The latest VIDA numbers are out.

If you haven’t heard about this, it’s pretty simple: two poet-professors, Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, for the past few years, have counted men and women published in magazines like the The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, NY Times Book Review,  The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic—to the growing embarrassment of progressive, literary America: males out-publish women 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, sometimes 10-1.

The numbers are plain, stark and have people talking, including the magazine editors, vowing to improve their numbers; one journal, The Paris Review, has achieved parity, for the time being.

Scarriet wrote about VIDA last year:

Not many people are asking of these numbers: Why?

Most talk is indignation on one hand, surly defensiveness on the other, with some guilty apologies in-between.

It’s a good thing the numbers are out there and people are talking about it.

VIDA is certainly not a bad thing.

But the backlash against VIDA is growing; their critics are saying:

1. VIDA does not give us the larger picture: More women work in publishing than men.

2. The picture they give us is incomplete: gender is great, but what of class, race, sexual persuasion, etc?

3. I will publish the best, thank you; I refuse to publish anyone based on gender.

But again, it’s good that people are talking about this, and all sorts of provocative comments are bubbling up:

On the Guardian blog, under a piece, “Why the LRB should stop cooking up excuses over lack of women reviewers,” a commenter claimed she would rather read women than “ivory tower” males, and that “only women” should be allowed to write on “prostitution and abortion.”

Behind the pure numbers dwell opinions such as these, which, despite being anecdotal and crazy-sounding, flesh out what is behind the numbers.

If the whole question—of gender in literary magazine publishing—is more about “ivory tower” than gender, VIDA numbers could be nothing more than an indication that men are more “ivory tower” than women are.

After all, journalists know that a good anecdote is worth a pile of statistics, or that a good anecdote can explain a pile of statistics.

In the Guardian piece mentioned above, the 2001 quote from a female LRB editor “that most enraged” VIDA sensibilities was: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done.”

Is this sort of remark realistic, or outrageous?

It really isn’t that far from the “ivory tower” remark.

What if it’s true that cooking, or looking after children, is far more important than publishing “ivory tower” pieces in magazines?

Not than anyone would say the VIDA numbers are encouraging the neglect of children, but perhaps rather than being an objective truth, the VIDA numbers are only a piece of a larger puzzle.

There is always something bigger lurking behind numbers: life.


  1. powersjq said,

    February 28, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    The social reality in which professionals poets and poetry critics make their living can never be an entirely accurate reflection of the actual quality of the poems being produced. It would be not only unrealistic, but downright foolish–even cruel–to hope that it ever does. (This inevitable gap is, in fact, one sound reason to regard the entire notion of poetry as a profession with considerable suspicion.) It’s obviously ludicrous to suppose that men will write better poems than women, or that women will write better poems than men–even on certain subjects. These numbers say a great deal about the price that one is expected to pay in order to have an academic (or even semi-academic) career, but not very much, I fear, about either poems or poetry.

  2. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    February 28, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    I agree with Powers, but also think that men need to get off their butts and help with child care, cooking, and cleaning, etc.

    • powersjq said,

      March 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm


      I agree with you that the widely perceive _status_ of household work is unacceptable. A baby does not care about the gender of the person who changes its diaper. Clothes do not care who folds them. And so on. But every household has to negotiate its own division of labor. I would be extremely reluctant to tell anyone s/he’s not doing enough.

      The question (in this forum) is: how does our society’s widely held opinion that household labor is both less valuable and more appropriate for women affect the poetry that our society produces? This opinion continues to weaken, but it’s obviously still strong enough to show up when we test for it statistically. In my view, the question of professional gender quality is a red herring when it comes to poetry, because the real question is whether poetry should be professionalized at all. This is not at all to say that I don’t think that the question of gender equality cuts very deeply indeed in other instances—as, for example, in the class action suit that WalMart’s female managers recently filed against the corporation.

  3. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    March 3, 2014 at 5:48 am

    Good Lord, it’s not just in the poetry world, or at Walmart. By the way, I worked at Walmart, as a teen, and the SAME THING was happening back then. It was almost a sick running joke. As soon as a man would walk through the door, they would grab him up and make a manager out of him. It didn’t matter about their age, work ethic, education, etc. The women who trained the men were usually none too pleased. The situation disgusted me, but I had no desire to be a manager. However, there were plenty of women there who were highly qualified, and really needed the money, who were passed over. I think that you and Tom are having trouble understanding or empathizing with women.

    Powers, you mentioned the “professionalization” of poetry. I couldn’t agree more with you on that one. However, one must remember that the only real money tied with poetry, are the tenure track jobs. And there is no way that the good old boys want to let go of that kind of privilege. The entire situation is detrimental to poetry. Almost all of the poets, who are publishing now, also teach. There is nothing wrong at all with teaching poetry. But it is virtually the only outlet for poetry publishing. I think that this is the cause of all of the poetry contest cheating, and other scandals. A professor, judging a poetry contest, may really like the work of a student, even though, after reading through the other entries, he knows his student’s poetry manuscript is not the best. But he still picks his student because he knows that if he doesn’t get published, he will never get a tenure track job. And if he doesn’t get a tenure track job, his chances of becoming a successful poet are zilch because the academy controls almost all of the poetry publishing venues. All of the major publishers have stopped taking on poetry, because it makes no money for them. A couple may publish a few very well known poets, but that’s about it. This all makes for a very competitive atmosphere.

    • powersjq said,

      March 3, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      “I think that you and Tom are having trouble understanding or empathizing with women.”

      While I wouldn’t presume to speak for Tom, I confess that I’m bewildered by this claim about me. I cited the WalMart suit as evidence that I know very well that sexism is still a going concern. I know about wage inequality. I know what the phrase “second shift” means.I’ve read about rates of domestic violence, I police other people’s use of pronouns. I’m not an expert by academic standards, but I feel no compunction calling myself a staunch feminist.

      Maybe you could point to the particular words I wrote that made you think that I have “trouble understanding or empathizing with women”?

      I like how you lay out the rest. You highlight the issue of competition. In the spirit of exploring that further (i.e., this is not a crit), I wonder then about the role the poetry critic—which we were talking about some months ago here—who is basically obligated to make invidious distinctions between good and bad poems, and perhaps even good or bad poets (though for myself I think that it is impossible to make this latter distinction). Doesn’t the fact that criticism is real and important mean that there is some aspect of writing poetry that _must_ be competitive?

  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 3, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    I can always count on Powers to respond reasonably, fairly, and intelligently to the topic at hand.

    Women do have it harder than men—they are expected to ‘be exactly like men,’ and yet more responsibility for children generally falls on them, plus their gender has a greater tendency to have more empathy for others, which inhibits blind ambition—which continues to feed into more inequality, and the vicious cycle continues.

    Two kinds of fish swim in the same sea and the sea cannot change if the fish don’t change, but the fish can’t change if the sea doesn’t change.

    I can only pray that Diane’s experience at Walmart does not color her view of me. I can hope for this, but not expect it.

    Poetry is the first, but not the only, consideration, in Scarriet’s essays. Limit is helpful, but only if it doesn’t limit.

  5. noochinator said,

    February 7, 2015 at 11:26 am

    “On the Guardian blog…a commenter claimed… that ‘only women’ should be allowed to write on ‘prostitution and abortion.'”

    Well, that would be a shame, because then we wouldn’t have this very powerful excerpt from Roland Camberton’s 1950 novel Scamp:

    Jojo was pregnant, with only, so far, a ‘slight touch of pregnancy’, as Louis put it, but, nevertheless, indisputably pregnant. As weeks nine and ten passed, the matter began to grow serious. She, silly urban adolescent, was being edged slowly down to those dark abysses which lay underneath Charing Cross Road; underneath Foyle’s bookshop, the cafés, the American-style outfitters, the milk-bars, the rubber-goods shops, the run-quick fruit-stalls, the dance-saloon; even underneath the railway, the electric cables, the gas-pipes, underneath the tube, underneath the sewers, underneath the last defensive outpost of those who walked above — underneath them all, far, far underneath, lay the dark abysses of birth and death. And Jojo, slight, seven stone, eighteen-year old, pretty little Jojo, was naturally afraid, all the more so because she was completely unprepared for birth and death. She had never seen either a newly-born baby or a corpse. She had been educated — had, in fact, matriculated — she had once known and now wisely forgotten the battles in the Crimean War, the exports of British Columbia at the time her geography book was written, how to do quadratic equations, how to conjugate deponent verbs in Latin, how to prove that two straight lines which are parallel to a third straight line are parallel to each other, and so on. But what to do when an unwelcome, indeed disastrous pregnancy was beginning inside her, that she had not learnt; for that she had to go to Sybil, who was almost twenty. Sybil took her to Valerie, who was twenty-four, and Valerie, in turn, took her to a dirty old woman in one of London’s dingiest slums, thirty yards behind Regent Street and not far from Great Marlborough Street police station. Jojo’s regime of pills, hot baths twice a day, great doses of gin, and jumping down flights of stairs was brought to an end by an appalling episode on the old witch’s sofa; after which Sybil and Valerie nursed Jojo for two weeks in a furnished room in Bayswater. [Jojo’s boyfriend] Sid gladly paid up eighty pounds, thanked heaven Jojo was still alive, and made up his mind to have no more vocalists in [his] band, a resolution effectively maintained for three long summer months.

    Jojo was restored to apparent normalcy after a few weeks. A glimpse of the abysses of birth and death was, however, something that once experienced could never be forgotten. In spite of her eighteen years she was now curiously mature, and six months later was married to a chartered accountant many years her senior. Still later, the effects of that monstrous abortion on the sofa began to show itself in cysts and growths and all manner of ovarian complications. Her reproductive system, which had formerly functioned so smoothly and agreeably, became the curse of her existence, chronically out of order, erratic, morbid and sterile. Such — for all her chartered accountant and eighth floor flat obtained at an exorbitant rent — was the unfortunate lot of pretty little Jojo, upon whom the grinning old monsters of sex and the city, with their dusty files of antique, cruel laws and customs, with their sordidities, their slums, their underhand ways and means, upon whom sex and London revenged themselves.

    It so happened that on the very evening when Jojo was agonizing on the sofa by Great Marlborough Street police station, four other girls – out of the hundreds privately swallowing mildly poisonous pills, sweltering in unbearably hot baths, drinking sickening draughts of gin, and crashing down flights of stairs — were undergoing the same ordeal in more or less similar circumstances in other parts of London. Three lost, in addition to the unwanted embryo, nothing more than their money; the fourth died, her abortionist spending as a result six crippling years in a women’s prison built in the early nineteenth century. Yet within a quarter of an hour’s walk of each of these five painful scenes…there were admirable hospitals, hygienic, and humane, with every modern surgical and anaesthetic facility; hospitals which shelved moral considerations in the unequivocal treatment of diseases undoubtedly resulting from gluttony, alcoholism, lack of sexual restraint, laziness, criminal negligence….

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