VIDA numbers that work

I don’t know if we’ve found a solution for a lagging VIDA count, but our numbers seem to work. Dogwood is an annual literary magazine published out of Fairfield University, and I took over the role of editor when I arrived in Fall 2011.

Small-Vida-Logo

The first year, I ran a contest that was non-anonymous. Our total number of women authors on the masthead that year was 70%, though the number of pages in the journal devoted to the work of women was smaller than it appears, because four out of the five prose pieces we chose to publish were written by men. What I’ll never know–and what an editor, male or female, can never know–is the extent to which the presence of a male-sounding name on an entry influenced me in any way. (I should note, too, that I’m supportive of VIDA’s cause and am a member and financial contributor.)

The second year, I decided to run our contest completely anonymously. I knew of many journals who seem to publish the same cast of well-known writers, and I wanted to break away from that a bit, using my small editorial role as a welcome to unpublished or lesser-known writers. Interestingly, our count dipped slightly, to 67% women. But that’s fine… to me, the goal is never an all-female issue, but simply getting above parity at 50%.

This year for our forthcoming issue, with our largest submission pool ever and another anonymous contest, we hit a high point of 73% women on our masthead.

Why is that, and what in Dogwood’s experience might be replicated by other journals looking to duplicate this trend?

First, I’m a woman, and I choose what I like. I happen to like the work of female authors, though I never know the gender of the author when I’m reading. And I’m sometimes surprised.

Second, the screeners who have helped me in our undergraduate publishing classes are women. I do not think that women choose women’s writing or choose female-oriented protagonists or subjects, but I have seen women in a female-tending editorial meeting advocate for stories, essays, and poems that might seem “quieter” at first glance–the kinds that are not shockers off the bat but that slowly reveal something that stays with a reader. Those, I’ve noticed, might tend to be written and submitted more by women. Again, I’ve done no studies, and these are thumbnails and guesses.

Third: I wonder, too, if women submit when they see women on the masthead. I don’t know. I think, subconsciously, I might do this myself. (Oh, the tentativeness with which I enter even this debate, with my “I thinks…” But I’m not impressed by bombast, and I am impressed with exploratory thinking.) And I think what I might do is to look at the table of contents of the past few issues of a magazine I like, but then I see fewer women in their roster, and I don’t submit there first.

We’ve talked a lot in editing and writing circles about the behavior of women writers, and how we give up more easily or take one “no” as a permanent veto. I have to own that I do this myself, and I want to change it. But in another way, this self-defeating behavior makes a kind of rational sense, if you as a woman are trained to navigate a world with some doors shut. You go for what might be open.

In the sense of racial diversity, I think our numbers might be terrible, but I’m not sure. That’s guesswork, and I don’t poll our writers about their backgrounds. I might start next year, and I think it might be easy to do in Submittable. Again, what works for women on our masthead might work against us in racial diversity: we’ve got mostly white women evaluating manuscripts.

When we talk about negative VIDA numbers, I think the next thing to look at is who is making editorial decisions. This will not guarantee that the journal opens up–nor should any editor feel constrained to choose a roster of writers based on identity or gender. I never do. But I think who is making the choices influences what gets in a magazine.

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