Monday, January 30, 2012

More thoughts on writing, gender and statistics

Here's a thing I've just noticed about this week's copy for the column of short book reviews I'm currently writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (what I'm writing, this week, I mean -- won't be published till early Feb).

It's something I think to check from time to time and I'm glad to say that even when I'm not doing it consciously I usually manage, over the course of four book reviews, to mix up genre, gender and nationality pretty evenly. The literary editor does the first cull of the books that come in for review and sends me more than I need, and then I choose from them.

(I'm always startled to realise how many people think reviewers choose their own books, at least for hard-copy publications. Books for review, and reviewers for them, are chosen by the literary editor, though reviewers will often make a pitch to review this or that book.)

Mostly when people are counting statistics about whether men or women are getting more coverage, they don't look any further than the numbers. This week's copy features three women writers and one man. With four books to review per week, the most frequent gender ratio in my own columns (as I say, not often deliberately: frankly I'm proud of having internalised this to the point where I usually don't even think about it) is 2:2. Sometimes, as this week, it's 3:1, one way or the other. Very rarely is it 4:0 but when it is, again, the all-male and all-female weeks are pretty equal in terms of numbers.

Recently I compared stats with a fellow writer of multiple short reviews per week, over a period of months, and was astounded to see that of 88 books I'd reviewed in that time, 45 were by women and 43 by men. Not chosen deliberately; the cards just fell that way.


Part of my job is to select a Pick of the Week, which gets twice as long a review as the others. It's usually pretty easy to do, especially in a weak week. Sometimes a book just leaps out at you; other times it's a tossup between two, or even more. Usually I pick the one that has the largest number of positive things to be said about it, which would seem to guarantee that the largest number of people won't feel as though they have been misled if they ever get round to reading the book.

This week, I happened to notice that the Pick of the Week is the only book out of the four that was written by a man. It's a clear winner, though the others are fine and none of them is downright bad -- although this isn't always the case. I have no problems with this choice at all.

But if I looked at my column for, say, four weeks in a row, or over a period of six months, and noticed that I had reviewed more women writers than men but that the men's books were consistently being featured as Pick of the Week, I would. I would have a problem with it, and with myself. There'd be some ferocious self-interrogation going on. But it's not a thing that the raw stats would pick up.


Elisabeth said...

That's good to know. Statistics are such a raw measure of what goes on. They invariably tell only part of the story.

David Irving (no relation) said...

I think you'd be being a bit hard on yourself, Dr Cat. After all, a great book is just that, and I'd expect that to be gender-neutral.

WV is "womeve", which is telling.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Well, it's not really gender-neutral because it really is more complicated than that (question: by what values do we judge a book to be great? And where and whom do those values come from? And who, traditionally, has the power to decide? Answer in 3 ...2 ...1 ...), but no, I'm not going to subject you to Feminism 101 at this late stage!

David Irving (no relation) said...

Honestly, I judge whether or not a book is great by how deeply it affected me. To be honest, that isn't going to be completely gender-neutral, because I'm a bloke.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

That too. I don't think you'd enjoy this novel I have here about an emotionally stunted 14-year-old ballerina very much. Just a hunch.

paul walter said...

How has objectivity been spurned, in this generation, like a good woman by an intemperate man for a doxy?

michaelfstanley said...

Maybe there's a genre effect - if say you tend to enjoy apocalyptic techno-thrillers, I can see how this pattern would emerge.

Aimi said...

An article in the Guardian on this subject: