Speaking Volumes: The biases we miss

(Published in the Business Standard, 23 April, 2013)

“You need to learn to think like a fox,” writes Nate Silver, New York Times political forecaster. I went to Silver to see what one of the leading statisticians of our times has to say about human bias; the fascinating subject of where our prejudices come from and what we can do about them.

Most often, we see someone as objective when they have few biases, or when they speak from a dispassionate observation of all the facts at their disposal. Not so, says Silver. “Objectivity means seeing beyond our personal biases and prejudices and toward the truth of a problem… The way to become more objective is to recognise the influence that our assumptions play in our forecasts and to question ourselves about them.”

The Orange Prize for Fiction—now the Women’s Prize—has been challenged ever since it was first established in 1996. This year’s shortlist, like so many in previous years, buries what was once a common argument explaining the widespread lack of visibility of women authors—that they were not as talented as the boys. With Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, AM Homes, Kate Atkinson and Maria Semple on the list, that argument sounds like the risible joke it is.

The other criticisms against the Women’s Prize have been surprisingly enduring. It was demeaning, some said, to have a separate prize for women. It was sexist to leave men out of the equation. Every few years, someone suggests that the lot of women writers has improved enough for the prize to be unnecessary.

One of my favourite responses came from this year’s chair, Miranda Richardson. Asked if the Prize was discriminatory against men, she said: “Well, if men want to have their singular prize, then they absolutely can do that, too.”

That’s so funny, and yet, when you stop laughing, ask yourself: why is the idea of an exclusive prize for men so hilarious? Every year, VIDA-Women in Literary Arts does The Count, calculating the number of books by male and female authors reviewed by leading publications, and the gender breakdown of reviewers. Publications such as The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books score disgracefully low on the VIDA counts—ie, they have low numbers of women reviewing books, and they review far fewer books by women.

The Boston Review and the New York Times Book Review have slightly better results. The VIDA counts have only been up for three years but already, the numbers make it very clear that the world of book reviewing and literary influence is still very much a man’s domain.

Most people, including me, flinch from accusations of bias and prejudice because we like to believe that we’re not like that—not sexist, or racist, or in India, casteist. And the way bias operates in the book world is subtle: few editors deliberately set out not to review women’s writing, or to assign reviews to men rather than to women.
The way prejudice operates is beautifully captured by a feature that used to be very popular in UK newspapers: the ‘Six of the Best’ lists, where editors, publishers and writers named their favourite books.

A typical list of the early 1980s would read like this one, compiled by Sir John Hackett: The Bible, Shakespeare, TE Lawrence, Plato, Herodotus, Thackeray. Hackett was no bigot in his own mind, and did not leave women out on purpose, any more than he omitted books by African or Australian or Latin American writers deliberately: he just did not see these categories of writers. They had not formed his experience of reading, and like the many other writers, from Denis Healey to Dick Francis, who left out women, they did not do so because they disliked women writers—they omitted women because they could not see them.

How does India stack up in terms of bias? I ran the numbers on the book review sections of a few publications, and what came up for Outlook was fairly typical: out of 101 books reviewed in a year, 51 were by women writers (slightly less than that, but I’ve included translators and joint authorship); 38 reviewers were women. Most publications with regular book review sections in India—which is a scant handful—show reasonable gender ratios, holding firm at about a 60:40 split between men and women.

But perhaps I was looking at the wrong category. This year, a VIDA contributor reported that she was going to run the numbers in the US to see what colour biases might emerge. I haven’t done a comprehensive look at the data, which would require a sociologist’s skills, but if we have below-the-radar prejudices in Indian publishing, I’m guessing it has to do with caste.

So few of the authors, reviewers and mainstream columnists we have on the mainstream book review pages come from Dalit or OBC communities, and while those numbers need to be confirmed, I suspect that’s where our own areas of darkness and invisibility lie.





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