Who says American white men are better writers?

Kathleen Rooney – WNN SOAPBOX

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(WNN) Chicag0, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: I’m not a math person, per se, but I can’t stop counting. When I’m doing a supposedly non-numerical act of reading I’m not counting titles read, or chapters completed, or pages left to go. Rather, I am tallying the genders and ethnicities of the authors I see being published, being reviewed, being given bylines in periodical reviews both in print and online, or being assigned on student reading lists.

Why am I doing this? 

Because for a long time, I’ve had the feeling that women writers, as well as writers of color in all genres and in virtually all venues, get published and read and reviewed and assigned with considerably less frequency than do U.S. American white men.

Such feelings though are easy to dismiss. Feelings are hard to quantify. And intuition, valuable though it undeniably is, tends to get pushed aside in favor of objective data. Even as far back as high school my thoughts on this matter were routinely brushed off by teachers and fellow students alike who told me I was being “paranoid,” or looking for a bias that was only in my head, when I ought to be focused on questions of pure literary quality and skill that transcend race and gender.

Luckily for me—and for readers everywhere—in 2009 a group of writers and activists formed an organization known as VIDA, “to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.”

One of the most vital services VIDA provides is something known as The Count. Every year their network of volunteers manually calculates the gender breakdown of that year’s publications. Then they release the results in pie charts and percentages in order, as their mission statement explains, to “offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed.” The Count exists “to ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse,” because “our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, but still disappointingly, year in and year out The Count proves that with few exceptions periodicals ranging from major general-interest magazines and newspapers to smaller literary journals still publish a majority of male authors.

The pie charts are all available online here. But to cite one particularly and consistently egregious example, Harper’s magazine published just 54 female authors in comparison to 155 male ones in 2013. This includes authors reviewed, reviewers themselves and bylines. Granted VIDA’s Count itself is not flawless as they acknowledge on their FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions page.

Posing for themselves the question: “Why does the VIDA COUNT mostly feature ‘Men’ vs. ‘Women’?” given that this division “oversimplifies the wide range of genders and sexes that individuals may identify as and/or exhibit;” it’s something they’re working on, and seeking volunteer assistance to address.

The kind of work VIDA is doing ought to be an example to all of us whether we are readers, writers, editors, publishers, or some combination of the above. This kind of mindfulness does not have to be grandiose to be effective. Every effort toward greater diversity can help.

I’m in a book club in Chicago, for instance, that has been around for almost 20 years (though I’ve only been a part of it for six). Within that club, which is a mix of ages and genders, I’ve good-naturedly cultivated a reputation for being a ‘feminist killjoy’ and relentless political-correctness advocate by insisting when we pick each new book that we should consider reading a balanced number of women and writers of color.

The fact is that this male-ward, white-ward drift is not malicious or deliberate. Nobody says outright, “Men are better writers,” or “Let’s just read white people.” Benign negligence—whether in a grassroots book club, or on a college syllabus, or in a publishing house or magazine’s list—cannot simply be excused and accepted as an innocent blind spot.

Rather it must be actively remarked upon as something that we should all cultivate: the ability to notice, discuss, and remedy. I’m hardly the only one who feels this way.

The Critical Flame, a journal of literature and culture led by editor Daniel Pritchard, has declared that their venue will only review women and writers of color for a full year starting in May 2014. In his editorial announcement of that decision, Pritchard writes, “…This project presents a great opportunity to publish in-depth essays about undervalued writers, books, and traditions—what could be more exciting for a literary editor?”

His excitement is shared by Joanna Walsh, the artist and writer responsible for declaring 2014 “The Year of Reading Women.” Walsh popularized the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 in the hopes of calling more attention to the need for greater diversity in contemporary publishing and reading habits.

Full disclosure: As a woman writer with my own debut novel “O, Democracy!” coming out this year, do I have a vested interest in making the argument for greater diversity? Heck yes, I do. A rising tide lifts all ships. This trend toward a wider polyphony of voices in publishing and in reading is not just good for me, or for women or writers of color. It’s good for everyone: men and women, gay and straight, writers and readers of all races and backgrounds.

And speaking of democracy, it’s good for democracy.

Under-representation of diverse voices makes the sort of public discourse that a true democracy requires to thrive impossible. It’s not just in reading or publishing, but across the entire U.S. media and political landscape. We should aspire to have all of our ‘counts’, not just the VIDA Count, add up in a way that represents what all of America truly writes and thinks and looks and sounds like.

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Kathleen Rooney , who currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., is the author of six books, including “O, DEMOCRACY!” a novel inspired by her time working as a staffer for U.S. Democratic Senator and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Rooney is also the founding editor of Rose Metal Press as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a three-person team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. 

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