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Sunday, February 13, 2011

No More "Mother May I"--Women Writers/Women Editors

In a recent article, published in Slate, Katha Pollitt ("The Lack of Female Byline in Magazines Is Old News: If You Really Want More Women Writers, Get More Women Editors" underscores the point I was trying to make at the Women's Caucus meeting at AWP this past February.

Pollitt begins her piece by addressing the VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts organization's concern about gender publishing disparities.

After making the observation that the publishing gap between men and women writers is certainly not news to women writers, Pollitt writes:

"As Meghan O'Rourke reported here last week, VIDA, an organization for women writers, has released a tally of male and female bylines for the 2010 run of 14 high-end, literary-oriented magazines. Despite a couple of relatively bright spots (the New York Times Book Review surprisingly being one), the numbers they found were just as dismally skewed as you might have expected, or even worse. None of this will come as news to the many women who've been keeping score at home...

So why so little change? One reason is that only women are having the conversation, which too quickly, given the temper of the times, turns into gloomy brooding on female psychology. Do women lack self-esteem? Are they too mannerly to put themselves forward? Perhaps, as O'Rourke suggested, they've avoided the subjects the male gatekeepers want to cover? .... There is probably a bit of truth in all these points: Women do often doubt their knowledge and abilities, and their diffidence probably explains why the pool of writers sending in pitches and proposals and unsolicited manuscripts is, at most magazines, disproportionately male. "

Which brings me to the point I made in the Women's Caucus--and one echoed by several other women writers/editors in the group--that women writers must stop "asking permission" and start taking action.

Virginia Woolf told us in "A Room of One's Own" that, in order to write, women must have space and money. This was not a metaphor.

However, let's take one giant step back and look into what  having "space" means. To me, having a physical space which is completely my own allows me to have psychological space. And having that kind of "safe haven" for my mind, in turn, gives my imagination room to simply be--a "ground of being" from which I can create. In other words, having my own space precludes any "asking permission"--intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively.

Of course, having money becomes the agent by which I can own my freedom. What good is having "freedom of mind" is one does not have the wherewith all to act on that freedom?

 Which brings me back to "asking permission," publishing and contemporary women writers.

Perhaps we have gotten it all backwards--thinking we need space, our own money, the very real approval and acknowledge of editors which comes in the form of actual publications, etc. etc., before we can take action.

In other words, if they like us--I mean really, really like us--we must be okay enough writers. And if we are "okay enough" writers, well, maybe what we have to say and how we want to say it will get heard. And if it gets heard, well, maybe it's significant in some way. 

But maybe we need to start from the premise that we already are okay enough writers, take action now and then the space, money and publication will follow.

Or the space/money/publication won't.

We need to come to terms with this.

Then maybe we will have to accept the possibility that the room/income/poems/stories/essays/books and articles --in the ways we have come to believe how these things should unfold--how we want them to happen--won't happen in ways we expect. Perhaps we need to begin with the idea that the "safe haven" is a kind of necessary luxury--but a luxury nonetheless.  If we wait for the "right conditions" to happen for us, to us--well, maybe we will be waiting a long, long time.

Perhaps we need to think in terms of creating change. And with that change will come a "room of our own" that we have built with our own efforts.

I hear you are asking: How do we do this?

Take an active part in the literary community. Become an editor. Write book reviews. You can write a small review on Amazon for writers you admire. It's a small thing but it counts.  Network with--and for--other women writers. Support--with money--small presses that support women writers you admire. Write literary criticism which helps to shape the literary conversation.  Become a critic --a close reader--with standards you can articulate and defend. Facilitate a book discussion. Teach a class. Create reading lists which include some of your favorite women writers. Give a lecture. Join an organization which supports women writers. Start an organization which articulates your literary point of view. Go to readings of women writers. Create your own reading series. Buy books from women writers. Write more poems, stories, essays, books of your own. Then write some more.

We must define the literary conversation on our own terms. Stop waiting for wholesale approval and admit the possibility that very likely we may never get it.

Be bold. 

And, most of all, don't give up.

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