Literary publishing gender disparities: CU Denver might surprise you

Undergraduate research tracks submissions at a national literary journal

May 9, 2017
Copper Nickel 24
Copper Nickel, Issue 20
Copper Nickel, Issue 20

Note:  Jennifer Loyd is a recent CU Denver graduate who will begin the MFA program at Purdue University in fall 2017. She is also a writer for University Communications.

We’ve learned that women are published less often in literary journals and magazines than men.  But why is that?  Where does the problem begin?

Those questions prompted my research as an undergraduate at CU Denver in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). When I looked around at my classmates, it seemed the majority of us earning bachelor’s degrees in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing were female. As aspiring poets and writers, all of us assumed we would be published and paid.  We also like to think our gender makes no difference to the people who are screening our work for publication.

In my junior year, I learned why those assumptions might be too optimistic. I read about the VIDA Count, a yearly event many people outside the literary publishing world have never paid attention to. VIDA is a nonprofit organization that conducts a yearly count of literary journals and top-tier magazines and tallies the gender disparity in bylines, reviewers and books reviewed. According to the organization, “men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one’s career.”

This disparity begged for further investigation. When and where does the imbalance begin? Do more men submit their work to journals than women do? If so, could that be influencing publishing rates? These questions became the basis for my research and led me to a surprising discovery about literary publishing at CU Denver.

Jennifer Loyd researched gender demographics in literary publishing
Jennifer Loyd researched gender demographics in literary publishing

Who submits to literary journals?

When literary editors first saw the VIDA Count, they were up in arms.  One of the most common rebuttals to VIDA’s findings is that more men are published and reviewed because more men submit their work. Since VIDA’s first count in 2011, editors from publications like the Guardian, Slate and Mother Jones have claimed that male writers submit more and offer to write book reviews more often. But, as far as I could tell, their claims were based on anecdotes.

I wanted to see if there was data to support the anecdotes. With an award-winning and established presence in the literary world, the national lit journal housed at CU Denver Copper Nickel has submission demographics that could be considered somewhat representative of other journals.  As part of an independent study course in the summer of 2015, I tracked the number of submissions Copper Nickel received from male and female writers by genre and compared it to the publications rates of the journal.

Copper Nickel was in an ideal position to serve as a litmus test. After a two-year hiatus, the journal had re-opened for submissions on Oct. 17, 2014, under the new managing editor, Wayne Miller, providing me with a clear beginning for a count, as well as a clear end point: May 1, 2015, when the submission manager closed for summer break. During that period, Copper Nickel received 1301 submissions of poetry and prose from which editors selected pieces for upcoming issues of Copper Nickel.

Copper Nickel, Issue 24
Copper Nickel, Issue 24

Turning anecdotes into data

What I found supported the anecdotes: Copper Nickel received more submissions from men than women. Significantly more.

Six of the submissions were untraceable or impossible to label as female or male. (Either the author had no online presence or seemed to be intentionally trying to keep their gender ambiguous.) Of the 1,295 countable submissions, 491, or 38 percent, were from women, and 62 percent were men. The disparity is most evident in fiction; more than twice as many men (376) than women (166) submitted a story.

But if you assume that Copper Nickel published more work by men than women, you would be wrong.  When I counted bylines in the relaunched issues of Copper Nickel, I discovered that the journal’s publication demographics did not mirror the submission demographics. Issue 20 contained 20 female writers and 20 male. Issue 21 featured 24 female writers and 19 male.

This data suggests that the higher percentage of submissions from men did not influence the percentage of men versus women published in Copper Nickel. So what is behind the fact that the journal publishes similar percentages of female and male writers?

Wayne Miller, managing editor of Copper Nickel
Wayne Miller, managing editor of Copper Nickel

“At Copper Nickel, we don’t actively or consciously strive for gender parity; the quality of the work is primary,” Miller said. “But, the fact that we’re five faculty editors (and many more student editors)—all with different literary interests and aesthetics—works in favor of diversity and, ultimately, gender balance.”

‘A snapshot of American literature today’

My research shined a light on just one aspect of the debate about gender equality in literary publishing. It also demonstrates that explaining away VIDA’s findings by claiming that literary publishing disparities are due to a larger number of submissions from men is oversimplifying this complex problem.

Copper Nickel demonstrates that gender parity and quality writing can coexist. “When at some future moment we look back on past issues, we hope to have offered something of a snapshot of American literature today—which is deeply diverse,” Miller said, “while in the moment of acquisition our goal is simply to publish the best work we can.”