Thursday Apr 26

HopenthalerYear5 Some of the brave women who founded VIDA in 2009 were already friends of mine when I learned of their project, but I would have been an advocate of the organization’s goals and methods in any case. Its mission, “to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” is straightforward enough, and the notion that women are treated unfairly in the pages of literary journals and elsewhere is no secret among those who’ve cared to look into it.   But, goodness, the organization brought the issue to the forefront and into the pages of dozens of publications, and many editors, in the United States and around the world, felt put on the defensive, as well they should have been.

The evidence is clear and compelling. For example, as Scott McLemee points out in a piece published in Inside Higher Ed, “Not every journal that VIDA counts has been selecting authors and reviewers at a rate of two men to each woman. Notable exceptions are The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, and the Times Literary Supplement – among the publications with perhaps the greatest role in determining which books and authors are credited as serious or important. In their case, men outnumber women, as authors or reviewers, by roughly three to one.”

It will be easy enough for you to surf the nest and find all you need to know about VIDA, ‘The Count,” and the controversy, so I’ll leave that part up to you. But, as so many of us who are writers prepare to attend creative writing’s largest annual event, the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s Annual Conference, I feel like it’s a good time to recall the righteous work of VIDA.

A few months after I heard about VIDA, I decided it was important for me, as an editor and male writer, to put my best foot forward. I approached two VIDA founders, Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, and asked if they would assemble a guest-edited Congeries of young women writers. You can visit that Congeries here. In support of their efforts, the Congeries I assembled for the month was also solely comprised of women, including the late Maxine Kumin, her fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Claudia Emerson, Alicia Ostriker and a good number more.

In total, not counting translators (only those translated), the 2013 Count for A Poetry Congeries is 53 women and 45 men. I support VIDA and its goals, and so should you. Find out more. Here’s a link to VIDA.

I’ll leave you with this exchange I had with the wonderful young poet, Keetje Kuipers, during an interview for her feature in A Poetry Congeries. These issues go well beyond publication and reviewing, they go to the core of our culture, of what it means to be an artist and how we choose to treat one another in our time. Don’t worry; she got the job, and the baby!

We’re Facebook friends.  Recently I read a posting you made in response to Cate Marvin’s essay on the VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) site that discusses her experience as the Writer-in-Residency at the James Merrill House. Cate’s essay speaks to the discomfort and fear the committee seems to have felt at the thought of Cate, a single mother by choice, arriving with her new baby, Lucia, in tow.  You wrote to Cate that the piece “spoke to me very clearly about the struggles of my friends, as well as my own fears about becoming a writer/mother.”  Might you speak to that a bit more specifically?  I’d like to be able to say that—at least when it comes to the literary community—such stories are shocking, but of course that’s not true.

Honestly, it feels a bit dangerous for me to speak to it more directly.  I’m in the process of applying for academic jobs, and while I understand that any potential plans I might have to eventually become a mother can’t be held against me during the application process, it’s unlikely that those plans would be looked on favorably by my colleagues if I were to declare them outright.  These are hypothetical plans, of course.  They don’t really exist.  However, I have been witness to just the sorts of situations that Cate described in her essay: I have a friend who was told by the faculty that she never would have been accepted to her MFA program if they’d known she planned to have a baby during the course of her studies (she completed all her course work and thesis with flying colors, and graduated on time).  Another friend was repeatedly denied fellowships and grants by her academic institution, though she was the most qualified applicant—the faculty were concerned that, as a mother, she wouldn’t have the time and energy to put those funds to good use.  Of course, there are many places within the academy that treat mothers wonderfully.  I’ve seen the Stegner Program at Stanford be very supportive of fellows and lecturers with young children—and because of their support, those mothers have continued to be productive writers, doing bold, exciting work.  But my feeling of wariness persists.  A few years ago I became dear friends with a group of women writers and artists at the Vermont Studio Center, all different ages, some with children, some without.  We spent many hours discussing whether motherhood and art are compatible.  Now, if we weren’t so afraid of a lack of support—not to mention outright shunning and roadblocking on the part of our colleagues—would we really have been having that discussion?  It seems doubtful.