Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's make some gender graphs, y'bastards:

The internet is a'simmering over today's pie graph breakdown of women in publishing over at VIDA. And when I say, "the internet," I mean the many literary blogs I keep compulsively adding to my reader and writers I follow on Twitter, thus giving me one more excuse to procrastinate reading actual books or doing more writing of my own.

The point worth making (and I have) is that graphs like these can be misleading. While of course gender disparity exists in publishing, the amount of women published in these handful of publications are not also featured alongside the number of women who submit. So it's difficult to come away from their graphs with any real sense of what the numbers mean, other than we should be somewhat irritated by them.

To be honest, I get irritated by the discussion in general -- Editors are supposed to give my writing extra consideration because I have ovaries and they have a balance quota to meet? No thank you. Either tell me it's great, or tell me it sucks, or that it's "not right at this time," but for Christ's sake, do it on the work's own merits.

This is a somewhat naive and arrogant view to take, I realize. Writers are quite good at that confusing jumble of arrogance and doubt, as I'm sure you've noticed.

However, I'm not just a writer -- I am a reader and I am the publisher/editor of Electric City Creative. For 14 issues, my husband and I co-edited Spoken Spokane.

I haven't run all the numbers on ECC, but just a quick glance shows that Issue #3 skewed more female in arts coverage, and Issue #2 skewed more male. Working as a staff of 2 at the moment, I don't feel the need to make a tally of genders each time I publish an issue. My decisions on coverage are made by what is happening during that time frame, and also who I can wrangle into answering a few questions.

Spoken Spokane had more contributors. Off the top of my head, it feels fairly balanced. Some issues, Tyson wrote/shot more, some issues, I did. We had both male and female writers and photographers contribute -- Faythe Saxton, Shadra Beesley, Michael McMullen (who now edits the magazine) and Lloyd Phillips, to name a few. If you really wanted to do an artist and contributor breakdown, here's the list for the issues we edited. Knock yourself out.

Still, the VIDA graphs are not overall creative culture breakdowns, but rather have to do with book reviews and reviewers. Being one of those reviewers, I decided make my own graphs.

"Both Genders" I mean either books that had more than one author of different genders, or they were edited compilations that may have had a singular editor, but the gender of the writers providing the content varied.

Now then, what about review copies? I went through a lot of those in the past year. Review copies were almost all recently-published books, with the exception of two Graywolf titles (Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky and Readings by Sven Birkerts). I requested these myself, but I didn't spend money or go to the library for them, so they are included on this graph:

And what about those purchases or library visits?

"My gosh," some overly-riled people might say, "look at how she favors male writers! How very dare she ignore her own gender?"

Get off your high horse, lady.

(Can you tell when I started reviewing books and making an effort to read more?)

Here's the thing: I want a good story. Good writing. The rest? Call me what you will, but seems like the only time I start feeling the need to make tallies on gender is when people get up in arms over half-formed statistics. I don't have all the answers -- spoiler: neither do most people -- but I can account for some of the reasons behind my own reading habits.

1. Sometimes it is location/time relevant.

I lived in Spokane for 7 years, and yet it took me five to read anything from Jess Walter, who lives there. Once I did, I loved it, and so I read two more books from him. Sherman Alexie? Spokane Indian. He was doing a reading with Jess Walter one afternoon, and so I made sure to read War Dances.

Richard Russo and Kevin Sampsell were both coming to the Get Lit! festival in Spokane last year, so I made sure to move them up in the To-Read Queue beforehand.

2. I'm a hopeless completist.

I do the same thing with music and with clothes -- I find something I really like and I want all of it. That sweater, all the colors. That band? Bring on the back catalog and import singles. So like I did with Jess Walter, I have also started to do with Patricia Highsmith, Steve Almond, Tessa Hadley, Stephen Elliot. I will read anything Michael Chabon or Nick Hornby puts out. Same with Sarah Vowell. If I like someone's writing, it doesn't have much to do with the equipment they're packing between their legs.

I don't know if this has anything to do with being an equal opportunity ogler as well, but perhaps it's worth noting.

3. I'm a contrarian pain in the ass when I want to be.

And sometimes, I think I'm better off that way. It's not that I'm someone who wants to be the first know of something, or even be one of the few who know something "under-appreciated" -- It's that I tend to bristle whenever I'm put in the corner of "Should" or "Supposed to."

So maybe I'm "supposed to" pay attention to the genders of people, even though we're all "supposed to" be equals in this world.

Maybe I "should" make a greater effort to feature female writers, even though I don't want to ignore books I'd really like to read because it sounds like a damn good story.

Maybe I shouldn't expend this amount of energy on a post that is seemingly congratulatory of my Universe of Me.

But do you know what I want to do? I'm going to go ahead and own my interests. I promote the hell out of the things I like because I find value in them and think others will too. All those RTs, link-shares and "Dude, I read this thing...?" Anyone who pays any attention to all the yammering I do online knows this, and if there's any solution to big problems when it comes to attention paid to other genders, races and sexuality, it's this:

Be who you are, make stuff, enjoy stuff, then tell people about it. Make a goddamn effort.

There's nothing wrong with being white and male any more than there's anything wrong with being Japanese and transgendered. Own your voice. You are the only you, after all. Our experiences and tastes are at once unique and universal. Small changes seem like nothing at first, until they aren't small anymore. Optimism isn't out of line here -- complaining without action is, if indeed this is a serious issue for you.

I wholeheartedly support taking those task who ignore parts of our population. If there is clear discrimination in an organization, then yes, we should pipe up and fight it. But to slap up pie graphs without accompanying information is doing a disservice of its own.

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