Broken Eves, Tara Pohlkotte
Maybe most of you know that women’s collections of poetry, while they might see the light of day more easily than in the past, get reviewed less frequently when published, and, when reviewed, often by women, appear in less prominent/prestigious venues than men’s books. If you haven’t heard of Vida, an organization founded to support women’s writing, you can learn about it at vidaweb.org. One of the most important contributions Vida has made for the last several years running is “The Count,” which tracks statistics on male and female writers, reviewers, and books reviewed in high end publications. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the cards are stacked overwhelmingly in favor of men at these places—The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, Paris Review, The Nation, etc. To hear some of their editors talk, you’d think women didn’t write much at all, especially not literary criticism.
So here are some facts about VW’s book reviews, which counter the idea that women don’t review or write criticism. For issues 105-109 (April, 2011-July, 2012) we published 122 reviews (that’s a lot of books reviewed, by the way). Of that total, 63—just over 50%—were books by women, which certainly bucks the trends documented by Vida. Maybe it takes women editors to publish reviews of women’s books? Also counter to Vida’s trends is the split in VW between male/female among reviewers, who are overwhelmingly women. In a typical issue we publish 17-18 reviewers, only 2 or 3 of whom are men. While we’re delighted to publish reviews by women, we’re concerned about what that imbalance suggests and why it exists. Where are the male reviewers? It’s not because our poetry community is more female. The balance of poets who submit and publish in VW hovers around 50/50. Is it because the men who write reviews—and there are plenty among our published poets who do—reach higher to publish them? Is it a compensation issue? At higher end venues, reviewers tend to get paid. At VW (and others like us), they do not. Is it the case that men don’t review unless compensated? At Rattle (which, like VW, also pays reviewers one print copy and runs reviews online), there’s a healthy mix of women/men reviewers and books reviewed, but it’s a more prestigious venue than VW and, perhaps not coincidentally, has a male editor.
No one that we know of is keeping a comparable “count” of work by writers of color. Our own record on representing more diverse authors is not what we would like it to be. Of those 122 reviews, 11 books were written by non-white authors. We’d very much like to include a broader range of poetry by African American, Latina/o, Native, and Asian American authors, and we welcome those reviews from all of you. Besides helping to create a more open, welcoming space for all poets, wider knowledge will, we believe, benefit all of us as artists and citizens.
We both review for VW and sometimes elsewhere. Besides providing a service to other poets, reviews help us think about a book and learn from it. Your work becomes a window into my work and into poetry. Books come to VW from poets and publishers around the U.S., not just in Wisconsin. You can review someone whose work you’ve followed for years or never heard of. We welcome reviews of books received, as well as others. Publishers will often send a review copy if specifically requested. Writing reviews is one of the easiest ways to support other poets, while improving our own poetic craft. Creating a venue that other poets and publishers know as a reliable source of thoughtful criticism is also, we believe, one more way to raise the profile of Wisconsin’s poets. We invite all of our readers and poets to review for us. We’d especially like to see more of the men we publish writing reviews, and we invite all of you to read and review more diverse authors. We’re happy to suggest a book or author from our list, if you would like to review but don’t know where to start.
Thanks to Ramona Davis, Greer DuBois, and Katy Phillips for volunteer proofreading help. Lingering errors are, of course, the responsibility of VW’s editors.