February 17, 2011

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. 


Patrick said...

Hey, Sandra. I think your hypothesis has a lot to it. Some years ago, I had numerous conversations about this with a colleague I shared an office with. She was heading a move to get childcare for students and faculty. She cited research that corroborates what your saying--that the tenure clock and the timing of having children and growing families are in conflict with one another. I think my colleague may have been part of a national organization that was looking at this issue. I'll see what I can find if you're interested.

Aimee said...

Actually, I respectfully disagree with much of this post. There IS actually a large group of women I'm lucky enough to be friends with, mothers (both stay at home AND who work full-time) who get solicited for work and who almost always submit work for those requests. In fact, if I had to make a grouping of who of my writer friends DON'T take the time to submit or respond to solicitations--it's my MALE SINGLE writer pals. I'm often pushing and encouraging them to submit their work that they have been just sitting on for yrs...I'm very hesitant to perpetuate the myth of women in their 30s and 40s who become moms don't submit their work anymore. They do. I do. If anything, my productivity has increased since the birth of my first son and I know I'm not alone in this. For me, there is a concentration of focus and time management that I frankly didn't have before. I'm the last person to go looking for conspiracy theories, but to surmise that many women don't send work out when they become a mom is, in my experience and circle of writer pals, simply not true. Respectfully, A

Sandra said...

Thanks, Patrick, for commenting!

Aimee--I think your perspective is interesting, and enlightening. Rather than contest your experience, which would be silly, I'd rather use it to figure out what has given you the support you've needed to continue to succeed. Deborah Ager has also mentioned that having a child caused her to become seriously, 100% efficient and driven with her time.

Are you part of the poet-moms list-serv? Because I know a lot of people who cite that as a crucial resource. Or is there something else that you would cite as key to what has kept you going?

When you mention the guys who are in their 30s and 40s and don't reply to the solicitations...are these the ones who have a certain degree of success, i.e. 1 or 2 books out and significant pub credits?

Because while I know guys of that type--unwilling to put their work out there--they are usually the ones who haven't really published yet (or have published with only small indie presses), and are insecure. I'm not as familiar with the specter of a guy who society declares has succeeded as a writer, yet doesn't manage to capitalize on that. Whereas I know women where (sadly) that is the case. The demand is there, they just don't have the time.

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Sandra,

Data collected over the past five years indicates that the median starting age for an MFA student is around 26.5. About half of MFA programs are three years, and half are two years, so the data also suggests the average MFA graduate is 29 years old. Meaning, they are 29 and shopping their first manuscript. Even if we said the average poet gets their first book within one year of beginning to submit it -- an absurd presumption, of course -- we'd say that that individual's first book was picked up at 30, and given the twelve-month publishing cycle that is standard for the industry we'd then say that that first book would come out (on average) when the poet was 31 years old, and the first reviews six months later (as is standard), i.e. at 31.5 years of age. So it seems unlikely, based on all the data we have (VIDA is only one of several major "counting" efforts now underway) that the following is accurate:

[Solicitation] 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...

In fact, the average poet -- man or woman -- is reaching the solicitation stage by their mid-30s at the earliest. There are exceptions -- you're one, for instance, for which you're to be commended -- but your story is atypical. I don't think we can say that women in their mid- to late-30s are unable to answer solicitations because it's "right when a lot of us start families." OTOH, I'd also say that the post-MFA/post-Ph.D. years are when folks of both genders are suddenly hit with "real life" in myriad ways, and the danger of not having any work available is one either a man or a woman might face. I am very slow to answer solicitations and it's for reasons that have nothing to do with anything you've said (or my gender).

In any case, my point is, the gender divide is a critical issue but I'm not sure we've pinpointed the cause yet.


Sandra said...

Hi Seth,

Thanks for injecting some statistics into the discussion. But I'm not entirely sure that the median age for ALL who choose to receive MFAs/PhDs is representative of the subset of writers whose work is being solicited for these magazines. That's a dirty truth, but there you have it. I think there's a subset of people who go right into graduate programs coming out of undergrad, publish more aggressively, and do get their first book (or first book deal) in their late 20s. Keep in mind that I'm thinking of fiction writers as well as poets.

It's certainly true that both men and women face the setback of not knowing how to juggle the demands of real life with the opportunities to publish more. Although my gut wants to say that we respond to that challenge differently, I might be wrong; and let's face it, generalities suck, because you're invariably wrestling with noble exceptions to the rule. It's refreshing to hear you admit that you feel like you're in the same position-- not being able to reply to solicitations. What would you make, then, of the disparity in the Tin House numbers?


Aimee said...

"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."

Hi Sandra--
The sweeping generalizations and use of "us" and "you" to speak for "we" is what I have an issue with in the paragraph above, if that makes sense. Nothing you describe here is accurate for me and plenty of women I know who are single/have families/work in or out of academia. Sure there might be women in their 30s or 40s who struggle with sending work out or who just don't find that a priority anymore, but in my experience that is the exception rather than the rule. And like I mentioned, frankly, in my circle of writer-pals, I know many more *men* (both published and unpublished) who have to get a kick in the pants to send anything out.

I just don't see the need to make reductive generalizations that only perpetuate the tired notion of 'oh, a woman has a baby, she has to choose career OR family and more often she chooses the latter--that must be why they don't respond to solicitations for work.' That takes the blame off the editors for not casting a wider net and does nothing to support the women you claim are supposedly having to make tough choices in getting their work out there.

I have both 'halves' if you will--I'm tenured at a university that I adore AND have a family/home life that leaves me deeply grateful and in fits of laughter each day. Nothing has *ever* "had to give." Ever. Yes, I'm part of the wonderful poet-moms listserv which supports me in other meaningful ways, but when it comes down to sending out work or not--I make that decision and I have not had to make any concessions. If anything, I have been solicited for work triple-fold since the birth of my 1st of 2 kids. Whether or not I send to them depends on the publication and/or what quality of work I have available--the same as when I was single and no kids.

But it's a balance, it's hard work, and yes ultimately it depends on the individual to get work out there, but also a sustained effort for editors to broaden their requests for solicitations and not just hit the same circles of writers again and again. I don't have any answers for the disparity in the Tin House numbers--I was solicited; I submitted; they accepted/published my work.

Mainly, I'd just caution you to not generalize that women who have families try or don't try to get their work out there--it's different for each individual, and that goes across gender lines.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

ps. Thanks, Seth, for backing up the notion that there are plenty of men --even widely published in your case--who don't respond to solicitation requests and gender has nothing to do with it...:)

Kathleen said...

Thanks for the great blog post and the discussion that follows.

Sandra said...

Hi Aimee,

Thanks so much for replying again. This is the difficulty of these types of discussions--there's no way to discuss the issue in an efficient way without making generalizations of some sort. But the moment you do, you risk offending people you respect.

After all, I think editors out there are really frustrated and offended to have the generalization made that they aren't looking hard enough for work by women.
I know a lot of editors, as do you, and to have them be painted as being consistently neglectful of women goes to the core of their professional integrity. I think we owe it to them to consider every possible cause before assuming it is institutionalized prejudice at work.

What I was trying to avoid, actually, was thinking in terms of whether women "try/don't try to get work out there." I think it's offensive to theorize that women just aren't "brave" enough to submit (and I hope you agree). What I was trying to do was track it back further to whether the work was available for them to submit in the first place.

I think it's AWESOME that you've done so much, and that you have an academic community/job that supports your writing instead of competes with it. But I think we've just seen opposite sides of the coin. What you see as perpetuating a generalization, I see as trying to be honest about a tough scenario so that other women can feel freed to do the same.

Again, thanks so much for replying. You know I respect you and your work, and I hope this one exchange doesn't determine your opinion of me too much. I may be fumbling around in my effort at discussion, but I AM trying. This is a sensitive topic for everyone--because whereas you feel like nothing has to give, I do, and I'm considering not having children because of that.

So just know that I'm grateful for the dialogue, and so glad your poems keep making their way into the world.


Martha Silano said...

Great post, Sandra.

As a 40-something mother of two, I can say from experience that new moms often find it difficult to send their best when they are in the throes of new mommy-hood. It would seem that new fathers would be in the same boat, but perhaps this is not the case (I don't have many dad poets as friends, so can't comment on that, not even anecdotally).

I suspect some new moms are fine with focusing on child-rearing for a time. Compared to birthing and caring for a child, writing and publishing can seem, well, not the big deal compared to the wonders of raising a child.

That said, I sure hope this gender gap has something to do with mommies being blissed out on their babes, cuz if it's not . . . what then?

The best thing women can do (and I know this has been said before but it's worth repeating): review books by women and say yes when asked to edit a magazine, or a start a magazine yourself. Women need to be in high places at the NYer, The Atlantic, and all those other male-heavy mags. It might not guarantee a more 50/50 split, but it can't hurt.

Martha Silano said...

Very important P.S. I also found that after having my first child I became way more productive, driven to write anytime and anywhere, at all times and at nearly all costs. I wonder if the anemic showing of women in the glossies and gate-keeping mags has more to do with what us gals are writing about. Our subject matter. I mean: being a mother. It's never been considered a worthy subject for poems, but it's what a lot of us ladies are writin' about.