Sunday, April 08, 2012

Statistics Prove the Bias against Women in Literature

| @dg_myers 04.04.2012 

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.”

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