The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming
Photo Credit: Steve Rotman
A few months ago, when VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published stats with respect to the gender disparity of book reviewees and reviewers (they’re primarily male in case you hadn’t guessed) in a number of major publications and Twitter exploded with either “ohmigod, how can this be?” or “duh, obviously,” I did a quick perusal of Toasted Cheese’s authors for 2010 and tweeted:
Granted, these weren’t stats for reviews, but for creative nonfiction, poetry, and short fiction. But still, there it was. Our numbers were nearly equal. I decided [insert portentous music here] that this would be a good topic for a Snark Zone.
Then, just last week, VIDA released another count, this one a breakdown of the Best American anthologies. In this case, both the essay and poetry series were heavily weighted male, while the short story series was closer to equal. The data also reveal that even when the guest editor is a woman, often a majority of authors are men.
Also: Esquire republished a list of “75 Books Every Man Should Read” that only included one book by a woman, and V.S. Naipaul declared that all women writers are inferior to, well, him. What year is it again?
Obviously, I can’t control how much (or little) women writers are valued. I could take to Twitter, and rant about male bias, but considering my lack of followers (aside: what’s up with that? as an editor, shouldn’t I be more popular? why aren’t all you nice people
sucking up to following me?), I’d be ranting into the abyss.
But I, along with my fellow editors, do have control over what’s published in Toasted Cheese. And with that control (muahahaha!), we’ve somehow managed to publish a fairly diverse assortment of writers, not just with respect to gender, but also experience, age, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. Perhaps most gratifying, given the difficulty some of the more established publications seem to have achieving any diversity at all, is that this has happened rather organically.
One of the things editors said in response to the VIDA stats was that they publish more men because they get more submissions from men. And maybe to some extent, this is true. Because if you’re a writer and you’re doing your market research and you’re asking yourself is this publication going to be a good fit for me, for my work, and you see that nearly all the bylines in Publication X are male and you’re not, then maybe you’re going to decide to submit to Publication Q instead, which while perhaps not as well-known, has a better track record when it comes to gender diversity. So maybe that is a part of it, but it isn’t the whole story, because many of the major publications aren’t publishing much slush anyway. They’re soliciting work, that is, choosing who they ask to write for them.
In contrast, Toasted Cheese has been built on unsolicited work. In the beginning, we didn’t really have much of a choice; we had no networks to tap into. We were then, and still are in many respects, outsiders. Not just because we were founded by women (which, apparently, is notable) and have always had a predominantly female editorial board, but because we’re not based in a publishing epicenter, we’re not affiliated with a larger organization, we haven’t been on the receiving end of any angel funding (but, you know, if you have a million to spare, call me). And while not being close enough to mix and mingle with the cool kids or having the affiliations and funding that would give us the cachet that would be a draw for A-list writers can be a disadvantage, in terms of diversity, I think it’s an advantage.
Toasted Cheese was a blank slate at its inception ten years ago, and to a certain extent, we’ve let our writers decide what they want it to be. Yes, we decide what goes into each issue. But without submissions, we’d have no decisions to make. It’s the writers who’ve chosen to submit to us that have given us the raw material, the opportunity to be what we now are. And that is, I hope, a place where writers of all backgrounds feel welcome.
Drawing attention to gender disparity in literary publishing is admirable, but it’s just one strategy. Another is to support the publications that are already doing what you wish the major publications were. Spread the word about them. Subscribe. Donate. Volunteer. And most of all, if you’re a writer, submit to them. Because it’s not enough just to create alternatives. To effect real change, the new venues need to be where everyone wants to be. And that requires putting your writing where your mouth is.