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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.

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