Female and Want to Publish? Get a Grip

Almost three quarters male writers at the Atlantic

It is the best of times and the worst of times—if you are a woman writer, that is. More women than ever are embracing the writing life. More women then men take part in writing workshops, writing conferences and informal writing groups. They are producing a substantial number of words and are finding print or online venues to publish their work. However here’s the sad fact: Few women writers appear to be taken seriously where it may count. According to a recent study by VIDA, the new organization that evaluates the critical and cultural conversations on writing by women, the most prominent magazines in literary art show a stark lack of articles, essays or fiction written by women:


Harper's numbers are worse.

The pie charts in the Vida study are an overwhelming shade of red, the color denoting work by men the magazines have published or books by men the magazines have reviewed.

In a good many cases we’re looking at over 70 percent male, even 80 percent male in some of the most established and respected purveyors of literary art. Poetry is the only area where there appears to be some equity.

What do to about this? I suppose women could say who cares and make a blood pact to read only other women. They would still be well read–exceptionally well read. (My bedside table is loaded with books by women I long to have time to read. Seriously, who has time for men?)

But how in the 21st century was this happening right under our noses? These results are a surprise, unless of course you are a woman trying to publish. A number of writers and editors are chewing over those numbers and offer reasons for this striking inbalance:

Ruth Franklin at the New Republic owns up to her own low numbers.

Jessica Crispin on NPR goes to editors for more answers

Laura Miller at the NY Times says men don’t care

Rob Spillman Editor of Tin House says he does in fact care

Annie Finch says here’s how magazines can do better

The Southern Review says they are doing better and show their own numbers

Katha Pollit at Slate says more women editors would be the best start

Eileen Myles cuts to the quick of it, as only a poet can

I buy a New Yorker subscription every year. I devote precious time I don't have to reading it. And, yes, I've long noted the lack of women.

I’ll summarize their assertions and other critics on the dismal numbers in “the count” as follows:

Women don’t submit as much work to magazines as men. Magazines edited by men seem to publish more men. Women write about love, family and domestic issues. (And men write about only war and baseball? Come on.) Agents submit to those magazines more work by men. Women don’t have time to produce longer work, so thus the prevalence of women publishing in poetry. Men do better with rejection. Once slapped down by an editor, a man will pop another piece in the mail to him (usually a him) and say, “Go ahead. Hit me with your best shot.” Women, not so much. We’re perfectionists, too, which may make us actually better writers. (Thank you to the male respondent who made that conjecture.)

A scan of the last few issues of Silk Road Review, the literary magazine I edit, supports the assertion that smaller magazines do much better on gender equity. We have a female nonfiction editor at Silk Road, and two thirds of the nonfiction in our recent issues was written by women. So maybe women editors, as Katha Pollit says, make the difference. We have a senior male poetry editor and over 50 percent of the poetry we publish is written by women. Maybe it is true that in the world of poetry women enjoy equal footing? Fiction in our issues usually breaks about even in gender, and again we have a senior male editor. I don’t know how to interpret those particular numbers, although I will note fiction seems to generate the more difficult discussions regarding what we will accept. How gender might or might not figure into those assessments I don’t know. I’ll start paying more attention. We don’t publish book reviews, so we’re off the hook here. We also don’t pay, and the editor in chief is a woman (me)—one sensitive to these matters because she (me) is also a writer. Could it be that money (and all the top magazines pay) and male editors are the unfortunate formula more likely to shut out women?

Get a Grip

We can do it. Get tough.

Here’s what I conclude, and long before the dust on this subject will settle: If you are a woman writer, it’s time to get a grip: Unless you have two lives to live—because it may take twice as long for you to get where a male writer does–then face facts and put the pedal to the metal, or at the least in your spine. (It is the Chinese year of the Rabbit or specifically the Metal Rabbit, so take it as a sign. The timid are going to get tough.)

I offer you these successful female writers who I have followed this last year and had the opportunity to see in action as they teach and/or explain their art. Each one has given me valuable advice:

Ann Hood.
Bonnie Jo Campbell.
Naseem Rhaka.
Laura Lippman.
Sarahlee Lawrence.
Minal Hajratwala.
Jennie Shortridge

What have I learned from these writers and other women writers I’ve been stalking and studying, aside from the fact that you must be committed to blazing your own trail?:

  • Treat your writing like a business: Don’t romanticize it. Do it. Need help making your business work? Ask for it help. Need to learn better ways to do it? Reach out to other writers—women as often as men–and be willing to pay for their time.
  • Don’t make it perfect. I dare you to send out your work before its time, especially if you are a fixer. Be careful, be thorough, rewrite, but draw a line after which the work must go out. It will be good enough. Remember editors make it perfect.
  • Create a community. Help other women writers. Be an editor, a writing series director, a fund raiser, a loyal fan, a teacher.
  • Get other women read. If you are a teacher, ask yourself how many women you require your students read. If your students reading list is not at least 50 percent female, why isn’t it? If you don’t help your students take women writers seriously then are you perpetuating the problem?
  • Take a risk, woman up, send out your work and then expect to take it on the chin. Get used to it. Speak up in your own defense–or on the web–even if the sound of your own voice makes you queasy. Send out some wild and crazy stuff. Fly your freak flag. When you find an editor who will publish you, be smart and love that editor forever.
  • Because it’s scary to know you might get punched when you send out work (and you will), offset the fear by adoring yourself, even to an annoying degree. Eileen Myles imagines when she gets up in front of a group of people to read or share her work that she’s loved—as if she’s reading to family. She thinks a great many of the male writers grew up assuming that their words were taken seriously by a family that loved them, and that has made all the difference. Try it. Imagine you are adored and brilliant and everyone in the room already knows it.
  • Look close to home: If you have girls in your life—you are a parent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher—make those girls read their writing to you. Applaud it, tape it up for everyone to see. Help those girls to own their space in the writing world. After all, half of the kingdom of words is rightly theirs.

5 thoughts on “Female and Want to Publish? Get a Grip

  1. Thank you for this. It’s an amazing amount of information and I really appreciate your tips on what we can be doing to improve the situation. It’s a lesson for all us ladies.

  2. Pingback: When the Going Get’s Tough, the Tough Get’s Going «

  3. Kathleen, I was corresponding with a friend of mine in China (Mary King, radio personality and writer; you might know her?) and thought of you suddenly! Searching for your name, I stumbled on this, and love it! Well-written, informative, and I’m in full agreement with all your points. Among my six jobs, I work as an editor at Kodansha, and since I got an influx of female editors in my department, the number of female authors we have published has soared.

    • Kit! (Six jobs!? You are amazing.) I think female editors do make the difference on this point. Thumbs up for Kodansha! It seems at Silk Road some of our riskier, less main stream fiction pieces have been by female writers. That may be part of it too: A magazine’s willingness to accept a wider range of writing and approaches. It’s an exciting time to publish though, particularly if a writer is willing to embrace digital, online media. So great to hear from you and thanks for note.

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