More Thoughts on Gender Bias & Book Reviews

When I wrote about the ways gender bias crept into my own book reviewing, the feedback encouraged me to dig deeper into the issue. As I’d noted, one attempt to undermine the argument that women writers deserve consistently better coverage than what they’re currently getting from many of America’s book reviewers is the tactic that an anonymous New Republic staffer (or maybe an intern) used against Jennifer Weiner, implying that Jennifer was looking for “affirmative action” that would artificially inflate the prestige of (presumably bad) women writers when the galleries of literary criticism ought properly to be devoted to “well-rounded meritocracy.”

Mrs. Beatrice (that’s what we call my wife here, to protect her privacy) emailed me a link to an article that ran in TechCrunch in late 2011 called “Racism and Meritocracy” that seemed particularly relevant to the discussion. It’s about the ways in which Silicon Valley, despite being ostensibly populated by non-racists, still manages to produce a largely homogenous culture of entrepreneurs. Diversity is “the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy,” Eric Ries writes. “When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be.” Ries proceeds to draw out a larger principle which I believe might well apply to mainstream literary criticism outlets like those of The New York Times Book Review and NPR:

“What the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy for systems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.”

As Ries points out, symphony orchestras offer a classic illustration of this problem: For years, women had difficulty successfully auditioning for symphonies, because many judges implicitly assumed that men were better classical musicians than women and so that’s what they heard when they saw women play. Until several orchestras began auditioning musicians behind a screen, so the judges could only go by the music they were hearing—then, suddenly, on average, women performed classical music just as well as men.

Now, you probably couldn’t make a similar effort work in the world of literary criticism. Setting aside the impracticality of stripping all identifying markers from the novels and delivering them to critics to be judged on pure literary merit (whatever that is), such an approach is in fact completely antithetical to the ways publishers promote and sell fiction, whether it’s commercial or literary. Publishers want critics to have all sorts of preconceived ideas about the books they’re receiving, at least they do if those ideas are favorable ones. For that matter, some publishers rely on critics having preconceived ideas about them—if this house or that house has a reputation for publishing “excellent” work, it’s that much more likely their books will survive the early rounds of elimination when a critic has to decide which of the dozens/hundreds of newly arriving books he’s going to review this week.

(How do new fiction writers ever break through that wall? Good question: Sometimes, it’s about comparisons to the familiar authors; sometimes, it’s about crafting a public identity for the author that plays to—or against—our cultural assumptions about creative talent or emphasizes the amount of money the publisher spent because they’re so sure this author is as good as the other big authors they publish. There are other variations on these themes.)

Relying on our preconceived notions about authors and publishers is a form of pattern recognition. And, as Ries tells us, “if you look at the research on implicit bias, you will find that bias is a necessary consequence of using pattern recognition, it’s part of how the brain works. We literally think faster when we see something that matches the pattern, and have to slow down to process something that doesn’t match.” And, let’s face it, when you’re in a deadline-driven environment, with an overwhelming array of choices, you might sometimes make quick decisions in order to spur an internal feeling of achievement and progress—you might even, I’m thinking, make decisions more quickly than you think you are, with less contemplation than you believe you’ve done.

The latest book by a familiar face, from a familiar publisher? Why, it practically demands a review. And when somebody like Jennifer Weiner comes along to point out how that kind of thinking can skew a book section’s contents, the defense is that it’s a reflection of the author’s cultural significance and prestige. But that significance and prestige isn’t shaped just by the author’s earlier books, but by all the previous decisions book critics made about those books. In other words, critics aren’t only recognizing a pattern of “fiction that will really endure” or “books that matter,” they’re perpetuating that pattern.

Let’s take a moment to emphasize that I’m not letting myself off the hook here: Obviously, if I thought that I was giving equal time to men and women writers, when the numbers show that my coverage was just about as skewed as the Times or NPR, I wasn’t giving the situation as much thought as I thought I was doing, and to whatever extent I did think about it, I didn’t follow through on those thoughts as thoroughly as I could have. The question now is: Where do I go from here?

For the world of technological entrepreneurship Ries covers, he believes that the solution is to pursue more genuinely meritocratic selection processes, processes that account for implicit biases and route around them; if we do that, he suggests, diversity is likely to follow as a result. As I noted earlier, though, book critics don’t really have that option: Even if we wanted to receive all books on equal footing, publishers don’t want to give them to us that way.

That means that book critics may need to think that much harder about every decision they make to review, or not to review, a given title, and about the criteria they’re using to make those selections. In my case, as I discussed in my previous post, I’ve already made a conscious choice to aim at recognizing writers in a way that reflects the diversity of American culture (and not just in gender). So I’ll need to check myself periodically, and determine how well I’m doing against that self-assigned goal, see if there might be things I’m missing out on because I’ve gotten into grooves a little too comfortable… or if my view of American culture has narrowed due to inertia.

Other critics, who have appointed themselves the stewards of one fine literary tradition or another, should also step back on a regular basis and ask themselves: “Why am I picking these books? And what am I saying by picking them?” (See, in this vein, my thoughts from late 2010 on Oprah’s tendency to pick male novelists.)

Whatever your assumptions and implicit biases as a book critic are, it’s important to challenge them as much as you challenge anybody else’s arguments. When we give our implicit biases the majority of the decision-making power, we perpetuate our status quo, even if we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re quite progressive in our way.

30 January 2012 | theory |