On Gender and Genre: The Nonfiction Count

February 22, 2011 § 6 Comments


Our friend, the essayist William Bradley, commented last week on our VIDA count, and we were so intrigued by his theory on gender parity and genre that we asked him to expand and blog it.  So, here it is:

When VIDA released “The Count” earlier this month, I doubt too many of us were all that surprised.  Deep down, I think most of us—men and women alike—knew that women were still underrepresented in literary magazines.  As artists (and patrons of the arts), I think we sometimes like to pretend that the injustices and prejudices found in our culture don’t really relate to our little community—that we’re somehow above or beyond such ugliness.  But if you’re like me, that type of self-delusion can only take you so far, so that when something like “The Count” is revealed, it causes you to shake your head, sigh, swear, and insist to everyone in your circle of Facebook friends that “things have to change.”  But it doesn’t take you by surprise.

I do have to say that, as a writer and reader of nonfiction, I’ve been kind of gratified to see that my favorite sources for memoirs and personal essays seem to be doing better than some other magazines in terms of publishing talented women writers.  Brevity, as we all know, publishes slightly more women than men, on average.  And, according to their online newsletter for the month of February, Creative Nonfiction published in 2010, on average, an equal number of  men and women.  The most recent issue of River Teeth I found in my house had more men than women in it, but the spring 2010 issue of Fourth Genre had significantly more women than men.

Okay, those last two figures probably aren’t as significant as the first two, as they come from a quick glance at magazines I found in the magazine rack in my living room.  Still, it would seem that these magazines that specialize in nonfiction are, on average, publishing more women than other, comparable literary magazines.

Why is that, I wonder?

Well… I have some thoughts.

I don’t want to bad-mouth other genres, but I feel like a lot of my friends who write poetry and fiction will frequently confuse their own preferred aesthetic with “good writing, period.” I don’t get that same sense from nonfiction, which seems to embrace a variety of approaches (you’d never confuse an Ander Monson essay with a Lauren Slater memoir, or a Lauren Slater memoir with Joan Didion’s reportage). That’s not to say that there aren’t talented people doing bold things in other genres, but I wonder if they have more trouble getting editors and readers to appreciate their unique visions (as opposed to in nonfiction, where the new, the genre-bending, or the form-breaking is almost certain to be celebrated by somebody). All that is to say, I wonder if the lack of preconceived notions about what nonfiction is and what makes it good somehow spares it from the unintentional institutional sexism that might pervade other genres…?

I could be wrong about this, but it seemed like something that might be worth considering.  I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

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§ 6 Responses to On Gender and Genre: The Nonfiction Count

  • Eve says:

    I love experimental writing that doesn’t fit any preconceived categories and that must be why I have so many rejection letters. Interesting insight.

  • Marissa says:

    Since I saw the CNF and Brevity figures, I’ve been considering the same things. My thoughts were similar to Mr. Bradley’s, in that perhaps fiction and poetry are more “established” genres with a more canon-like approach to good or successful literary writing. But I also wonder if there’s a sociological explanation. Women tend to be brought up in a world that allows them to express “feelings”, while men are usually subtly instructed to mask these emotional responses to the world. Perhaps fiction is yet another means of protecting the male from society’s accusations of being too wussy?

  • Jane Churchon says:

    I agree with Marissa that our views of nonfiction are colored by our views of gendered response to events, that traditionally feminine analysis might be particularly well-suited to creative nonfiction.

    But I wonder about the premise of the argument. It’s not that I want to quibble with the two magazines that Bradley surveyed; he allows that the statistical sample might not create enough of a bell curve for sledding.

    Rather, I have to wonder what the ledger shows for non-fiction in the VIDA-counted magazines. It’s well known among the female nonfiction writers I know–and there are a lot of us–that we’re not likely to be published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. In fact, our odds are better for fiction in those magazines, I think.

    I read The New Yorker pretty faithfully and would venture to say that their consciousness regarding “different-sourced” fiction writers is much more pronounced than their consciousness regarding nonfiction writers. David Sedaris, Jonathan Frazen, Shalom Auslander, Atul Gawande–men, every one of them—have been some of the biggest nonfiction contributors to the magazine in the last few years. In fact, I can’t think of a woman that’s been given the honor of being a regular New Yorker contributor of nonfiction recently. My very informal survey–even more informal than Mr. Bradley’s, as it involves my spongy memory, rather than a coffee table–tells me that the proportion of nonfiction written by women in most Vida-count magazines actually depresses the total of the work (both fiction and nonfiction) written by women, rather than elevating the average.

    No matter what, it’s depressing. I can only hope that there are some editors squirming a little right now, and that they’re considering how to change their magazine’s statistics. Maybe Dinty can help them out. Or, more appropriately, maybe Dinty can ask a woman if she’d be willing to give them some pointers.

  • Bradley says:

    I didn’t mean to start a conversation and then just abandon it, but I had a stack of 60 freshman composition papers that absolutely needed to be graded this week, and that pretty much ate up all of my time.

    All this is to say that I totally agree with Ms. Churchon’s assessment of the situation for women nonfiction writers at the VIDA-studied magazines: it’s absolutely abysmal. I haven’t studied the matter any more than she has, but my intuition (as reliable as THAT is) tells me that she’s write on all counts (although I think, maybe, Nora Ephron might be the one woman who publishes nonfiction with some regularity in THE NEW YORKER; having said that, I wouldn’t want to guess how regularly, or even how recently she has published; nothing springs immediately to mind…)

    Still. That’s not very encouraging.

    I also hope that these recent revelations have “some editors squirming a little right now.” It’s not just my commitment to feminism (although that’s a part of it), but I’ve also felt quite strongly in recent years that the best nonfiction to be found these days isn’t in those glossy, major market magazines (although the occasional Adam Gopnick or Tom Bissell essay still captures my attention)– it’s in the magazines that focus exclusively on this form and its possibilities. It seems to me that the nonfiction editors at these magazines could follow the leads of Dinty Moore and Lee Gutkind/ Hattie Fletcher by publishing nonfiction that’s… well… more interesting, in terms of both form and subject matter. My suspicion is that if these editors would open their minds and consider work that’s not quite like the work they’ve traditionally published, we’d see the demolition of the “boys club[house].”

  • Regarding the second paragraph of my previous comment– I meant to say that I think Ms. Churchon is RIGHT on all counts, of course. Although the typo reveals where my thoughts were…

  • […] Genre‘s numbers seem to reinforce what guest blogger William Bradley suggested on this very blog, back when we revealed our own gender ratios.  Bradley wonders if perhaps magazines devoted to […]

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