Monday, April 18, 2011

Should All Submissions Be Read Blind?

A few minutes ago, in response to Kathleen Rooney's Facebook post (in response to Amber Tamblyn's response to Kathleen's post on Harriet in which she reps Switchback's Gatewood Prize, among other topics), I wrote the following:

Tina Fey's "dream for the future" that Tamblyn quotes ("that sketch comedy shows will become a gender-blind meritocracy of whoever is really the funniest") is also my dream for the literary world ("that journals and presses and magazines will become a gender blind meritocracy of whoever is really the best"), but "funniest" and "best" are always value judgments completely conditioned by context. (Who have you seen be funny on TV? Dudes. Who are you taught to read in school? Men.) So, sadly, it's still a dream, not a reality, and it's a dream that the stats from VIDA (and "Numbers Trouble" a few years back) shook people out of. And although we have pledges from many editors to do better, we still don't have a lot of solutions being thought up, which is troubling. Look what happened when symphonies started holding gender-blind auditions:
So, until wider change comes about, women-only presses and journals are still necessary.

My response to people saying "Things should change" is usually to ask, "How can we start making the change happen right now?"

And so now I'm wondering what would happen if we took the example of symphony orchestras and asked presses, magazines, and journals to make their submission systems blind. When there was a lot of brouhaha on and elsewhere about judges choosing former students, etc., the CLMP created a recommended guideline that member presses could adopt, which asked former students or close friends of the judge to refrain from submitting. This language is now standard in many contest guidelines.

What if it became standard to read submissions blind, which programs like Submishmash could help editors do easily?

This doesn't solve the issues of soliciting writers, or writers who send query letters to certain types of publications, but it seems easy enough for small presses, magazines, and journals.

What do you think?


  1. It might help, but it wouldn't eliminate bias. People are still biased toward the _types_ of books that men tend to write. (I'm always hearing people say things like "But men are just more likely/inclined to write *great* books.") I mean, a lot of people still think that men write for everyone and women write for women. So if you read a poem blind and it's about a mother-daughter relationship, won't you assume it's by a woman (because why would a man care)?

  2. Good post. Great job at looking at interesting issues -- issues that I think about a lot when I am reading submissions. I always regret reading even the most basic cover letters before checking out the work because I know that no matter how impartial I am trying to be, that those have to effect me!

    FYI: I'm going to link to this at for my readers to check out.

  3. Thanks for responding, Elisa and Julie! And you're right about the limits of blind submissions.

    Content can still be gendered, for sure, but the widespread going-blind of submission processes would give us a peek at how much a writer's (gendered) name affects acceptance rate, vs. how much content does. My guess is that we'd see *some* improvement, or else all those women writers wouldn't have submitted under their first initial for all those (these) years. But it might not be a *significant* improvement if a man editor can't find a way to like a poem from a mother's POV, right.

    It reminds me of what the symphony study, linked in my post above, says: "Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have 'smaller techniques,' are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras." Suddenly these arguments didn't hold weight when there was a screen disguising the gender of the musician; I wonder if that would hold true for women's "trivial" literary themes, too. ("Smaller techniques" oh my!)

    And as for cover letters, fonts, all that stuff -- yeah, I prefer none of that, either! When someone has five books, you feel pretty bad about rejecting his poem -- it's hard not to be swayed.

    Context in submissions is so vexed in other ways, too -- I can love a poem in a book, in context, but not "get it" in a journal submission.

  4. Becca, some journals do read submissions blind -- it would be great to hear from those editors about the gender breakdowns that result from their editorial processes. (I can't think of any of these journals off hand, but I know I've heard about them.)

  5. P.S. I use the symphony example *all the time* as counter-evidence to the idea that people can be subjective judges of quality, but I don't think it's a perfect analog to the case of writing, because at symphony auditions, musicians are playing music written by somebody else, so you can separate skill from content. In writing, content inevitably gets in there and affects how you judge the work.

  6. The problem with the symphony orchestra analogy is that while women have made progress in orchestras, there is still a gender imbalance, particularly if you look at conductors, but even if you count women in the seats of the orchestra. There is something else afoot in representation than simply blind auditions or blind submissions.

  7. Yeah, I agree that the symphony orchestra is not a perfect analogy, nor is making all submissions blind a perfect solution!

    But putting the screen up for the auditioning musicians *helped*, right? So, in lieu of a perfect solution -- which may never arrive, as people will continue to carry their biases around with them -- I feel like it'd be worth it for literary publications to try a modified version of something that's worked in another artistic field.