Most writers get screwed: We did the math, and it's true — literary prizes exclude writers outside the campus gates

As America's largest annual writers gathering begins next week, Lulu questions this lack of inclusivity

Published March 22, 2016 10:21PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>drflet</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(drflet via iStock)

It is widely held and discussed in our literary community that we are not inclusive and remain biased in favor of the white male. The ongoing conversation about lack of access, lack of diversity of voice, and underrepresented writers led us to look critically at the system in place to discern what was working and what was not. What does it mean to be successful in the literary world? Who gets the prizes? Who has access to mentors and networks? Who is attending residencies that foster community, collaboration, and offer more time to write?  In answering these questions, we kept getting pulled back to the same place: Academia. If literature has a gatekeeper, that gatekeeper is academia.

We, the founding board of a new organization, The Lulu Fund, are a group of writers and activists who identify along the many varied identities that comprise diversity of voice. We have formed to collaborate with a broad base of supporters and partner organizations, including academic institutions, to enact programing that supports an inclusive community of writers and aims to create support networks for under-served writers and eliminate the practices of exclusionary gatekeeping. We deeply respect and stand in solidarity with the long-standing work of organizations like Cave Canem, Kundiman, Native American Literature Symposium, Canto Mundo, VONA/Voices, Asian American Writer’s Workshop, ,and many others. Our primary goal is to support sustainable writing careers for an inclusive group of people.

We begin this month with the presentation of our first annual literary awards, a cash prize called The Lulu, and a release of data we have compiled.

VIDA – which annually counts gender of those publishing in a small number of periodicals -- has said, “We encourage anyone with a calculator and a library card to pursue their own version of the VIDA Count. By no means have we set up a monopoly on provocative pie charts.” The Lulu Fund collected data to offer more insight into who is winning literary prizes. Almost exclusively, we looked at prizes given to non-genre writers in fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. This count, the flip side of our offering our own modest awards, shows that 75 percent of the top 23 prizes in literature go to those in academia. We offer this as evidence of academic predominance in literature.

The Lulu Fund cares deeply about academia and honors the work of the academy. If we didn’t care so much, we would not be dedicating our time and energy to encouraging it to become more inclusive and therefore, by definition, better. 75 percent of our founding board have MFAs or teach. We are not suggesting we do away with the academy. We are not suggesting academics are the problem; we don’t think they are. We are not suggesting that it is wrong for writers to teach. We understand that remuneration for writers is a staggering problem. In fact we are glad that so many of our writing colleagues are able to find sustainability for their writing through academic jobs. We are not suggesting that academics should not get prizes. We are not even suggesting that more prizes go to non-academics.

What we are saying is: let us honestly talk about the inclusiveness issues in academia; let us look at the data on prizes and the intersection of prizes and academia; let us discuss, all of us, what we need to do to rectify the problems, take ownership, and effect change. Let us commit to upholding inclusiveness as a shared value and then keep one another accountable.

Academia – full and part time faculty and students in American higher education — remains deeply exclusionary regarding race/ethnicity, class, dis/ability, and other traditionally underrepresented groups. These exclusions are well documented, even by academia itself. Full-time and part-time faculty are, respectively, 59/50 percent male, 81/77 percent white and have a household income of $114/ $92K. Of students, 60 percent are white, 15 percent are black, 15 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native.

While women largely have parity with men in student admissions and faculty, this gender parity breaks down when we look more closely at who is publishing, what they are publishing and where. As the VIDA count tells us every year, women -- especially women of color -- are not being published comparably to men within the most prestigious publications, including academic publications. This shapes the eventual pipeline of literary prize award winners. Further, women of all races and ethnicities are disproportionately affected by the class inequities within academia, such as struggling to pay for childcare on an adjunct’s salary. SEIU, a labor union that represents faculty, tells us it that on average an adjunct would have to teach 3 courses just to pay for full-time child care.

We are cognizant of the long-standing structural influences that contribute to the inequities in higher education and believe those need to be aggressively redressed. We understand that exclusion exists far beyond the academy and have no desire to use the academic realm as a stand-in for the exclusions that happen throughout our society.

However, academia serves as a gatekeeper for literature, and a responsible gatekeeper must meter opportunities in such a way that reflects the population and allows necessary stories to be told. Instead, exclusivity allows academia and, in turn, publishing to largely remain a white, able-bodied, economically privileged system that favors men. Academia influences who moves on to work at publishing houses, most of which require a college degree for employment. (This is compounded when factoring in the ability to complete an unpaid internship, which many publishers continue to utilize.) Academia also influences who teaches the canon to the next generation. The only way to promote a diversity of voices is to have a diverse demographic.

Tenure track positions have decreased over 45 percent over the past 40 years according to SEIU data. This creates an underclass of workers with unreliable employment from multiple employers, a lack of healthcare, and a funneling of the ever-rising tuition to a new and unnecessary class of academic administrators. All of this retains the status quo of a predominately white and wealthy faculty and student body.

As Junot Diaz penned in his unflinching New Yorker essay, “MFA vs. POC,” “I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum.”

At The Lulu Fund, our foundation is built upon inclusivity—our mission states that Lulu:

“works within the literary community to shift established systems that benefit the few, and to promote the understanding within intersectional feminism that racial, gender, and class justice must be sought as a whole. We support individual writers and organizations who demonstrate their commitment to these ideas by telling critical stories and lifting marginalized voices. Lulu offers financial support, takes and encourages direct action, and works to foster collaborations. We support writers of all ages and at all stages of their careers. We emphasize support for members of the LGBTQQIA community, people of color, the dis/abled, and those from diverse educational and economic backgrounds. Lulu believes that these divisive, identifying markers do not exist independently of one another.”

In the past few years we have seen a proliferation of think pieces and critical essays written on the realities of the university system and its impact on the literary world; we think this framing is a crucial precursor to direct action. We believe that the issues illuminated in part by much of the data collected are systemic. Simply pointing them out has brought about little change to the numbers from year to year — and in many cases no change at all. We believe direct action is needed to build a literary community where everyone has a seat at the table.

Poet and Cave Canem Co-Founder Cornelius Eady wrote in his poem “Gratitude,” which considers being an African-American in the white academy, “I am a brick in the house that is being built around your house.” Those words have long informed the activist ethos for some of us, and are the guiding principle of The Lulu Fund.

Lulu believes we should, as a community, engage in an open and unflinchingly honest conversation about the current literary climate. This will mean looking critically at a number of issues, including the influence academia has over literature as it pertains to systemic issues with inclusion.

Does rewarding literature that overwhelming comes from a system that is economically privileged and white and able-bodied fuel lack of access? Does it marginalize the work of political and activist writers housed outside of the halls of the academy? Might these excluded writers be more engaged with exploring these very themes of exclusion and oppression than their academic counterparts? Might these writers also be more likely to shine bright lights on structural inequities in the institutions we tend to venerate?

Writers of color have been fighting for decades to shift the literary landscape so that they too may influence current and historical narratives and have sought balanced representation in the future of the canon. Transgender writers are bringing their stories to the forefront of American thought. Dis/abled writers are making clear that their stories are not represented. And writers without means are waving red flags at us from every corner of the country.

We must be candid and honest about how we are influenced by the university system. Semantics are used to convince one labor force that they are better than/less than another labor force. Listing any academic affiliation in one’s bios offers legitimacy in the eyes of editors. Faculty positions are coveted — as they should be — as a way to stay immersed in literature, work with the next generation, and have an income that makes writing possible and provides time to write. Let’s honestly acknowledge what’s good and fix the rest.

A myth prevails that most writers work in academia. In fact, writers working within academia are a minority of writers. (We support the idea that a writer is someone who writes, and that it is not publication that defines someone as a writer. However, for the subjects we are focusing on in this essay, a writer here is defined as poets and non-genre creative writers of both fiction and nonfiction publishing books and/or in magazines or journals. This group might be thought of as literary writers.)  How many writers are there? An analysis by The Millions estimates that there are at least 210,000 writers producing books of traditionally published fiction. Using the same methodology on the same data, there are at least 30,000 each of poets and creative non-fiction writers producing traditionally published books. That’s conservatively 270,000 writers. (To generously offset those included in that number who might be publishing in more than one category, we are not counting the thousands of people publishing in magazines and journals who have not, at least yet, published books.)

By comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are, including graduate assistants, about 83,000 post-secondary teachers who teach literature or writing classes. Let us, to offset for writers working in other academic areas, say every one is a writer according to our definition. That means that just 31 percent of writers are also academics.

Clearly there is much room for conversation and education if anyone is having difficulty generating a list of worthwhile writers outside of the academy. Likewise, a conversation is needed so we can talk about systemic solutions to the lack of inclusivity in higher education. We believe all successful writers must use their privilege to fight for systemic change so that the next generation of broadly published and lauded writers have among their ranks a diversity of voice so far-reaching that no reader may ever say again:  there are no characters that look like me, sound like me, and have lived what I live.

While there is a staggering amount of work to be done, we are heartened by changes we have seen in the landscape. We are about to award seven writers and organizations who uphold that ethos; whose writing and actions in the world do the good work of elevating marginalized voices, promote inclusivity, and tell the stories that have long waiting to be told. We are happy to support the Writers of Color Database and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. We are also proud to support WAM: Women Action & the Media and Third Wave Fund for using storytelling as a powerful tool for change in their organizations.

We are delighted to see Lisa Lucas as the first African–American woman to head the National Book Foundation. We love what Cathy Park Hong is doing with a multitude of voices at The New Republic and how Sophie Gilbert is invigorating conversations about culture at The Atlantic. We Need Diverse Books is a leader in inclusion.

We are proud to honor Saeed Jones for his own important writing as well as for the paid fellowship program for emerging writers he has started at Buzzfeed. We’re happy to be honoring Wendy Ortiz and Garth Greenwell and the honest, un-flinching portrayals of queer sex and sexuality they each write.

In this spirit of change and progress, The Lulu Fund seeks to build scaffolding alongside of academia. During the repairs we trust academia will make, Lulu will create systems of support to immediately start the work of inclusivity.

In addition to our annual data release of prizes and giving our own awards, we will work to create new networks. To tip the scales toward equity, Lulu will offer paid fellowships to students as we work to end unpaid internships.

As Lulu joins the fight to end adjunct exploitation, we will create a mentorship program that pairs established writers with emerging writers across all spectrums of identity—similar to the access created within the confines of academia.

And finally, Lulu will interrogate the current residency structure in order to build one that works for everyone—where care providers are taken into consideration and folks without means are offered the same opportunities for community and time to write.

The Lulu Fund is thrilled to have this opportunity to work toward building the inclusive literary world that future generations need us to build now. We are heartened by the generous responses we’ve received and the donations and support and offers of assistance. We need your help. We need you to share your ideas with us, and tell us how you can volunteer your time to help if you can. We need you write about these issues. Support us. Talk to us. Work with us.

Let's come together to talk about how each one of us can be part of creating change in academia, to discover what each one of us can do to create new systems to support writers. Join us in the work, join us in the fight. Together, we can make writing a sustainable choice for a broader group of people and make the literary world an inclusive world.

By Anna March

Anna March’s writing appears frequently here in Salon as well as in The New York Times' Modern Love column, New York Magazine and The Rumpus. She is the Publisher of the magazine Roar. Her essay collection, "Feminist Killjoy," and novel are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @annamarch or learn more about her at

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Awp Literary Fiction Literary Prizes Memoir Mfa Poetry Publishing The Lulu Fund Writing