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New statistics showing a steep and sudden reversal in gender parity at the Boston Review, a New England literary institution, are raising questions about the status of women at the prominent journal.
According to the feminist nonprofit VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the share of women who contributed to, or had their books reviewed by the Boston Review dropped to 37.8 percent in 2017, compared to an almost equitable 47 percent in 2016 — the sharpest decline in any of the 15 literary journals VIDA tracks.
Although the Boston Review editors dispute these numbers, offering an alternative count of 44.9 percent, they do acknowledge a decline in women contributors in 2017. The new statistics come as the publication is dealing with the fallout over its June decision to keep fiction editor Junot Díaz, who had been accused of forcibly kissing a woman, and the subsequent resignation of the three poetry editors. (Díaz has denied the accusation; an MIT review found no evidence of misconduct in his position as a professor of writing at the university.)
“Their numbers have gone down badly, and they’d probably be worse without the poetry editors,” said Amy King, VIDA's press officer. “This drop is dramatic.”
Progress toward equity at literary journals has historically been slow and incremental, and the move toward gender parity at the Boston Review over the last several years has been demonstrable and measurable. Co-edited, since 2001, by Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman, the publication has had both male and female editors since its founding, in 1975, as the New Boston Review. (Disclosure, I contributed to the journal under editor Margaret Ann Roth in 1986.) Highly regarded, the publication had consistently improved on its numbers. In 2015, for example, the VIDA count noted that 46 percent of all contributions were by women, a steady rise from 33 percent in 2010.
VIDA first revealed this decline in June, when it published the 2017 VIDA Count, an annual inventory conducted since 2010 of the number of men and women who contribute to, or had their books reviewed by, print literary journals and book reviews the previous year. (In recent years the nonprofit has also calculated percentages of contributors who are people of color, LGBTQ or non-binary, and living with disabilities.)
Compiled by volunteers, divided into teams of four to six, and reconciled three times before publication, the count uses a methodology that is in the process of being trademarked and was developed with input from professionals in publishing, writing and sociology, as well as additional outreach to contributors, said King, who also serves as the editor in chief of the VIDA Review.
The count focuses on what the group calls “top-tier publications,” those, as the VIDA website says, “by which the literary community defines and rewards its most valued arts workers” and which lead to “grants, teaching positions, residencies, fellowships.” With its annual count as well as the online VIDA Review and events, the group has served to shine a light on diversity, or the lack of it, raising awareness of sometimes subtle bias.
It has also celebrated when that bias has been chipped away. Since that first count, and perhaps because of the attention it garnered, the general trend in the literary world has been toward equality. “Overall, there is an increase in incremental awareness,” said King.
Therefore, the reversal at the Boston Review not only represents a turnaround of the journal’s own impressive progress but also a general trend toward parity.
Boston Review editors Chasman and Cohen argued with that finding in a statement. “We care deeply about having women contributors in Boston Review and work hard to achieve that goal,” it read in part. “Unfortunately, VIDA’s annual report misstated the number for 2017, and their complaint about a nine percentage point drop is, correspondingly, mistaken. We were disappointed to see the error.”
VIDA disputes the Review’s accounting, shared by the journal in a spreadsheet as a response to queries for this article. VIDA points out that Review editors include a poetry chapbook that did not go out to regular subscribers and cost extra, and thus was not included in the original VIDA count.
It is worth noting that the Review underwent a format change in February 2017. That shift from comprehensive bimonthly issues to themed quarterly “bookazines” moved much of the Review’s poetry online, which may explain the decline — but may also be indicative of a larger problem.
Poetry, as King pointed out, has always tended to be more diverse than either the fiction or nonfiction sections of the Review. In the all-poetry “What Nature” issue, published in March 2018, for example, 37 of 63 contributors were women, while at least one identified as non-binary, according to former poetry editor Timothy Donnelly.
In the previous year, with the introduction of the themed issues, only 12 poems were published in the print Review (five by women, seven by men, according to Donnelly). This meant that poetry — with its more equal distribution — had less impact on the Review’s overall byline count.
Why the fiction and nonfiction sections do not have such parity speaks to a larger issue: achieving equality is difficult. “I definitely keep an eye on diversity,” explained Carolyn Kuebler, editor of the New England Review, which publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The Middlebury, Vermont, quarterly is included in a different “larger literary landscape” count of 24 smaller publications and was lauded in the latest VIDA count for running roughly as much work by women as by men. “You have to question yourself constantly,” said Kuebler. “What am I not seeing? What are my biases?”
These are the questions that the Boston Review poetry editors Donnelly, BK Fisher and Stefania Heim wrestled with, before they resigned in the wake of the Díaz decision. “The poetry component was always very mindful of inclusivity,” said Donnelly, who joined the Review in 1995.
“As an editor you have the chance to make the community you want to see and participate in,” explained Donnelly, who is married to Lynn Melnick, a member of the VIDA executive board. “You make room in your editorial practices for the kind of diversity you want to experience and feel a part of in your life. It’s as simple as that.”
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