Why Don’t Women Submit?

AWP starts today in DC, and VIDA is getting a lot of news for their breakdown of the lack of women published in major magazines. The pie charts are undeniable.

One of the explanations is that women don’t submit their work as often as men do. This reminds me of The Awl’s look at the difference in pitches between men and women, showing that women often diminished themselves in the pitch and assumed the attitude of a thankful street urchin, while dudes cocked it out and were like “yo, I wanna write. You wanna read.”

I more or less quit submitting my fiction to literary journals about three years ago. I never assumed anybody wanted to read what I was sending. When I was applying to MFA programs, one of the heady experiences of that process was knowing the esteemed faculty where I was applying might actually glance at a page of my work.  It was insane to think they would actually like it, or read all of it. But I also thought my work was really good.  The assumption, from the beginning, was that it was hard to get attention as a writer, but that talent does indeed out.

The path that made sense as an undergraduate watching a mentor is to keep your head down, and follow the prescribed way: B.A. in English, MFA in Fiction, minor publications, writer’s retreats,  major publications, agent, book, teaching job.  If one of the blocks failed, it meant one just didn’t quite have the special oomph of someone with a real shot. And since writers are often betting their entire life on the assumption of their own talent, I think they are especially sensitive to external signs about that talent’s reality.  If it wasn’t going to shake out, I wanted to know early,  and couldn’t think of a worse fate than being one of those people who think they have talent when they really don’t. This sometimes keeps me up at night.

I wonder if because women are more conditioned to external appraisals of their worth, this makes them overly realist, negatively realist,  in their assessment of their chances at a writing career.  I was super brassy, and successful, while all the chips were falling into place. I won awards, got into fancy schools, had the attention of fancy mentors, and I was still sure that I was going to be one of the few: the writers who really make it (I figure it is like college football, with 1% making it pro).

But the next step didn’t come as easily as the rest had. I got way less brassy. Publishing was an insane void, a party that nobody cared I was at.  I started thinking of the odds. In smaller contests, and general application pools, you were only working with a sample of writers. In publishing, all writers alive were submitting. It made sense the rejections were piling up. It was a lottery, and lottery winning is nothing to be planned around.  At first, things like wonderful rejections seemed like nudges forward. But after years of only receiving no dice or “we love you, but no” letters, it seemed like there were smarter ways to spend my time. Smarter ways to get published. I never considered the editors rejected me to be idiots, unaware of the beauty of my work. I did sometimes think they were clique-ish, and because I wasn’t annointed, they weren’t having me.

The gender thing never occurred to me. But, of all the writers I’ve known who think they’re geniuses even though there is no proof otherwise, the majority have been men. They will keep submitting their work until Armageddon because they know it should be published and applauded (as the Awl pitches prove). And out of sheer ratio, they have a better chance at winning the lottery because of this. External praise is grand, but the absence of it would never hinder them.  I’ve always thought of them as having blinders on. Big ego blinders that  might make them look like an asshole, but they can’t see it, so it doesn’t matter.

I have never admired these people. An admirable writer is classically one who is humble, and who works hard and articulates well. And yet, these are the same writers who know they have made a fine thing, and are just lucky enough that the world has also seen it. I quit submitting because it seemed like dieting: a frittering away of thought, time and money that could all be better used elsewhere.

I didn’t stop writing, but I did start writing bigger projects. Short stories no longer seem like the way to break in.  The ideal is that you write a short story, get it published in The Atlantic, get an agent, and then you’re set. But it seems just as possible (in the impossible sense) to write a novel, and find an agent, and then be somewhere further ahead. The only reason to publish in literary journals seems to be for ego, admiration of your peers, the chance of an agent finding your story, and to have something to list in your bio. It might be a building block for larger things, but there is also the solid, very solid, chance that only 4 people will buy the journal and 2 of them will actually read your story. And if you are very very very lucky, you might make $50.

At least with blogging you know how many people read your work, know that your work can be seen in other countries and communities outside of a specific literary group, and take part in discussions about the work. And while you don’t make any money, you also don’t have to wait two months for anybody to decide whether or not your voice is worthy.  And you get to have conversations. And sometimes a lot of people read your work, and show it to their friends, and put it on facebook, and tweet, and the blog stats are in the thousands, and for a week or so, you are LIVING THE DREAM.

My guess is women and men, early in their careers, submit the same amount, but that women submit less as they get older. There are a lot of women out there still pounding the literary world with manila folders and “send” buttons, but not as many as the menfolk. I’d like to say that this has all convinced me to up my ratio, get back in the saddle, and flog away to all the literary journals. But I’m still not convinced that the literary journals are the best gate to try to pry open for hopes of literary glory.  Since I’ve left off submitting my writing, I’ve seen that the writing world is bigger than what I thought it was when my only goal was to get a work-study at Breadloaf and one day go to AWP to promote my book.

Of course, I’m also just playing in another kind of lottery, hoping that when I finish my awesome novel, that I can easily get it published and join the ranks of those who do good work and never had to sweat about people not noticing. Then I can leapfrog over all this litmag struggle, and give interviews about the synchronicity of popular taste, literature, and the best-sellers list. I’m hoping I can say something like “the academy never quite knew what to do with me,” or “oh yes, I was rejected by everybody.” And then we will laugh, and some 14-year-old will be watching and aspire to be rejected a lot, too.

So, Millicent, what say you?  Is the answer to save our energy and just work on good work? Or get steel blinders, and rack up a thousand more papercuts to the soul?



13 Responses to Why Don’t Women Submit?

  1. Sarah Beecham says:

    I’m always wary when I see the rationale that “women don’t succeed and it’s their own fault.” Women not being published? That must be their own fault for not submitting. And yet, the unspoken assumption behind that is that if women were to submit as much, then they’d get published as much – which, given the gender bias still existing against women writers, is clearly nonsense.

    I think you’re spot on with women becoming disengaged with the game the longer they have to play it, but I think that’s the inevitable outcome of playing a game whose rules are designed to prevent you winning. There’s only so many times you can beat your head against a brick wall before you give up with a headache.

  2. Carla Fran says:

    Sarah, I hadn’t quite thought of it as that kind of argument, but you are right, by looking at submission counts, I am putting the onus on women instead of editors. And since the numbers are very high of women publishing fiction, and very low for winning awards and receiving reviews, it is more than a case of female motivation or male hubris.

    My question, and one I really haven’t found a satisfying answer for, is what is the correct approach? Most arguments seem to be for trying to break the brick wall with your head by simply casting more submissions into the void. I quit submitting because of this headache, and decided there must be other circuits. But, if the machine is so broken, then creating one’s own content seems to be the only answer. But it’s not a satisfying one. And the other answers seem such marathons (boycotts, major cultural shifts, extreme efforts and special editions), that I don’t know what a writer right now can do or hope for, except the belief that it is a lottery, a rigged lottery, but full of tiny chances for those who still buy tickets.

  3. Keith says:

    Hey, I started reading this blog because Millicent suggested it. I’ve thought about commenting but am not sure that what I have to say would contribute much to your blog (I often disagree with you ;).

    Here however I have to wonder about the graphs that provoked your thoughts. Were they publishing rates or submission rates? My guess is publishing.

    I think your initial assessment of men is accurate: men are aggressive. You call it blinders or brassy but the fact is they go for it. I don’t know that all women are inherently less aggressive but I suspect that the small differences afforded to the sexes by biology make a material difference when compounded over time. (Think Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.) Also, men in aggregate may be more aggressive, brassy, or blindly self confident. I know at least one male writer who has given up, but they don’t support the trend.

    Since publishing is a numbers game (sales by another name) it stands to reason that more submissions naturally get more publication. You can see the same pattern across the similar arts of acting and screenwriting. How many actors have you heard of who auditioned 100s of times before making it?

    An interesting question would be whether the name on the submission makes a difference. Of course, to know this we’d have to know the number of submissions. As Penelope Trunk often writes women have mastered the gender gap in certain areas, but sexism does hold them back in others (such as law). Perhaps it would be fun to experiment with submitting under a man’s name to see if it makes a difference.

    As for self-publishing I think it goes back to the original assessment of women. You write about how women should keep their head down to succeed, be modest, and seek approval. Self publishing is the opposite. Perhaps personal success will be helped along by finding your own feeling of success without the validation of an agent or publishing house. Popular blog posts prove you’re good, why not accept that you rock and just roll with it (like the straw-men do)?

    • Carla Fran says:

      Hi Keith, thanks for commenting, and for reading the blog!
      Would have to quibble with the idea that men are more aggressive because of biology. It’s a lot easier to be aggressive when you own the game, and the game, by default, rewards your aggression. Like Sarah pointed out, it’s more than numbers. Yes, actors and screenwriters and writers have to face a ton of rejection, but I’m guessing the percentage is the same for actors and screenwriters as it is for writers. There are less spaces for women, less spaces being created for women, less spaces being made by women because the majority of the people writing movies, directors casting actors, and publications publishing writers are dominated by male perspectives. So if you have a man and a woman and they both try an equal amount of times, the dude still has a much better chance of succeeding. I’m suggesting that women might submit less often not because they are less aggressive, but because they smell out external signals earlier that the marketplace is not going to reward their efforts.
      I agree very much that self publishing has its rewards, and it is a hard trick to learn to only base one’s success on personal instead of public validation. I think women have a hardier battle doing that since so much more in our culture tells us that the external always matters. And it might be the path to work around some of this, but it does seem unfair that my main goal as a writer should be to feel good about myself, while men get all the cash money.

      • Keith says:

        Hey before coming back I read up more on the VIDA thing. I just want to say that I prefer your site to others that are discussing this topic. Keep it up!

        As for our dialogue: I never said that men were biologically more aggressive. I assign no cause because I simply don’t know. I also don’t particularly care. What is observable is that men submit more (per comments elsewhere on this discussion) which is my measure of aggression for this topic. Since they submit more, the men who submit are more accustomed to rejection. (As an aside I wonder if dating plays a role in this.)

        I will concede based on your expertise that film is not a good comparison to lit/poetry. It is well known that there are few roles for older (less fertile?) women in cinema and as such the screenwriters don’t include them. I sometimes wonder if it is really that men and society are bigoted or that the stories that feature women prominently are interesting to experience but uninteresting to watch (Mama Mia, anyone?).

        Unfortunately I have to disagree your premise that the whole game is against women in publishing (and by extension I disagree with Sarah, sorry!). The stats on VIDA were validated by discussion at the Hairpin as reflecting submission rates. That is: women don’t submit, and therefore don’t get published. It would be cool to have more info but a couple comments is all I got at the moment. It is interesting to hear about people who *solicit* and still can’t reach parity.

        I would also like to reiterate that self-publishing does not mean brazenly publishing in the face of silence. Instead you build your audience and publish for them instead of using the audience that booksellers provide. Your readers will validate you. For an idea of how to do this you might look to Tom O’Bedlam http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=SpokenVerse#grid/uploads

        Which leads to the question of parity. Why bother? Men and women are different. Respond to that question if you like, I’m interested. In the interim I’ll look at some of your recommended reading.

      • Carla Fran says:

        Hi Keith,
        Thanks for your comment. Wanted to add here that Mamma Mia is the most successful UK film of all time, and is the highest grossing musical of all time. So….

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  5. Millicent says:

    Sarah, CF,

    Hm. This is such a conundrum. I stopped sending out ages ago too. Sarah, that brick wall is a BASTARD.

    Do you recover the brassiness? It doesn’t seem like the brand of self-delusion some men have is quite the answer… is it possible to get it back through other, less ego-driven channels? I don’t know what this would look like, but it would mean sending out not in the hope or expectation of approval or reward (because that’s sure to disappoint), but in some other spirit?

    Your point about the 4 people who might read it is a major disincentive for me; I can’t shake the feeling that even when I do publish in a literary journal, I’m still basically going unread. I’m not sure if that makes me incredibly egotistical or incredibly pragmatic, or neither, since the pre-med undergrad in me recognizes the practicality of building your resume with unread publications in the expectation of bigger and better things. Still, as with bras, one tires of all the padding. Although I guess padding probably helps when you’re battering the brick wall.

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  7. Heya, congrats on getting through to the final of the 3 Quarks competition! This is a really great post and I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying.

    I think, as women, we are far more sensitive to these ‘external markers’ that you talk about, and also that we probably find it easier to put blocks in our own way so we can’t continue to write or submit, such as having children or taking on other responsibilities. Men don’t have that so much (and, I agree, a much thicker skin) so maybe have fewer choices but to keep travelling down that same old path.

    Just so you know, I also frequently want to curl up and die at the thought that I think I’m talented and I’m really not…

    Good luck with the final result!

  8. Ingrid says:

    Two small edits:

    7th graf, 2nd line: …even though there is no proof otherwise…

    9th graf, 2nd line: …get an agent, and then you’re set…

  9. Carla Fran says:

    @ Ingrid, many thanks.

    @ Lyndsay, thanks for the good wishes. I was talking to somebody else the other day about the fear of no talent and they asked “would it really be so bad to not know?” arguing that if you don’t even question it you are already ahead. This made sense to me reading Millicent’s piece about the history of the femosphere, and the luxury of of not being self-conscious (https://millicentandcarlafran.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/the-feminist-blog-a-retrospective/)…and the incredible focus and work that can happen in that place. But I can’t deny the question already sits in my head, muted or not, so that is one luxury that is definitely already out the window.
    I like what you say here about the idea of different path options, too, that women have more possibility (burden or not) to leave the prescribed avenue of success, and men have less. Both offer a kind of freedom, and a limit. Thanks again for your comment, and my ego just decided for the both of us, so we can sleep tonight, we are super talented.

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