The VIDA Count and Tillie Olsen's Silences--Part I

Learning about the VIDA Count has prompted me to return to Tillie Olsen’s 1978 book Silences. which republished in edited form her MLA presentation “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century—1971.”  Olsen reported that her “crude sampling,” undertaken without research assistants or computerized help, showed that for every woman’s book published, four to five books by men appeared in print.  When Olsen expanded her survey to include the presence of women in literature courses (as evidenced in required reading lists, presence in anthologies and textbooks, critical reviews), the proportion shifted to one woman acknowledged for every twelve men.  Olsen advised her readers to count the number of male and female writers in print with the literary materials that came into their hands over a week or two, a useful exercise still.

The VIDA Count, begun in 2010, intends to produce information about gender parity in publishing by a formal, disciplined, and consistent, annual count, of two types, of 40 major literary journals and publications.  Beginning in 2015, the Count introduced an intersectional analysis of gender, in order to provide information about the diversity within women being published. (Click here for the 2017 VIDA Count.)   The Count is one of the projects of the organization VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a “feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color, writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals.” Forty years later, has the ratio changed since Olsen’s informal count? 

Not as much as one might hope. 

The main VIDA count examines fifteen publications.  In 2017, two of the fifteen (Granta and Poetry) achieved gender parity; for eight of the fifteen from twenty-four to thirty-eight  percent of their content was women’s work (for specifics, see Highlights and Observations). A VIDA Count “The Larger Literary Landscape” showed that fifteen of the twenty-four published as many or more women to men (for example, Kenyon Review, The Cincinnati Review, New American Writing). 

As part of their intersectional analysis, the Count shows that writers of color constitute twenty-five to thirty-five percent of writers published in five publications; of that percentage, less than fifty percent are women of color and nonbinary individuals (as self-reported).   Writers who self-reported their sexual identity as bisexual or queer provided from three to four percent of the published content of six publications. 

As I examine the detailed information given in the various VIDA Counts, I am aware of my lack of skill in interpreting data; if my readers find mistaken inferences or generalizations, attribute those mistakes to me, not the VIDA Count.  As far as I can judge, in terms comparable to Olsen, women are published one out of every three or four times that men are published; women of color are published one out of six. 

About Olsen’s own results, she asserted, “But it not does matter if the ratio had been one out of six or five.  Any figure but one to one would insist on query: Why? What, not true for men but only for women, makes this enormous difference?”  This question, as well as her critical evaluation of her own experience as a writer in the second half of the twentieth century, led her to investigate silences, the unnatural silences that prevent or impede creative work coming to fruition.  Such silences indicate that factors larger than an individual author’s desire to write impinge on one’s ability to create, such as class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born.”

Looking at the VIDA Count the question remains pertinent.  VIDA devotes space to examining this question in its “Voices and Views” and “VIDA Review.” As an example, see Delaney McLemore’s recently published essay In “VIDA REview.”  McLemore foregrounds the impact of sexual violence on women’s silencing, a topic that Olsen did not treat, and a topic that deserves continued attention. 

I’ve owned and used my copy of Silences since it was published.  I believe Olsen’s remain useful and pertinent.  The book is recursive, lyrical, imaginative and documentary.  It presents a collection of vignettes, experiences, comments and observations on writers from the 20th century on what has fostered and has hindered writers’ creative work. Specific to women Olsen investigates how “the different past of women,” our historical subordination to men and the ideological assumption that women exist to serve men, has left a legacy of obstacles, inner and outer, to fulfilling “the claims of creation.” 

In the next blog I will share some of Olsen’s insights into silences,

Vicki Phillips, MFA ‘18