From VIDAs 2013 count of women in publishing.
  • VIDA: Women in Literary Arts
  • From VIDA's 2013 count of women in publishing.

Jonathan Franzen is a smart guy, but he said something last week that was... misguided at best. Maybe you heard about it. In an interview that identified him as "arguably the best living American novelist"*, he was asked to comment on Jennifer Weiner, a novelist who tweets both about her own writing (letsbereal, LIKE MOST WRITERS) and about the need for gender equality in publishing.

This was Franzen's response: "To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically. And that seems like a dubious project that is ideally suited to social media, where you don’t actually have to argue, you just tweet. Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets."

Perhaps a more dubious project is turning what could have been an actual conversation about diversity in publishing into a gossipy critique of someone who has spoken up about it. And that's a shame, because there are in fact two slightly encouraging recent developments on this front that are worth talking about.

The first comes from the Wisconsin-based Children's Cooperative Book Center, which announced today that there was an increase in ethnic diversity in kids' books last year:

The most recent figures released Wednesday, however, may contain a sliver of good news for those hoping that kids’ books will one day better reflect the population at large: The number of publications with significant African or African-American content nearly doubled, from 93 in 2013 to 179 in 2014. There was also an increase in the number of books with significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content. It jumped from 69 in 2013 to 112 in 2014.

The statement notes that this is for stories that specifically include African American characters. Numbers for books "about American Indians and Latinos" were, disappointingly, "nearly the same as those collected in the previous year."

*I mean, you can for sure argue for this, but I'd have to argue.

Meanwhile, another gain outside of children's lit—since 2010, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has released a yearly count of gender breakdowns in bylines in major American publications, as well as authorship of books selected for review. The yearly count makes for a great hate-read, but it's also mildly encouraging—Portland's own Tin House is one publication that's made strides in terms of its gender parity in recent years. This year, VIDA's also running a count of women writers of color:

Since 2010, VIDA has sought to deepen and complicate the conversation about imbalances in the way women and men are represented in major literary publications by performing an annual VIDA Count of “top tier” journals. This year’s report will also focus on intersectionality, namely how a writer who identifies as a woman is further aided or impeded by race/ethnicity.

VIDA has culled the names of all women appearing in the journals we count and will send writers individual, blind surveys that follow the U.S. Census designation of Race/Ethnicity so they may self-identify, if they wish. While no system depending on social constructs will be perfect, VIDA feels that allowing writers to self-identify or decline to identify for the purposes of this survey is the most respectful and efficient way to obtain a broader understanding of who is being recognized in our literary community.

VIDA's reports will be released in April. Perhaps Jonathan Franzen should read them.