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The world of letters is famously hostile to women — and, to prove it, there’s the VIDA count, a yearly tally of the gender breakdown of bylines and authors reviewed in major literary magazines. Unsurprisingly but disappointingly, the numbers remain dismal: this past year, the New York Review of Books published 96 articles written by men and only 24 by women.

But for every attempt at exposing sexism, there’s an entitled man with a chip on his shoulder, mumbling to himself in a café in Bushwick that no one appreciates his genius. In this case, it’s Equality in Literature, a blog designed to show that men in the literary world are getting the short end of the stick. “It was a bar bet,” the About portion of the site confesses. “A couple of us asserted that women were more prominent in literary journals.” What follows is an exercise in self-righteous male indignation that rivals the worst the internet has to offer: a series of cherry-picked statistics “proving” that women are outpacing men in the literary world.

Almost — but not quite, apparently — needless to say, there are many things wrong with this endeavor. For one thing, it doesn’t function as a refutation of the VIDA count, which represents a survey of journals of literary criticism and narrative journalism like The London Review of Books and Harper’s. Equality in Literature confines itself almost exclusively to journals that publish fiction and prose, a different beast altogether.

The New York Review of Books’ 2014 VIDA count numbers (via vidaweb.org)

The blog devotes a great deal of time and attention to parsing the results of writing contests with female winners, the results of which don’t go a long ways towards proving the supposed point. As Sarah Seltzer points out in Flavorwire, in many writing contests, entries are submitted anonymously so that they can be assessed without bias; if anything, the takeaway is that editors discriminate against women’s writing precisely by virtue of the female names attached to it.

More importantly, Equality in Literature is fundamentally misguided, relying on profound misunderstandings of the way in which we are required to rectify oppression. It is a standard feature of most ethical theories that different people are required to take up different duties in virtue of their distinct positions: someone witnessing a drowning child is obligated to save the child, whereas someone hundreds of miles away from the child does not share this obligation.

Similarly, the responsibilities and obligations of men in the literary world are relativized to their position of dominance within the sphere. The conservative insistence on “equality” glosses over the nuances of ethical obligation: “equality” may not mean a 50/50 byline distribution, given that the context overwhelmingly favors male critics.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

2 replies on “Why Gender Equality in Literature Isn’t as Simple as 50/50”

  1. “in many writing contests, entries are submitted anonymously so that they can be assessed without bias”

    Most contests, jurying processes, or applications should be performed that way.

    Eliminate all markers of gender, ethnicity, or age, and let the work stand on it’s own, without prejudice or preconceptions being attached to them by reviewers, jurors or critics.

    The name attached to an artistic creation should not get in the way of the audience’s reception to it.

  2. The new gender warfare the Left wishes to wage–and a warfare with actual war, apparently–is like a journey into a sewer.

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