A few days ago, author Mary Miller published a piece in Vol. 1 Brooklyn called “My Problem with VIDA: A Report from the Field.” In it, Miller expresses how “uncomfortable” she is with the gender statistics that the VIDA Report gathers and distributes — or rather, with the way in which such statistics gender our consideration of literature. “I am a woman and a fiction writer who doesn’t want my gender as a determining factor in whether or not my story is chosen for publication,” she writes. “If the editors prefer a man’s story to mine, but they need a woman to balance out ‘the numbers,’ I would prefer that my story not be chosen.” This sounds like Miller is calling the VIDA Report a kind of affirmative action mission — which, I suppose, it is — and it also sounds like Miller disapproves of that mission — which she doesn’t. What Miller is actually addressing, what she spends the rest of the essay writing about, is VIDA’s “Report from the Field” series, the anecdotal reporting by women of the discrimination they’ve experienced in publishing. Miller calls this reporting into question, not because Miller doubts their accounts — she doesn’t — but because Miller has had different experiences and recognizes the logical problem in trying to speak anecdotally about a broader issue. “I realize that my experience may not be the norm,” she concedes, “but neither is Melnick’s or Languell’s or Wetlaufer’s. They are simply one-sided reports that make me eager to hear from women who have alternative viewpoints than those that are represented by VIDA.”
The next day, in Luna Luna, poet Rachel Mennies published a response to Miller, called “The Bad Behavior of Women: A Response to My Problem With VIDA: A Report from the Field.” In it, Mennies challenges some of Miller’s understanding of VIDA, both the statistical reporting and the anecdotal reporting. She begins (as all good responses must) by agreeing with Miller in part: “Mary Miller and I share one major, foundational premise: though I’m a poet and she’s a fiction writer, we both don’t want our gender construed as a determining factor in whether or not our work merits publication.” But, she goes on to explain, the importance of the VIDA statistics is how they demonstrate that gender often already is a determining factor: “Year after year, we see that gender does influence the path to publication — that women must walk a longer, more difficult distance to reach the same point as men.” Mennies then turns to Miller’s more primary complaint, the anecdotes, and champions those stories as a necessary part of women raising their voices.
I know most of the women writers I know could add their own stories to these. We could probably build a village from them; I know we could certainly build, at the least, enough data to stack the charts full of evidence, not outlying anecdote, just as VIDA has worked to do. [. . .] The desire to erase or diminish women’s personal experiences in a given field — here, writing — ultimately shows the grinding gears of sexism at work. It suggests that these experiences, albeit deliberately collected in one place and empowered by the frequency of their occurrence in places like VIDA’s “Reports from the Field,” are merely anecdote; they’re fringe; they’re not worth sharing after all. Women writers who point out these experiences [. . .] become part of this fringe, and are thus dismissed. If this diminishment happens enough, we start to see the “female” wedge of the pie shrink more.
I love Miller’s work and I interact with her from time to time on Facebook — she’s an awesome woman. And I think she raises some deeply important concerns about the stories we’re telling about women writers. I don’t know Mennies at all, but I also think she makes some excellent points about the importance of these women’s stories. I’m not actually here to engage in this debate. I’m here because this whole conversation continues to make me think about the women I read and support and, through my work with Jersey Devil Press, have a hand in publishing. And as I was thinking about that, I realized something: in the past few years, my favorite books have largely been books by women.
I’m not going to analyze this. It’s certainly not on purpose — I’m not using “gender as a determining factor” in my reading habits or preferences. And women aren’t alone on my list of favorite books: I was a HUGE fan these past few years of books by Rusty Barnes and James Claffey and Craig Thompson and Chris Ware. (The latter two, incidentally, have women as their protagonists.) But in my cumulative list of the few hundred books I’ve read over the past few years, my top ten (actually, top dozen or so) is dominated by women writers — fictioneers, poets, cartoonists, essayists — at a rate of more than two to one:
It’s a diverse list in terms of genre and style, and not all these adjectives are true of every book, but collectively, these are some of the most gripping, beautiful, brutal, insightful, lyrical, emotional, intelligent, breath-taking, gut-punching books I’ve read in the last few years. Possibly ever.
And I haven’t even picked up my copies of Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State (I’m a huge fan of her work!) or Mary Miller‘s The Last Days of California (huge fan of hers, too!), or Nance Van Winkel‘s Boneland (I love her poetry, but I only recently got this collection of her fiction), or The Tilted World, the novel that Beth Ann Fennelly (my favorite poet of all time) co-wrote with Tom Franklin. So this list is only likely to grow as the year progresses.
None of that is because these writers are women — it’s because they’re damn good writers. (As Neko Case famously tweeted in response to a recent Playboy review that claimed Case is “breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be,” Case is not a “woman in music,” she’s “a fucking musician in music!”) But I think it’s worth noting and voicing that these damn good writers happen to be women. It’s worth celebrating that. It’s worth letting the publishing world know that this is who we read, so publishers will be sure to publish more work by excellent writers who also happen to be women.