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Sexism in Literary Editing and Publishing

Sexism in Literary Editing and Publishing

Lost Coast Review Editorial Staff



Each year since 2010, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has conducted the “VIDA Count,” which assesses “thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.” In 2014, as in previous years, the “count” revealed a field dominated by men. This finding unleashed a storm of controversy in social media, either affirming the validity of the count as “meaningful” or castigating it as trivial and “meaningless.” As observers of this controversy, we at Lost Coast Review asked ourselves about our own gender biases, a question that raised a more basic question as to how to assess if such a bias existed. We asked each of our editors to take a stab at identifying how to determine if sexism exists in a literary magazine or publisher’s actions. Here are four of our staff’s answers:



Casey Dorman—Editor in Chief: Male

There is gender bias in literary editing and publication if the percentage of one gender in either field is disproportionate to the percentage in the population of those who are eligible to enter that field. In the U.S., those possessing entry qualifications, at least in terms of education, are, in fact, disproportionately women, both in terms of college degrees and specifically degrees in English or journalism. Thus any lack of female representation in literary magazine editing or publication rates represents a bias operating within the profession itself. The 2014 VIDA results substantiate that there is a lack of female representation. Some will argue that just looking at employment or publication numbers is not a fair assessment of gender bias, since it is only a surface indicator and does not necessarily reflect such things as attitudes, but it certainly reflects job opportunities and earning power, so I believe it is a fair metric, though not the only one.  Still relying upon numbers, a brief look at the most prized literary awards, such as the National Book Award, reveals a similar disproportion. Since its inception in 1950, the National Book Award for fiction has been awarded to only 16 women and 9 of those have been in the last 20 years. The NBA for poetry has fared no better. There have been only 14 women winners since 1950, and half of those have been in the last twenty years. Things have gotten better in the last 20 years, but the disproportion still exists. I will leave it to others to suggest an explanation for these facts.


Jasmine Romero—Intern: Female

Sexism in the publishing industry is apparent in the way editors judge content and genre based on an author’s gender. Female authors still feel the need to abbreviate their own name to appear more gender neutral, so that more people will pick their book off a shelf without making assumptions about the content. There is also the related issue of a woman’s Science Fiction or Fantasy novel being categorized as a Romance, rather than the futuristic adventure that it is, simply because it contains a love story within the plot. However, the real issue is that because a woman’s story contains romance or sex, regardless of the rest of the plot, it is often regarded as trash that is ruining the genre for the “good” male writers. Yet, there are Science Fiction and Fantasy stories written by men that include sex, rape, and treat women as objects, that aren’t being discussed in a negative light—at least not enough to invoke large scale change. The publishing industry is still a boy’s club. Rather than focusing on content and the diversity of the characters—the important pieces of a good story - editors make an author’s gender a determining factor in whether a story is worthy of being printed. This might be one of the reasons women are currently top-ranking in the self-publishing industry. No one is telling them they aren’t good enough, and people are buying their books for the content. It’s not about who they know, but what they can write—which is what publishing should be about in the first place. 


Diane Rogers—Short Story Editor: Female

When there’s an elephant in the room, asking “how big” is a rather pointless exercise. Emphasizing the size of the problem shifts the significance of inquiry away from the more important discussion, namely the impact and risks imposed by the elephant’s presence. 

As literary editors, our job is to steer clear of reductionistic debate involving the quantification of bias. We serve readers best by engaging in an honest exploration of the effect of gender bias on society and our role in it. Such a conversation begins by shamelessly opening our editorial kimonos to expose the soft underbelly of our individual literary preferences. Revealing the grounds on which we make our literary selection means getting up close and personal with the narratives that shape our thinking. 

Bias is defined as the systematic preference of one group at the exclusion of another. In literature, this translates to the prejudicial selection of singular style or voice. In her groundbreaking TED Talk, Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that limiting perspectives in literature leads to “critical misunderstanding” of gender and culture. 

Although some studies on gender bias suggest that male characters outnumber female characters more than two to one, it is the impact of gender portrayal that has social scientists most concerned. Peterson and Loch (1990) suggest that social attitudes are shaped by literature. Beginning in childhood, reading has been shown to influence self-concept as well as perceptions of gender roles. As attitudes are guided by what people read, editors have a duty to expand the chorus of voices to include a broader range of perspectives and gender depictions in literature. 

The editorial journey away from gender bias involves three steps. It begins by evaluating our selection criteria. Do the stories and poetry we choose reflect a variety of perspectives? Are gender portrayals stereotypical? Have we dared to venture outside the dominant narrative? The second editorial responsibility is to ensure that we explore a chorus of social and cultural themes and narrative voices. Offering a variety of material fulfills a third editorial function, education. The world is diverse and literature has a role in educating the public through contrasting viewpoints.

The elephant never goes away on its own. Neither will gender bias. Removing bias (and elephants) is best handled by exposing its presence, exploring its impact and educating ourselves on how to coax it out from the public domain.


Hadley Hury—Film Review Editor: Male

The more I’ve thought about this question the more challenging becomes the effort to make useful comment. I agree with an observation by novelist Cheryl Strayed in “Bookends”, Book Review section, May 17 issue, The New York Times: “I don’t think there’s a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down. I think we live in a patriarchy , which means that everything we observe, desire, and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men.” So it does not surprise me that some research now suggests that the majority of literary review editors and contributors are male. If this majority of male editors and contributors is reliably verified by more than one or two studies with valid research methods—assessing all U.S. literary reviews and journals longitudinally over an appropriate time—then the question has an answer. The number is irrefutably what the number is and, in the most quantifiable and probably most unarguable sense, one need look no further for an answer: it’s a physical tally of male or female bodies holding “x” number of slots as editors or contributors.  That said, the question seems loaded with other interesting and more-difficult-to-assess questions. For instance, since much progressive thinking is agreed that feminine/masculine intellectual, psychological, and emotional traits, interests, talents, and propensities do not exist exclusively within physical gender but along a highly fluid continuum, can “sexist bias” be proved conclusively by a body count? What do I make of the factor that, in surveying my reading (in all genres with the possible exception of drama) over the past few years—and, I’m fairly certain, throughout six decades of a reading life—there is an observable bias toward female writers that I might estimate to be as high as two-thirds to one? Or that many male readers, on surveying the most memorable and influential fictional characters in their lives, may find more women than men? Or that in my own personal professional experience I have more often worked with, and been influenced by, female leaders rather than male? Having considered myself a stalwart male feminist, or “liberated male”, for many, many years, I am not trying to dodge the fundamental issue of numbers in this question any more than I would the incontrovertible fact that American women continue to earn on average only 78% of their male counterparts. What I am is hopeful that in assessing possible male bias in the world of literary magazines one can reasonably suggest that any conversation be rich enough to include other aspects of the question that may fit less easily into an empirical matrix.





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Reader Comments (4)

Generally speaking, I look for poetry that does well with what it intends to be. I avoid all forms of rhythmic rhymes and look for poets who demonstrate some knowledge of poetic devices beyond rhyme and meter. The poet's gender does not enter the picture. That is, until I consciously make an effort to deal with international poets - the main thrust of POETRYREPAIRS.
Internationally, women poets of all abilities face greater access challenges than do men. Aza El WaKeel writes often about the Egyptian bias against women writers and likewise, many eastern/oriental areas seem to produce fewer submissions from females. I am sure culture plays a role in that bias long before editing or publishing enters the picture.
So the validity of the bias argument must rest on Western journals where such bias, one would hope, has been pushed out of the nest.
As a poet I am often at odds when I see many contests exclusively for minority writers and women. And a cetain degree of agism (the desire for first books particularly) seems to dominate the publishing contest markets. No publisher today would dare have a contest for Western European males only; yet the effect of winning seems to speak volumes. Does the contest for women writers skew the results of publication bias?
I also note that many of the women writers I publish have Central or Eastern heritage...I argue that is primarily the result of having a novel perspective on things. But I admit to a certain ethnic bias. You just don't find many writers male or female in the mainstream Anglo press (albeit a strange love of a Solzhenitzen or Dostoyevsky seems prevalent). Generally speaking I find that if an editor can't pronounce a name the submission gets trashed. An aside is that many of my poems accepted have been by editors who change my name (usually to Howard or Howarth) thus making the work acceptable?
Let me sum it up this way. Culture bias outweighs sexual bias; that's just how fifty years as a poet/editor feels. Many magazines simply publish those who make the grade via book publishing, few risk the chance of an unknown who writes well. What results in America is an Anglocentric bias that may or may not include gender bias because the Anglocentric culture is so partriarchal. And many academic journals have long published other male academics.
Yes, there's bias. But it comes in many flavors. And all for the wrong reasons.

July 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Horvath Jr, ed

Thanks John: Your comments add some new dimensions to the topic and insights from another perspective.
Casey Dorman, editor

July 17, 2015 | Registered CommenterCasey Dorman

Four of my six books were published by women publishers or editors-in-chief. Unbeknownst to me, my husband published my detective novel privately, after it had been circulated by two agents and met with resistance because it's a feminist detective novel (this was in the late 1980s). Casey is thus my only legitimate male publisher:). But I've had stories, essays, and poems published in literary magazines edited by men. Is there no gender bias? My 39 years in university teaching have led me to conclude that the bias is so deep and subtle that even women succumb to it. Is it the only bias? Definitely not. A foreign name, like mine, subjects one to greater scrutiny because of the suspicion that a foreigner cannot possibly master the language. Certain subjects and styles lead to resistance and rejection on the basis of biases having to do with class, race, ethnicity, and so on. Our aesthetic standards, after all, are governed by patriarchal "high" culture, and that has not become more "feminine." Jasmine's comment about genre is on target: romance novels are devalued even within genre fiction. We're human, all too human, and the best we can do is be aware of biases and try to work against them. I find the biases less pernicious and less pervasive in creative publishing than I do in such matters as employment, scientific research, child adoption, etc. Not, again, that we want to pretend all is well. That we're having this discussion shows me we're moving in the right direction. Perhaps slowly, but moving.

July 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Interesting comment, Anca. I think you and John both have observed that there are other biases, such as against writers with foreign-sounding names and these may add to biases against gender. I'm glad that I can alter your statistics by being a male publisher who has published your work (and thanks, this may be the first time anyone has called me a "legitimate" publisher in print). And I think you are right that gender biases against women are more prominent in many other areas of society. That so many women major in English (2:1 vs males) suggests that they see this field as more open to them than some others.
Casey Dorman

July 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterCasey Dorman

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