- Pitch & Putt:The VIDA Survey of Gender Parity in Literary Periodicals
In 2009 a seemingly unassuming project launched that has had an inordinate impact on the profile of women writers in literary publishing. The VIDA survey was established in New York by the poet Amy King and a number of colleagues with the object of examining the figures for women's inclusion in prominent literary periodicals. The group of writers painstakingly gathered statistics on the gender of individuals featured in nearly forty literary journals and well-respected periodicals. The result was a breakdown of gender divides across genres, reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines. What ensued was a vivid assessment of the publishing world that served as a klaxon-call signaling the inequity existing for women writers in major literary publications and reviews. Since then the annual VIDA count has become an increasingly anticipated event in the United States. The focus of inquiry has expanded to include the United Kingdom, home of highly regarded journals including the London Review of Books (LRB) and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) that have also been revealed by VIDA to have surprisingly poor figures for gender parity (King, "Best of 2009"). In following the progression of annual figures displayed on its website, it seems undeniable that the VIDA count has effected change in many of the publications to come under scrutiny. On a wider scale VIDA has been influential in raising awareness among writers, readers, and, crucially, editors, thus mobilizing a concerted demand for inclusion of women's writing across the United States and United Kingdom.
The effectiveness of the VIDA survey stems from the simplicity of its minimalist objective: to produce a basic binary breakdown of male and female participation in the journals, periodicals, and newspapers that make up the printed discourse around contemporary writing. The VIDA ethos is that "numbers don't lie" (King, "Count [End Page 337] 2010"). Relying on survey responses from writers across America, the stark rhetoric of numbers that emerged seemed powerfully unarguable. The premise behind the count was a sense that women's voices were being stifled by the publishing industry. To get a proper sense of the extent of the problem, a yardstick was necessary. The graphic evidence released by VIDA showed incontrovertibly the enormous disparity between the male and female voice. Earlier VIDA counts were presented in a series of blue-and-red pie charts showing each featured publication's gender breakdown, as a sample from the 2013 count rendered in black-and-white illustrates (figure 1).
The effectiveness of VIDA's method can be judged by the changing proportions on many of the graphs over the years. Before any deeper analysis of the factors affecting women's representation in literary discourse could properly take place, their absence in print had to be acknowledged and the nature of their missing voices accounted for. Every year VIDA showed this deficiency through a series of statistical indictments on literary hegemony (King, "Best of 2009"; "Count 2010").
VIDA also focused on a further consequence of the disparities in inclusion for women writers in day-to-day publication in the form of their effect on the "best of" lists and yearly awards from prominent publications and prizes. Many award categories in VIDA's 2009 count, for example, recorded zero for women's work. The National Book Awards for that year comprised one award to a man in all six categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people's literature, distinguished contribution to American letters, and the Literarian Award. No women were successful. In this way VIDA emphasized the significance of awards in providing a marker of recognition that furthers careers. Prestigious prizes pave the way for a writer to achieve grants and funding necessary to buy the time to write and thus become a fully professional author. This is particularly important in the case of women who, from Jane Austen to J. K. Rowling, traditionally have been thought of as amateurs when they have written.
Initially, the count used a straightforward rhetoric that accrued significance as the figures were set out every year showing the tiny slices of blue pie that were women's rations in...