‘I’m just being a bitch again’, wrote Amy King, in response to a post by Blake Butler at the HTMLGIANT blog announcing the contributors for issue #2 of We Are Champion magazine. None of the ten writers is female.
King originally posted a comment at the original HTMLGIANT post:
I love Gary Lutz and Mike Young, but I ain’t buying this mag. Three women writers in the entire contents of two issues? And it’s a new mag?
I’m sure the editor, or someone, will come along and insult me, call me bitchy names, mock my face, etc in “defense” of the contents and for pointing out such obviousness, but it’s plain and simple: here we go again, repeating the old exclusive boy’s club traditions of what we thought was fading. Shall we all retreat to Black Mountain and sit at Olson’s feet whilst we write poems for Pound? Oh, I’ll shut up; that’s my job.
When you are reading or editing an issue of a magazine, do you perform a contributor penis and vagina count, to verify a decent mix? Do you perform a race count? Do you verify the range of the letters in the last names?
While these questions did inspire me to conclude that, indeed, none of the writers in Kill Your Darlings‘ first issue had names containing the letter ‘X’, they also got me thinking about commissioning and literary journals. I originally came across this kerfuffle via Brian Spears’ post at The Rumpus (which was titled, more modestly, ‘Diversity in Voices’). Spears, the poetry editor at The Rumpus, responded in seriousness to Butler’s questions, offering that:
When I put together the poems for our National Poetry Month project, I solicited work directly, and I aimed for diversity not only in gender, but also in ethnicity, age, stage of career, sexual orientation and poetic aesthetic. Focusing for the moment on gender, I finished with 16 men and 15 women …
Out of interest, I had a look at the Kill Your Darlings balance in Issue One, which is 11 to 8, in favour of male writers. I suspect that this minor margin will reverse in direction in the next issue, and will do a little tumble and weave each time we publish a new issue. Like Spears, the editors at Kill Your Darlings are guided in their commissioning by the wish to publish writers at different stages of their careers, be they household names or writers discovered through their blogs; writers with different stories to tell and ways of telling them.
Beyond that, the comment’s not mine to make, but the question of diversity in journals is an interesting one, and closely linked to the project of each individual journal. I only have to think of Peril, the Asian-Australian arts and culture magazine; or Roomers, a magazine for residents of rooming houses; or Overland’s blog, whose front page features a post that begins ‘I am a wog, and I’m proud of it’, or another that begins ‘My friend Cadie, a Garawa woman…’, to know that diverse voices and stories are represented in the Australian journal market.
(From here onwards, I’ll concentrate on the male–female debate, but obviously many of these points are well worth considering with regard to the representation of edit: other minorities.)
However, there’s clearly not much benefit in simply pointing out that some journals do a good job of recognising the worth in publishing diverse voices. There’s still the issue of what message an all-male magazine sends to female writers and readers, and the issue of what to do about it. If I were a writer researching where to submit my work, and I came across a journal that contained no work by women, would I consider sending my work there? Even if I believed the work was a match aesthetically, I’m not sure. Writing and submission and rejection are not to be undertaken lightly – as we know, writing is poorly recompensed at the sub-Rowling level – and it might seem like a waste of time to send work to the editor of such an apparently exclusive publication.
But what can be done in the face of such an odd line-up? In the slew of comments that followed these posts, many different plans of action surfaced. Among these were the old ‘read submissions blind’ rejoinder, which I find satisfying in the blind orchestra auditions stories. But that path isn’t useful at all if, as some commenters claimed, women aren’t submitting work in the same numbers as men. Butler himself claimed that he once received 224 submissions for a publication, only 4 of which were from female writers. However, Spears said that he had no problem at all in finding quality submissions from women, with which I’m sure many editors would agree.
It might seem unfair to focus thus sharply on a journal that is still finding its niche and audience, and whose editor, Gene Kwak, said ‘i solicited plenty of women. guys too’. Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable about an all-male contributor list. What I also find troubling is that the selection was defended by many (though not the editor, as far as I know) on the basis of, as Spears termed it, the ‘it’s the work that matters, not the writer’ attitude. This charming position seems to preclude any discussion about why the selector likes a particular work or selection of works. By not interrogating the standards by which the individual pieces are valued, the resulting publication takes on, as we see, a strikingly skewed character. In this case, WAC #2 seems to turn a blind eye to the struggle for equal gender representation in the artistic arena – not merely an ironically doffed hat, it’s a complete and utter stonewall.