If you’re a woman and a writer, and if you publish, you have about a 75% chance – give or take – of being universally ignored in literary reviews. This according to the latest data collected by VIDA now reverberating throughout the literary community and stirring up every shade of argument and apologia.
Are the lines really drawn between genders or is something else going on? And if women are so under-represented in the literary world, what’s getting in their way? Is male dominance so entrenched as to expressly give preference to inferior writing because the author is male?
It’s frightening to imagine the business model that represents. Ultimately, it’s like some kind of sick Soviet delusion that crams the Lada down the public throat because it can’t admit what a failure communism is, doesn’t care what the market wants, and won’t concede to the better – though flawed – system of democratic free-enterprise.
Are we to believe that some nefarious patriarchy is so moronic and self-destructive that brilliant writing will be systematically and pointedly pushed aside to serve a male agenda, even at the risk of lowering standards, profitability, and overall readership?
The VIDA people trot out arguments about the ratio of submissions and qualitative rubrics to dismiss the proportionality of reviews to submissions between the genders, cited by editors and publishers to explain the representational discrepancy. In other words, editors and reviewers are saying that 75% of the attention goes to male writers because 75% of the submissions are from male writers. VIDA doesn’t buy that, and believes it can mathematically chop up quality in an analysis to determine that these reviews are preferentially ignoring works of a higher calibre because the writers are women. The idea of qualitative rubrics is curious, since writing quality and publishability are so utterly subjective that it’s hard to imagine a statistically viable rubric for a process built necessarily on variability and inconsistently personal taste, which may differ widely within a single publication from editor to editor, much less from publication to publication. Even two comparable qualitative samples in writing cannot possibly express the broader scope of ineffable narrative factors that make one story a failure and the other a success.
A recent Globe & Mail article by newly minted publisher Linda Leith is likely to kick up a lot of dust just as it appears to have settled. She explains, without blame or setting up an argument about the causal chain, that in her experience as an editor, women fail both in the quantity and quality of submissions, and that if a publisher’s objective is to select the best of the best – well, the numbers are in favour of men. Hands down. Why women are submitting so infrequently relative to men, and why the writing quality is so poor are questions that must be asked and answered.
To this, VIDA would say that it’s the job of the publisher to go out and solicit women writers.
If editors must scramble to solicit writers who lack the wherewithal, ambition, or talent to find markets for their work, should they be published? Are they even ready for it? Such a publishing model – pushing the disinterested and the halfhearted – the half-baked – into publication just to make the numbers look good – is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. It does not answer the core questions about submission rates and quality.
Successful women in any field have been successful because they wanted to be, and they had the chops to flip inevitable chauvinism right on its back. Margaret Thatcher was not solicited to be Prime Minister to even out the gender score. She earned it. Oprah Winfrey did not become an entertainment powerhouse because some special interest group recognised the triple-whammy of her gender, racial, and weight disadvantages, and so coaxed her out of the shadows like some shy, dungeon-blinded patriarchal captive.
Will men go out of their way to shut women out? Some. But not all.
For anyone who wants what they want there are many routes to success, and they will turn and push and turn and push until something gives. They just do it. And if resistance and failure put an end to their efforts, then they likely didn’t want it with the same single-mindedness as the competition.
The internet is too immediate and too accessible to leave stuffy journals of yore with such overarching power. Even if the Old Boys are still at it, readers will effectively and efficiently bypass disingenuous publications that continuously churn out mediocrity that comes by way of skewed ideological positions, or more directly by pushing their version of the Lada on a public with a taste for something else.
No review can make a reader passionate about bland writing. A lack of formal reviews won’t keep a brilliantly written novel by a woman from the big prizes, or from the perusal of the general public. Readers will choose and buy, now more than ever, based on the opinions of other regular readers. Nothing can be more democratic and anti-chauvinist and anti-patriarchal than that. They will assess online commentary and reviews because they trust the integrity of even the most basic likes and dislikes, and ultimately they trust the aggregate.
So if the Big Boys are pursuing a dead agenda a hundred years past its due date, then the public will reward them by rendering such journals and their reviewers irrelevant, thus bringing to an end formal, knowledgeable literary reviewing. If such is the case, good riddance.
In the end it’s the depth and the storytelling magic that matters, not the review. Readers will always be attracted to beautiful writing, a sense of insight, and the writer’s connection – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – with the broad sweep of the human condition.
Not male condition. Not female condition.
The human condition. How beautiful. How full enough for us all.
Maybe that makes all the difference.