Why I’m Canceling My Subscription: An Open Letter to ‘Harper’s’ from a Loyal Reader

Dear Harper’s,

It is with great sadness that I write this letter. I have subscribed to your publication since I was an undergraduate in college, and now, nearly 30 years later, I think that except for brief lapses, I have been a loyal subscriber all that time.

When Lewis Lapham was editor, I always read his opening essay first. I didn’t always agree with everything he had to say, but he spoke for me as often as not, and there were moments — as when he referred to Newt Gingrich as “nasty, brutish, and short,” that I thought that I had found my intellectual home. But I knew, even then, that Mr. Lapham was of a mind that still treasured the male voice above the female voice, and that as long as he was editor, the magazine would feature more male writers than female.

I didn’t notice much change under Roger Hodge, but then when Ellen Rosenbush became editor, I thought that things would change. Surely, a female editor would seek out new female voices to feature in the magazine? Alas, each month that I opened the magazine, I saw fewer and fewer female bylines, but I doubted my own eyes. I figured that I was just looking during especially imbalanced months, and that if I were to keep track over the course of a year, surely those numbers would be more in line with the numbers of male and female writers that are out there.

But let me start over.

In many ways, my intellectual development has been supplemented by the reading that I have done in Harper’s. You have called my attention to issues as far-ranging as the lack of respect that women writers get in the literary world, to astute analyses of the presidencies of all the men who have been president since 1984, to issues in Asia and Africa that I could not find anywhere else. You felt like my intellectual home, and as I became more aware of the world, there was more in Harper’s for me to resonate with. By the time I got to graduate school, I felt as if I were in sync with you.

You introduced me to Earl Shorris, who changed my life. When he wrote about poverty and the classics, he interrupted my own narrative of the poor and uneducated. He showed me how his program could change lives, could bring the poor into mainstream culture through the reading of the classics. It was one of the great pleasures of my life that I was able to bring Earl to the university where I teach so that he might talk to a whole new generation of undergraduates about how the classics have so much to teach us as human beings, how that knowledge allows us to function in a world that assaults us with that which distracts and confuses us, and often leads us down the wrong path. I spent the evening after the event drinking wine with Earl and talking late into the night about these things, and his death last year diminished all of us.

Francine Prose’s “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink” has stuck with me through the years, as I have examined the ways in which women’s writing is received in this culture. The brouhaha that arises on a regular basis about the way women’s writing is ghettoized as “chick lit” while male writers are “literary,” was first brought to my attention by Prose, and I still recommend the article to anyone seeking to understand those labels’ perniciousness. It led to my own discovery that when young male writers burst upon the literary scene, they are often called “genius.” The epithet, however, never applies to women, and I can count on one finger the number of times in my life that I have seen a woman referred to as a genius in our culture.

I have had moments of great disagreement with you, as you have several times declared the culture wars over in the past decade. Instead, questions about civil rights, what it means to be a citizen, women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, science versus religion, what books we read — all that — your writers have argued through the years, are over. How surprising you must find it that these issues have grown in importance in our culture, to the point where we are now, where we risk fracturing as a nation over issues you claimed were settled at least a decade ago.

It was telling, I thought, that even in September of 2011, Thomas Frank, who has replaced Lewis Lapham at the front of your book, could write a dismissal of the culture wars when he wrote,

And now let us check in on the culture wars.

Yes, I know: stock markets have been seesawing wildly, U.S. Treasury notes have been downgraded, unemployment is soaring, and the entire government was recently held hostage. But for some people, that particular end-of-times scenario isn’t satisfying enough: for them, the real crisis is still the massacre of the unborn and the horror of stem-cell research, and they regard the economic disasters of recent years as an annoying distraction. You and I may fret over the Dow, but they are out there still, fighting tooth and nail against the “culture of death.”

While the article mocked the right-wing culture warriors, the implication was clear. The “you and I” that he referred to didn’t bother with such things. Our views were far superior, and we knew the real problems were economic. But as part of the “you” who happened to be a woman, I felt excluded. For those of us on the receiving end of the culture wars — namely women, persons of color, the LGBTQ community — those wars are real. But to Frank, as it was with Lapham, the culture wars are merely a distraction. Perhaps, I remembered thinking when reading the article, if it were your body on the line, you might see these issues as more important. Hadn’t there been a woman editor on your staff who might have pointed out to Mr. Frank that he was seeing the world through white, male, heterosexual, middle-class eyes? But I let it go.

I continued to think that it was me — that I must be imagining the disparity between male and female writers in your pages. I accused myself of being an oversensitive feminist; after all, you had so much to offer me, your failure to publish women must be an oversight, a hangover from the old days of Lapham, when your stable of writers was mostly male. Maybe now, I thought, as younger writers were rising in prominence, the new generation of women writers would find a voice in your magazine. That’s not the case. And now I have the proof I need that it’s not me, it’s you. You are doing this; you are silencing women’s voices and I do not know why.

When the first VIDA counts came out, I thought you would be mortified by your numbers, how skewed they were to male writers. In 2010, the first year that VIDA kept numbers, they counted book reviewers, books reviewed, and overall ratios of male to female in the magazine. Your 2010 numbers were atrocious:

Book reviewers: 27 men, six women. Authors reviewed: 46 men; 21 women. Overall: 94 male authors; 25 women. I was sure that a magazine as progressive as you are would certainly respond and make a clear effort to rectify the gender imbalance in your pages. And at first, it appeared that you would do something. Ellen Rosenbush, speaking in The Forward‘s The Sisterhood blog said, “The dearth of female bylines, however, is an industry-wide issue. There may be some sort of a historical hangover from past years that has resulted in us getting fewer pitches from female writers, but I would like to change that equation. I have made it a point to have at least one woman writer in every issue, and now, with the addition of Zadie Smith as our New Books columnist, I will be able to get more and more female bylines.” That was in February of 2011.

And while Ms. Rosenbush’s promise to include one woman writer in each issue was laughable, it did at least show that you were feeling some heat to change. When the 2011 numbers came out, there was some progress — VIDA had expanded its count, and here is where you came out:

Book reviewers: 23 male; ten female. Authors reviewed: 53 male; 19 female. Articles: 65 by men; 13 by women. Overall count: female 41; male 142. It wasn’t exactly earth-shattering progress, but there was a small uptick in the numbers. Perhaps these things take time, I thought. Perhaps it would be better in 2012.

But, if you had been willing to pay some attention in 2011, by 2012, it appeared that instead, you not only ignored VIDA, you dug in your heels, and perhaps as a sign of your refusal to be cowed into changing the way that you had always done things, you actually published even fewer articles by women.

Harper’s, the numbers for 2012 are dismal. They are for me, as a writer who happens to be a woman, soul-destroying. This year, you employed three book reviewers who were women, while 28 men were tapped to write book reviews. You reviewed 54 male writers, while only 11 women were regarded as worthy enough of a book review. It was the bylines that broke my heart. You published 17 articles by women; 76 articles were written by men. If you’re keeping track, that’s 158 to 31. That’s not progress from your 142/41 numbers of the year before.

Since 2010, when the numbers were clear, I have expected that you would seek to change these numbers as soon as possible. That, as editors, you would reach out to women writers and ask them to pen articles for you. That you would look closer at your submissions, and make active decisions to go with a woman writer. Instead, given that this is the third year that VIDA has been keeping track, it appears that you have made a conscious decision to not care that your intellectual magazine, which has so much influence in the circles I move in, ignores the voices of women. Are you aware, by the way, that you list 32 male contributing editors and five females? Really? In 2013?

Harper’s, in the first year of the count, you published six female book reviewers; how can three this year be anything but a conscious decision to ignore the pressure from VIDA — to decide, on your part, that it means nothing that you are silencing an entire generation of young women writers? Whereas you can claim that you have no control over submission numbers (though VIDA has destroyed that excuse), the choice about whether to ask a man or a woman to review a book is wholly the editor’s. I can only assume that, with Ms. Rosenbush’s blessing, you are ignoring women and VIDA. Perhaps, in fact, in order to prove that you won’t be pressured by VIDA, you have deliberately cut down on the number of women who appear in your pages.

For this reason, I can no longer support your magazine with my subscription dollars. I recently renewed my subscription for three years; I would like you to cancel my subscription and refund my money. If the only way to get through to you is for women to withdraw their financial support of your magazine, well, that’s the way that we will do it.

I feel as if there will be a hole where my Harper’s subscription used to be. But I also know that plenty of women writers are out there getting published elsewhere. So, elsewhere is where I’ll look. I can no longer, in good conscience, support a magazine that feels such contempt for women.

Next year, when the new VIDA numbers come out, I will look to see if you have made any effort to change the way you interact with women writers. Perhaps, if there is a noticeable change, I can come back to being one of your subscribers. Perhaps women canceling their subscriptions will make a difference to you. Shame has had no effect.

Until then, while you may not miss me as a single subscriber, the one thing I’ll miss is the joy I used to get when I opened my mailbox once a month to discover that the newest Harper’s had arrived. I will, instead, find other magazines who treat men and women equally.

Shame on you, Harper’s. As a progressive magazine, you should be doing better. I can no longer hang out in your boys’ room.

Sincerely,

Lorraine Berry
Talking Writing