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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