As I casually passed Francine Prose, Stuart Dybek, Louise Erdrich and other cherished authors, I kept whispering to my friends, “They walk among us.” AWP always has, in my mind, the potential for a flashmob of awesome. I like that these people in button downs and long skirts, fun, outlandish shoes and polished loafers all have this imaginative landscape that we have inhabited but often wouldn’t recognize its living incarnation without the benefit of badges and lanyards. They could all gather together and suddenly give a performance of life-changing merit to all the would-be and practicing writers around them. I love that about this particular place.
Editors have a similar mystery. Many of us have conducted longstanding email relationships with people who have hurt us and helped us, affirmed us and edited us, though few in my mind speak with the benefit of an actual identifiable face. This year, for better or for worse, I became one of the editors destined to suddenly spring fully formed before writers who have worked with me, but only guessed at my corporeal reality.
As a book reviews editor, I went to AWP to talk about the VIDA numbers, and the part that Literary Mama plays in trying to combat the inequities they revealed. The VIDA count, now in its sixth year, takes account of the gender disparity in literary publishing. Solely powered by volunteers, the count, according to its website, “break[s] down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.” VIDA is expanding its mission to better account for other underrepresented groups based on race, ethnicity, and orientation. As an editor at Literary Mama, the equation was simple: Our magazine has a very dedicated mission and that mission speaks to the experience of women—women of color, LGBTQ women, elderly women, women who desire motherhood, women with young children, women with grandchildren—our VIDA numbers reflect that.
Our focus suggested that the community we wanted to see in print was one in which many of us had been marginalized. As a grad student, I had poems dismissed as ‘woman poems’ and I still bristle at the idea that the subject of a poem, or the gender of the author, can be grounds for exclusion. The editorial mission of Literary Mama embraces community rather than exclusion, taking on motherhood from a variety of forms that includes women who are NOT mothers but have strong feelings about it. We are all in this conversation together having felt the force of societal expectation since childhood. For some of us, the experience has been positive, for others, painful.
My fellow editors on the panel—Alyse Bensel of Los Angeles Review, Randon Billings Noble of Pank, and Robin Becker of The Women’s Review of Books—shared this outlook, trying to even out the numbers of women writing reviews and books written by women being reviewed. We talked about the need to support fellow writers who are putting out the books that we want to see in print. Reviewing can be a way of maintaining community and inviting others into it, simply by selecting a book and telling others about it. In many ways, this kind of literary citizenship is as simple as one person pressing a beloved book into your hands. In other ways, it is a firm statement that certain books should be read and included in any conversation about contemporary writing.
So for any literary mamas who fervently believe in the power of suggestion, pitch us a review. Review for an outlet that you love; champion the writers who have fought to be in the world. If Literary Mama suggests nothing else, it is the power we have as a community. For every woman who sits in the lactation room, for every mother who pushed a stroller through a book fair, for every writer who offered me a copy of her book for review, thank you! You reminded of this essential truth—you walk among us, and we all have the possibility to ignite change, one woman, one book review, one story, at a time.