About a year ago I got an email from Wag’s Revue breaking the news that I didn’t win their contest. I did what I always do when I get rejected: I forwarded the email to my female writer friends with the subject line, “More Evidence that My Life is a Butterscotch Toffee-Nut Latte with Chopped Toasted Almonds Spilled in the Dirt.” Next, I printed the rejection and tacked it to my burgeoning bulletin board to model for my students that writing and submitting in the face of absurdity is what a real writer does. Then I called my mother.
A few moments later an email announcing the winners hit my in-box. I thought, “Woo-hoo! They rejected me at the LAST MINUTE! I was a FINALIST!” I take encouragement wherever I can invent it.
I submitted to their contest because I enjoy Wag’s Revue, where “all the editorial and aesthetic controls . . . entice people to read and trust the finest printed media.” In a “manifesto” that made my English major’s heart go pit-a-pat, the editors deplored today’s endless gigabytes of space, where online “readers end up with entire cows’ asses on their plates, rather than the succulent, butterflied filets they were hoping for.” What’s a vegetarian not to love?
The winning butterflied filets were: poet Tom Daley, fiction writer Nathan Raine, and essayist J.P. Lawrence. I didn’t want to notice, but I did. They were all guys.
Maybe “J.P.” was a woman, you know, like J. K. Rowling. J.P.’s essay was entitled, “Sonnet to Summer Baseball,” but I know several women who write about baseball. Then I saw the editors called it “his essay;” I knew THEY consider J.P. a dude. That’s my point.
And my problem. I’ve been letting VIDA: Women in Literary Arts raise my awareness of gender inequality in publishing and in the broader media (just released–2013’s numbers). I’ve also stumbled upon essays like Stefanie Coen’s article in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Women Writers Still Take Men’s Names,” and Jason Bailey’s lament on Flavorwire, “Guess What: Hollywood’s ‘Bridesmaids’ Revolution Never Happened.” So you could say that now, I’ve got a cow chip on my shoulder.
Or maybe it’s an entire cow’s ass.
Trying to resist the under-estimated fuel of sour grapes, I opened the Wag’s Revue contributors’ page and, as of the date, (around May of last year), I culled the following hasty stats on the number of female names whose work the wags deemed filet-worthy: out of 178 contributors, 45 bore patently female names. Twenty-five percent. Lockstep, (or is it goose-step?), with VIDA’s 2012 national averages.
Surely there are sisters hiding behind initials, exotic names, and even Jeffs and Johns. But my point isn’t about what’s in a writer’s pants, it’s about what’s in a printed name.
Maybe Wag’s is that gang of snarky smart-alecks cackling in a graduate-student cubicle. Wag’s numbers might simply reflect the fact that only a quarter of their submissions come from women. Men naturally crowd around the barbecue, roasting entire cow’s asses in the cold, while women gather in the kitchen, where there’s a carafe of wine and breathable air. To each the publication statistics that fall to each.
As I stalked Wag’s website, looking for reasons that I didn’t want to be published there anyway, I noticed the persona of “The Editors” has a familiar frat-boy swagger. It prides itself on progressiveness; the voice lambastes “the bigoted asshole who blogs about us,” but then threatens him, “blogger, if you’re reading this, and we know you are: make another gay joke, and we will fuck your homophobic ass up.”
To me, nowadays, “hipness” is more about bursitis. I thought, “Hey, isn’t that the same kind of guy who fucked up homosexual asses not too long ago?” Same sensibility, different target, but this one knows what it’s doing, it’s ironically hip, in a safely superior Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope sort of way.
Not a spiteful person, I didn’t even pause to savor the meta-irony in the threat, “we will fuck your . . . ass.” I was being a lady and putting aside cow’s asses, homophobic asses, and today’s progressive assholes. I was moving on; I just wasn’t that into Wag. I was about to close Wag’s website and submit my work to female-friendly editors like the ones at Skirt! and Sundress, when I turned to Wag’s “From the Editor” and stumbled upon this ass:
Ben Frost’s artwork, the editors say, “is bold, confronting, and often controversial” with “blatant disrespect for the signifiers of our visual culture.” (Given 50 shades of she’s-asking-for-it, I’m not sure this image is blatantly disrespectful of our visual culture. Maybe it would be if we were Canadians.)
Looking at this image, I felt blatantly disrespected, even physically and sexually threatened, but then again, I tend to identify too heavily with cartoon women. I can remember, decades ago, being young myself and arguing that we need blatantly disrespectful (and violent) images of women to eradicate blatant disrespect for (and violence against) women. This image upsets me, especially in the context of the numbers VIDA is putting into my curly little gray-haired head.
Finally something in Wag’s settled me down. Ben Frost’s “Corn Muffin Mix” happens to lead an issue of eleven pieces, eight penned by WOMEN. This issue turns Wag’s Revue’s gender stats upside-down. Even a token issue is better than nothing. I wonder how the female contributors in that issue feel about the “controversial” image. Maybe they understand that while brother Wag might be a bully and a just-kidding!-homophobe-phobe, he throws his big arm around his little sisters. You can bet that if some asshole bent Wag’s sister over like this corn-muffin fucker, he would seriously fuck up his ass. Or at least write about it, angrily and ironically.
I love men. Some of my best husbands were men. So before Wag can come slap my muffin for misandry, let me say I never meant to bring up the first world problem of alleged gender bias in publication in the first place. The truth is I’ve been hating myself for noticing the overwhelming maleness of most tables of contents for over twenty-five years. I hate suspecting that the system was stacked against me the day my parents didn’t name me Gus. So even though I bet you think this song is about literary sexism, it isn’t. It’s about feeling trapped between suspecting the system’s stacked against me because I’m a woman, or that only a third of us women write as well as men (and I’m not one of them).
Last May, it turned out I needn’t have upset myself over the numbers in Wag’s. Others had already taken them to task for their “overwhelming maleness.” The managing editor responded most effectively to the criticism in a dramatic reverse Crying Game: she’s a woman. The accusation of male chauvinism made Sandra Allen, in her words, “totally defensive.” In the way of hip, smart, young women, she doused the whole tinderbox by summarizing a book, neo-feminist Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. In it, Moran assured Allen that “the ultimate goal of feminism” is the “freedom to be one of the boys.” That, Allen said, “thrills me.” Allen added that she’s a young, white, upper-middle-class woman who has not only received an elite education, but has so breezily achieved one-of-the-boys status that she hardly even noticed. And so the matter was laid to rest.
I drank an extra glass of zinfandel and dozed in front of Downton Abbey. One of the pleasures, or weaknesses, of turning fifty is that when too much hullabaloo bowls me over, I retreat to my own complacency. I chose not to think about the fact that the very issue of Wag’s that doubled the number of women, the one with a mock homophobe-phobic rant and the rape of the Corn-Muffin cow’s ass, actually followed Allen’s apologia for overwhelming literary maleness. Was it in response? Why did that worry me even more? I poured myself another little splash.
I imagined trying to explain myself to Allen (or can I call her Sandra now?). “Twenty-five years ago, when my name first landed in Publisher’s Weekly with the big boys’, I strode into the company of literary men. I’d earned my place. But it was exhausting to pretend I didn’t notice everybody whispering, ‘Maybe she’s born with it/ Maybe she slept with them.'”
The smart, lovable, and truly liberated editor of Wag’s Revue would roll her eyes at me. “All the better! Let them talk!” she might say. She’d tell me I worry too much. I am getting old. I just don’t “get it.” The “Corn Muffin” image is totally supposed to upset me, duh, and besides, when a female editor chooses it, it doesn’t undermine the regard of the women writers in that issue. On the contrary, it confronts sexism directly, without fear (like mine), and effectively disarms it. I’ll nod and say, “Does it? I see.”
Allen reassures us Wag’s Revue “is never going to consider a contributor’s gender above the quality of his or her writing or the originality of his or her vision.” Noting that the number of women in the thirteenth issue matched the number of men, she insists, it’s not “by design.” She shrugs, “Lucky number thirteen, I guess.” You don’t need testicles, just merit. And luck. And then you too can be one of the boys.
I know better than to ask, “If you’re one of the boys, how do you know you’re not an asshole?” I’m from a bygone era, probably as out of touch with today’s literary gender dynamics as Shutter Babe author Deborah Copaken Kogan, who bellyached in The Nation, April 2013, and took shit for it, “Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.” Kogan has earned a bold and successful career, and I admire her for speaking my fears for me. I can’t afford to do it right now. At least not until my next book is out.
I have to confess, I’ve had my one-of-the-boys moments, (had a few last weekend at AWP, more like one-of-the-grandpas). It thrills me too. But for me, time feeling thrilled to be one of the good old boys is laced with Pleasure Island dread. The word “boy” might give you jackass ears. The word “thrill” might make you bray. Do the boys feel as thrilled as we do to join them? Or is their thrill in my company something different? Why am I thrilled? Why do I want to pass for one of them?
Orli Van Mourik in “Publishing and Prejudice: 5 Female Writers Weigh in on Sexism in the Literary World” worries too: “The Tin House findings suggest that women writers and women in the industry may be complicit in devaluing the work of female writers.” Susan Jane Gilman, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done, writes of a dangerous and pervasive cultural assumption that “because women are now ‘equal’ and the battle is over and won, we are now free to embrace things we used to see as sexist, including hypergirliness.”
But somehow, like us, they do learn along the way. Ever since Wag’s got called out on its “overwhelming maleness,” the luck has been better for women there. But let’s call it coincidence. Lucky issue fifteen.
Maybe it would better if I dropped my subscription to VIDA. It’s not healthy to dwell on sour grapes long enough to pour them into the carafe of an essay to breathe. I’ll leave troubling questions to braver women like Cheryl Strayed, who wrote, “When I look at [VIDA’s] numbers, I have to ask: What careers stalled because gender bias plays a role in preventing a writers’ work from reaching a national audience? What price do women writers pay in financial terms and cultural esteem?”
Besides, who even listens to a voice like this? “I am a young, female writer hoping to break into the genre of nonfiction. Numbers like these make me feel foolish, and then I wonder how many other young women picked up these compilations, literary magazines and periodicals and felt the same way. How many of them stopped writing because of it?”
What should we say to her?