A few months ago, I was talking about the VIDA “count” with a friend-and-fellow-writer. The count has been at the forefront of our editorial discussions this year—The Conium Review journal has a large gender gap, but we’re trying to change that this year and beyond.
In the middle of the conversation, my friend-and-fellow-writer said something like “I feel like, as a woman author, I should care about VIDA, but I don’t. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Doesn’t matter?” I couldn’t believe it. But over the past few months, I’ve dug deeper. I’ve explored some critiques of VIDA, and I’ve discovered how some writers, editors, and readers consciously or unconsciously determine that underrepresentation and misrepresentation isn’t a ‘big deal.’
I can’t speak for my friend-and-fellow-writer, but I can speak for myself and why VIDA matters to me (and by extension, why the VIDA count is on The Conium Review’s radar).
Part I, Men Only Tell Half the Story
I’m getting tired of hearing the same half of the story on a continuous loop. Certainly, there are good male authors (I hope I’m one of them), but the literary world is publishing way too many of them while simultaneously ignoring way too many women. Sure, men are capable of writing new, innovative fiction. However, that fiction is invariably filtered through the same gendered lens. We can pretend that gender doesn’t matter, but we secretly know that it does. Right? A man, for example, could not write Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls. A woman, for example, could not write Junot Díaz’s Drown.
It’s tough to consider “a man could not write” or “a woman could not write” arguments in isolation, because gender is just one part of who a person is. You can easily imagine all sorts of differences between authors. And you can imagine how every iota of difference creates a different experience and a different story and a different lens. But on a fundamental, broad-stroke level, gender matters. The underrepresentation of women matters. VIDA matters. Because if the publishing industry continues to discriminate against women, we’re ignoring half of the conversation. We’re missing out on a huge chunk of the human experience. We’re hearing the same monotone voice over and over, ignoring the women who have entirely unique stories to tell. Stories that we need to hear.
The male narrative has been shoved down our throats so often that it’s all many readers know. This brings us back to The Conium Review. We’re guilty of having a shitty count (VIDA doesn’t officially count us, but we’ve ran our own numbers). However, we’re hitting the reset button, learning from our first four issues, and making changes at the journal. We’re not going to get truly innovative fiction while only publishing a single worldview.
In a 2011 interview (reprinted in the anthology Paper Dreams), Cate Marvin of VIDA recalls her reaction to the first “count” in 2010; she mentions reading male-dominated literary journals, noting “The fact is, I often felt bored when reading these publications. (And I felt guilty for being bored!) Now I know why (whereas before, I felt I ought to be interested).” Frankly, male authors are starting to bore me too. It’s not that these authors don’t resonate with my experience. Some of my favorite authors are men: Etgar Keret and George Saunders, specifically. But other men on my list o’ faves have been replaced by Aimee Bender, Amelia Gray (super excited that she agreed to judge our Innovative Short Fiction Contest), Lucy Corin, Karen Russell, Karin Tidbeck, and other women. They tell the other half of the story. Women turn the literary monologue into a dialogue, and that’s pretty damn exciting.
Even if somebody overlooks the obvious social justice issues, the low publication rates of women matters because it negatively impacts the literary narrative. We keep getting that tired monologue. Personally, I want to read a variety of voices. I don’t want the same ol’ same ol’. I want to be challenged by what I read (and what I write), and that doesn’t happen when the literary community recycles the same half of the conversation in slightly different packages. That’s why VIDA matters. It impacts anybody who loves reading and writing—female and male alike.