behind the news

Bias at the Times Book Review?

It’s not that simple
September 21, 2010’s DoubleX blog has revealed that The New York Times reviews more fiction by men than by women. The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin, herself a DoubleX contributor, reported this in a TNR column of her own, adding that, “Of course, as the authors of the article are quick to point out, a crucial datum is missing: the percentage of all published fiction written by men versus women. If anyone has such a statistic, I would love to know what it is.”

Having tried to supply that missing figure, using Amazon to create a list of books and Google to verify genders and check for pseudonyms, I can sympathize somewhat with Franklin’s blithe admission that her methodology is close to useless. Online booksellers are choked with self-published material—some of it deceptively similar to bottom-of-the-barrel genre fiction, and some of it . . . not. (Anyone in the market for a Baha’i children’s book featuring horse whispering and time travel?)

It would be nice to give genre fiction its due, but how to decide what’s good enough to call a “real” book? Dan Brown and Anne Rice are publishing powerhouses, but it’s disingenuous to act as though Michiko Kakutani might review Nasty by one “Dr. XYZ”, or Scottish-interest romance like Teresa Medeiros’s The Devil Wears Plaid. To determine how many men and women publish books each year, we’d first have to agree on the definition of the terms “publish” and “book,” and that is easier said than done.

Despite these difficulties, Franklin is confident that women are being shortchanged. “No matter how you spin them . . . these figures are disturbing,” she writes, as though the real issue were not that there are no figures to spin one way or another. She goes on, “The Times seems to have a bias toward male authors. The question then becomes where the bias comes from.”

Not so. The Times only seems to have a possible-pending-additional-information bias toward reviewing male authors. A bias “toward,” by which we may assume Franklin means “in favor of,” male authors would be demonstrated by granting them positive reviews more often than women, all other things being equal. Franklin notes that in the period under examination, from June 29, 2008 to August 27, 2010, “101 books got the ‘one-two punch’ of a review in both the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review—72 of them were by men”; she doesn’t say in how many cases both reviews were positive.

The author whose one-two punch touched off this inquiry is Jonathan Franzen; his novel Freedom was reviewed by both Sam Tanenhaus, a man, and Michiko Kakutani, a woman, and both times favorably. The novelist Jodi Picoult, a woman, fumed on Twitter: “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the [Times] rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Franklin, recounting Picoult’s now-infamous Tweet, writes that she “gently tweaked . . . the paper,” as though the power of suggestion might make us see it for something other than an embarrassing micro-tantrum.

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The power of suggestion plays a starring role in this debate, as in so many debates about things inaccessible to us, like people’s true feelings and motivations, conscious or un-. We might even call it the power of plausibility. Most people are sympathetic in some degree to the idea that bias and consequent unfairness persist, even in our enlightened times. There is pleasure in being aware of and, whether publicly or privately, opposed to it. Is it such a leap to believe, say, Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke when she writes that “we don’t ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men”? (There’s that cunning “we,” by the way, which includes everyone but the author and her morally flattered reader. It’s harder to argue once you’ve been invited to the inner sanctum.)

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.

Stefan Beck is a contributor to CJR.