Notes on the NBCC’s VIDA panel

By Laurie Stone

Guest post from Laurie Stone, who wrote this following the NBCC VIDA panel on May 29.

These are some thoughts prompted by the NBCC panel on the VIDA metrics concerning women and publishing. The panel included prominent women critics, editors, and writers—including Meg Wolitzer, Laurie Muchnick, Erin Belieu, Pamela Paul, and Kathryn Schultz. Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, was also there. In response to running numbers on contributors to his publication and discovering it was two thirds male and one third female, he set to righting the imbalance and analyzing underlying causes for it. One thing he noted was that male authors were undaunted by rejection and kept sending in stories, while female authors, even if encouraged to keep submitting, were far less inclined to. He developed strategies for addressing this. Bravo. More like Rob, please—more conscious, structural change.

The women who spoke all wanted to see more equitable representation of women’s books being published, more books by women being reviewed, more women invited to review books, more men asked to write about women’s books, and more women writers included in magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. In addition, consciously, half-consciously, and unconsciously rose up lots of anxiety about whether having an interest in matters concerning women marginalized you in the eyes of what kept being described as the larger world. If you were a woman critic and you were interested in the writing of women, you could look like a literary pussy, a pussy in the literary world, some kind of pussy. You could lose something. You could lose your power and maybe even your job. There was a feeling that literature produced by women was at risk of being categorized as a sub-genre, like romance or crime fiction.

As I sat listening, I wondered how we had come to this after so many years of women promoting work they cared about and wanted to see entered into the public conversation. This applies to women doing all kinds of work, but I am going to stick to writing here. How come so many women were afraid of how they appeared, who they might alienate, how they would be categorized? You could ask this question more generally about fear in our society, and I would speculate it has something to do with a more militarized, post-9/11 environment that has re-normalized traditional gender roles. It has emboldened the war against women and their bodies and made women feel more threatened about their safety and status if they dissent. Put that aside, though. You don’t have to agree with me about the general atmosphere of fear or why the public conversation feels so retrograde.

I noted some confusion between categories. One category was female representation in publishing and journalism, but another, more central to me category was the content of women’s writing. This has nothing to do with essentialism. There is nothing essential about the stories women are inclined to tell. But the stories women do seem inclined to tell and their ways of telling them have everything to do with their experience of having a female gender in society. The stories and insights and stylistic experiments issue from that. For a long time and still women writers are the people who are going to think about the lives of women characters in complex ways. They are going to write about female friendship, sex, sexual violence, the relationship of private power dynamics to the larger political sphere, the internal struggles women and perhaps men, too, experience that don’t enter imaginative realms otherwise. When women started to publish in large numbers, everything about what qualified as a fit topic in literature was changed. Everything. In addition to publications having the will to change, critics have to support the content and formal experiments of women’s writing no matter the personal cost. We need to hear these stories and interpretations of the world. Women who exist in the world as women are the only ones who can write them. If men can write them, great, but men are not at any disadvantage in promoting their own interests.

After the panel, I was talking to Alix Shulman, who was distressed as well by the level of anxiety panelists expressed about supporting women’s writing. She said, “They don’t have the movement any longer behind them.” I thought this was true. In the 1970s and 1980s, when critics promoted whomever they wanted to promote, we had a movement to cheer us on and a movement that drove at least alternative publishing in such places as the Village Voice. What can we do now to support women writers and the critics who want openly to love them?

Laurie Stone is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction and is a past winner of the NBCC's Nona Balakian prize in criticism.