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VIDA 2015: literary publications continue to be overwhelmingly straight, white, cis, and male

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Whose voices do we listen to?
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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

VIDA’s 2015 numbers are in, and, as always, the results are damning.

Founded in 2009 by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts is a research-based organization devoted to making a space for women’s voices in the American literary community. (Per their website, VIDA is not an acronym and does not stand for anything.)

VIDA is best known for the VIDA Count, an annual tally of women’s representation in top-tier literary publications. The count surveys the number of women with bylines in periodicals like the New Yorker, Tin House, and the New York Review of Books, as well as the number of books by women that these journals review. And in every single count, women have been overwhelmingly outnumbered by men in some of the country’s most prestigious magazines.

Since the VIDA Count premiered in 2010, it’s been something of an annual bombshell. After every count’s publication, editors scramble to spin their numbers — including, most infamously, the time Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard declared he had no interest in "making a fetish of having 50/50 contributors" of both sexes, because "while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS." (If Stothard elaborated as to why he believes fiction published for women is inherently and overwhelmingly unliterary, those thoughts were never reported.)

Other editors have acknowledged the deeply entrenched biases that make it difficult for women to achieve equal representation in their publications. Says Christopher Beha, the deputy editor of Harper's:

You can have a long-term vision of gender equality, but if you have an institutional history in which you've got a stable of writers who are more male than female ... in the day-to-day, when you're trying to get the magazine out, it's just often easier to rely on the people who you have relied on in the past.

And while some publications take VIDA’s lessons to heart, the effects aren’t always long-lasting. The Paris Review, which had 20 percent female bylines in 2012, jumped to 51 percent in 2013 — and then back down to 40 percent in 2014. In 2015, the number fell even further, to 34 percent. And the Atlantic, which in 2014 jumped from 32 percent female bylines to 40 percent, dropped to 30 percent in 2015.

But the big story today is that VIDA declared 2015 the "year of intersectionality." The VIDA Count now analyzes "race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and ability" to examine how these factors affect different populations of women writers. (VIDA added race to its analysis categories in the 2014 count, but the 2015 count is the first in which it also looked at ability and sexual identity.)

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that when most publications do manage to publish and talk about writing by women, they're generally publishing and talking about writing by women who are straight, cis, white, and do not have disabilities. Writing by women of color, queer women, trans women, and women who are disabled remains harder to find. The venerable Threepenny Review, for instance, had 34 percent female bylines in 2015. None of those were from women of color, trans women, or disabled women; only three were from women who identified with broad-spectrum sexuality.

But the 2015 count brings some good news, too. The New Republic, which in 2010 had an abysmal 21 percent of its bylines written by women and had only clawed its way up to 27 percent by 2014, jumped up to 45 percent in 2015. The magazine also had the highest percentage of writing by women of color of any of the publications surveyed by VIDA. (Last year it had a grand total of one byline by a woman of color.)

The change is the result of a publication making good on a promise: The New Republic issued a public statement reacting to VIDA’s 2014 count and vowing to do better. (It remains to be seen whether it will backslide next year like the Paris Review and the Atlantic.)

Overall, however, the annual VIDA Count paints a grim picture of exactly whose voices we privilege — and as VIDA expands its analysis, the picture only gets grimmer.

Check out the numbers in full on VIDA's website.