VIRGINIA WOOLF, after bumping into T. S. Eliot early on in their acquaintance, wrote: “I kept myself from being submerged, though feeling the waters rise once or twice. I mean by this that he completely neglected my claims to be a writer, and had I been meek, I suppose I should have gone under.”
She wasn’t meek, she didn’t go under — then — and they eventually became close. Germaine Greer, in 1971, at a debate in New York filmed in Town Bloody Hall, spoke of “having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination,” a “most privileged being,” the male artist. The battle is internal, a battle inside herself to refuse the primacy of the male artist — a refusal necessary in the very act of writing, for writing to be possible at all. But the battle is also external: to have one’s voice heard, and heard in the right way. Deborah Levy, in Things I Don’t Want to Know, writes that “even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
It’s happened to me several times at a literary event — sometimes one at which I’m reading or speaking — that a kindly, affable chap, after regaling me with a long account of his next book, smiles generously and asks me what I do at Penguin, or how long I’ve been working for the venue. When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Books with 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.
It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it.
Writing — coming to writing — is a profound act of self-realization that can be as arduous and painful as it can be exhilarating. I try hard not to coalesce all men into one lumpen category, including those who doubtless have also overcome struggles, internal and external, to be where they are. Struggles are often invisible. But one need only look at the pages of our literary magazines to see that women’s writing has a wholly different status culturally — Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton notwithstanding. Our idea of serious, intellectual writing appears to be overwhelmingly male.
The eagerness with which literary and philosophical greatness is imputed to male writers has been a theme in some of the commentary on Karl Ove Knausgaard (e.g., Katie Roiphe in Slate). His case makes an interesting comparison with the first-person writings of Rachel Cusk. Her terse, forensic memoirs of motherhood and divorce (in A Life’s Work and Aftermath) received significant praise, but also triggered some brutal eviscerations, in reviews that bristled with a barely controlled outrage and discomposure. Some of that discomposure may be in part to do with the muddled responses that can emerge to first-person nonfiction. It’s “unfair,” wrote Joanna Biggs in the LRB about Aftermath, “to tell a memoir writer off for self-absorption, but strange to write a memoir about divorce when you can’t mention the reasons.” Seeing memoir as by definition a flaunting of what should remain private enables distaste for it from the very outset, while seeing it as a kind of journalistic reportage enables a feeling of entitlement to all the juicy details — details about which one is simultaneously wrinkling one’s nose. This unimaginative construal of first-person writing enables Biggs to reproach Cusk both for telling us too much and for telling us too little.
But the discomposure may also tell us something about gender. Knausgaard comes off pretty badly in his writings; that’s partly what’s interesting about them. He is cruel, self-indulgent, vain, and grudging of time spent with his family. What is powerful about his writing is his unflinching shining of light on ordinary human imperfection, and on the indignities of being a person. His evocation, for instance, of the fraught ambivalences of parenthood are moving and sobering. Still, the enthusiasm for Knausgaard’s excruciating depiction of his own fallibility, a depiction that involves some frankly terrible writing, is striking in comparison to the ambivalence (to put it mildly) for Cusk’s depiction of hers. There are no hard and fast generalizations to be made here. But it’s difficult not to conclude that the inability to engage in Cusk’s literary and philosophical aims — her concern, for example, to question her own feminism over time, as well as her emphasis, through links with classical mythology, on a sense of individual experience as overdetermined by culture — is tied to the fact that this is a woman writing about her own life. When Camilla Long, in the Sunday Times, depicts Cusk as describing “her grief in expert, whinnying detail,” and as a “brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist,” what is really in evidence is an unreflective aggression toward this serious artist’s project of transforming the burdens of experience into literature. The painstaking objectification of one’s own life that, in Knausgaard, is surrounded with an aura of lofty if paradoxical heroism, appears, when undertaken by Cusk, to amount to a violation of something. A violation of what is a question well worth asking.
Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.
In recent years, the VIDA count has done much to highlight the disturbing preponderance of men (their reviews and their books) in literary magazines. Very few magazines acquit themselves well in this matter. One response to this concern about gender ratio has been to suggest that it is not as important as other more pressing matters for feminism. The London Review of Books has queried the worth of counting in the way VIDA does. The LRB is not alone in having worrying VIDA statistics, but it is alone in repeatedly issuing statements about those. It also occupies an apparently unassailable position as the serious magazine in British literary culture; there is a striking paucity of real rivals to it in the UK. Its statements, in their reluctance to concede a need for serious reflection on editorial practice, can be read as those of an entity certain of its status and used to being indulged. The statements’ hurried defensiveness, however, reveals a disgruntled awareness of not being revered in quite the way it has come to expect. Either way, the statements are highly telling about the investments we all have in not confronting this issue.
In its statement to BBC Radio 4’s Open Book (a statement read out on the program, transcribed by Viv Groskop, and placed online), the LRB says that it’s not proud of the fact that over its history 82 percent of the articles have been written by men and 18 percent by women — no doubt similar figures to that of other magazines. (The statement entirely fails to address the question of the books under review in its pages: in 2013 only 11 percent of books reviewed in the magazine were by women, and only 12 percent of reviewers were women.) And it outlines the considerable structural obstacles — the “subtle and deep-rooted” nature of the problem — standing in the way of efforts to improve the ratio. These obstacles include, according to the statement, the differing responsibilities of and pressures on women (“men have fewer”); the fact that “women send fewer pitches to the LRB”; that “they often prefer not to write critically about other women”; and that men are “not so frightened of asserting themselves” and are “not so anxious to please.”
I’m skeptical of this characterization of women writers as meekly afraid to criticize. Coming as it does from a magazine that reliably features so few women, the statement somewhat undercuts its own right to pronounce grandly on their traits. It’s clearly not the case that the LRB has been considering a representative proportion of women in the first place, and then disappointedly finding their writing limp and bland. As an argumentative strategy, this is simply an ad hoc rationalization. There may well be, however, something to the claims about greater pressures on women, who tend to shoulder a disproportionate burden of childcare and housework, as well as to the claim that women pitch to magazines less than men do. What the LRB omits from its explanations is the added possibility that women writers look at its pages and see a magazine highly unlikely to publish them. A subtle and deep-rooted problem, indeed, and perhaps also a self-fulfilling one.
Several magazine editors have told me that men do disproportionately pitch to magazines. (One editor estimated it at about 6 to 1, and another spoke of the “sheer volume of male submissions.”) I’ve also been told that men tend to return, often swiftly, with another pitch after rejection, and tend to be less well attuned to a definitive rebuff clearly meant to dissuade further efforts. (As Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, says here, “Men will always resend, even after the most blatant rejection.”) Added to this is the possibility that both men and women tend to review more books by men than by women. (At Tin House, for instance, which is exceptional in its VIDA statistics — in 2013 it had 12 female and 7 male reviewers — 12 of the books reviewed were by men and 8 by women.)
The problem, moreover, is potentially exacerbated by the different ways a magazine is run. If it is driven by pitches — perhaps on the grounds that writers write better out of their own passions — then the magazine’s content will reflect the reading habits of those making pitches (as well as any differences in confidence pitching). So if all reviewers, male or female, prefer writing about books by men, the magazine will skew toward books by men. If, however, a magazine is driven more by commissioning, it will be suggesting books to reviewers on the basis of information pushed toward the magazine itself: by book catalogs, agents, and publishers, and also perhaps by the preferences of editors themselves. The coverage of books, in other words, reflects the gender balance of systems further up the chain. One editor emphatically told me that the low number of books by women reviewed in its pages was simply down to publishers’ catalogs; there was nothing the magazine could do about that. (Except, perhaps, question the range of catalogs it relies on?)
All these possible variables will inevitably be additive and feed into one another. If books by women are not given the profile and platform they deserve by publishers (and this must vary significantly depending on the field and genre), then they will not receive the profile they deserve in the magazines that rely on publishers to push books toward them. Men pitching more insistently obviously has effects on the gender of reviewers in a magazine, but it may also have effects on the books reviewed; it’s possible that at least some reviewers are biased in favor of books by men. This may be especially true if their reading diet is substantially made up of, and shaped by, the magazines in question. If you rely on LRB, NYRB, TLS, or New Republic to give you a sense of what kind of people write books worth reviewing, and what kind of people write reviews worth reading, then whether you are consciously aware of it or not, your sense will be that those people are men. And, finally, it may all become circular: the near-absence of women writers in such magazines may well also affect pitching practices. Women, that is, may pitch less to these magazines because a lack of interest in women writers looks almost like part of their intellectual and literary brand.
None of this need be conscious or intentional, at any stage. In its statement to the BBC, LRB states that its problematic bylines are due to “more than editorial whim.” The statement’s listing of obstacles to parity that I mentioned earlier functions to explain the gender imbalance, revealing it as in some way inevitable — forced upon the magazine from the outside — rather than the result of a conscious policy.
But suggesting that criticisms of gender imbalance in magazines amount to an accusation of editorial whim doesn’t really work. For one thing, it’s not a fair characterization of what people do when they criticize magazines for their disappointing VIDA statistics. And for another, this move extrapolates from the criticism in such a way that the criticism is more easily dismissed — since LRB can of course provide evidence against the supposed claim that it has an explicit editorial desire to keep women out. In fact, LRB has responded to criticism of it with an irritated insistence that it does publish women. The New York Review of Books responded to criticism of its appalling numbers with a similarly defensive listing of the women writers it has published. None of this is relevant to the claims at hand. No one has accused these magazines of never having published any women; the claims are about disproportion.
Few critics suggest that a concerted editorial policy — let’s exclude women! — is what creates gender disparity. But that’s not to say that editorial policy isn’t perpetuating disparities — other, less conscious, more deep-rooted assumptions are at work in the evaluation of writing by women. And just because there are deep and subtle roots to the problem does not mean that LRB (or any magazine) has no responsibility to actively do something — and in particular to do more than simply say “We need to do better.” Not being responsible for the inequality out there in the world doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to chip away at it.
Still, though — does any of this matter? The LRB states that it is
not a pathetic excuse to say that the world is still sexist and that the feminist revolution is hopelessly incomplete. You can see evidence of this everywhere from the pay gap to rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.
Those are my italics; it’s a highly charged sentence. Simultaneously plaintive and hand-waving, it dismisses the effect that who we see around us can have on the formulation of our own desires, ambitions, and confidence, as well as its effect on how we perceive individual women, their ambitions and their accomplishments, including on the books they write. And the plot thickens when the statement appeals to the greater importance of the pay gap. The statement invokes feminism, but invokes it in order to move the problem along elsewhere. Yes, of course, gender inequality matters — but it matters over there, in the bigger battles that take place over more concrete, basic matters such as pay and violence. Feminism is affirmed as the obvious, consensual background — what reasonable person isn’t outraged by unequal pay and low rape conviction rates? — against which one can then dispute its relevance and its demands in this particular case; the particular case in which equality comes along to inconvenience us; the particular case that is, allegedly, trivial.
This is a curious strategy. For a start, it relies on an implicit framing of literary culture as a frivolous luxury. Of course, in some sense, literary culture is a frivolous luxury: it matters to few; nobody dies. But it matters, obviously, to LRB. It’s odd, not to say disingenuous, to insist on yourself as the magazine for literature, culture, and politics, and then proclaim your irrelevance when under criticism. Secondly, the shunting along elsewhere of the pressing issues of inequality sits oddly with the magazine’s left-leaning, progressive politics. LRB thinks seriously about questions of inequality and social justice, particularly on the economy, the housing crisis, and higher education — sometimes, too, on questions of gender and feminism (for example, recent pieces by Hilary Mantel, Mary Beard, and Katrina Forrester). But the statement suggests that inequality matters enough to the magazine to make it inform some of its content — though not enough to let that affect its editorial or commissioning practice.
Inequality in literary magazines and inequality in pay are both important, and in connected ways. The visibility and status of women’s writing is important precisely because of a web of marginalization across all areas of life. If women’s voices are always peripheral to male voices intoning from the center of culture, then their voices are peripheral on all issues: the pay gap, consent, harassment, rape, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, the glass ceiling, childcare. The obscuring of women’s voices in media platforms, however elite, however niche, is part of the obscuring of their voices in general; and a lack of commitment to, or an inability to hear, their voices in literary culture is related to the same lacks and inabilities in relation to their voices in harassment, in sex, in courtrooms, and in the workplace.
So: what can be done? Magazine editors, like everyone, operate in a world already shaped by inequality. What are their responsibilities — what are anyone’s responsibilities — toward questions of social justice? It’s not clear that an editor’s job is necessarily to redress inequalities; it’s not clearly part of his or her brief. An editor wants to create an interesting, vibrant space, and to increase circulation. (Making money may not be a viable aim; not operating at a loss might be an aspiration.) At what point does and should an institution decide that it’s going to try, actively, to push back against inequality? And how does it do so?
“For the counters,” LRB states, “the answer is a quota. A women’s edition. Positive discrimination of one type or another.” The sotto voce implication here is that critics are prepared to damage literary culture by insisting that women writers undeserving of publication be admitted. We will see a decline in quality, it implies, if we take steps to address the gender imbalance. “LRB’s way,” it goes on to say (one it concedes might not be without disadvantages), is “to publish women writers in the same way as male writers,” namely, “as writers.”
This invocation of a supposed gender-blindness — and a defense, it seems, of proceeding as it has always done — relies on an idea that there are only two possibilities: either a resigned passivity, or thoroughgoing positive discrimination. By invoking a quota system, an alarm bell is triggered for those firmly attached to the idea of meritocracy. And yet the cries of “but meritocracy!” that go up when critics urge a concerted effort to overcome inequality reflect a naive belief in some pure meritocracy as having always (or ever) prevailed. A complex mix of factors (talent, graft, luck, confidence, opportunity, connections) enables anyone to get anywhere — and I suspect magazine editors know this better than anyone.
In any case, there are not simply two options: either carrying on, bloke-heavy, as before, or having quotas that will supposedly force editors to publish inferior writing. Conjuring these two polarized options involves refusing to countenance other ways in which editors might exert agency in undoing a gross self-perpetuating imbalance.
A solution is not simple, that’s for sure, and it must take place at various levels: in relationships to publishers, to writers pitching articles, and to writers not pitching articles. If women do pitch less, the solution must involve going out into new spaces to solicit writing by women — exploring a greater variety of locations in which they are already publishing work; probing deliberately into new networks, seeking out those who might not otherwise approach the magazine. What’s more, if women not only pitch less but are also less likely to come back with further suggestions once an initial approach is rejected, a solution must involve repeatedly soliciting writing, and forming active, encouraging relationships. All this might require new commitments and routines for already stretched and busy editors; or it might be an extension of already existing methods. It may be tempting, and even understandable, for editors to succumb to weariness and take the easiest path, but I believe we should hold magazines to a higher standard, and expect editors, even given limited time and resources, to go hunting for new voices, despite all those men waiting in the inbox. (This applies not just to gender, but also to race.) What is clear is that proclaiming concern and invoking feminism while casting oneself as immune to criticism is an approach that is neither admirable nor strategic. Plenty of people (myself included) have given up their LRB subscriptions in frustration.
The tricky thing about these discussions is that everyone can get defensive. Not just magazine editors, bristling at the implication that they are biased or discriminatory. Male writers can bristle at the implication that they have been unduly favored. And many women writers prickle too, out of an anxiety not to have their publication record seen as the result of some condescension or other. No woman wants to feel that her work has seen the light of day because an editor got worried about gender statistics and hurriedly published her out of other than writerly considerations. The result is an inbuilt disincentive to having the conversation. It’s not easy to have one’s blind spots pointed out; it’s not comfortable to think about how the accidents of our identities (our gender, class, race, education) have smoothed our paths; and it’s neither fun, nor a solution, to be patronized.
Isn’t it patronizing, though, for magazines to go in search of women writers? Well, no — not unless one casts the issue of gender parity (or any parity) in a distinctly noblesse oblige light. The issue is not about asking magazines to graciously bestow their favor on those they have thus far neglected. It’s about asking them to scrutinize their practices, to think about their shortcomings. It’s not, in other words, just about them acknowledging the inequalities they rely upon and perpetuate; it’s also about them entertaining the possibility that they are missing out. Moreover, instead of worrying that concerted efforts in the face of inequality are patronizing, we should ask why we are so willing to humor magazines in their plaintive deflection of responsibility. Urging change isn’t to patronize women — but being resigned to a lack of change is patronizing to us all.
If one believes that gender imbalance matters, then reflection on one’s methods is the only way progress will be made. What’s more, the conversation will remain stymied unless all are willing to reflect on their own unconscious habits, as readers, writers, and editors. And no change will happen if critiques of one’s decision-making are responded to as if they are accusations of an overt, malignant sexism. Such a response enables affront and defensiveness, neither of which encourages self-scrutiny. It also enables an opportunistic dismissal of critiques. We all labor under unconscious bias — no one is special where that is concerned. And none of us are exempt from unintentionally reproducing the inequalities our environment presents to us. We stumble along, making immediate decisions under pressure, often feeling too powerless, too irritated, too defensive, and sometimes simply too busy and tired to examine our decision-making more closely. We make imperfect choices in an imperfect world, but denying that we have choices is not an option. In any case, a response like the LRB’s that points to obstacles outside its control and raises its hands in resignation, even in troubled resignation, is still an active choice. Concerted reflection on this problem can be difficult and frustrating. But isn’t it a magazine’s responsibility, once an indefensible and consistent disparity has been revealed, to pause and — without taking criticism quite so personally — to actively, imaginatively, and seriously seek ways to redress it?