Over the past week, dozens of people — men and women — have taken Vela’s #listtheunlisted challenge, naming all of the women writers they know in thirty seconds. They’ve done it while rock climbing, juggling soccer balls, rocking babies, doing push-ups.
These videos are microcosms of Vela’s overall mission: to put women writers on people’s radar, to ensure that people can rattle off a list of exceptional women writers just as easily as they can rattle off all the given male greats.
In a recent post for The New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed wrote:
When I saw The Empathy Exams appear on the best-seller list in April and Bad Feminist appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world.
Strayed celebrates the re-emergence of the essay as a bestselling, widely read form, and attributes its success in particular to “a generally supportive group of writers, booksellers, online magazine editors and avid fans.”
We are those online magazine editors, those avid fans, that generally supportive group of writers, celebrating the essay, and the essay by women in particular. We’d like to think the work we do plays some small part in the re-emergence of the essay, and we hope, with funding, to help bring attention to a new generation of women essayists. We are part of that online literary community saying, you have to read this; saying, here is the work by women; saying, there’s no excuse for having no women writers in your magazines on your lists in your university courses because look, look, look, here they are!
We’ve been doing this for three years now on passion alone, working as a team of women writers and editors to publish and promote exceptional nonfiction writing by women. We’ve published 34 women writers since we opened to submissions in 2013. They are from around the world – the U.S., Zimbabwe, Mexico, India, the Philippines – and they are writing about a wide array of subjects we stubbornly refuse to categorize as “female” or “male,” because what’s the point of tackling the byline gender gap if we insist on marginalizing certain subjects as “women’s”?
They write about war, about motherhood, about AIDS, about abusive relationships, about the ethics of tourism, about tattoos, about addiction: about, in short, anything that stirs their curiosity, because Vela believes women should be able to write with intellectual and creative freedom.
Just as importantly – and perhaps more so — Vela highlights exceptional work by women writers at other magazines. We firmly believe in literary community, and in writers supporting one another. We need each other, and growing a supportive community has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work. Since our inception we have reviewed work we love by women writers, stunning and complex writing, including work by Emily Rapp, Vanessa Veselka, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jennifer Percy, Sara Corbett, Daisy Hernández, Jina Moore, Dani Shapiro, Pamela Colloff, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Ariel Levy, Katherine Boo, Pam Houston, Rebecca Solnit, Alice Berlin, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rachel Riederer, Ruth Fowler, Amy Wallace, Miriam Markowitz, and many, many more, far too many to list here and still keep your attention, from women who are just publishing their first work to bestselling authors.
It has become almost a trope nowadays for writers to say, “I can’t eat exposure.” We at Vela wholeheartedly agree – and yet we’ve also experienced firsthand how difficult it is to pay writers in an era of online publishing whose mandate is that everything should be free and shareable. We became a nonprofit with the aim of applying for national grants, with which we’ll first fund our writers and then, ideally, ourselves, because we have families and bills and we want to keep this thing not just running, but growing.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: we have to find a way to make online publishing sustainable. There is an inherent paradox in reading all of our favorite magazines for free online and then tweeting about not being able to eat exposure. Something has got to give; we’ve got to start talking about and looking for new models. We’re not quite sure yet how they might look, but at Vela we’re trying to figure it out. We’re working like mad – for free – to pay our writers, and to find a way to get grant money that will pay them competitive fees, sustainably, in the future.
And also, hopefully, to be part of a burgeoning group of online publications that are asking the hard questions: if content is going to be free, then how can we also pay our writers? If outstanding longform writing is expensive to produce and edit, and requires experience that takes time and money, then how can we give it away without demeaning our writers and implicitly devaluing the work of writing?
We don’t believe the answer is in giving up but rather in proceeding with optimism and pragmatism one step at a time: first start a collective, then open to submissions, then when you’ve established a solid foundation, ask for seed money to pay your writers, then apply for grants. This is what we at Vela are doing, and we hope that you will support us not only because you believe writers should be paid – and paid competitive rates, not $20 or $50 per story– but because you believe magazines should be finding ways to make online publishing more sustainable, and to find better models for valuing the work of longform.
Because you know that making great writing, editing great writing, publishing and promoting great writing by women takes time, money, and experience, and most importantly it matters. It matters in building a more just, compassionate, egalitarian, and hell, just plain enjoyable society. It matters to the big picture and it matters to the everyday, when you’re burnt out and you sit down and you read something that makes you write a friend you have to read this.
Vela matters, and funding it matters. We firmly believe this and hope you do, too. Let’s build a future in which writing is a sustainable, important, and respected career for women.
Thank you for your support!
by Sarah Menkedick via Melanie Bishop