Reviewing The VIDA Count and The Sexism It Misses

Since 2009, the grassroots, volunteer-based organization VIDA has striven “to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” It’s an uphill battle. With monolithic establishments such as The New York Review of Books publishing four times as many men as women, female inclusion in literary conversation still seems a daunting task.

However, according to the Count, things were better for women in 2013. VIDA points out that both The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review have shifted from being male-dominated to having a more balanced distribution of female reviewers and authors. (“While such progress is remarkable in one year, we are likewise pleased to note that we haven’t heard anyone bemoan a drop in quality in The Paris Review’s pages,” VIDA quips in their introduction.) It appears in VIDA’s pie charts that women are, at long last, gaining ground.

But does that mean the literary community is really a safer place for women? The numbers aren’t the whole story. As just one example, a recent HTMLGIANT postsparked controversy for running a section of Mary Beard’s “Diary” under the title “On Rape,” accompanied by graphic images of rape scenes from Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, Irreversible, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” video, and elsewhere. To HTMLGIANT’s credit, the post was pulled from the site after the author came under fire from women who felt manipulated or disturbed by it. As a result, the editors also announced a change in their review process, which will include more editorial oversight.

Last December, author Leigh Stein published an open letter to HTMLGIANT, identifying what she said was a history of misogynistic articles and sexist comment threads on the blog. Stein wrote, “I challenge HTMLGIANT contributors to use their power to make this site the weird-ass literary carnival it is at its best, without using discriminatory, sexist, hate speech that objectifies, humiliates, and infuriates their female readership.” This language is not unique to HTMLGIANT, and what Stein calls for is something that needs to be demanded of all publications. Although the most recent VIDA Count shows progress with journals publishing more female authors, there is still a long, long way to go before making the literary reviews comfortable and safe for female reader- and authorship.

Unfortunately, the VIDA Count can only present us with the straight numbers; there are simply not enough volunteers to count every publication or scrutinize posts for sexist language. The point to take away is, misogynistic attitudes can exist beyond the gender of the byline. It is the reader’s responsibility to be aware of the messages publications are sending, just as it is the reader’s responsibility to call out sexism when they see it.

In the name of full disclosure, Electric Literature and Recommended Reading aim to represent both genders fairly, and we volunteer our Count for the past year below:

  • Stories by men: 26
  • Stories by women: 26
  • Introductions by men: 26
  • Introductions by women: 27
  • Total male bylines: 52
  • Total female bylines: 53

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