Cate Marvin Discusses the VIDA Count
In February 2011, VIDA, an organization for women writers, released what has been called the VIDA Count, a totalling of male vs. female writer bylines for 14 of the top 2010 literary-type magazines. The numbers found the—perhaps expected—much greater representation of male writers in these publications. VIDA has also “counted” female writers in other publishing venues, and has more counts in the works.
Cate Marvin’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande in 2001. In 2002, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. Her poems have appeared inThe New England Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Fence,The Paris Review, The Cincinnati Review, Slate, Verse, Boston Review, and Ninth Letter. She is co-editor with poet Michael Dumanis of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006). Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, was published by Sarabande in August 2007. A recent Whiting Award recipient, she teaches poetry writing in Lesley University’s Low-Residency M.F.A. Program and is an associate professor in creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is Co-Director with the poet Erin Belieu of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Marcelle Heath: VIDA’s 2010 Count has caused quite a stir in the literary community, generating debate about VIDA’s findings on the number of women contributors and reviews by women authors at the top magazines in the country. Many writers and editors were shocked by the glaring gender disparity in publishing. Others, like myself, were (unfortunately) validated by the pie charts: they represented both our personal experiences and deepest fears about institutionalized and pervasive sexism. While many expressed support and offered new ways to include more women, there were some who criticized and dismissed VIDA’s methodology.
What was your initial reaction when you saw the data? Were you surprised by how it’s been received by both the editors at the magazines in The Count and the public at large?
Cate Marvin: A SHORT ANSWER:
I was both surprised and not at all surprised by the numbers. I think I may have hoped to be surprised. That I hoped the numbers would not turn out as they did. Even though I fully suspected they would.
We at VIDA were gratified by the attention the “2010 Count” received, and especially pleased to find that so many editors were willing to re-assess their own “numbers”—because a great many venues have taken it upon themselves to conduct their own counts.
THE LONGER ANSWER:
I didn’t have what one could call an “initial reaction” to the numbers because the process of acquiring the data was so lengthy and time-consuming.
The idea for VIDA’s “2010 Count” was conceived almost immediately once the organization was formed, back in August of 2009, at which point I was in conversation with several female writers; it soon became apparent that the practice of “counting” was nearly uniform among us. I was then directed to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s essay “Numbers,” which looks at gender disparity in the representation of women in anthologies of avant garde poetry. (This is a terrific essay, by the way, one that I urge anyone interested in “counting” to make a point of reading.)
We at VIDA were still in the process of figuring out how to launch “The Count” when Publisher’s Weekly “Best Books of 2009” list came out. This required an immediate response on our behalf and provided the impetus for our first press release regarding the omission of women authors from prominent “best of” lists and awards. However, we’d always planned to address a number of different venues in our “Count.” VIDA’s “2010 Count” is only one of several we have underway.
We’re presently in the thick of counting The Best American Series, for example, the numbers for which we’ll be posting on the VIDA site mid-April.
The “2010 Count,” in particular, was dreadfully ambitious from the beginning. We pulled together a list of prominent literary venues and review venues; I then made it a personal project to acquire the table of contents for these publications. One assumes it’d be easy enough to access much of this information online; however, the content of a lot of magazine websites tends to be difficult to dissect due to the merged display of print content and online content. Some magazines require a subscription for accessing on-line content. And while one may also acquire access to media content via databases such as JSTOR and Lexus-Nexus, it’s nearly impossible to turn up a decipherable table of contents pages. For these aforementioned reasons, I ultimately resorted to photocopying print versions of numerous TOCs at my local library.
Throughout July and August of 2010, I spent much of my free time counting. I had opted to not put my then 18-month-old daughter in daycare in order to save money. So, during the days I cared for her, I all too often lugged said daughter along with me to the library. During the evenings, while she slept, I counted.
Thus, by the time VIDA’s “2010 Count” appeared, in early February of 2011, I’d already spent a lot of time with the numbers. And it’s a very troubling affair. Like you, many of my suspicions were confirmed. But I was also pretty surprised at just how consistent the findings were. I honestly didn’t think The New Yorker would count the way it did: the evening I counted the NYer (I think I finally went to bed at 4 a.m.), I remember feeling distinctly demoralized. I’ll admit: I’d entertained hopes of publishing a poem within its esteemed pages someday. Yet, after counting, this aspiration seemed ridiculous. I felt like a bit of a fool for having believed it possible. So, in answer to your initial question, seeing the numbers depressed the hell out of me.
In fact, I often (jokingly) say that VIDA will end up giving me cancer, as my smoking habit escalated with all of the counting I was doing during last summer, so often late into the night, by which I really mean into the early morning.
And it was a bitch to track down all of the magazines. My local library simply wasn’t cutting it. So I finally relented and put my daughter into daycare, headed up to Columbia University’s library, where I was able to find much of what I needed. That’s one heavenly library. Later, I’d have the wisdom to hit the New York Public Library. They have everything. It was fascinating to see the history of certain venues, such as the Best American Short Stories, which was launched as a “yearbook” in 1915. Looking at the authors who were published in the volumes from the inception of the series really struck home the fact that it’s a career making publication.
As I moved on to counting other venues, I began to feel the shadow of cynicism cross over me. I began to develop the suspicion that I was the butt of a huge joke. I’d be in the city, riding on the subway, or sitting in a restaurant, and notice women of all types and ages reading The New Yorker, Harpers, The New York Review of Books; photos of male authors seemed to peer out at me from the pages, gloating. I wanted to ask these female readers if they were, in fact, enjoying what they were reading, ask if they noticed that nearly every article they perused was written by a man, that nearly every review addressed a book by a male author. And, if they did realize this, how did they feel about it?
September rolled around and I was back to teaching. I began to procrastinate when it came to counting. Frankly, the project had become distasteful. I had piles of TOCs scattered all over my house, stacked in my closet, piling up in my office at school. It was too much! I began to despair as the whether the project would ever be completed.
I then wisely enlisted the help of several women from VIDA. We divvyed up the TOCs and began counting in earnest. We were very careful: at least two or three individuals counted each venue, then cross checked their results with one another.
Some have derided the VIDA Count as “unscientific.” It’s true that we just presented the numbers. But we made every effort to ensure the numbers were accurate. The night before we launched, I stayed up till dawn on the phone with a close friend (and VIDA intern) who has bookkeeping expertise. She re-tabulated all of our data to ensure its accuracy.
By the time we completed VIDA’s 2010 Count, I no longer took offense at the numbers. I know this may sound strange, but I actually found the whole affair funny—no, hysterical. What were these editors thinking? Or, perhaps they were not thinking. About their readership. I came to the conclusion that the female readership is largely ignored, which is also funny, given that we make up such a large percentage of the their readers (and, as such, we are the primary consumers of their product). If these editors were financially savvy, wouldn’t they include more female contributors? Wouldn’t they review more books by women?
I began to wonder why I ever considered myself an appropriate reader for these magazines in the first place. It suddenly seemed so clear that their content was never intended for me. But this also struck me as absurd, given the fact I’m an English professor and writer; wouldn’t I be among their targeted readership?
The fact is, I often felt bored when reading these publications. (And I felt guilty for being bored!) Now I know why (whereas before, I felt I ought to be interested). I don’t subscribe to any of these magazines. Anymore.
Just as the 2010 Count was making its debut in February of 2011, several persons from the press contacted me. Before founding VIDA, I’d had very little contact with the media. One individual congratulated me on a “great story.” As a writer, this struck me as odd, because as far as “stories” are concerned, the VIDA Count required absolutely no imagination.
Heath: There are many vital conversations taking place regarding The Count, including the perception that women’s writing is less than: less interesting, less intellectual, less serious, less relevant, etc., etc. In addition, many people have essentialist notions of identity in relation to women professionalizing themselves as writers: i.e., we don’t send out stuff because we’re insecure, we’re not as aggressive as our male counterparts, etc., etc. What surprises me is how little attention is given to the fact that we live in a society that devalues women in all aspects of our lives, that these “essential” ideas about women and men are rooted in the fiction we continue to create—in language, in politics, in literature, and that these myths perpetuate inequality.
What do you make of the disconnect between perception and reality in terms of how women are perceived as writers and the fictional narratives both women and men create to perpetuate these myths?
Marvin: This is a question I’d like to pose to anyone who believes that literature plays a significant role in our culture. It is, in fact, the question that we at VIDA hoped the Count would prompt. But, here, you are asking me to speak to how I understand it. And, to be honest, I don’t. I don’t understand how people aren’t generally taken aback by evidence that is presented daily in media that women are tremendously undervalued, and often dismissed. This is, of course, the root of the problem.
And isn’t it awfully funny that we’re having this conversation in 2011? But it’s not funny, at all. It’s pretty scary, especially if you’re a woman. Even if you’re a woman who’s never intended to write and doesn’t much care for reading.
I personally think that women, as an entity, are quite adaptable, and that we’ve managed to accommodate the falsehood of “equality,” and much of this has to do with being “polite.” We are quite literally trained by society to understand ourselves as less significant than men—and even when we know that we are capable of greatness, we have also learned our place—and we know we will be criticized for being too outspoken or ambitious. From my experience with those who work on VIDA, women enjoy productive discussions, and would prefer to leave the arena when things get unnecessarily combative or ugly. I think it’s time we express our experiences and perceptions candidly, that we raise our objections when we feel them rise within ourselves. Too many women feel uncomfortable expressing themselves. I think the root of this lies in that we fear we’ll be disliked, or that we’ll be shunned. I think we should model the behaviors we wish to see enacted by others. I hope we can more firmly and cogently express our viewpoints, without apology, and that we will work to support one another. We really need to support one another. We need to learn as much as we can about one another’s work, about the different genres we’re working within, because we all share the same obstacles. And I don’t think men are outside this conversation. A great many male editors and writers are themselves deeply interested in bringing women’s voices to the forefront. I think the sooner the conversation becomes “about” gender, and less “between” genders, we’ll recognize that we’re all interested (one hopes) in a shared goal: parity.
Heath: What are VIDA’s expectations and goals for The Count? What are your goals for the organization as a whole?
Marvin: We at VIDA want to create a conversation. Many conversations. We wish, quite simply, to create a forum in which people who are concerned about gender disparity in literature can speak to one another. As such, we are about to launch a “forum” on our website in which members may carry on such conversations.
We’re also about to launch a blog, which we’re calling, after the Sexton poem, “Her Kind.” We plan to invite two writers at a time to conduct an extended exchange of ideas that response to specific questions provided by our blog editors, Rose Ben-Oni and Arisa White, who will serve as curators of these conversations.
We’ve also spoken a lot about establishing fellowships for female writers who are interested in engaging in critical discourse. We’d very much like to provide a substantial stipend, in addition to offering a retreat for such writers at which they would be mentored by writers with experience in this field. We want to help women writers become major players in the field of criticism, reviews, op-ed pieces, etc. It’s become obvious that we need more women presenting their critical prose to the literary world at large.
Finally, one of our ultimate goals is to host a national conference that focuses solely on women’s writing and its cultural reception, and we intend to include the genres of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, as well as playwriting and children’s literature. We’d like to for this conference to be less commercial than, say, AWP or MLA. By which I mean, we hope to offer a flat rate for all participants (rather than providing institutional memberships, which ultimately favor academics). It would great if we could provide housing at a low cost; this might be made possible were we to conduct our conference at a university campus. Most obviously, we would want to provide daycare. We wish to host a more intimate conference, one that isn’t so much focused on networking, as it is on building community.
Heath: I am often challenged to confront and question my own privilege in my work as well as erroneous ideas about women in general. Often, I fail. What informs your work as a poet and professor? How do you articulate your identity, and what vision(s) do you have for your writing?
Marvin: I prefer that my poems don’t answer to identity; rather, I desire that they create their own identities. The most seductive and wondrously empowering aspect of writing is that one can own the page. I personally work with the assumption that I’m not required to be faithful to the actual. And, for me, that’s what’s writing’s about. Escaping the body. Becoming autonomous through being anonymous, and thereby finding a space within which the mind and heart may engage the page.
When writing, I don’t think about numbers.
A Literary Glass Ceiling?, Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
Submitting Work: A Woman’s Problem?, Becky Tuch, Beyond The Margins
On Gender, Numbers & Submission, Rob Spillman, Tin House Blog
VIDA and The Count Round-Up, Alyss Dixon, She Said What?!!!
VIDA: The Count Roundup, Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus