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?