This is a big issue for the publishing community to tackle, and it's an important one. A few months ago, at HTMLGiant, there was a heated argument over the publication and subsequent promotion of an all-male issue of a journal--not an issue that was meant to be all-male, or that was labeled as all-male; the explanation was that "it just happened." One of the main arguments that emerged was that, regardless of the stated intentions of beliefs of the editors, such an occurrence should alert people in publishing to the possibility of blind and buried inequities in their reading, solicitation, or submission processes. Once the issue was examined in more depth, though, in a series of conversations with a mixed panel of writers and publishers, the issue became reciprocal--not just an issue of editors seeking out women and minorities, but an issue of contacting and encouraging submissions from these diverse groups of people to begin with. Roxane Gay's comment really hit home for me:
You are absolutely correct that it is not hard to find female poets and writers who are doing fantastic work but as an editor of a magazine that has a reputation for being open to work from women and diverse populations, we still only receive about 30% of our submissions from women and we’ve received fewer than 20 submissions from writers of color, ever. This issue of gender equality and encouraging diversity is far more complex than knowing that these fantastic women writers or writers of color or queer writers are out there. The real problem is finding ways to connect with diverse writing communities and that’s something I’ve personally struggled with. We cannot publish that which is not submitted.
This is our experience as well--when we try to connect with these authors (generally by publicly available e-mail addresses) it seems that we get one of two responses. The first is "I don't have anything right now." The second is no response--a blank. I have never myself been solicited directly, so I can only imagine what my reaction would be. I think about the amount of work I have ready to submit or near ready, the kinds of work I have (genres, lengths, subject matter, etc.), and how I might interpret the request (depending on the journal, the editors' aesthetics, the wording used, and so on). This leads me to some potential theories, but really, I'm just asking questions. What happens when, as a writer, you receive a solicitation? How does the equation change, if at all, when you are a woman writer, a writer of color, a queer writer? I'll speak mainly of women for simplicity and directness, but the question, I hope, applies broadly.
Is there something in the interaction between publishers and authors that turns women off rather than energizing them to submit? Do editors, intentionally or unintentionally, make women writers feel as if they are being solicited mainly for their gender? By soliciting, do editors place added pressure on women to submit work before it's ready, to adhere to an aesthetic, to commit too much time to preparing an appropriate submission?
Do women spend more time on getting their work ready for submission than men, on average? Do women write as much, as often? Do women more often write "for" a publication specifically? Or more for themselves, disregarding particular editorial tastes or visions? (These sound like stupid questions, but I ask them honestly, given the number of times women have told me they simply have nothing available, whereas male writers will usually send something right away. I myself write slower and more, er, deliberately perhaps, than Mike. I edit much more slowly.)
Do personal time or priorities factor in--like the fact that women still, on average, spend more time on housework than men, or that they are still more often the ones to take point on caring for children? Do women writers put more energy and time into their non-writing careers than men--is it indicated to them that they must, in order to keep those jobs or make themselves valuable?
Is it actually that women are too visible in the writing community, too "desirable"--that they are tokenized? Or that the number of visible women is so small, comparatively, that the women who are solicited are in fact oversolicited?
Ultimately, I suppose my question is what we can do as editors to make the relationship a positive one, an encouraging one, as often as possible, and how we can behave in order to make it clear to more marginalized groups of writers that we are sincerely interested in their work, and that this is a place we'd like them to feel welcome.
And beyond us, if there's something larger, more sociological, that's discouraging certain groups of writers from writing as much, from writing as freely, or from submitting to publications at all, I think the literary community needs to work together to push the conversation, to repair attitudes and behaviors, so that we can really mean it when we say we have open submissions.