02/26/2014 01:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Does the VIDA Count Work?

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Another year, another VIDA count. Since 2009, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has been gathering data on the number of men and women published by literary publications and publishing the gender breakdowns in the form of easily digestible pie charts. This year, while VIDA points with optimism at the improvements made by two publications, the Paris Review and the New York Times Books Review, the needle doesn't seem to have budged at many high-profile reviews. Of course, it would be crazy not to be pleased and encouraged by the remarkable progress of these two institutions, which are at the center of the literary world. Each improved from male-dominated charts in previous years to a fairly balanced chart for 2013 issues. Nor should we overlook publications such as Poetry and Tin House, which have aimed for gender parity in their pages since before this year. There's good news in this year's data.

And yet, the very fact that two such eminent publications were able to achieve near-parity makes the gasp-inducing gender disparity of publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and the New Yorker seem even more offensive. The usual excuses -- not getting enough submissions from women, wishing to select the highest quality contributors and books without consideration for gender -- seem weak and unconvincing in the face of their major competitors' ability to marry quality and equality. The editors of these overwhelmingly male publications have been confronted with and forced to comment on the VIDA count for several years now, and their improvements in those years have ranged from microscopic to nonexistent.

So it's time to ask -- does the VIDA count work? First, we should establish what it even means for it to work. The report is treated with reverence by feminist writers and women in literary media, and there's one clear reason why: It provides hard, visually striking, basically irrefutable evidence that women are not given equal space in the preeminent publications of this field. In this sense, the effectiveness of the report is clear. The more trying question is whether this yearly totting-up is driving progress, or just reporting on it -- or, more frequently, reporting on the lack of it. It's possible that, this being 2014, women's bylines are naturally increasing due to hard-won advances into the upper echelons of the industry over time. It's also plausible to argue that, especially with smaller publications, gender breakdown may fluctuate naturally each year.

Although the numbers do seem to be improving, they're not marching steadily upward. Granta typically has a well-balanced pie chart in the VIDA count, but women actually fared better in their 2011 count than in 2013. Each slight tick upward at a publication may seem encouraging, but unrelated editorial decisions may lead to anomalously balanced years, only to sow the seeds for disappointment in future, more male-heavy counts. Making the process of tracking year-to-year still more trying is the variation between VIDA's covered publications over the years. The newness of the report, which is only in its fifth year, means it's still going through its inevitable years of fine-tuning as the organization attempts to index as many publications as possible, so it makes sense that the more diminutive journal Callaloo doesn't appear in earlier counts, but it means many of this year's publications can't be meaningfully judged on their progress yet. And even for those who have appeared since the beginning, it's likely too soon to say for sure whether VIDA's numbers are capturing a period of change for women in the literary world.

Yet the significant improvements made by the Paris Review and the New York Times Book Review seem too significant to be random, and the latter especially has heartened followers of the count. Amanda Hess, at Slate, points out in response to this year's report that while smaller publications (including the Paris Review, which comes out four times a year) have the luxury of picking and choosing amongst a vast array of books and contributors for their relatively few final choices, the Times managed to achieve something close to parity despite putting out a constant stream of issues all year. Writes Hess, "Last year, the book review published 725 women and 894 men, bringing its male dominance to a slight 55 percent." That's a pretty large number of authors, and suggests that other large weeklies can do more to up their percentages of female bylines.

It will be interesting to see whether the efforts of the Times will inspire the editors of similar behemoths to reconsider their approaches toward fostering diversity in their pages. If so, we'll be seeing real results from the VIDA count years down the line, as other mainstream publications begin to chase the Times, Paris Review, Granta, and other all-stars.

But were the Paris Review's and Times' prize-winning pie charts this year themselves motivated by the VIDA count? On a gut level, it makes sense that a healthy dose of public scrutiny might move the needle at such journals. After all, most in the cloistered world of books consider themselves liberal, and facing the biases embedded in their own institutions could nudge them toward uncomfortable reflections. Of course, most editors, especially at prominent publications, are reticent to tie their editorial goals too explicitly to an external audit like VIDA's. By paying lip service to VIDA's goals while insisting that their real focus is maintaining the highest quality, they remind us of their reputations for excellence and elide the question of whether the goal of quality can be combined with the goal of fairness. And if they come to improve, well, we may never know what the driver of that improvement was.

The Paris Review's motivation remains opaque, and VIDA may deserve some of the credit -- or not. But at least in one case, the argument for VIDA's influence seems to be there. Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, publicly affirmed her commitment to diversity in authorship when she took over the reins of the review last spring, and noted: "While the VIDA numbers were indeed dismal overall, I was pleased to see that the Book Review has had a far better record than many other publications." Paul's value for diversity can't be attributed simply to VIDA's consciousness-raising campaign of the last few years, but it's clear from her statements last year that she took seriously whether her publication performed well in this report. And her success in quickly boosting the review's gender equality testifies to the sincerity of her promise to prioritize the issue.

Does the VIDA count work? It's hard to say, at this early stage. But this year's small movements may be first rumblings of larger tectonic shifts. Time will tell. With no other solution on the horizon, amplifying the message of the VIDA count, and making editors and publishers answer to it, may be all we can do.

No, there's one more thing we can do, and that's to expand our scrutiny from gender inequality to all forms of inequality that plague the literary establishment. In response to 2013's VIDA count, author Aimee Phan highlighted the obstacles faced by non-white authors, saying, "Writers of all colors and the literary organizations they support should band together to systemize a count.... Once more of us are observing, tallying, and voicing our dissent, editors -- as well as the reviewers they assign books to -- will have to respond." There's currently no equivalent count for writers of color, though Roxane Gay and a graduate assistant did a race breakdown for the New York Times' 2011 book reviews, published on The Rumpus in 2012. The research hours needed were clearly daunting -- many weeks of digging to confirm the numbers for just one publication. But it's a vital endeavor, which becomes especially enlightening upon seeing Gay's tabulation for the NYT, which published nearly 90 percent white writers in 2011. This disparity is shocking, and the goal of promoting equality for writers of color in literary publishing is too pressing to put off until (white) women have achieved full parity.

Despite the signs of hope in this year's VIDA count, the literary world remains agonizingly far from full equality for women, and still further from representing the myriad viewpoints and identities that make up our society. So, no resting on laurels; let's keep pushing, every year, to make sure the that the count does work, and to expand the potential benefits to every underrepresented group clamoring for a place at the literary table. Even if we can't be sure of the count's effectiveness, accountability through data is the best option on the table.