A consciousness raising (and fund-raiser) to increase ‘The Count’ of women in literary arts

VIDA-supporters mingle at Brooklyn Brewery ()
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The scene on Monday night at Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg was much like that at any other literary party.

Bright prints, large glasses, tote bags; music—a mix of doo-wop and nineties hits—playing loud, yet still barely audible over the roar of shouted conversations; a near-constant scrum at the bar (though the line moved swiftly); stacks of complimentary books near the entrance (Emma Straub’s Other People We Married; Meghan O'Rourke’s The Long Goodbye); Geoff Kloske, looking typically rumpled, and Jon-Jon Goulian, showing off his impressively muscled arms.

But this wasn't a book party, or a reading, or the launch of the latest issue of some literary magazine. It was a consciousness-raising. At least that was the intention; technically, it was a fund-raiser for VIDA, the advocacy group for women in the literary arts, sponsored by the Penguin imprint Riverhead.

In February of 2011, VIDA published “The Count”—a series of brightly colored pie charts which broke down the contents of prominent literary publications during 2010 along gender lines. These charts revealed not only that male writers and reviewers vastly outnumber their female counterparts (in many cases by a margin of three to one) but that the books being reviewed were also overwhelmingly by male authors. The numbers weren’t exactly unexpected (nor was the fact that the count for 2011—released this February—revealed little substantial improvement).

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“I wasn't falling down on the floor shocked,” writer Meg Wolitzer, who has written extensively on the issue, said at the party. Nevertheless; the numbers were worse than she had imagined. “My novelist friends and I had really been feeling for a very long time that there were certain inequities in our world,” she confessed, “but it was hard to sort of put our finger on exactly how to describe it.” The VIDA count gave Wolitzer, and many others, “numbers [to] put to those feelings.”

Shortly after the 2010 Count, Ruth Franklin, in the The New Republic, did a similar analysis of gender disparities in publishing, mining data from the Fall 2010 catalogs of 13 houses. The numbers she came up with were similarly disheartening. The lists at “elite literary houses” Knopf and FSG were 23 and 21 percent female, respectively. Even independents disappointed: Graywolf came in at 25 percent, Melville House at 20. In fact, the only house that even approached parity was Riverhead, whose list split 55/45 in favor of men.

That was, on Monday, a source of pride for Jynne Dilling Martin, the Riverhead publicist who spearheaded the collaboration that led to this event. The sponsoring committee she created included a number of literary luminaries: agent Nicole Aragi; journalist Irin Carmon; and authors like Wolitzer, O’Rourke, and Straub.

For Martin, it was personal.

“As younger women,” she said, “we forget how recent the wave of feminism is, historically.” She was hoping that the number of female authors, writers and reviewers would rise in the next “five to ten years, as consciousness is raised.”

This was a theme that was hit upon repeatedly in conversations throughout the evening (there were no official announcements or speeches). There was the sense that a gender disparity in the literary field was felt, but had been left largely unarticulated. There was also the hope that the key to addressing it was something like a consciousness raising, twenty-first century style: that gathering people devoted to changing the status quo around artisanal beer and the (ultimately unfulfilled) promise of dancing might, on its own, have a palpable effect.

Stephen Krausaka, a mohawked VIDA volunteer manning the front table, pinpointed VIDA’s goal as “starting the conversation.” He noted that, “Everyone thinks of a literary press as being progressive and forward, and then it turns out that it’s 75 percent male authors.” In his opinion, “People in a way have become complacent.”

If part of the complacency is the sense that we’re far enough past the battles of second-wave feminism to forgo corrective action, another is the fact that publishing is perceived as female-driven. What’s more, most of the women at the event with whom I spoke emphatically denied that they had felt held back by gender in their attempts to climb the professional ranks.

Michelle Brower, an agent at Folio Literary Management, saw publishing as a field in which women have an easier time advancing than in other professions, if only because what’s been traditionally regarded as “women’s fiction” is also quite sellable. (Women make up the majority of the reading public.) Nevertheless, she admitted that might be part of the problem. Fiction written by women might sell, but fiction written by men gets reviewed.

“If you’re serious, there has to be something male about what you’re doing, otherwise you are just commercial.”

Wolitzer seemed to agree, noting that women are frequently denied “entry to that co-ed conversation that sometimes is, unfortunately, in our society, the only place where importance is seen to lie” purely on the basis of gender.

Carla Blumenkranz, an editor at n+1 and also a member of the sponsoring committee, put a slightly different spin on the evening’s central theme. Beginning with the caveat that she was speaking “very generally."

"[The men] you want to hear from, you tend to hear from them, whereas with the women, more often than not I notice that you have to ask. So maybe this is something that will remind people to ask,” she said. “It’s also a good reminder to all the women who want to be writing for certain magazines that they should put themselves out there.”

As Blumenkranz’s comment suggests, consciousness-raising isn't an end in itself. The VIDA fund-raiser certainly raised money (tickets were $15-$20, and the place was packed with close to 300 attendees) and sparked conversations—though it was hard to tell how on-topic they all might have been. But perhaps that’s besides the point. To get so many people on publishing salaries to donate any amount is a victory in its own right.

As VIDA transitions to a membership-based organization, the idea, according to author Jennine Capó Crucet, who sits on the board of directors, is to “put our money where our mouth is and start solving the problem.” She envisions workshops around the country to help interested women write book reviews and “pitch just like a man would,” as well as a network of female authors to rival the “old boys club” that still seems to dominate the literary scene. Men, she posited, help out colleagues all the time, whereas women too often get bogged down in the competitiveness borne of competing for a small piece of those pie charts.

“You don't have to be male to be sexist,” noted Cate Marvin—poet, VIDA co-founder, and member of both the board of directors and the event’s sponsoring committee.

On Monday, though the scene was overwhelmingly female, there was no sense of that sort of competitiveness. Reporters covering the event wished each other well; business cards were handed out; introductions were made (though whether anyone was able to hear names over the din is another question entirely).

The hope, for Capó Crucet, is a future pie chart that isn't “skewed in any one direction."

And a room full of writers, editors, agents, and others committed to seeing more women in print seemed, at the very least, a step in the right direction.