VIDA’s figures make unsurprising reading. Women write, women read but, as women writers are deprived of exposure in more prestigious journals, so the more prestigious journals deprive themselves of women readers.
Like Ros Barber, I too allowed a subscription to the “London Review of Books” lapse because I wasn’t reading reviews of books I wanted to read. Maybe I’m not their target audience, in which case it’s not a problem. But I’m intelligent, widely-read and buy significant volumes of books and magazines, so I’ve have thought they’d be interested in keeping me.
Of course, it’s not as simple as male editors picking work by writers who write on subjects and in a style that appeals to them and then discovering that the writers they select are largely male. Some male editors pick more work by women and some female editors pick more work by men. I don’t think there is a conscious bias, but culturally men’s writing has assumed importance and become the yardstick against which all writing is measured. All editors can only pick from the work they are sent and there is a risk that women don’t submit work to publications they see has not publishing much work by women, which creates a vicious circle of those editors having even less work by women to select from…
This was the argument used by the “London Review of Books” poetry editor: few women submit so it’s harder for the poetry editor to choose a poem by a woman. Sadly women do not submit poems in the same volumes or the same frequency as men. One magazine that invites submissions of four to six poems reports that women often submit less than four and give up after the first or second rejection. Men tend to send six or more and make repeat submissions.
Meanwhile the editor of the Times Literary Supplement used a similar argument to that used by the NY Times literary editor, “…I’d be surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS. The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.” This suggests the TLS thinks the best reviews of the most important books are reviews written by men about books by men. Perhaps the TLS is concerned that such books will become an endangered species so need all the support they can get. Again, I’m clearly not the target audience for the TLS. In fact anyone who happens to be a woman is clearly not the target audience for the TLS. If magazine wishes to place such a serious restriction on its audience, it deserves to go the way of the dinosaurs.
I’m not in favour of quotas or placing a target of a balanced representation of work by women and men writers for each magazine. Editors should be free to select what they consider to be the best of the submissions they receive.
So what can be done?
- Women need to submit more work to editors – editors can’t select work they don’t see.
- Writers’ groups and creative writing courses need to be more supportive over rejections and reinforce the fact that rejections are very much part of writing. Poems are usually sent out in batches of four, so for every poem I have accepted, there are usually at least three that got rejected.
- Challenge course tutors who only use examples of writing by men and don’t use examples of writing by women.
- Challenge those who boast of not reading women’s writing. This is not something to be proud of but something to be ashamed of.
- Focus on gaining experience to become a better writer rather than worrying about whether your work is “good enough”. It’s down to editors to select work for publication, not writers.
- Women need to get more involved in reviewing – contribute to Amazon or write guest posts to writers’ blogs if setting up a blog or becoming a reviewer for a magazine doesn’t look attractive.
- Keep auditing. Statistics like the ones collated by VIDA and earlier by MsLexia shouldn’t be used to deter women writers but rather to act as a spur for women to become more proactive. They also act as a measure of how far women still have to go.