor should we insist that women submit their work sooner in its process or with greater frequency than they are comfortable, to "catch up" with the men. We can, perhaps, ask how we can change editorial practices — not so that they privilege women over men, but so they stop producing magazines in which half the species is a minority.