VIDA Count

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So this year’s VIDA stats are nearly out. For those who don’t know, VIDA do the brilliant job of naming and shaming the culprits for the underrepresentation of women writers in the world’s big literary magazines by listing the percentages of reviews about, and by, women writers.

VIDA’s Jessica Reidy asked me on twitter to do my own VIDA count for this blog. It’s a truly excellent excerise. Everyone who blogs about books should try it, because it really makes you think. In fact, it made me think all the more because it’s only in the past couple of months that I’ve been doing much in the way of interviews and features on individual writers here – which means for 2014 there should be more readily minable data, but the information may be less revealing.

Because there was so little in the way of “this is obviously a review/interview” (there are, in fact, just two interviews – both with women, Joanna Penn and She Drew The Gun), I was left with more oblique things – references, recommendations, cited influences. In a way this felt more telling than simply looking at long features. Because it says more about my subconscious biases. Or maybe that just says something different. When I choose to review or feature something, I am making a very conscious choice – this is a writer who needs to be seen, heard, read. I weigh up a lot of factors of which their brilliance as a writer is a prerequisite but never the only one – the primary secondary consideration (as it were) I use is always “how likely are my readers to come across this writer elsewhere?” because, for many reasons, redressing balance, giving readers a truthful representation and, possibly most of all, giving would be writers the message that people like them can and do write books, brilliant books, is vitally important. It’s the same when it comes to selecting performers for my live show, The New Libertines.

But when it comes to references, recommendations, lists of influences and favourites, we (or I do, anyway) tend to think much less. I rattle things off and, as a result, these mentions are much more indicative of any unconscious bias in my reading behaviour. What I foundwas fascinating, and has given me real pause for thought. References to writers and artists on my blog’s 38 posts last year come in as follows – 39 women to 36 men (counting each person once for each post they occur in, even if that means double counting some, as that gives a better flavour of the overall terrain). That number surprised me. A lot. It is a lot closer to even than I would have expected. And that means I have a lot of thinking to do. Both about my actual, underlying tendency to bias my reading in one direction or another and ignore or dismiss writers unconsciously, and my tendency to reflect that in my blog, ignoring my duty to my readers and the arts community. What makes this exercise so valuable isthat it highlights our unconscious biases, and once it has done that they can never be unconscious again. Unconscious bias is still bias, and it is essential that it be corrected. But once that bias becomes conscious, we have the most important tool to make that correction.

It’s worth looking at how I make references. Perhaps a key article to serve as an excemplar is a piece I wrote not for here but the Guardian “Why Tao Lin’s Taipei can breathe new life into literature.” Leaving aside the mentions of Duffy and Lacan, this is an article that references five wrters, two men (Tao Lin and Brett Easton Ellis) and three women (Daniela Barraza-Rios, Penny Goring, and Paige Gresty). The point of the article was specifically to say that Lin himself isn’t very interesting despite the attention he gets but the three women mentioned really really are. Tick in my favour? Well, it doesn’t feel like it. Because it’s Tao Lin’s name at the top of the page. My one hand reassures me I wouldn’t have got the chance to highlight three amazing authors without using Lin as my in. My other hand tells me I shouldn’t allow myself to be part of a system that requires me to headline men in order to reference women. Where does the balance settle? I don’t know. I do know that looking back over that article made me feel more than slightly dirty in a way it shouldn’t have done (in a way my straightforward showcase of self-publishing excellence doesn’t). It raises questions that I can’t answer. But they’re important questions to be raised. One answer seems clear – I should write a follow up piece. After all, Penny Goring has a brilliant book out. It should be talked about. Let’s see if The Guardian will publish it without Tao Lin in teh title

Take home lessons for all bloggers? Simple. Do this exercise. Be honest when you do it. And be honest with yourself about the results. That way next year’s figures will be better.

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