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How To Publish Women Writers: A Letter to Publishers about the VIDA Count

Guest blogger, Annie Finch

Photo by Fran Priestley

Finally, VIDA has published the numbers. What many of us have long known, or at least suspected, is now incontrovertible truth: women are not published nearly as much as men in most venues in the literary world. As editors (of both genders) scramble to justify familiar sexist publication practices, you can expect to hear these usual excuses: 1. It’s not our fault; women just don’t send us their writing as much as men do. Our gender balance reflects the slushpile. 2. It’s not our fault; the writing we see by women simply doesn’t meet our standards. If they sent us good enough work, we would publish it.
3. We publish women. Look— we included x, x, and x in our last issue. So what if they’re in the back of the magazine and have far fewer pages? What do you want us to be, a feminist magazine? 4. You don’t like that sexist allusion in the first poem in the magazine? Lighten up! Where’s your sense of humor?

Sorry. These tired rationalizations just don’t cut it anymore. Here are some guidelines for literary journals ready to take responsibility for their editorial practices, remedy the imbalance once and for all, and finally join the 21st century:

1. Actively solicit women contributors. This is the only realistic way to get from the slush pile (likely at least 75% male) to your goal of at least 50% women. You have no moral obligation to reflect the percentages of your slush pile; if you did, most of what you publish would be below your standards. So how can you be proactive about the percentage? A) Read other magazines, or browse in bookstores, and look for women writers whose work you admire. B) Look up their postal or email address online and send them an email asking to look at some of their work for consideration. A query does not put you under any obligation to accept. Follow up until they send, and if you must reject, invite them at least once to send more work immediately for another round of consideration.

Photo by Craig Rodway

2. Educate yourself. Find out what women writers are saying about their own influences, ideas, aesthetics, aims, strategies, and traditions. In addition to writings by or about women writers you admire, read some general background works in feminist theory. If time is short, even a couple of hours of online browsing can make a big difference in your awareness of the context of women’s writing.

3. Read with double awareness. When you are reading a literary offering from a woman (as with any writer whose background differs from the majority white-male-upper-middle-class), be extra careful to notice your responses. When you find yourself reacting against something in a piece, ask yourself honestly whether gender might have something to do with your response. For example, women’s writing is often rejected by (female or male) editors because of an “overly personal” or “too emotional” tone; “sentimental” diction or imagery; or “trivial” themes. If your judgment is based on any of these reasons, think again, and imagine for a moment that you live in a world where writing is routinely rejected not for these things, but instead for being “overly impersonal” or having “too much thinking,” for being “too violent” in theme or plot or “too cold” in diction, tone, or imagery.

The honest question you need to ask yourself is, have you been publishing only the work of women whose writing is not visibly distinguishable as women’s writing? If so, you are not creating an authentically female-friendly climate, but instead are sending a clear message that women must toe a male-defined line to fit into your pages. At the very least, this exercise may make you more self-aware of your unexamined assumptions, which are always the most dangerous ones.

4. React like a woman. To take this exercise further, exaggerate it. Read through your entire magazine from the perspective of a paranoid, angry feminist. Count the contributors in each section of the Table of Contents. Count the genders of all the writers cited or mentioned in poems, stories, and essays, or reviewed, or pictured, or mentioned in ads. Notice the status implicitly accorded to the more feminist contributors (those who are writing about women-centered subjects or in explicitly female ways), the female contributors, and the male contributors: who is listed on the cover, who is placed earlier in the journal, and who is featured on multiple pages. Finally, skim through all of the writing with an eye to gender: notice gendered so-called “universal” words like “mankind” and “men,” references that imply the reader is a male, places where the gender of a female is noted but that of a male is left implicit or left assumed, mention of male-focused historical or social events, and so on. You may be surprised at what you notice, and your observations may lead you to make some different editorial choices for future issues.

5. Create a context. In addition to inviting and publishing the work of women writers, it is important to create a critical or intellectual context where women’s writing as well as men’s will feel at home and make sense. Make sure that not only literary contributions but also reviews, essays, features, letters, and so on actively focus at least half the time on female writers.

6. Advertise. Once you have a gender-aware publication, make the most of it by mentioning it in discussions on listservs, websites, and other venues that focus on women’s writing. You can be sure your efforts will be appreciated, and that it will become easier and easier to attract offerings from women writers. In fact, you may finally end up with a 50-50 slushpile after all!

Annie Finch is the author or editor of fifteen books of poetry, translation, and criticism. Her books of poetry include Eve, Calendars (just released in a new edition with 40-page downloadable Readers’ Companion and Audio CD), The Encyclopedia of Scotland, and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams. Her poetry appears in anthologies, textbooks and journals including Agni, Fulcrum, Kenyon Review, The Norton Anthology of World Poetry, Paris Review, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Prairie Schooner, and Yale Review. Her other works include several influential books of poetics, most recently The Body of Poetry and A Poet’s Ear, and numerous music, art, theater, and opera collaborations. Finch’s book of poetry Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award and in 2009 she was awarded the Robert Fitzgerald Award. She holds degrees from Yale University, the University of Houston, and Stanford University, and currently directs the Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine.

Want to write for The Writer’s Life blog? Drop us an email at thewriterslife@hercircleezine.com


Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.
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