My Problem with VIDA: a Report from the Field
by Mary Miller
I don’t know why I’m so uncomfortable with VIDA, but I am. I’m not an academic. I’m not a statistician. 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. 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.
I’ve been publishing in magazines for a decade, long before there was such a thing as a “count,” and have had stories appear in many magazines and anthologies. There are times when I’m still the only female fiction contributor in a literary journal. Literary journals tend to publish a lot of poetry and nonfiction by females but fiction is still largely a man’s game. Does this make me biased? Am I proud to be the sole female published in a magazine’s issue? Perhaps. I’m sure it does. I’d just like to call out my bias in the beginning.
Despite my personal feelings, I do want female voices to be adequately represented. I prefer to read work by women. The majority of the books on my shelf are written by women and I love finding new voices, as they more frequently reflect my own experiences. And if this numbers game helps me find them, I can live with that. I wouldn’t be writing this at all if it weren’t for VIDA’s new “Reports from the Field,” which has nothing to do with the count, but is a forum for women to call out male writers and editors on their bad behavior. All of these reports, when taken together, make is seem like it is typical for women in this field to contend with sexism, bullying, and much worse on a frequent basis.
In the first post, Lynn Melnick states, “In just the past year I’ve sat at a reading upset and angry as I listened to a male poet read a very problematic piece about rape; I’ve been in a car with a group of poets, discussing feminism, when one of the men in the car ordered me to ‘shut the fuck up, you talk too much;’ I’ve been told by a stranger that I have ‘the best tits in poetry.’ This isn’t anonymous troll stuff, although there’s plenty of that. This is trouble right out in the open. Still.”
I’m not discounting Melnick’s experiences, but this has not been my experience at all. Not at all. I’ve attended five AWP conferences and met dozens of male writers and editors at readings and other events, and not once has one of them behaved in a manner that was at all untoward. I have met so many good men and it makes me uncomfortable for people to think that this is the normal experience of a female writer. It’s not the norm, at least not in my case. And I have plenty of female writer friends who have not experienced anything like this, either. The men I’ve encountered in this business have been gentlemen, and many have been downright lovely. Why has my experience been so different from Melnick’s? I don’t know. All I know is that I hate the idea, or the preconception, that this happens frequently. That this is what the female writer can expect and must contend with on a day-to-day basis in order to pursue this line of work.
I realize I’m writing about my own experience, that of one person, but so is Melnick, only she has a forum that hundreds (thousands?) of people are reading. I won’t even go into the comments, in which women discuss “catharsis and community building” and all of the talk about being a “survivor,” because a woman was told she had “the best tits in poetry.”
In “MYSOGYNY ALERT,” Krystal Languell tells about an off-site reading at AWP Seattle:
“Male Poet took the stage and read an entire heroic sonnet crown: fifteen poems. This took at least twice as long as any other reader, though it may have felt especially long for reasons I’ll explain.
Male Poet took as one of his repeating lines something to the effect of ‘she sees her father’s cock.’ I took a class as an undergraduate (ten years ago) on the Old Testament, so I’m aware of a literary precedent of children seeing their parents nude. But Male Poet went on to use a variation of this line as his looping sonnet refrain more than once, so that the air in the gallery was thick with ‘father’s cock.’
About two-thirds into the performance, one sonnet emerged as particularly preoccupied with shocking the audience. Male Poet proclaimed: ‘I sucked her brown pussy’ ‘after three Molly,’ and followed this up with what can only be described as a thundersnow of jizz imagery.
What is the purpose of creating an off-site event, indeed a small press publishing community for poetry, if it only reproduces the same work available in mainstream venues? The work Male Poet performed was in many ways typical. It seemed to set out to employ a traditional form in a new way with contemporary diction (see ‘pussy,’ ‘Molly’), but what is innovative, I wonder, about formal poetry objectifying women? I conclude: not much. Indeed, nothing.”
As a female who often writes about males in a negative capacity—mean-spirited, racists, rapists, etc.—I don’t have a problem with this. (I should add that the women in my stories don’t fare well, either, and that I am writing fiction. I should also add that my staunchest supporters are men.) So what if the woman in Male Poet’s poem saw her father’s cock? Can a man not write in a negative fashion about a woman anymore? Or maybe he just shouldn’t read about it in an audience that includes women? Isn’t it enough that something like 98% of the audience thought this guy was a total douchebag, men and women alike? This is simply one person who misjudged himself and his audience. (And I’ve been to many readings in which a woman read well beyond her ten or twenty allotted minutes; this is not a gender-related issue. I also seriously doubt that the people who put on this off-site event had the intention of “reproduc[ing] the same work available in mainstream venues.” They had no idea what a particular writer would choose to read.)
And then there’s Valerie Wetlaufer’s report. She had a consultation with the editor of a major poetry journal who said, “‘I’m going to tell you something no one else will. Technically, these are very good poems, but they’d be much better if they were about men.’ I assumed he was joking at first, but he went on about how exactly I should transform these poems about lesbians and one woman’s desire for another into heterosexual poems from a male POV. I don’t care about these women. No one wants to read about them. I want to know how the men feel.’”
Again, this is ONE PERSON—someone who should have handed down the reigns of his magazine to someone more in touch with the world a long time ago. I don’t care if he’s the editor of a ‘major poetry journal.’ This isn’t the way the vast majority of the (writing/literary) population feels or thinks and I find it ridiculous that his ignorance is attributed solely to his gender.
In each of these instances, no names are given. I’m sure there are numerous reasons for this, but not naming these individuals, not calling them out, makes it seem like these men are everywhere. You might be Facebook friends with Male Poet; you might have just sent the editor of a major poetry journal a batch of poems about motherhood; you may be hesitant to get in a car with a group of male writers you don’t know very well for fear that one of them will tell you to ‘shut the fuck up’ or comment on your body. By not naming these men, they could be anyone; and in essence they become every man, which I find extremely problematic. People—both male and female—often act in ways we wish they wouldn’t. They can be ignorant, competitive, disrespectful. These reports from the field could just as easily be about the bad behavior of women.
I realize that my experience may not be the norm, 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.
Mary Miller is the author of a story collection, Big World, and a novel, The Last Days of California.