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?