Saturday, January 02, 2010

On claims of sexual bias in publishing (In a Washington Post article)

Juliana Braggot wrote a piece in the Washinton post claiming "Key to literary success? Be a man -- or write like one".  She goes on to quote the statistics about how many female authors featured on the top 100 books of the year 2009 (a list by Publishers Weekly & another by Amazon), and how many of the fifty most inspiring authors writing now are females (a list published by Poets and Writers). I suppose it is best to read her piece before proceeding, though her major claims can be quoted here:

"How many female writers were in the top 10? Zero. How many on the entire list? Twenty-nine.

I wish I were scandalized, or at least surprised. I'm not. I understand the invisible prejudice -- from the inside out. I'm a woman, but I've been a sexist, too."


"What are the best books? The answer is always subjective, and I'm not a literary arbiter. But the message I received from this year's lists was painfully familiar. It forced me to explain to my students -- the next generation of writers -- that the men in the class have double if not five times the chance of this kind of recognition. I'll hand over the statistics and explain that an industry kept afloat by women is sexist. I'll confess to my own sexism. And I'll tell them that we have failed, but they don't have to."

Here is what I think of the whole issue:

I think that statistics often hide more than they reveal. There are a handful of female poets and novelists before 1900 who are deemed as greats (Jane Austen, Bronte Sisters, Mary Shelley). But there are also only a handful of Black (African-American), Brown (South Asian, Middle-Eastern) and Yellow (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) skinned writers even now, who are on the lists of greats of literature. The latter "bias" (if you wish to call it that) excludes 80% of the world population, excludes the writers who are worshiped in their nations and are giants in literature and languages read/spoken by millions of people: but no one thinks of that... and if this is true, the earlier statements made by the author apply to women in Western societies only. While I do not want to downplay a bias, if it exists, by pointing out another bias, in our search for justice, we may not and must not, limit our struggle only to things that directly benefit us. Also we have to be wary of creating a new bias, where say women or certain races or castes or language speakers get undue preference for jobs, prizes, and so on; already  the academic and industry circles are rife with allegations that hiring in the past few seasons has been tainted by this mode of political correctness / bias or social coercion!

In any event, in this country (and everywhere else), the present generation can be fair only to the present generation, but you cannot go back to the eighteenth century and invent great female authors or authors from African-American ancestry writing in English. Maybe great female or African-American writers could have existed if education and opportunity were provided to them, maybe few good ones did exist but either their work was lost or they never got published. But we only compare what exists, and conceptual problems of what if and what if not, are pointless, as their premise is unrealizable.

Somehow Julianna claims that successful female writers are the ones who wrote about male themes (and interestingly, she quotes herself as an example). But all the female authors I like and I read and read and read, (Virginia Woolf, Akhmatova, Rich, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, Mirabai, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Tahmima Anam, Mahadevi Verma, Kamla Markendaya, Cather, Boland, Forugh Farrokzad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamla Das, and so on), I can't recall a single one of them who wrote as a male author would, or pretend to be one! If I was an author I listed here, I would not be pleased with Julianna's article and yes, I am pretending to think  or speak like a female author, but that is my choice; believing it or not is yours. Whether Flaubert and Lawrence wrote about female emotion as well as Woolf or Austen could is not  in question for me, whether Woolf and Austen wrote well about male themes is also not in question for me: I only care about literature that causes me to wander, wonder, think, feel, smile, laugh, cry, make me drift into another time and place, about writing that entertains, and educates without telling me when and how, words that make me examine the world within and the world outside. All female writers listed by me do a large bit of what I expect from good literature; all writers I read or know personally write well, not because they are hyper-representations of a female or a Muslim or a Sri-Lankan or a communist country educated personae, but because they transcend such considerations.

It is very easy to blame biases of other people, turn bitter, cry foul, slander... what requires grit and character is to "show the other cheek", (like a good Christian / Buddhist / Hindu / human), and to keep writing. Good writing, like nuts in a box of cornflakes, or bubbles in beer, will always rise to the top.

Why did I need to write this post? While I believe that biases exist, both sexual and racial, their exposition and their dissolution, requires a constructive effort from people who can perceive them and write about them. If I were to claim that my poems are not accepted for publication solely because I am a woman (or for argument sake, say because I am a non-Christian, non-American, non-White , non-female, non-minority writer) I will be stating a half-lie, apart from slandering even those who have no such biases, ignoring any faults my own writing could have, trivializing the creativity and talent of who have been picked instead of me and in spite of me, and I will be doing a disservice to the very notion I want to support. Historically, popularity of books in a particular year has never been an index of how humanity perceives them in the long run, and all lists quoted here represent statistics of a  small fraction of buyers and readers around the world. Ideas, metaphors, biases, notions, fashions, preferences are all ever evolving and ever emerging in ways we can only steer or mould, but cannot control entirely.  The injustices of past cannot be used for justifying injustices in present or future. Any recourse to political  or social activism in  the name of race, caste, sex, creed, nationality, religion or language that tries to correct a bias by reverse discrimination (sometimes in form of reservation or affirmative action), any activism that denies the possibility of creating injustice elsewhere in its effort to provide injustice for past events, any activism that pretends to correct history by destroying the relics, icons and idols of the past, any activism that believes in superior or more binding rights of a fraction of humanity over others, any activism of this sort is unacceptable  to me and must be to all people, as it creates fresh injustice, hate, acrimony, anger, violence, bitterness and inequality. 


Vivek Sharma said...

Comments from

prassoon posted 2 days ago

It is like asking who is the BEST PLAYER in the world. Obviously the answer will differ from person to person depending on what game s/he likes.

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scribblingpad posted 2 days ago

The injustices of past cannot be used for justifying injustices in present or future
Any activism of this sort is unacceptable to me and must be to all people, as it creates fresh injustice, hate, acrimony, anger, violence, bitterness and inequality. >>>>>
Wonderful...words of gold!
I am so impressed by these stray sentences that nothing else is meaningful to me now.
I want to memorise it by heart it and quote it, if you give me leave.

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Vivek Sharma posted 1 min ago

Thanks Prassoon & scribblingpad...
I believe that the sentences you quote from my article are not stray sentences; they define the principle on which I base my writing and thinking. Perhaps the sentences echo what Tagore meant when he criticized nationalists, or Orwell suggested in his essays, and yes, I think the lines must be quoted, practiced and memorized.

Ajar Vashisth said...

On - on claims of sexual bias ..

Masterfully presented perspective. So true that popular media bases its notions on a small and arguably controlled sample of people and places. Its like inventing proof to justify a theory !