On The Count

Cheers to Amy King and all at VIDA for putting in the hours necessary to publish The Count--and cheers to all the subsequent discussion it has sparked in the publishing industry. I could spend a looong time on this subject, but in the interest of timeliness (I need to be getting ready for tonight's LegalArt Open Studio down here in Miami), there is just one thing I want to respond to here and now. In a reply from Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, this section jumped out at me:
Of solicited writers, I see a distinct gender difference. When I solicit male authors, the only ones who do not submit are those contractually bound by other magazines. For female authors it is closer to 50% submit after being asked. 

I believe this. Though it may seem incredible that writers would ever "waste" the opportunity of being solicited (as one blogger put it), I believe it. There have been some moves to trace the gender disparity in publishing back to a feminine hesitancy to submit--and thus to risk being rejected--but I can't get behind that. It doesn't match my experience, or the attitudes I get from the many fine, confident, accomplished, ballsy women writers I am proud to call friends. 


What then, to make of this statistic? Well, solicitation is a funny thing. Usually it means you have reached a certain stage of prominence in your career. You have one or two books out, some high-profile publication credits, enough time spent at residencies and conferences to have created a professional network. This work is often accomplished during one's 20s, when both genders usually have some flexibility afforded in this era of MFA and PhD programs. 


So, let's say you're lucky enough to be a young 30-something who has earned your first round of solicitations from magazines. In my opinion--and this is a national cultural issue, NOT a complaint toward our literary culture per se--if you're a man who reaches this point, that's when people start to take your self-identification as a writer seriously. People start to treat your writing as a real part of your career. They help you make the time you need in your schedule for it. 


But when you reach that point as a woman...well, usually that's right when a lot of us start families. Real life post-grad takes over. Our productivity hits a lull. Even if you have a supportive partner, something has got to give. And so when we get the solicitations--as thrilling as they are--we don't have the work to send. At least, not the worthy work. And no one is going to send the second-tier stuff that didn't make the last book to Tin House or Granta. 


I'm not afraid of rejection. But I want to know I gave it my best shot and in the absence of that, yeah, I'd rather not send in at all. So in my mind, the question is How do we create a support structure that encourages women to prioritize and privilege their writing during their 30s? Because I think that's where the gap is really opening up. Same as so many other professions--law, business--we're losing a very specific decade of incredible women to the demands of their loved ones. 


The closing of Spillman's post was encouraging, and so I want to share it here:
The bottom line at Tin House is that we are aware of the gender disparity, we are concerned about these numbers, and we are committed to redoubling our efforts to solicit women writers. Personally, I am deeply tuned into the reality of gender inequality: I am married to a short story writer, and my fifteen year-old daughter is a drummer in a feminist punk rock band. Since the start of Tin House twelve years ago, I have been committed to publishing the best work I can find. Agents of female writers, publishers of female writers, and especially female writers, please send us your work. We really want your work. 


If there is one thing I'd like to see emerge from the post-Count discussion, it is the understanding that at the end of the day, the responsibility is in our hands. I could share anecdotes of crushing dismissals by editors that seemed, in some ways, based on gender. I could share stories of realizing too late that I was being held up as a token woman in the mix. I could share inspiring realities of fair, equitable, and generous treatment by magazines who honored my work without gender ever being an issue. 


And all of this just leads me back to: Get to work, Sandra. Get writing.