Always Be Counting

After the profoundly disappointing VIDA event on women and book reviews last month, I felt duty bound to attend this second VIDA event at the Center for Fiction last Wednesday, May 29th. This packed event in the charming but always too-hot second floor of the Center for Fiction was the public portion of the NBCC (National Book Critic’s Circle) meeting and part of BEA (Book Expo America), so not only was the room packed, but it was packed with important editors and writers and eager freelancers.

The panel was moderated by Laurie Muchnick, book editor at Bloomberg News and president of the NBCC. She took a much firmer hand than the moderator at the Housing Works event had taken, with welcome results. Muchnick was aided, too, by the panel’s composition: with one of the co-founders of VIDA (Erin Belieu), the editor of the New York Times Book Review (Pamela Paul), the editor of Tin House (Rob Spillman), the book critic for New York Magazine (Kathryn Schulz), and a novelist (Meg Wolitzer!), the panel included people with a wide range of perspectives on the problem. 

You can read Laurie Stone’s thoughts on the same event here.

Paul, new in her position, knows first hand the special vitriol reserved for women in positions of power in the book world, and it was reassuring to hear her speak about her ambitious goals for a wide range of diversity in the pages of the Times. Wolitzer, as a novelist whose books treat Big American themes without getting Big American Male (FRANZEN! ROTH! UPDIKE!) attention, spoke about reviews, blurbs, and marketing from the perspective of an artist wanting to make money through her art. By contrast, Schulz spoke about her position at New York, where she has complete freedom to choose books to review and was really smart about the real downsides of that freedom: for, while she reviews a fairly good balance of women to men (6 women for every 5 men), her predecessor, a man, reviewed 8 books by men for every 1 book by a woman. Spillman was a welcome presence on the panel: an editor whose journal had made big changes to assigning and soliciting pieces based on their originally very imbalanced VIDA numbers.

For me, it was Belieu and Schulz who best summed up the message of VIDA: for true change to happen, we need to always be counting: how many women are reviewing? how many books by women are getting reviewed? True, the count is crude and imperfect, but it also reveals a continuing inequity in our literary culture that is not trivial. And, though I, too, tire of counting, being tired of counting (and seeing, yet again, how little we count for), is no reason to stop.

Belieu spoke about the origins of VIDA, in Cate Marvin’s 2009 essay, emailed to like-minded friends, bemoaning the lack of reviews of and by women writers—a cri de Coeur that became VIDA. She said that, in spite of all the limitations, “we liked the simplicity and elegance of the count. We liked the fact that we were able to get a picture of the year.”

And Schulz returned to this at the end, positing that a structural answer is the only answer. That editors need to do what Spillman has done at Tin House: that part of curating a vibrant literary culture includes counting: how many books by women are we reviewing? how many by men? how many of our reviewers are women? how are people of color represented in the numbers of reviewers and of books reviewed? how are we doing in representing a range of class perspectives, in reviews and in books reviewed? If we don’t ask this question, and continue to think that all we want is “the best,” the best will continue to look like this hoary dinosaur.

Only after listening to this did I recognize how much counting is part of my life as an editor, a teacher, and a teacher of teachers.

When we edit The Norton Reader, we look for all kinds of diversity and we look to see that every section of the reader not just “Personal Narrative” includes contributions from women and people of color. 

When I teach young teachers how to put a syllabus together, I demand that they look for essays old and new, difficult and easy, and that they make sure that there their syllabus represents women, people of color, gay and lesbians writers, and writers from a range of class backgrounds.

When I design my own syllabi, I demand the same of myself.

And when I was working on the introduction to the forthcoming (Summer 2013) special issue of Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies on Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies and Feminist Theory, Urmila Seshagiri (who has an article in the issue) and I engaged in our own, informal count. How many special issues on feminist theory had Mfs done recently? One, kind of. How about modernism/modernity (the other top scholarly journal in the field)? Zero, ever. So this forthcoming issue, with eight articles by eight women scholars using feminist theory to analyze the work of ten often neglected women artists from the early 20th century will be a good corrective, to say the least.

Still, I dwell so deeply and completely in a world of women that sometimes I wonder if I’m doing too much.

The other day, I asked the students in my summer graduate class why they were enrolled in a class on modernist women writers (100%  women). One woman, a strong feminist, said that, as she came to the end of her M.A., she realized that for her coursework, she had only read three women writers.

People, our work here is far from done.

Always be counting.

It’s a start.

[corrected to fix Schulz's stats which I had backwards at first]