Commentary Magazine


Topic: women writers

Statistics Prove the Bias against Women in Literature

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

Read Less

“Where Are the Women?”

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

Read Less




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