'Flab and Excess: On Women, Writing, and the Publishing Industry', by Jessica Yu

‘Sleeping Venus’, by Giorgione, 1508-1510. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

“Short stories should be lean and clean. Taut and muscular. That’s the whole point of them.” My first year creative writing tutor chopped the air with his hand as he emphasised each adjective. I wrote his comment down in my notebook. It wouldn’t be the last time I heard that old creative writing maxim.

Three years later, I find that my creative writing classes have indoctrinated me. I am suspicious of adjectives and adverbs and think of them as “flab” and “excess,” thinking better of nouns and verbs, which I describe using words like “muscle” and “control.”

Recently, I have started to realise that this way of teaching and thinking about creative writing implicitly genders “good” and “bad” writing. We describe “bad” writing in language which recalls the monstrous excesses of the classical female form and “good” writing in terms of the controlled tautness of the ideal male figure. Somewhere in my mind I know that whenever my writing is economical, I can congratulate myself on having successfully imitated a “male” voice, masqueraded as a male body for a moment. And whenever it is wasteful, I am afraid that I have in some way flaunted my own femaleness, failed to safeguard my writing from the spillages of my own body. I wonder, too, what this surreptitiously gendered language has to say about the way we read, interpret and market female writers and their work.

It is no secret that there are gender imbalances in publishing. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts was founded in 2009 to generate awareness around the “reception of women’s creative writing in contemporary literary culture.” Every year since then, they have published the VIDA counts, a tally of gender disparity in major literary journals. The VIDA counts have revealed severe imbalances in the numbers of men and women published and reviewed in the most prestigious literary journals. The VIDA counts have generated such a degree of discussion that the publications in question had no choice but to respond. Some of them, like The Paris Review and New York Times Book Review—who in 2010 had published 32 women to 59 men and reviewed 283 women to 524 men, respectively—responded by cleaning up their act. In 2013, The Paris Review published 48 female writers and 47 male writers, and the New York Times Book Review reviewed 332 female writers and 482 male writers.

Of course, many magazines also came up with criticisms of the count, and excuses for their statistics: that more men pitch to magazines, or that men are more willing to send their work into the slush pile, or that it’s about merit, “without making a fetish of having of having 50/50 contributors,” in the words of Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard.

While editors sceptical of the VIDA counts have an obvious agenda, their opinions nevertheless need to be addressed. I believe in engaging with arguments that I find abhorrent because although the answers may seem obvious within my echo chamber of friends who write and rant about feminism in neighbouring toilet cubicles, there are other people I interact with—on a daily basis—for whom this is not the case. My own dad, for example, is so appalled at the idea of gender inequalities within the 21st century that his mental reflex is to deny their existence. Recognising that a single voice would not be enough to convince him—or anyone else—that gender disparities in publishing have persisted beyond mid-century, I approached a long list of female writers and editors whose work I admired, in the hope that they would speak alongside me.

Editors called out for gender imbalances in their publications should respond in a proactive rather than a defensive way.

Freelance writer and former Voiceworks editor Kat Muscat argues that these excuses are invalid. She suggests that editors called out for gender imbalances in their publications should respond in a proactive rather than a defensive way, saying: “Trying to explain this away doesn’t actually get anyone anywhere. Just suck it up and think of ways to be more inclusive. Be proactive. If you’re after an article on a particular topic and the first writer that comes to mind is a guy, don’t stop there. Do you know any equally qualified women? If not, I promise this is not because they don’t exist. Ask around, do some research. We’re around.”

Francesca Ohlert, editor of The Suburban Review, also attacks these arguments while defending her choice to curate “an all-female Stellar Edition (which takes its name from the all-female Stella Prize).” She writes: “Some people might think of this as ‘imbalanced’ in an immediate gender sense… I suppose it seesaws both ways in term of gender balance. [But] then, if there’s one thing that has stuck with me from my kindergarten days, it’s a firm belief that everybody should get an equal turn on the play equipment.”1

It is clear that this is a problem which cannot be reduced to any single cause. It is not enough to ask whether there are gender imbalances in publishing, then note that the statistics say there are, because we already knew that. We have known this since female writers first adopted pseudonyms to help their books get a fair hearing, and perhaps for even longer, since female novel-readers began to be treated with suspicion and fear.

A better question is “how does this occur repeatedly throughout the history of publishing, and why might it occur?” Some of the other writers and editors I spoke to were willing to share their thoughts on this issue. Meanjin editor Zora Sanders argues that there are “serious gender-genre disparities [such as] more men writing essays [and] more women writing memoir.” For Zora, this segregation of male and female writing is important to flag and think critically about, “because we value different kinds of writing more than others.” Similarly, writer Alice Pung observes that women are often confined to covering “lifestyle issues”, challenging my narrow focus on literary magazines and pointed out that magazines like Women’s Weekly are written by and for women, and have far larger circulations than any Australian literary journal.

Pung also argues that “…as long as literature takes itself very, very, very seriously, you are always going to have more male writers and critics than female, perpetuating a certain sort of ‘voice’.” However, she qualifies this by saying that her male editor of 13 years “…has never edited her work so as to remove the female voice.” Michelle Law also raises the problem of “voice”, saying that when studying writing she was taught “predominantly male writers and novelists. In my own writing I felt pressured to adopt a voice that wasn’t mine, but one that echoed the [male] writers I’d been taught.”

For young adult writer Lili Wilkinson, this gendering of voices and stories occurs in a different but no less harmful way. She observes that “when a male author writes a funny, romantic novel with a domestic setting, it’s generally seen as ground-breaking Literary Work (think Nick Hornby’s Slam, Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, everything by John Green). But if the same book is written by a woman, it’s given a pink sparkly cover, called “chick lit”, and generally ignored by critics and awards panels.” Similarly, academic and Dobbie Award-winning novelist Claire Thomas argues that “there is, unfortunately, a sense that men and their ideas are the human things, the universal things, whereas women’s work is about women, almost a sub-category. I think that when men write about the everyday, for example, the result can be read as a searing commentary on the quotidian. When women do the same, they are so often not given that status or respect.”

The gendering of “voice”… will always make female writers’ work appear less important, even less human.

For both of these writers, the gendering of “voice” occurs when readers and critics project a writer’s gender onto her subject matter. And unfortunately for female writers, this kind of projection will always make their work appear less important, even less human.

Every writer I spoke to pointed out that the problem of gender imbalances in publishing stems from an even deeper societal issue: poor representation of women in the public sphere more generally. Zora notes that “it’s a truism in publishing, and many other arts industries, that your colleagues will be women and your boss will be a man… the fact that there are any men in senior arts positions is almost surprising because of the scarcity of them at most levels within arts organizations.” Lisa Dempster, the Director and CEO of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, is blunt about the consequences: “When women are poorly represented across these important, public spheres it acts as a subtle reinforcement of the old idea that women are not the intellectual, artistic or professional equals of men. It’s bias – often unconscious bias, but no less damaging for it.”

So what are editors, writers, and publishers doing to fix these male-dominated tables of contents? Well, Pitch, Bitch! is working with Kill Your Darlings to close the “confidence gap” by encouraging women to pitch their work on the first Wednesday of every month. The Stella Prize is another very recent step, a women-only prize aimed at remedying other literary prizes’ gender bias. Many online publications like Rookie, Scum, The Hoopla, Daily Life, Filmme Fatales, and Lip publish feminist and women-centric writing.

In 2013, Meanjin published an issue—number 72:4—composed solely of work by female writers. Interestingly, this editorial decision was left unmentioned and unpublicised. Zora told me that in doing this she was “…trying to prove, to myself as much as anyone else, that there really is no excuse for not including at least an equal number of women as men in a publication. Anything you want written about, there is a woman out there with the skills and expertise to do it. It’s the editor’s job to find them. And I also perhaps wanted to make a point that it is common in many publications for an issue to contain almost no women at all, and this isn’t seen as unusual. Depressing and infuriating, certainly, but it’s hardly a unique occurrence. I wanted to see whether people would even notice if things were reversed, but there was no fuss made about it, it was just treated like business as usual. By and large I don’t think many people did notice, which makes me think, if all these publications that publish 10%, 15% women, just changed that, just decided it wasn’t good enough and committed to publishing 50% women, what on earth would they have to lose?”

Many literary publications are now committed to what The Lifted Brow’s Middlebrow editor Ellena Savage calls “affirmative action.” Apart from constantly seeking out new female authors, she bears in mind that “sometimes the material realities of publishing are simply in conflict with women’s lives, so when young or female authors flail a little, it’s important for editors to help find solutions – push deadlines back, or suggest more appropriate topics, etc., rather than writing them off.”

This conflict is something I’ve experienced in the course of writing this essay. The moment I swallowed my saliva and asked if I could write it, I regretted the commitment I had made. As a very young writer, I felt unqualified to comment on this subject. I was afraid. So I sat at my laptop after the mess of emails from female writers and editors arrived in my inbox and stared helplessly at the sheer volume of information I had to get a grip on. I stalled. I avoided eye contact with emails from the editorial team asking how I was going. I wrote a little bit. I felt embarrassed by how long I was taking. I forewent sleep and re-wrote what I had written the day before. Occasionally, a new email would drop into my inbox encouraging me to finish a first draft, or to check on my progress. I asked for strict guidelines so my editors could basically argue the piece for me. They refused. I asked again. They refused me again. I took days off because my dad was sick and I needed to take care of him, or just spend time with him. Unnecessarily worried about having my monster-baby-essay taken off me for this, I asked for a deadline to show I could meet one. I was refused. They refused to limit me or place pressure upon me in order to publish a piece.

There are practical ways for change to occur, despite institutional and historical resistance to it.

I learned a lot from this experience: not just about writing, editing, and publishing, but also about social change. Overturning gender imbalances in publishing will be slow. But as long as there are literary publications which commit themselves to gender balance, without being naïve about the kind of effort they might have to make for this to happen, female writers are given an excellent chance of writing and publishing alongside their male counterparts. I don’t want to trivialise a complex issue in light of a single positive experience. But I do want to demonstrate that there are practical ways for change to occur, despite institutional and historical resistance to it.

It was impossible for me to not share these things with my dad. So I read this piece aloud to him, as he used to read to me. He sat at the table flicking through junk mail and drinking coffee from a travel mug. When I was done, I placed my papers on the table and scrutinised his face for signs of change. He looked away from me as he took off his glasses and wiped them. He examined them. He looked back up at me.

“You will be arguing this for a long time,” he said, meaning two things at once.

Jessica Yu is the recipient of the 2014 Young Writers Innovation Prize and the founder and editor of the upcoming interactive narrativity journal Betanarratives. Her most recent poetry, fiction and non-fiction can be read in The Best Australian Poems 2014, Peril, The Suburban Review, and Dialect.

1: If you would like to read some other well-considered and patient rebuttals to these arguments, they can be found here and here. I implore you to squeeze your eyeballs out of their sockets if you start to feel the temptation to scroll down in the direction of the comments section, though.