February 25, 2014

Some VIDA numbers are improving. What else should we count?


Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 4.58.14 PMThat time of year is here again: the VIDA count is up for 2013. You probably already know that VIDA counts the bylines and reviews of various publications and presents us with pie charts to show the gender disparity at each one. We discuss the numbers each year with a certain amount of disappointment; some editors make a concerted effort to improve them and many, frankly, don’t care. It might be time for VIDA to widen its conversation to include factors beyond this gender split.

But first: award for most improved goes to the Paris Review, which published 70 men and 18 women in 2012; in 2013, it was even better than even with 47 men and 48 women. VIDA gave a special shout-out to Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review. Under her leadership, the paper increased the number of female reviewers from less than a quarter to almost half. Don Share of Poetry Magazine is also singled out for his efforts to #readwomen2014.

Predictably, a number of publications haven’t changed much over the years. The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, the New Republic, The Nation, the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker hover around 75% male, 25% female bylines. The New York Review of Books consistently publishes 80% men year after year.

Ten interns count these numbers, with five readers confirming each publication’s numbers. More about the methodologies is available here if you’re looking to do some counting of your own.

The count began in 2009 as a way of raising discussion about who was being published and why. It has continued as a means of holding these publications accountable for their work.

VIDA has been successful in getting the conversation going, regardless of which publications listen and which ones choose to ignore the numbers. But it seems like VIDA could expand this conversation to include publication rates for people of color, male or female.

Alyss Dixson, a member of the VIDA executive committee, writes:

It’s time we had a real chat about what the Hell is going on out here for women of color. What are the publication rates? Which outlets have created a publishing, editorial and aesthetic environment that promotes diversity? And I’m not talking about publishing formal couplets written by someone of non-European descent, I’m talking about the tough stuff: actually examining if the entire editorial culture—from the bottom up, because, yes, we all know most of of our work passes through the hands of readers least likely to have any experience—challenges itself on a regular basis, asks the best of itself and its editorial mission and publishing history, evolves its aesthetic criteria to continually expand the notions of “good”, “quality”, “literary” so that the TOC doesn’t look like it’s from an alternate universe where Ole Dixie won the war. How utterly, ridiculously enraging and heartbreaking is it to go back through six, eight and ten months worth of issues (in more than a few cases, years) and not see a single author of color. Or to only see the same ten authors/poets of color on repeat while every other name in the journal looks like it’s on shuffle. What are the statistical chances of that publication reading and accepting the work of any one of color, male or female?

Publishers like Tin House wear their VIDA numbers as a badge of pride. Publishers like Riverhead have challenged male-dominated prizes with their own prizes for global women of letters. There’s so much room to improve our conversation about race and publishing.

Are there other publishers who are taking steps to publish a wide range of voices and experiences? Is there a way to quantify these articles and authors? VIDA would be an ideal organization to start asking these questions with quantifiable results, and 2014 might be the year to start a new count.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.