Sometimes we forget—well, you might, anyway—that mere plausibility doesn’t make something so. In this case, even if a more rigorous statistical model proved that the Times reviews more men than women, out of proportion to male representation in publishing, more favorably than it reviews women, we’d need to know much else before we could begin to speculate about bias. Does the Times find out about every book published in a year? How many people are responsible for making assignments? Do freelance reviewers select their own titles sometimes, often, or never? Should we consider the sex of the reviewers, or are we given to believe that anti-female critical bias lurks even in women? (O’Rourke did say “we,” after all.)
Do critics, in-house or freelance, pick books more often based on name recognition or based on jacket copy? What about the recommendations of friends? What about the reviews of other critics? And are they ever drawn in or repulsed by the cover? Can science tell us anything about a critic’s tendency to respond to an attractive author photo, male or female, as it has told us about babies and faces? Do some critics prefer debuts, in hopes of discovering a new talent? Do some consciously pick more women in order to counteract bias? Do some consciously pick more men in order to perpetuate it?
We could multiply variables all day. Novelists and critics, along with psychiatrists, police detectives, and confessors, are supposed to thrive on such intricate concatenations of motivations. What, then, are we to make of literary figures so eager to simplify the psychology of critical response? To put it more bluntly, haven’t these people ever read a book?
It’s more or less impossible for a career reader to suppress his own emotional or intellectual reaction, and if he is going to fake it on paper, “looking sexist” is not high on the list of careerist self-justifications. The idea that a rather unattractive, one-dimensional, far from obviously self-interested “unconscious bias” might overpower one’s aesthetic honesty may make for a provocative column, but it’s an insult to the profession.
How does a paragraph of jacket copy convince you to read 576 pages? How do you come to love the good pages and want to tear out and eat the ones you hate? These are mysterious things, and mystery does not obey forecasts, cannot be reverse-engineered, and is not interested in fulfilling a social function. Nobody who seeks to manage that mystery really ought to be reading books in the first place.