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A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: ‘The Believer’ and ‘Tin House’ Respond to the VIDA Count

Since 2009, the VIDA Count has taken a hard look at the number of male vs. female contributors to several prestigious magazines and literary journals, an approach that has evolved to slice and dice each publication’s performance by section and type of article. Book reviewers, the authors of reviewed books, bylines, and the overall contributions of men and women are taken into consideration, giving  readers and editors (if they choose to use the information) a broader view of the gender makeup of each publication.

To put it mildly, the numbers VIDA has presented over the past several years have painted a disturbing picture of almost universal inequality on the pages of major magazines. Certain literary stalwarts like The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the New Republic have fared particularly poorly, with men dominating both the publications’ coverage and their contributors. And the numbers from this year’s Count have inspired the same hand-wringing they do every year, especially regarding repeat offenders like The New York Review of Books. The venerable magazine ran 121 men’s bylines and only 36 women’s in 2012, then repeated that performance in 2013 with another gulf of 85 bylines: 117 men and 32 women. While readers might value consistency in their favorite publications, the NYRB‘s particular brand of it is, to put it lightly, disturbing.

But a few publications did show significant growth: The New York Times Book Review showed a strong commitment to evening the playing field, while The Paris Review dramatically improved upon its abysmal 2012 numbers, which included an overall count of 70 male to 18 female contributors. 2013’s numbers show an overall score of 47 men and 48 women.

memoryOne publication that has been just as consistent as the New York Review of Books, except in a far more encouraging way, is the Brooklyn- and Portland-based Tin House. Looking at the magazine’s numbers, it’s easy to see its staff’s commitment to promoting the work of men and women equally — something that many commenters on social media have applauded and even mentioned as the reason why they began reading Tin House in the first place. (It should also be noted that the Tin House masthead lists seven men and 11 women.)

I asked the magazine’s editor, Rob Spillman, about his magazine’s numbers. He broke down the system Tin House uses — a recipe that looks easy to replicate, but one that some of the most well-respected journalistic and literary institutions can’t seem to get right — and how it impacts the 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… So we 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.

Echoing what he told us last year in response to Tin House‘s impressive VIDA numbers, Spillman reiterated, “This isn’t rocket science. There are no excuses.” And he didn’t mince words when asked about publications that can’t seem to get the balance right:

A little bit over or under balance, I can see, but 75%? 80%? That’s willful neglect at best. Just plain sexism at worst. That is basically saying, “We don’t give a crap.” And since there is now a baseline to compare it to, it seems apparent that the vital work of VIDA — bringing the inequities to light — is not enough. Consumers who value gender parity should express their feelings by supporting the magazines that walk the walk, and not support those that discriminate.

Spillman also offered a grim outlook when I asked if he thought these numbers would change. The publications who have been repeatedly called out, he says, “have made half-baked excuses in the past — ‘look, we have one prominent female writer!’ — but there is no systemic effort to change. Shame alone doesn’t reach them.”

believerIn terms of indie literature, The Believer is one of the few magazines that has the same sort of clout as Tin House. Founded in 2003 by Dave Eggers, and published under the McSweeney’s umbrella, it is one of the most recognizable brands in contemporary literature, and Eggers (who is not listed on the masthead) has long championed liberal causes, from founding the 826 National organization to launching the “90 Days, 90 Reasons” campaign to help reelect Barack Obama to a second term as president. When feminist writers talk about the “Literary Boys Club,” McSweeney’s and The Believer don’t tend to be the institutions they have in mind.

Yet the VIDA Count numbers a tell a different story, and have already elicited a backlash from the likes of ILK journal editor, Caroline Crew:

The Believer responded to her tweet, writing, “It’s just not fair to say we don’t care — because we very much do,” and prompting her to write a letter to the editor.

As a Believer reader and fan, I was also shocked to see the magazine had included just 24 bylines for women vs. 63 by men in 2013. The book reviewer count is also staggering: 23 men reviewed books for the magazine in 2013, compared with a paltry five women reviewers.

However you chose to look at these numbers, the cliché “numbers don’t lie” applies. While there could very well be yearly fluctuations or small counting discrepancies, a canyon is a canyon; percentages like that are just not acceptable. When I asked several members of the McSweeney’s organization about the numbers, each one shared my shock at VIDA’s findings. While no staffer would comment individually, the editors of The Believer (which counts Heidi Julavits, Sheila Heti, and Karolina Waclawiak among their ranks) answered a few of my questions about their reaction to the count collectively:

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. The Believer’s biggest features are the interviews and the essays — these areas are, admittedly, where we devote most of our equality attention each issue — and we learned that our interviews (and interview subjects) clocked in at exactly 50%, and our essays at just under 40%. It’s worth noting that our biggest and most hyped feature essays this year were by women — we showcased them on our website and they received large readerships. Where we need to focus, we learned, is on our smaller features — the short book reviews and the columns.
Since this was the first year The Believer was included in the count, I asked if there had been any discussion among the editors about the male-to-female ratio of contributors to the magazine in the past. They wrote,

Gender parity is something we’ve always thought about and are committed to in the future. We believe it’s also worth mentioning that we give out two Believer Book Awards each year — one for fiction and one for poetry — and the winners in both categories in 2013 were women. The VIDA count further energizes us to continue publishing and promoting the work of talented women writers.
In my estimation, the entire point of the VIDA Count is to educate readers on gender discrepancies in magazines and literary journals, and to encourage those publications to fix those discrepancies. It isn’t meant to punish anybody; it simply looks to promote equality. When I asked if, going forward, the VIDA Count findings would influence their editorial decision-making, The Believer editors expressed hope that the 2014 numbers would tell a different story:

We are busily rectifying this situation so that, should we be lucky enough to be included in the VIDA count again next year, we’ll be able to post numbers that better represent what we’ve been committed to since we published our first issue.

This is how the VIDA Count works: one of the publications included in it for the first time this year saw the numbers and committed to making a change. The Believer now has the remaining ten months of 2014 to bridge its gender gulf. Many publications that haven’t commented on their abysmal numbers, or other calls to diversify their content to fix not only its gender gap but also race and cultural ones as well, will have a year to make things right, too. Here’s hoping that in 2015, we can see evidence of positive change from The Believer and all the other magazines and literary journals we want to support.

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