The MRAs of Literature: Is This Anonymous, Male Version of the VIDA Count a Joke?

In a few short years, the VIDA Count has become a regular fixture in the literary world, released each year to be either ignored or heeded by magazine editors depending on their individual consciences. Now, a self-described anonymous group of friends who made a “bar bet” about the “real” numerical state of equality in the literary world have emerged to do their own count, revealing what they perceive to be female dominance over a group of mostly small literary magazines. With a faux-naive attitude and a mere handful of followers, this group, “Equality in Literature,” seems to be trying to demonstrate the existence of a misandrist conspiracy that is shutting off the gates of literary access to men. In the early days of feminist blogs, this would be called a “what about teh menz” reaction.

After they ignored my request for comment, I spent the better part of a day trying to discern whether this collective of pals was an elaborate hoax or a real example of the MRA mindset. The reality is, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

First of all, I scrolled through their count and had an immediate revelation. Yes, in some prominent contests as well as some lesser-known ones, more women have indeed been selected as winners than men. Of course, their survey of contests is by no means exhaustive. But even if you accepted that women are always winning more contests — if you understand the way the literary journal world works — you’d see that this means women are, in fact, producing better work! Why? Because contests are more likely to be judged blindly, while what magazines actually publish tends to be a mix of solicitations and non-anonymous submissions. So that means women are winning contests on the basis of their merits, while male bylines might well be the result of connections or biases, to be entirely unscientific about it. If women are kicking ass in the blind category but lagging or coming up even in the general byline count (as VIDA reliably proves), then these results are in fact proving more bias exists, not less.

I soon discovered another laughable complaint that the “friendly,” “curious,” open-minded folks at Equality in Lit have lodged on their blog, this time in reference to the demographics of the publishing industry. They are devastated to discover that low-level publishing employees are mostly female. Now, anyone who has come within a mile of publishing knows that there’s an army of young, mostly white women doing the entry-level work — but that’s a symbol of their lack of power, not their death-grip on the power levers of the industry. Because the same survey reveals that most management positions are still held by men, despite the industry being mostly populated by women. Again, this is an example of regular, old patriarchal sexism that is being cited by the Equality folks as its inverse.

Given how boneheaded these two complaints appear to be, then, and the fact that they prove the opposite of what they purport to, the site seemed as likely to be a send-up of MRAs as a vehicle for them. Based on the data they’re using and the solemn tone with which they inquire about equality, I could almost be convinced that it’s pure parody — if it wasn’t, alas, for the whiney tone of their tweets. Indeed, their Twitter account uses the MRA tactic of “just asking” and mimicking social justice concepts about “safe spaces” and so on to troll literary editors and actually bother them.

And then there’s our final piece of evidence that this group might, terrifyingly for the future of humanity, be real. Their third beef is with tongue-in-cheek scolding of white men, the kind found in such important and all-powerful venues of literary significance as… a BuzzFeed photo essay in which AWP members address the white male establishment, and a clearly humorous editor’s statement from The Toast (“Sometimes I tell white men to stop pitching us for a while, because I can. You may approach when I grant you permission, but do not make eye contact”). With earnest concern, Equality in Lit asks whether men are “welcome” at AWP. Note: just because a few new media venues have sprung up to counteract a literary stuffiness that skews white and male doesn’t mean that stuffiness no longer exists.

What Equality in Lit’s tweets do reveal is an overall level of paranoia in the literary community around these issues. A number of editors, even AWP itself, tweeted back at this tiny account, assuring them about the organization’s commitment to equality. Clearly, gender and racial disparities are on the collective brain, and literary folks may not even be aware that they’re being trolled in their rush to seem inclusive. It’s all a bit ridiculous and small seeming, yet in a week when a number of incredibly moving and damning pieces about being a person of color in the literary world have been circulating, it’s not hard to remember the truth: from journals to MFA programs to big publishing contracts, the real picture is a far cry from the Internet’s imagined misandrist universe.