Ceiling or Sky? On Politics, Art, and Gender

September 18, 2012 § 7 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.

AWP 2012: Virginia Woolf and Our Nonfiction Foremothers

March 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

By Renée E. D’Aoust

Modernist Nonfiction: Virginia Woolf and Her Contemporaries / Tracy Seeley, Joy Castro, Marcia Aldrich, Joceyln Bartkevicius

In the midst of panels focused on putting yourself out there in the literary world rather than engaging in the literary world by being a conscious literary citizen, four accomplished creative nonfiction writers presented a refreshingly straight-forward, no-nonsense, and fascinating panel about foremothers of the creative nonfiction form. As Joy Castro said, “VIDA take note!”
The panel began with Jocelyn Bartkevicius’s paper on Virginia Woolf, suggesting the focus on perception and interiority (of the Modernist movement) was always a useful strategy for contemporary writers. Woolf references “that peculiar form” of the essay that has a “curtain that shuts us in, not out.” Bartkevicius first encountered the essay through Woolf, so Bartkevicius thought that all essays were lyric. Suggested readings: Woolf’s “The Sun and the Fish”; Dillard’s “The Totally Eclipse”; Woolf’s collection “The Captain’s Death Bed.”
Panel organizer Tracy Seeley presented a paper on Alice Meynell, suggesting that the personal essay of the 1890s was “associative, anecdotal, and reflective” rather than “story driven”. This type of essay can be difficult reading for contemporary writers/readers because Seeley suggests it is “hard to be invited into the essay”; however, the third-person stance Meynell uses, Seeley argues, “creates a surprising intimacy.” Meynell also found “self-revelation horrifying.” Suggested readings: some of Meynell’s essays are available through Guttenberg online.
Panelist Marcia Aldrich, who is enthusiastic about the ferment of creativity and possibility within the contemporary creative nonfiction form, presented a paper on Louise Bogan. Bogan worked on a memoir for many years and invited the difficulties of the form onto the page. Aldrich suggests this useful strategy for contemporary writers who may not find epiphany. Aldrich argues that Bogan had “no progression to illuminate” and found “the art of non-catharsis.” Suggested readings: Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights”; Elizabeth Bogan’s biographer was Elizabeth Frank; and, of course, Louise Bogan’s work.
Panelist Joy Castro talked about the “body-centered, life-affirming energy” of the essay and emphasized that women were on the side of the avant garde (in the Modernist period—and I would add now). Castro discussed Meridel LeSueur’s labor movement reportage. The period from 1890 to World War II was a an amazing literary and cultural revolution that offers works often showing tension that is devoid of a narrative that drives the essay, per se. Suggested readings: “The Ripening” volume; Margie Latimer; and the novella “The Guardian.”
All panelists agreed with Adlrich who suggested reading Elizabeth Bishop’s and Marianne Moore’s essays.
Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of the collection “Body of a Dancer” published by Etruscan Press. She will be reading at Women & Children First Books in Chicago on March 8 at 7pm. For more information about reading dates, please visit:www.reneedaoust.com

Don’t Miss Today’s AWP Nonfiction Flash Mob!!

March 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

.. brought to you by Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions after the VIDA Count, a special issue of BREVITY.

FRIDAY March 2nd, anytime between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. VIDA Booth, #308, at the AWP Bookfair

The feminist nonfiction sirens have sounded! Come gather, to meet each other and break it down with guest editors of Brevity’s Ceiling or Sky project. We’ll chat about the coming issue and ask what you think about the place of women in creative nonfiction today. Anyone who loves women and loves CNF is welcome!

Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions after the VIDA Count is a forthcoming special issue of BREVITY, a journal of concise creative nonfiction, guest-edited by Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich, and Joy Castro. We seek vibrant, knock-out nonfiction of 750-words or less by women, including transgendered women, that pushes back against and/or illuminates the silences, gaps, and biases revealed by the VIDA count.

Submissions are open until May 1, 2012 at: http://brevity.submishmash.com/submit.

Fourth Genre and the Second Sex

April 14, 2011 § 13 Comments

“The most mediocre of males feels himself a demigod as compared with women.”

So, we’re guessing that got your attention, and also proved that we can make a Simone de Beauvoir reference as well as the next blogger.  Our point?  The excellent nonfiction literary journal Fourth Genre has released its VIDA numbers (ratios of male to female authors submitting and published) in response to the question of whether women are under-represented in magazines due to various gender-based biases. If you missed the VIDA article, click here.

Fourth 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 nonfiction — Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, for example — have better female representation because “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.”

Here are Fourth Genre‘s comprehensive charts.  They’re posted to Facebook, so we’re not sure if the non-Facebookies amongst you can even access them.  We hope so.  [UPDATE: Fourth Genre has now posted a page of charts for those who can’t access the FB site.]

And we’ll close with one more thought from Simone:

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”

Brevity, All the Young Dudes, & the VIDA Count

February 14, 2011 § 5 Comments

We took the VIDA challenge and conducted our own count.  The result?  Well, if we have a gender imbalance, it seems to harm the dudes, not the ladies.  Over the last five issues, we’ve published 66 brief essays, and of these, 39 were written by female authors, and 27 by male authors.

For technical reasons (we recently switched from one submission management system to another) we couldn’t gender-test the submissions that resulted in those 66 acceptances, so instead we chose a contiguous block of 100 submissions from the last two months.  Of those, the mix was almost even: 52% female, 48% male.  Only a few submission were indeterminable: the name and cover note did not reveal gender.  We just didn’t count those.

If you are a scientist or statistician, you are likely horrified by our methodology right now, but we did our best.

So what can we conclude from this?  Do we have a bias that favors the female voice?  Do women compress better, writing sharper brief essays?

We’ll take that up at our next editorial retreat, but for now, thanks to VIDA for raising the questions and making us look inward.

VIDA, Gender Parity, and The Southern Review

February 9, 2011 § 7 Comments

The Southern Review‘s Editor Jeanne Leiby took note of VIDA’s recent count of male and female writers in the big magazines and decided to answer the question everyone has been asking since: is the gap due to editorial bias or lack of submission parity?  Leiby and her staff looked at the past eleven issues and compared the gender split to TSR‘s submission records, then generously shared the results with this excellent blog post.

From Leiby:

I’m pleased with these numbers, but I still have more questions than I have answers. I want to know why there isn’t parity in the slush pile. Are there simply more men writing? Or are there more men submitting? I’m seeking a way to see the larger landscape, the whole industry, the biggest picture possible to give context to what we’ve discovered. What are the percentages of women and men in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of male to female literary agents? What is the ratio of female to male editors? Publishers? Does the gender of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? Some of these statistics shouldn’t be too hard to come by, and gathering the numbers is an important first step. VIDA has shown us that there is a problem. Now what can we do to fix it?

For our part, Brevity‘s latest issue has eight male and ten female writers represented in the brief essay section, and the ratio of female to male writers goes even higher if we count our excellent craft and book review essays.  If anyone has some free time, and wants to count the last five or ten issues, send us the results and we’ll post them here.

Unrepentant, Life Affirming, Body-Banging

September 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

Barrie Jean Borich’s powerful essay, Where We Bump and Grind It: On Resisting Redemption in Women’s Memoiris the lead feature on the newly relaunched VIDA: Women in Literary Arts Web site.

This excerpt will get you started, but really, you need to read the whole thing:

If this essay were a burlesque dancer, she would speak with pasties and feather boa, full-bodily bumping to display all the ways the best writing doesn’t fit the mold, bending back so far it hurts, asking if you like her, then whispering she does not need saving, is not really dancing for you, though she’ll never stop smiling as wide and hard as a girl on a gas station calendar. If this essay were a drag king, she would ask you to watch as the best writing applies facial hair and stuffs a bottle in his pants, asking you to notice, forget, then notice again what is a body, what is not a body, wishing for you to see which dance steps evoke the body as it is …

This essay is, as it happens, none of the above, but is rather a plea, from a literary nonfiction writer who believes women’s memoir is not telling the whole truth if it claims the past is ever something a woman can fully leave behind. I begin here with burlesque and drag because both, like my identity as a high-femme queer woman, are performance modes which embrace the old and the new, and in doing so subvert the old-school male gaze and celebrate, upset, complicate, obscure and remake women’s bodies. All of which I look for in women’s memoirs, essays and nonfiction lyrics—women’s voices resisting redemption, complicating, rather than apologizing for, sex. When sexuality in women’s nonfiction narratives, queer or straight, is relegated to the redemption or recovery arc we suggest that women are unable to intelligently embrace the full and messy spectrum of sexuality, and need only to write the erotic as mea culpa.

While I agree with Audre Lorde’s notion that the erotic is the life force we wish to permeate the rest of living, I also use the term erotic here to mean sex—unrepentant, life affirming, body-banging sex, but also the unredeemed parts of ourselves that shadow sexual joy, because one rarely exists without the other. When I ask women’s memoirs to resist redemption, at least some of the time, I mean I wish to write, and read, a better erotics of sexuality—Lorde’s call for an embodiment that permeates everything but also the erotic absorption of the rest of life into the gritty corporeality of sex. I mean that if nonfictional representations of female sexuality were less the province of cable TV exposés of the “secret” lives of women and more the subject of un-sensationalized, uncensored and witty discourse, we might all be able to better comprehend what women’s many ways of representing sexuality mean to women’s identities, intimacies, and ways of organizing our worlds.


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