Part 1, probably
A friend recently sent me a link to The Writers’ Institute classes in New York City. This is a year-long series of classes designed to “to introduce talented writers to New York’s finest and most prestigious editors.” The tuition: $13,500. This is not out of line with most master’s programs, although I saw no opportunity for scholarships or even financial help when I visited the application page.
The instructors are all prominent editors and publishers—not just successful. We’re talking editors from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Paris Review, etc.; and publishers from Knopf, FSG and others.
But here’s what struck me when I landed on the home page: pictures of 15 white men and 7 white women—the prominent editors and publishers. No brown or black faces. Two to one ratio of men to women. This harkens back to the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts studies of the last couple of years, which show that in high-profile publishing positions, men—white men—still held the power.
As many of you know, I’ve been querying agents for my novels. I’ve researched probably more than 100 houses, and in the course of that research, I couldn’t help noticing there’s an overwhelming majority of women (predominantly white) working as lit agents. I’d estimate about 80% or more of the agents listed in the Agent Query database are women, and that of those, 90% are white and 10% are Asian-American. There were a few of Hispanic or African-American heritage, but not enough to garner a percentage. Dozens of agencies are staffed by all women.
A couple of years ago, when the VIDA study first came out, I did my own count to determine the ratio of women to men on literary journal staffs. Of the approximately 1,100 staff members, about 60% were women.
I teach writing classes, and participate in and attend readings in my local area. I’ve noticed there are many more women than men involved in writing, and very few people of color.
What, if anything, do these figures and observations mean? Some questions:
- Considering the liberal social and political positions often supported by people in the book industry, do the demographics of top-level editors expose a gross case of hypocrisy? Can we just throw claims of fairness out the window, or do the books and stories published by these people accurately reflect the writing and reading communities? I have to admit, I can’t help noticing a certain bourgeois sensibility in literary novels, journals and magazines, especially those produced on the east coast.
- Even more important, I think, is this: Does seeing an overwhelming majority of one gender or race or economic class in positions of authority discourage writers from other demographic groups from submitting, or even from pursuing writing as a career?
- Should I care? Does any of this matter to my success as a writer?
- Should we care? Is there nothing really wrong with this business as usual, or is there an insidious undercurrent to our culture and society we on the outside feel essentially powerless to address?
I do not know the answers. Like any good writer, I only ask the questions.
More next week, but I would love to get others’ thoughts on the subject.
 And no, I’m not thinking about applying.