I attended a panel at AWP a couple of weeks ago entitled: Women Writers and Rejection: How to Get Published and Avoid the Slush Pile. I was unsure about attending the panel; it wasn’t clear to me what could be said in such a discussion that was new or different with regards to submitting. What I was intrigued by, however, was this sentence in the panel’s description: “Women writers don’t submit enough; we’re too cautious and we take rejection too hard.” Though I secretly suspected these exact points about my own process of submitting, I had not considered that they were gender-related. I thought my hesitation about submitting simply reflected my own lack of confidence.
I decided to go to the panel. I suppose I wanted (perversely) to hear that these ideas were true, and that it wasn’t just me, in order to validate my own experiences with submitting and the feelings of inadequacy they produced. The five female editors of well-known lit mags and presses who led the panel discussion could only provide anecdotal commentary on whether women submitted less than their male counterparts to their magazines, and some of them didn’t really have any idea whether the magazines they represented published both genders equally. They all instead offered “I’ve been there” kinds of stories, in which they described moments when they were younger, or less immune to the pain of rejection, points at which they took rejection very personally. They encouraged the predominately female audience to get over it and toughen up. There was some very unscientific assertion that men succeed in getting published more because men are programmed not to give up — just look at a man in a bar! He’ll keep hitting on women until he succeeds! One editor noted that in her experience women in MFA programs tend to get more caught up in romantic entanglements than their male counterparts and it affects their writing/submitting output.
Oh yes she did.
Those comments aside, there were some helpful tidbits and a lot of encouragement. But the panel did not provide much actual evidence that: a) women are not as persistent at submitting as men are, b) that women take rejection more personally than men do, and thus c) submit less as a result.
By now you may have seen or read about the numbers released from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts on the ratio of men vs. women published in major literary magazines and the numbers of male vs. female authors’ books reviewed in said magazines. Hint: Men were published more than women in 2010. A lot more. And male authors had more books reviewed. There are some stark pie charts on VIDA’s web site, in which women get slivers of pie, about a quarter or third of possible publication space, and men get the rest.
Since the numbers came out a couple of weeks ago, many of the literary magazines mentioned have rushed to defend or augment these stats with more specific numbers of their own, and other voices have chimed in, from bloggers like Christine at 80,000 Words to Meghan O’Rourke at Slate. There have been pieces in the New Republic, the Guardian, the Awl, and even on PBS.
While most expressed their shock and horror at the disparity, some called into question the reliability of VIDA’s numbers, or wondered how scientific of a study this was. Some wondered whether the problem was deeper – that is, are fewer books by female authors being reviewed simply because there are fewer books by female authors?
So is the gap due to editorial bias or are women simply submitting less? Many of the editors of lit mags who have responded to the VIDA numbers seem baffled, as their submission numbers are not that skewed. But this caught my attention:
Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, wrote on that magazine’s blog:
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.
Male authors, in the face of rejection, are much more likely to submit more work, (and sooner) than their female peers. This is true even when the female author is explicitly requested to send more work.
Similarly, men whose work we accept are more likely to follow up publication with more submissions. Of the 28 female writers in Fantastic Women, 3 have voluntarily sent further submissions. In that same time period I have received at least 100 submissions from previously published male authors.
Wow. What’s going on here? An elite group of female writers being asked to submit to one of the top literary magazines, and they don’t? And, female writers actually getting published in said magazine — which, by the way, published nearly twice as many men as women in 2010, 55 to 29 — and then not attempting to leverage that connection to seek repeat publication later?
Spillman very carefully avoids placing blame in his piece, and I am by no means trying to pick on him or Tin House. It’s just that the above stats are really interesting. They suggest that the editors at the AWP panel might be correct; that women are not being persistent enough and not being secure enough about their own work.
Who would refuse or blow off a request to submit their work to a prominent lit mag? is what I thought. And then I thought, Oh God. Because if I think back through some of the many rejections I’ve received over the years, there were some of what I call “nice” rejections, i.e. hand-written rejections, or rejections with a personal note that said something to the effect of “this isn’t the right piece for us right now, but please submit again.” Did I submit again? Did I seize upon these morsels of hope and submit to those journals again?
Perhaps I let the fact of the rejection itself overshadow the positive (or anyway not completely negative) response of the readers/editors of the magazines to my work. So is that because I’m female? The thing is, there’s no way to answer that question, just as despite the fact that Spillman seems to be offering concrete evidence of something in those numbers he ticks off about female writers’ submissions, he’s is and he isn’t. It’s still anecdotal. Without interviewing those women Spillman talks about, it’s hard to know why they didn’t re-submit their work or respond to his requests. This whole topic is fraught with variables, the kind of variables that enter into any gender equality discussion, i.e. that women take breaks from their careers to have children; women tend to make less money than men and because of that they might not have the freedom/time to continue writing even after achieving some success.
Or, then again, maybe all those women really did have failures of confidence.
But come on, really? All of them? After wrestling with all of this I’ve started to wonder if maybe the idea that women don’t handle rejection as well or aren’t as persistent is an excuse, and I wonder if the premise of that panel I attended wasn’t a bit offensive. The idea of it distracts from the larger issue of gender parity in publishing and turns blame back around on the women. It’s a cop-out. And my saying I didn’t respond to journals which subtly requested more of my work because I was so wounded by their rejection is also a cop-out. I did not submit other work to those journals because at the time, I had no other work I felt was appropriate to send. I did not submit other work to those journals because I got distracted by freelance editing projects, had a work-stopping bout of tendinitis in both of my arms, and then had a tough pregnancy resulting in a hungry newborn. That last one, of course, is a particularly female roadblock, a milestone that tends to make one’s career pause a bit. By the time I was able to write and submit again, I had lost track of those nice rejections and started afresh with other mags.
After I read Spillman’s post, I happened upon an essay by Laura van den Berg at The Review Review on why it’s a good idea to publish in lit mags. Van den Berg writes:
When I began working for a notable literary magazine as a graduate student, it was still sobering to realize how utterly insignificant the individual submitter is. This is not to say the staff didn’t work hard to treat each submission with the basic level of respect that any reputable journal would, but when editors and readers are dealing with thousands upon thousands of submissions, each writer is, quite literally, just another number. After a few months of employment, I felt incredibly foolish for ever taking a rejection personally. I learned that rejection, as practically any editor will tell you, is rarely personal—because, in all likelihood, the editor simply has no idea who you are. I learned that I was a single fish in a sea of millions, a blip on the screen. I learned that no one cares whether I keep writing or not.
So, really, is it a female response to lose confidence in the face of such odds, or a human one? Whether you’re male or female, you can’t get published without working hard and staying focused. Without regularly producing the best writing you are capable of. You can’t loose track of nice rejections, and you can’t miss opportunities because you can’t see past your own lack of confidence. You must be organized and ruthlessly persistent. You cannot let your daily life get in the way of your persistence. You can’t let blogging (ahem), Twitter, Facebook and the whole vast distracting maw of the Internet get in the way of your writing routine. You cannot let others’ perceptions of gender affect you in any way. You cannot mistake your own lack of dedication and hard work for anything else but what it is.