Ceiling or Sky? On Politics, Art, and Gender

September 18, 2012 § 4 Comments


A new Brevity issue is up as of this morning, and one of the guest editors, Susanne Antonetta, offers an inside look at the editorial process:

I wanted to write this blog about how we approached this special issue of Brevity– to discuss how we assumed the mantle of editing a gendered-women issue in light of the dismal numbers for women in literary publishing unearthed by VIDA in its annual count. Then I realized interviewing my fellow editors about the question of how we approached editing with an articulated cultural-political goal would be a lot more interesting than trying to speak for everyone—their responses to this general question below! We editors will pursue this subject further in a panel on politics in editing at the next AWP conference in Boston.

I also wanted to give a shout-out to my fellow editors—Joy Castro, and Barrie Jean Borich, amazing women whose feedback and editorial opinions I learned to cherish. We three owe an enormous thanks to our remarkably hardworking and totally smart and talented assistant editors, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Nuria Sheehan and Kate Ver  Ploeg. All have publications (in Puerto del Sol for Sarah Fawn, Sweet for Nuria, Cold Mountain for Kate (to name a few) and you will be hearing a lot more about these women in the future, trust me.

Herewith, responses to the question of how it was to collate an issue of a literary journal in light of the actual numbers of how women are represented in publishing:

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Working on a women’s issue of Brevity meant, first of all, examining my feelings on what it means to be a woman, thinking about the ways traditional definitions of “woman” have limited and excluded, and exploring the ways women in publishing and the arts are represented.  While women are certainly underrepresented in literary publishing, what is perhaps more revealing are the ways women’s published writing is relegated to certain themes and issues, certain forms and styles.

Reading for “Ceiling or Sky? Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count” thus became a chance to extend the possibilities for women in publishing, to resist familiar forms and focuses of femininity and seek out—or perhaps welcome what was always there, buried in the submission pile—women’s writing that has gone unnoticed or unacknowledged.  Women writers in this issue are not simply writing about what it means to be woman or challenging our understanding of women, they are writing in forms that are innovative and exciting to the genre itself, challenging the role, responsibility, and possibility of literary writing and publishing.

Nuria Sheehan: This project can best be described as rigorously inclusive. In reading submissions, we all worked hard to question our points of view– to examine ways in which our biases toward or against certain subjects or aesthetics may have been influenced by a male-dominated publishing landscape. And this commitment to self-examination made the editorial process deeply collaborative, giving us a shared language and purpose as we discussed any differences and disagreements.

Kate Ver Ploeg: I´d say I started out feeling uncertain about the line between politics and art, and I worried I might value demographics over craft, but eventually I realized that when it came down to it, I always prioritized literary craft. I didn´t need to worry because there were plenty of accomplished and diverse submissions.  Throughout the process I looked for and was drawn to essays that represented a way of life or being or perspective that was unfamiliar to me, a more affluent (approaching) middle-aged white woman. For example, the essay about bats [Thao Thai’s “Counting Bats”], or the one about life on the reservation [Deborah Jackson-Taffa’s  “My Cousin’s Backyard”], appealed to me because I felt like I could briefly see the world through eyes very different from my own.

I found that many, many submissions dealt with themes of abuse and harassment and rape.  This was very difficult for me as an editor. I felt like these stories needed a public outlet because they exist and they are not heard, yet choosing among them was difficult.  I think the choice always came down to craft, but sometimes it felt difficult to pass judgment on such painful material and I don´t think I’ve reached a clear or comfortable position on that.

Joy Castro: Having always been personally bothered by the ratio of male to female authors in respected literary venues, I found it bracing and clarifying when the VIDA numbers came out.  Having the opportunity to respond by co-editing a special issue of Brevity was an honor (and a new experience for me, since I hadn’t done journal editing before).  In choosing pieces, I looked first at quality of work and vividness of voice.  From the final pool, I searched for approaches and subject matter that receive less literary airplay, perhaps due to gendered qualities, than more familiar topics and visions.  I think the final issue is really beautiful, and the process taught me a lot.

Barrie Jean Borich: Has the Brevity editorial experience been any different than how I usually work? In many ways I have to say no, because I always work with cultural politics in mind. This is not necessarily a choice, but rather just a response to the realities of my life as a writer and editor. When I submit to journals the content of my work may not be a problem on the editor’s side of the table, but lesbian work is still enough out of the norm that I can’t help but wonder—will the journal feel they’ve already published enough queer work this year, or will my work come across as too queer, or the wrong “kind” of queer, or not queer enough?  What do editors really mean when they tell me they like my work but they’ve already published too much of this type or on this subject?  As an editor I’m always hyper-conscious of these fears, and so tend to go out of my way to make sure work that in any way illuminates queer bodies and lives is central to my editorial vision—not the whole thing, but a substantive part of the whole. To that end, the Brevity process was not different except in the general milieu. We never felt the need to stop and argue such points, or wonder if such was a fair or proper way to choose work to publish. Such was the joy of this project—that all my sensibilities as a woman, a lesbian, and nonfiction writer were unabashedly in the foreground.

Susanne:  The VIDA count (go to http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2011-count for the 2011 numbers) confirmed something most of us women in the literary arts knew from casual counting, scrambling to get our books reviewed and the like: the rate of publication and review of women’s work is vastly sub par, though women write as much or more than their male counterparts.  I think we all wrestled with the question of how this frame affected our readings of submissions. We wanted craft, formal interest, strong writing, but we also did a cyber-happy dance when those elements united with stories we had not seen before. Which, lucky for us and thank you, gifted contributors, they frequently did.

And finally, I have a word from our sponsor . . .

Dinty W. Moore: I am struck by the quality and range of the essays chosen.  Surprising to me was the mix of writers with whom I was already quite familiar — Sue William Silverman, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Brenda Miller for instance — with new names and new voices.  The issue has a great energy and we are honored to play a role in it.

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