Here Comes Everybody
A few years ago, the literary world was beset by a bogeywoman who came bearing bad news and the numbers to prove it; her name was VIDA. Some assumed this moniker was an acronym or a misspelled allusion to Virginia Woolf’s famous literary paramour, Vita Sackville-West, but it wasn’t. VIDA was an all-caps neologism that would come to haunt the dreams of editors of magazines large and small, eminent and less so, with your author, dear reader, included among those unsound sleepers.
If you are an accredited member of the magazine world or else a vigilant fellow traveler, chances are that you already know about VIDA. You have heard of the Count, which tallies bylines by gender at publications that “are widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues.” You have opinions about what the numbers mean and how magazines should or will respond to them. If you are a partisan of the Count, or a feminist, or a woman writer, there is a good chance that, having read the opening paragraph of this essay, you are puzzled or angry. If you are a reactionary, an embattled editor or a plain old contrarian, you may already be cheering: Look, here we go, a woman writer and editor socking it to those sourpuss byline-counters! It is easy to incite, in the small community that cares about such things, indignation or delight, because the battle lines have been drawn, it seems—demands issued, sops and reassurances offered—and little has changed.
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The summer of 2013 was a season of outrage. Maybe it was the impending collapse of the current world order; maybe it was the dreadful heat. Whether or not those months marked some sort of historical nadir, indignation was the order of the day: over the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman; the NSA’s broad surveillance of cellphone records and lord knows what else, as revealed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald; #solidarityisforwhitewomen, a Twitter hashtag created to draw attention to white feminists’ failure to understand and address the concerns of feminists of color; the exploitative, even “rapey” video for the summer’s most popular jam, “Blurred Lines,” in which blue-eyed R&B crooner Robin Thicke (son of TV’s Alan) cavorted with bare-breasted dancers and even pretended to inject one of them in the buttocks with a giant syringe. Soon Miley Cyrus would outcrass Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards, when, during a dismal duet fusing that song with her single “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus twerked and grinded on the body of a zaftig, black backup dancer.
Twitter, whose 140-character limit is uniquely conducive to spontaneous, grammatically perverted confessions of bad behavior as well as denunciations, tellings-off and other expressions of outrage, has not just amplified the volume of simple thoughts and emotions but elevated them to high camp. Thus, by August, when President Obama and his advisers believed they had no option but to bomb Syria in retaliation for its deadly retaliations against its citizens, the chatter from the feeds of America’s less militant millions seemed to coalesce into a seething hive-mind of anger and fear almost as humid as the sweat of the strongmen peddling grave hypocrisy and lethal confusion.
On Twitter, Miley’s missteps and Syria’s death toll seemed to occupy nearly the same space, each further galvanizing the ire induced by the other. One may not be able to properly measure proportion and consequence in so few pixels, but there was a conversation, of some kind, about what we value as a public—about what we do, and should or shouldn’t—that took place between “the media” and “ordinary folks,” who get to speak to those in power (or at least fire off a few choice words @them) only in comment sections or on Twitter. As Twitter raged, the credentialed media roared back. Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, didn’t particularly care for the negative reaction to his stumping for the Obama bombing, calling three times in one editorial for serious discussion about the crisis in Syria after dismissing the opinions of Times readers (they were not as “sophisticated,” it seems, as he had thought) that ran counter to his own. All those voices shouting at him from cyberspace must admittedly have been a little irritating, but usually, as Keller surely knows, one does not begin a serious conversation with an injunction to Shut Up.
Nor is it just regular old readers who are asked, often, to keep their voices down. Jennifer Weiner may not be the most aggrieved of the planet’s bestselling novelists, but she is possibly the most vocal—not just about the dearth of attention paid to women writers, but specifically to those who, like herself, write commercial fiction. Weiner has often taken to Twitter to criticize review sections, particularly The New York Times Book Review, still published each Sunday as a stand-alone supplement, for ignoring her ilk. “Jennifer Weiner Is Mad at The New York Times Book Review Again,” wrote The Atlantic Wire’s Alexander Nazaryan in September after a fresh contretemps. Weiner was not happy with his take, particularly with the word “strident” used to describe her critique. “One book blogger suggested to me that the easiest way for the Book Review to quiet Weiner is by hiring her,” wrote Nazaryan. “Hey, it’s an idea.”
It was an idea, yes. But not a very good one.
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According to its website, “VIDA was founded in August 2009 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.” The publications whose bylines it counts include the general interest magazines The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s; The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books (the latter two published in Britain); several more literary journals—Tin House, Poetry, the Paris, Boston and Threepenny reviews, and Granta (also in Britain); and two journals of politics and opinion with notable book reviews, The New Republic and The Nation. Publication in these venues, according to VIDA, “furthers the careers of writers by bolstering applications for grants, residencies, employment (academic and otherwise), graduate programs, awards, and more. Winning/earning/receiving these types of honors affords writers the time and resources needed to continue/advance their careers.”
The numbers revealed by the Count are not encouraging. Many more male bylines appear in these publications, both for reviews and articles, than bylines by women; leading magazines go weeks or months with just a woman or two in the table of contents. Although VIDA does not count women (or people) of color separately, there is no doubt that those numbers are even more dispiriting.
Neither does VIDA count bylines in Rolling Stone, Fortune or Scientific American, or on the op-ed pages of prominent newspapers. Its mission has, from its inception, targeted not journalism broadly but journalism’s relationship to book publishing and, even more specifically, to prestige or literary publishing (the Count includes not just the bylines of reviewers, but also the gender breakdown of the authors being reviewed). These are the publications where award-winning novelists and essayists mingle most comfortably with award-winning journalists and critics, and there is considerable overlap in these spheres.