Lynn Melnick is the social media and outreach director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. We were connected in a group for women writers online; I had some questions about women in the literary scene and was, of course, immediately directed to VIDA. Lynn was kind enough to answer a few questions about the current landscape, the VIDA Count, and more. Here's the interview!
ROSEMARY: Okay. Let’s start with the basics. How did VIDA first start, and what is the VIDA count?
LYNN: When VIDA co-founder Cate Marvin’s AWP panel proposal was rejected in 2009, she sent an angry letter to several people concerning the possible sexism behind the rejection. When Erin Belieu received the letter, she forwarded it even more widely, and VIDA was born.
The VIDA Count was first imagined in 2009 when it was noticed that there were no female authors in Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year; the first VIDA Count took place in 2010 and confirmed what many of us had suspected about the seriousness of the gender imbalance problem in the literary world. The VIDA Count literally counts how many men vs. women are published and reviewed in certain literary magazines and book reviews.
RD: What is your response when people say that unequal publishing numbers reflect talent or work ethic?
LM: There are definitely people that do say that — but they tend to be the outright, old-fashioned misogynists who think women are just inferior in most ways. Far more common and insidious are the people who say the unequal numbers are because women don’t submit as frequently or because editors are reading anonymously and just choosing the best of what they read. Danielle Pafunda takes both fallacies down quite handily here. But it drives me no end of bothered, the latent sexism of the so-called progressive lit scene.
Related to that, one thing to keep in mind when people suggest that women don’t submit as frequently as men is that many of these big journals, like the ones we VIDA Count, don’t even accept submissions from the slush pile — it’s all, or almost all, done by soliciting writers directly, usually from a set stable of well-established authors, making it completely dependent on the knowledge pool of individual editors.
RD: Lumen (and other journals) aim to fix this inequity by publishing work solely by women-identified individuals, but as Erin Belieu said in this Mother Jones piece, “there’s no such thing as separate but equal.” Do you think that these women-only platforms help or hurt the push for equality?
LM: I think probably both and neither. It’s true that there is probably no replacement for the “career-making” platform of magazines like The New Yorker. A story there might likely land you an agent; whereas it’s less likely that agents are reading the smaller, women-only journals. Similarly, a review in the New York Times Book Review might take your career to another level; a review in the Women’s Review of Books might help your career (and be an absolute honor), but not in the same way in terms of book sales. That said, as we work toward a level playing field and until there is one, I see the deep good that comes with platforms for more female voices, and with opportunities specifically for more female writers to win grants and residencies.
It’s also worth noting that for years, many of the mainstream publications were pretty much all male (some still are!) and people didn’t seem so concerned about that!
RD: Are nonbinary or trans writers included in the count?
LM: Yes! We started to include nonbinary and trans writers in the VIDA Count beginning in 2013. For our 2015 VIDA Count we plan to include breakdowns for race, disability and LGBTQ. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of VIDA as we expand the VIDA Count with a much-needed intersectional approach.
RD: I first became interested in the subject of gender and racial inequality when, in one quarter at school, I took two elective courses titled simply African American Literature and Women Writers, and another required course devoted entirely to Shakespeare. Who are some favorite women writers that you might suggest become required college reading?
LM: So, I didn’t finish high school and, although I did return to community college and eventually beyond, I never really received the standard classic core education that maybe other people did. I kind of made my own — and much of it I made by going to the amazing (and very missed) Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles and just sitting there and reading. I read so much by Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and etc. So when I got to New York for grad school I felt completely unschooled on the white male canon that the other students seemed to know very well and I felt so outclassed and embarrassed by my “untraditional” education. But, of course, I know now that the books I was reading should have been required for everyone!
RD: How has the landscape changed since VIDA began, and what do you think the future looks like for women in publishing?
LM: I think in the beginning people either wanted to dismiss VIDA’s work or they took a kind of defeated attitude that nothing was ever going to change. I think because of a new awareness of the issues, and because we have demonstrated that with that awareness comes change, however slow, I think there is a new hopefulness and the future looks quite good! As we’ve noted in our latest VIDA Count Introductions, many editors and publishers are beginning to be aware and feel accountable, publicly so, so this is a very encouraging sign!
There’s so much work left to be done though, and we can never let our guard down in a world so steeped in patriarchy and other oppressions.
LYNN MELNICK is the social media and outreach director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She is author of If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012) and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). She also teaches at 92Y in NYC .