The streets of Williamsburg saw an unusual uptick in sensible high heels last Tuesday evening, when a couple hundred journalists, writers and editors dressed in summer office casual filed out of the Bedford Avenue station and into the muggy front room of Public Assembly, forming a line out the door. They were there to attend a story-pitching clinic for female journalists, titled, somewhat preciously, “Throw Like a Girl.”
Once inside, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, sipping beers, while New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary asked a panel of editors and writers to talk about moxie.
Why was it, Ms. O’Leary wondered, that as a young freelancer she had spent months refining every pitch while her male peers tossed off story proposals from every statistic or idea they encountered?
“You have to understand that rejection is part of the process,” Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan said. “It really is part of the engagement with ideas.”
Ms. O’Leary’s younger self would have worried that one bad pitch could get her blacklisted from editors’ inboxes.
“You’re not going to remember in a pejorative way someone who’s just eager,” Ms. Ryan said. “We have a reporter at our paper, Sarah Maslin Nir—she was a lunatic when it came to pitching. She was relentless.” (After freelancing across 11 sections, Ms. Maslin Nir was hired full time.)
Attendees jotted it all down in notebooks made by Muji and Moleskine.
The event was put on by “female nonfiction storytellers” group Her Girl Friday, but a handful of men dotted the crowd, either in solidarity or simply sensing a networking or hook-up opportunity. The mood alternated between J-school seminar and group therapy session (even The Observer found herself involuntarily pumping her fist as panelist Katherine Lanpher cried, “No is a bump on the road to yes!”), but the evening’s mission seemed grander.
“This estrogen halo in this room—it’s really wonderful, it’s really powerful,” said Ms. Lanpher, a public radio host. “But we’re here because those byline counts matter.”
She was referring to the annual tallies put out by The Op-Ed Project, a nonprofit that shepherds women and minority writers onto newspaper op-ed pages, and VIDA, a two-year-old organization for women in the literary arts best known for throwing the wildest party the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference has ever seen. (There were burlesque dancers and roller-derby girls.)
In the last three years, the groups have become a fixture in Manhattan media circles for their end-of-year counts, which distill the nebulous boys-clubbiness of publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker into easily rebloggable bar graphs and pie charts.
As a result, a conversation previously relegated to once-a-decade university research papers has become an annual media event, a regular and cathartic articulation of a long-running internal monologue.
“We call the count ‘The Count’ from our experience of quietly counting to ourselves every time we read The New York Times Book Review,” VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu, a poet and professor at Florida State University told The Observer. “We were always looking to see how many and what kinds of books by women are being reviewed.”
In addition to counting female-authored articles, stories and poems, VIDA keeps tabs on the number of books by women reviewed by tastemakers like the London and New York Reviews of Books. Less than 20 percent of the titles reviewed by the NYRB were written by women, a problem novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote about in The New York Times earlier this year.
Ms. Wolitzer told The Observer the statistics had validated a suspicion she and female novelist friends had long shared. “You just had that feeling there was excitement around male work,” she said. “That was something I couldn’t quantify but I felt.”
It’s hardly a new discussion. Katha Pollitt reportedly devoted a Nation column to the problem more than a decade ago. TIME online editor Ruth Davis Konisberg had her own byline count site in the mid-aughts, called Women TK. But for the same reason, VIDA’s numbers are shocking. How is it that in 2012, The Nation (helmed by a woman, Katrina vanden Heuvel, since 1995), is still 73 percent written by men?
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