Gender Bias Bias

Teddy Wayne has a great editorial on Salon today called “The Agony Of The Male Novelist.” It’s great because it brings attention to the same thing that Kate Bolick’s feature “All The Single Ladies” did in The Atlantic: that fact that the actual battle for equality between men and women has changed faster than our perceptions have. In the piece, Wayne is responding to novelist Jennifer Weiner’s blog post about the disparity between male and female reviewers for the New York Times book reviews. In the post, Weiner does exactly what Vida did last February with the dubious collection of publications-by-gender statistics, which is to say, completely ignored how anyone gets meaningful statistics. We don’t find out what the pool of available reviewers is, gender-wise, whether more or less men or women turned in solicited reviews, much like Vida doesn’t bother providing the information that would make her statistics meaningful: namely, how many men submit to those journals versus women? If the ratio is 5:1 men-to-women published, the only way something can be made out of that is knowing, for example, that the ratio of submissions is 1:1, which means there’s an evident bias in the editorial process, or 5:1, which means the pieces published reflect the pieces submitted, in which case there’s no evident bias. It’s sloppy argumentation, and honestly, it’s Orwellian in its lack of clarity and its clear agenda of distortion. What’s to lose if the submission figures bear out the publication figures? The worst thing that happens is we have proof of a growing equilibrium between male and female writers. Of course, then there’d be nothing to complain about.

What I like best about Wayne’s piece is that it is, above all things, well-considered, where the blind rah-rah-ness of pieces in the other vein leaves unfavorable data out in the interest of illustrating a single point. I got into an argument on Twitter with one of three published female friends of mine, which is in contrast to my one published male friend. The thing that drives me nuts is that she does exactly what you’d expect a man, typical of the kind who would be part of the problem, to do when he reads something about how women are at a disadvantage. She says, “I call bullshit. No female midlist writers? This is obnoxious.”

I pointed out that Wayne never says there aren’t any female midlist writers, and she responded, “It doesn’t. But he’s giving us a sob story about his career as a poor white guy, when the issue is about gender in publishing.” See what just happened there? She called bullshit on something that no one said, which… I’m not sure what’s gained from doing that. But worst of all, the anger you can read in her response (and the earlier tweets about the piece) is dripping with her own bias. “…giving us a sob story about his career as a poor white guy”? He says, in the story, with plenty of self-deprecation, that he has “no complaints,” that:

I didn’t come close to cracking any bestseller lists with my debut novel or even getting many print reviews (just one, in the Boston Globe), but I’ve reaped these other benefits. And, of course, had I not been afforded copious societal advantages from birth, there’s a good chance I never would have had the opportunity and encouragement to write a novel at all.

So there’s really no reason to be so virulently dismissive of him—he’s pointing it out himself, and by no means sobbing about it. And this is the problem with talking about gender disparity in publishing: some people only want to hear the information on their side. I see those Vida figures, and because it doesn’t matter to me what the ratio is (I’m white and male, after all, although I’ve done a fair job of getting rejected from pretty much every publication listed in the data), I’m more interested in getting a more meaningful look at the disparity, which Vida doesn’t provide. It’s glancing, and, from a statistical standpoint, meaningless. Let’s see the whole picture, and go from there, I say. Because otherwise we don’t really know where we’re supposed to go. Say the bias is borne out by the submission figures: the editorial level is where change is needed. Say the bias isn’t borne out by the figures: then we have to look at the way we encourage men and women to write at all levels of education.

It makes no sense to engage in an argument if you’re not willing to do it honestly, which Vida isn’t interested in, which Jennifer Weiner isn’t interested in, or if you’re not willing to hear the other side out. If the end is achieved of getting more parity in publishing, but no one will listen to a guy who has a valid point, just because he’s white and male, then what’s the point of even attempting gender parity?

My favorite part about arguing with my friend about this—aside from just generally loving arguments with her—is this part of Wayne’s article:

In short, midlisters are middle-class professionals scraping out a living — and being a midlist male author who writes about males is a distinct financial disadvantage. Not only will you not get reviewed in the Times, but you won’t get reviewed in the women’s magazines that drive sales, like People and O, the Oprah Magazine. Book clubs will ignore you. Barnes & Noble will relegate you to the back shelves. Your publisher won’t give you much support — if it even publishes your book in the first place. As a book-editor friend once admitted to me, “When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real chance.”

The point he’s making there is an academic one: “By just about every estimatewomen buy around two-thirds of all books and 80 percent of fiction.” And what I love about arguing with her about this is that she typifies the point: she’s a female debut novelist, who has gotten coverage in three women’s magazines, and her novel was selected for a book club. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—I would never expect women’s magazines to show any interest if I ever got a book published—but there’s something wrong with skewing the data, or outright ignoring it when it’s bang-on. And the big take-away are those 2/3s and 80% numbers, because they beg a very important question: what’s the gender bias in what women buy? Publishers want to sell books. Literary magazines want to sell copies. They’ll sell you whatever they think you’ll buy—it’s the entire business model of, well, any business—so why do they think women will buy lopsidedly male publications?