Yesterday, VIDA published their 2015 count of over 1000 data points from the top tier literary journals to examine bias in the publishing industry, or at least part if it. This year, the count goes intersectional. They asked women writers who published with those top tier literary journals to take a survey on how they identified, looking not only at gender but at race and ethnicity, sexual identity, and ability.

I’m absolutely delighted that VIDA is folding in intersectional bias. I’m dismayed, though, at how few women writers are succeeding while carrying more than one penalty. (I think of each degree of departure from the Norm—Norm being straight, white, cis-gendered, male, and able-bodied—as a weight penalty, a bit like horse-racing. Only in this particular race the favourites carry less weight, not more. The unfavoured—the seriously Othered—must run the same course, leap the same hurdles as the Norms but carrying extra weight in their saddles. Add one kilo for being a person of colour, one for being queer, one for being trans, one for being disabled. Or, if you prefer, think of it as living under increased gravity. See “The Women You Didn’t See” for more on this.)

However, there was a relatively low response-rate on those surveys, which makes the data a wee bit less robust than I’d like. (I’ve no doubt that as women get used to the survey the response-rate will rise.) But this is a great start. For the first time we get to peek into how (if) women writers are managing with what degree of weight penalty.

Sadly—unsurprisingly—from this preliminary data, it’s clear that there are very few women being published in these journals who manage to surmount more than one degree of extra difficulty. I found myself eagerly searching for those like me—women writers who are also queer and crippled—because it really helps to know that there are others who have broken past multiple barriers to entry, that it’s possible to run the tortuous literary course carrying extra weight. But we have no idea whether those who responded are representative. Perhaps the percentages of those successfully carrying weight penalties is even lower than it appears.

Also, there’s no data on how many of those women reviewed were writing about women, or on what percentage of women chose to review other women and what percentage chose to review men. In other words, I’m none the wiser about the change, if any, in the perceived importance of women and women’s stories. And I think this information is vital.1

The news, though, is generally encouraging; most journals are improving their gender ratios (though The Atlantic is backsliding).2 To steal VIDA’s own phrase, this count makes me feel cautiously optimistic.

1 However, it’s much more time-consuming, not to mention subjective and so open to argument, to count protagonists. Having done it myself I understand how perilous the venture can be. The Literary Data group has ground to a halt because I have no had the time to pay attention to it. I still occasionally count things. Last year’s Booker Prize Shortlist appalled me: the novels were wonderfully diverse in terms of race but overwhelmingly about men. And when #OscarsSoWhite trended I thought, “Yeah, Oscars so Norm,” did some counting, and found (shockingly—not) that films about women hardly ever win big awards.
2 Women’s share of micro-reviews has gone down; we are less likely to be regarded as meriting only a little review. In review world size really matter, so this makes a difference.