VIDA has counted up the female writers — and female-authored books reviewed at a variety of publications — and these charts detail their dismal results (dudes are in red). So what's behind this inequality?
VIDA, an organization founded "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," looked at women's participation last year at fourteen major literary and critical publications (a sampling appear above). Women were outnumbered by men in all but one category — the short "Cover to Cover" reviews published by The Atlantic. In response to this gap, VIDA says,
We know women write. We know women read. It's time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don't reflect those facts with any equity. Many have already begun speculating; more articles and groups are pointing out what our findings suggest: the numbers of articles and reviews simply don't reflect how many women are actually writing.
They're right that the dearth of women at some of literary culture's most influential magazines has been a hot topic of late. No one seems to know, however, exactly why women are underrepresented. Stephen Elliott at The Rumpus wishes VIDA's investigation had gone a little deeper:
What's not addressed is how many women submit to Tin House for example, which published three times as many men as women. If only a quarter of the submissions are from women then that would make sense and the problem would be encouraging women to submit their fiction. If, on the other hand, the same number of women are submitting manuscripts as men, then the problem could be editorial.
Elliott also calls for a breakdown of books published by men versus those by women, for a better idea of where the inequality in book reviews starts: do men's books get more attention, or are there actually more of them? Another VIDA survey sheds some light on this issue: in 2010, Publishers Weekly reviewed about an equal number of books by men and women, "which may indicate women are writing as much or more fiction than men." "However," notes VIDA's Amy King, "when we look to see who is receiving the prizes, grants, and awards for fiction, the numbers tell a very different story: male authors receive the majority of prizes."
In at least some areas, it seems that women's writing is getting less recognition than men's. It's also true, however, that this could have a trickle-down effect — women have fewer role models in magazines and on year's best lists, and so they may choose to promote their work less or, in some cases, stop producing it at all. As Elliott says, if women are truly submitting less, they need encouragement. They also, however, need an environment where writing by a woman has as good a chance of being considered Serious as writing by a man. And male and female authors alike acknowledge that we're not there yet.