VIDA: Counting Women’s Presence in the Literary Arts

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VIDA IS AN ORGANIZATION WITH A UNIQUE MISSION: to quantify women’s representation in the literary arts. Their approach? Count. Thanks to the tireless efforts of its volunteers, VIDA has counted women writers’ inclusion in journals, magazines, newspapers, and reviews every year since 2009. In 2014, VIDA began to include a survey that allowed them to widen their purview to include intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and ability.

VIDA was born when Cate Marvin, an accomplished poet and professor, sent a frustrated email to some fellow women writers, which, according to VIDA’s website, “questioned the state of women in literature with searing exactitude.” The email went viral, and by the next morning, VIDA was co-founded by Marvin and one of the original recipients and fellow poet, Erin Belieu.

VIDA’s findings are both disheartening and hopeful. Some publications, like The New Republic, have acknowledged the count itself and taken action — TNR raised its percentage of female book reviewers from 7 to 29 percent in one year. Others, like The Nation and The Times Literary Supplement, stagnate at percentages well below 50. Either way, VIDA brings crucial attention and accountability to an oftentimes oblivious and self-congratulatory industry.

I caught up with VIDA Executive Board member Lynn Melnick about VIDA and the literary landscape:

Why count? What is the significance of having hard facts and numbers when it comes to representation in the literary industry?
We VIDA Count so that we have hard numbers to back up what many women writers have long suspected – it’s not always an even playing field. Before VIDA came along, it was almost like we were being gaslighted, or even that editors were gaslighting themselves – “but we publish women!” Now we can see how many women are being published and reviewed, and how often. Publishing one or two women an issue is not enough anymore; people are paying attention and holding publications accountable.

How has the count evolved since its inception? How have people reacted to it?

We’ve seen improvements come and go in some major publications while others have consistently improved or maintained gender parity, like Poetry and Tin House; very happily, subsequent years have proven that suggestion incorrect and we’ve seen major improvement in gender parity since we began the VIDA Count. We’ve also seen incremental changes accompanied by editors at least publicly stating they want to change and will work for it.

We’ve added additional journals and magazines in our Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count and have begun to take an intersectional approach to the numbers in our Main VIDA Count, with charts not only on gender identity, but also on sexuality, disability and race. We hope to add more categories in future VIDA Counts.

People have reacted in various ways, from gratitude and action to skepticism and downright hostility. My troll file is pretty big, but onward we go.

10423861_821055334608692_4141668128250784963_n Some of the people involved with VIDA (left to right: Sheila McMullin, Lynn Melnick, Amy King, Camille Rankine)

What do you think would need to happen for every one of those pie charts to be half red and half blue? Is that the ultimate goal?

Several of the journals, like The Paris Review and New York Review of Books, have editors that maybe don’t see the problem and likely don’t give a f**k (see, for example, NYRoB editor Robert Silvers flailing around the problem). I’d say the old-fashioned way of valuing the voices of white men and by default seeing them as superior needs to be replaced – and I think it is being replaced slowly, but I don’t expect the need for VIDA’s work to disappear any time soon. The ultimate goal is for all voices to be represented in our literature proportionate to the voices that exist in the world.

It looks like literary publications may actually be moving toward more than 50% content by women. Why do you think this is? Will women eventually make up more than half of the literary community, or do they already in some ways?

Well, data from MFA programs suggests there are more women enrolled in writing programs than men – so, if there is a shift, it may be more accurately reflecting the population that’s writing right now. Still, we are rarely seeing this in the “bigger” publications, the ones that can make a career, like, say, the way getting your book reviewed in the NYT Book Review might. Larger publications are often money-driven and, when less money is involved, more parity is achieved (as we see in our Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count).

Since the start of the VIDA Count, some publications, like The Atlantic and The Paris Review, are doing worse in terms of representing women. Why are some of these publications moving backwards?

Well, you’d have to ask those particular journals, I suppose. Lorin Stein of The Paris Review was interviewed when the 2015 VIDA Count came out (showing their overall coverage of men 2-to-1 over women last year), and he basically said “nbd.”

Look, some editors don’t give a sh*t about how much they prefer the writing of white men, but we’ll keep VIDA Counting anyway.

In 2014, VIDA started counting not only gender, but race, sexuality, and ability. What picture emerges when you take these into account?

A really bleak picture emerges. As one might suspect, when you factor in categories beyond women/men you find that women of color, disabled women, trans women, and non-straight women are represented in astonishingly low numbers. It’s upsetting, but, as ever, knowing these figures enables the conversation to advance, including discussion of where these voices are and why they aren’t being published.

Women’s under-representation was something of a foregone conclusion for VIDA, and was immediately backed up by the numbers of the first count — but have there been any surprises and unforeseen complexities, once the work actually started?

I think I’ve been surprised by how valued and necessary our work has been, and what change it’s brought to the community – and so quickly. There are constant and often unforeseen complexities because we are trying to dismantle patriarchal systems within those very systems — so the resistance is real but, again, onward!

Tell me about VIDA’s activities other than the count—how do they contribute to VIDA’s mission?

Well, first of all, none of the work we do could be done without the efforts of a very large group of women and men giving their time and talent for our cause, and we are grateful and blown away. The team we have in place right now is gutsy and hard-working and generous. I get overwhelmed with gratitude for them every day.

VIDA’s activism extends well beyond just the VIDA Count, although that is a huge and time-consuming undertaking. One of the things I’m most proud of is a column we began in 2014 called “Reports from the Field,” which calls out everyday misogyny and sexism in the literary world. We’ve had push back on this, especially in the instances in which we have named names. But if we remain silent, we keep broken systems in place that literally harm women. We have many other columns on our website as well, and are thrilled to publish many important essays by an amazing and varied group of women about an amazing and varied series of concerns to women in the literary arts. The writers who have shared their work with VIDA’s audience are incredible, and we’ve been so proud to feature each one on our platform.

VIDA has recently been able to offer fellowships for women to writing residencies, and we hope to be able to do more of this in the future. And we have hosted many really kick-ass panel discussions and readings all across the country and will continue to do so – stay tuned!

Visit VIDA’s website here.