A Question of Bias
An essay by Margaret Atwood et al.
For how long have observers been concerned about the possibility of sexual bias in Canadian book reviewing? A good case could be made that the initial analysis of the issue dates back to 1971 in a York University seminar room. Margaret Atwood was teaching a course entitled Canadian Women Writers, and as part of the coursework she and her students undertook an innovative project attempting to identify and measure the extent of sexual bias in Canadian book reviewing.
This project culminated in a preliminary report, “Sexual Bias in Canadian Reviewing,” which we are happy to publish here for the first time 44 years later. A fascinating cultural artifact in its own right, the document provides valuable insight into an era of Canadian book reviewing now long past. Although some issues described in the report may seem archaic by today’s standards, other issues that are discussed appear far less alien.
To accomplish their task, Atwood and her students sought to answer four key questions. First, are women writers as a group more likely to perceive they have been the subject of a reviewer’s sexual bias than are men writers? Second, is there any way to confirm apparent perceptual differences between women and men writers by examining a sample of reviews themselves? Third, do more books by men tend to get reviewed than books by women? And, fourth, are reviews more commonly assigned to male reviewers than female reviewers?
Perhaps the most enduring feature of this work is the fact that the report so closely presages the sorts of gender-based concerns that are very much a living issue for any book review journal today. These concerns also receive close attention by Canadian Women in the Literary Arts in their annual count, which, in CWILA’s words, “tracks the representation of women in Canadian book reviews.”
The following study was conducted by a group of first-year students, both male and female, at York University, enrolled in a seminar course titled “Canadian Women Writers.”
According to the course outline, the course was to be “an investigation of writing, both poetry and fiction, done in Canada by women, 1900 to the present, with emphasis divided between ‘Canadian’ and ‘female’ concerns, whatever these may be.” The outline assured prospective students: “we will be conducting an investigation, not propagating a doctrine.”
In class discussions on the literature—which included works by Margaret Laurence, Ethel Wilson, Sheila Watson, Adele Wiseman, Marian Engel, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Miriam Waddington and P.K. Page—the “feminine question” constantly arose, both with and without reference to the literature itself. We covered the role of the female in society, that society’s physical, mental and emotional stereotyping of the female, and its reaction to female writers, who by the mere act of writing professionally are presumably deviants from the stereotype.
Cynthia Ozick, in the American magazine Ms., says, “for many years, I had noticed that no book of poetry by a woman was ever reviewed without reference to the poet’s sex. The curious thing was that in the two decades of my scrutiny, there were no exceptions whatsoever. It did not matter whether the reviewer was a man or a woman; in every case the question of the ‘female sensibility’ of the poet was at the centre of the reviewer’s response. The maleness of male poets, on the other hand, hardly ever seemed to matter.”
Before this quotation had appeared, we had decided it would be relevant to conduct our own investigation of the existence or non-existence of sexual bias on the part of reviewers in this country. We planned to approach this investigation from two angles. First, we would compose a form letter to be sent to a number of female writers asking them whether or not they believed sexual bias existed, and if it did whether they could recollect any personal experience with it. As a control, we would send the same letter to the same number of Canadian male writers. Then, to consider the matter from a more objective standpoint, we would scrutinize reviews of works of Canadian writers of both sexes in Canadian publications, in an attempt to discover any example of bias.
We supposedly approached the project without preconceptions, but since the course was titled “Canadian Women Writers” and the course director was herself a Canadian woman writer, there may be some question as to whether we were in fact able to carry it out with complete detachment.
At any rate, the following is the result of our investigation.
I. The Survey Conducted by Letter
We sent the following letter to 22 Canadian writers, of whom twelve were women and ten were men. The slight balance in favour of women reflects both our primary interest in women’s attitudes and our suspicion that some of the women would not answer (which proved to be the case). This is the letter:
In connection with a course I am taking at York University I am helping to conduct a study of sexual bias in reviewing.
We are asking twenty writers, of both prose and poetry, both male and female, whether they can tell us if any reviews of their work have been unduly slanted, either favourably or unfavourably, because of the sex of the reviewer in relation to their own. The reviewer-writer combinations are four: men reviewing men, women reviewing women, men reviewing women, women reviewing men.
If you feel such a slanting has occurred, could you tell us the date and place of the review and the name of the reviewer. A copy would be received with thanks but is not necessary.
At the moment we are making no assumptions and have no preconceptions. We hope to write a report based on the information we collect, with a view to eventual publication.
In any case we would very much like to hear from you before January 15, as we would like to have time to process the information. Should you wish a copy of the report we would be pleased to send you one.
The results were as follows. A total of 22 letters were sent and we received 18 answers. Of those who did not answer three were women and one a man. We divided the replies according to whether the writer felt he or she had never received a review containing sexual bias, whether he or she was uncertain, or whether he or she could answer emphatically yes. The breakdown is as follows:
Yes Maybe No Yes Maybe No
4 3 2 0 2 6
One male respondent was completely uncommitted (i.e., he refused to take the question seriously at all, replying only that writers should pay no attention to reviews).
What our evidence, admittedly taken from too small a sample, suggests is that although male writers are slightly more likely to answer their mail than female ones, they are much less likely to feel that they have been victims of sexually biased reviewing than are women. None of the men questioned replied in the affirmative. Of the two who were uncertain, one said he was sure there was such a thing as sexual bias on both sides, but that it was undetectable, that any reviewer indulging in it would either not know or be unwilling to admit he or she was doing it, that we were “naive” and “silly” for trying to think about it at all, and that he found our request flabbergasting. In other words, it is there but mysterious (or sacred?). The other gave two minor instances of something he was not sure were examples. None of the letters from the male respondents was more than a page long, and most were only a few lines. Two were insulting, leading us to some speculations about the relationship of the sex of the respondent to that of the sender of the letter.
The letters from women were another story altogether. Of the two who said no, one said that sexual bias probably exists but that she was too busy writing to think about it. The other felt that bias had been caused more by her age than by her sex. Of the three we somewhat arbitrarily put in the maybe column, one said that she had certainly felt she had received biased reviews (ones based on assumptions about factors external to her work itself) but that she was not sure of the source of the bias: whether it was sex or age, or perhaps occupation or marital status.
The two comments showing concern about age may indicate that being an aging woman is a more vulnerable position in this society than being an aging man (none of the men mentioned age). Another said she could not be sure, though she felt there must have been some bias as human beings are not objective. The third wrote a very good letter that questioned the assumptions in our own letter, pointing out that we had included only four categories of reviewer-reviewer relationships, ignoring altogether the possibilities of “homosexuals” of both sexes being reviewed by “straights” of either sex; or reviewing them. She felt there indeed had been bias in reviews of her work, and it was sexual bias, but it was bias directed by straights against something they found sexually “abnormal.” (We stand corrected.)
Of the four women writers who answered yes, all were quite specific, naming dates and places. One said she had noticed this phenomenon in connection with only one of her books; she felt the content of this book was such that it threatened male reviewers, who gave it much worse reviews than any woman reviewer had, and reacted not to its technique or craftsmanship or faithfulness to its own axioms but to their dislike for what the central female figure represented: the figure stood for something they did not want to know about or think about. The second noted a male habit of concentrating on domestic themes in the work of the female writer, ignoring any other topic she might deal with, and then patronizing her for an excessive interest in these very themes. She also felt bias was displayed not only within reviews but in the relative infrequency with which books by women were reviewed at all; seldom, she said, are they featured in a way that a book by a man is. The third concentrated on “feminine sensibility” adjectives such as “enclosed,” “subjective,” narcissistic,” “neurotic” and “solipsistic,” which she felt the reviewers were connecting with or assuming from the fact of her being female.
The fourth letter deserves a space to itself. It was an excellent, honest, thorough and serious treatment of the whole subject, containing much more material than we had any right to expect. To begin at the end, the writer wondered whether male book editors assigned books for review on a sexist basis. She herself had done a lot of reviewing, and found that she tended to get sent books by women. She found women reviewers “gushier” than male ones (either pro or con), male ones “more objective,” but with important exceptions. She discussed in detail her own biases, including a tendency to dislike certain kinds of “female” writing, her competitiveness with women writers is different from her competitiveness with men, although she is harder on male “coyness” than female “coyness” and hard on “woman as object” humour. More than anything, her letter emphasized the convolutions and complexities of the problem. What emerged was her absolute seriousness as a writer—which included her refusal to evade or simplify the question.
Despite the deficiencies of our study (the smallness of the sample, the omissions in our letter itself), the results we got indicated quite definitely that women writers are much more concerned with the possibilities of sexual bias in reviewing, much more willing to give the subject some time and thought, and much more likely to feel that they themselves have been the recipients of it. They also were much more likely to wish us good luck.
II. The Survey of Magazines and Newspaper Reviews
Through our letter survey we established that women writers were more likely than men to feel that there was sexual bias in reviewing. Whether that feeling was justified could only be determined by an examination of some actual reviews. We decided to look at the ten most recent issues of 13 periodicals and newspaper book review sections.
The periodical examined were Books in Canada, Canadian Dimension, Canadian Literature, Canadian Forum, Fiddlehead, Globe and Mail Magazine, Journal of Canadian Studies, The Last Post, Quarry, Queen’s Quarterly, Saturday Night, Tamarack Review and the Toronto Star weekend book review section.
We ran into the following snags:
1) Missing issues of magazines (they seem to have been stolen).
2) Anonymous reviews.
3) Some confusion on our part as to what we meant by “sexual bias.” It had to be established, for instance, that we did not mean just an unfavourable review; we meant points being assigned or subtracted by the reviewer on the basis of the reviewee’s sex and associated characteristics rather than on the basis of the work itself. We were also faced with some of our own unexamined assumptions.
4) Difficulty in achieving a statistical breakdown. What this part of our survey taught us was how to go about this properly, were we to do it again with the help of a statistician and a computer. We would have had to total the number of books reviewed in each issue of a given periodical, for ten issues. Then we would have had to break that total down into a) number of books by men, b) number of books by women, c) number of books reviewed by men, and d) number of books reviewed by women. Only then would any “instance of bias” count have been interpretable. This became apparent only after we were well into the reading of reviews. We leave a fuller survey to those with more resources at their disposal.
However, although we cannot offer a periodical-by-periodical rundown of percentages of biased reviews to totals, we were able to isolate and identify certain types of bias.
Assignment of reviews, etc. Most books in this society are written by men. So are most reviews. Disproportionately often, books by women were assigned to women reviewers, indicating that books by women fell in the minds of those dishing out the reviews into some kind of “special” category. Likewise, woman reviewers tended to be reviewing books by women rather than by men (although because of the preponderance of male reviewers, there were quite a few male-written reviews of books by women).
The sexual compliment–put-down. A trivial matter perhaps, but what does the attractiveness of a woman’s picture on a dust jacket have to do with the literary merits of whatever is inside the cover? Comments on pretty ladies on dust jackets were made exclusively by men and tended to imply dismissal of the woman as a writer.
The “housewife” comment. Identification of the author as a “housewife” and consequent dismissal of anything she has produced (since, in our society, a housewife is viewed as a relatively brainless and talentless creature). We even found one instance in which the author was called a housewife and put down for writing like one when in fact she was no such thing.
Emily Dickenson. When a male reviewer falls back on Emily Dickenson as the only person he can think of to compare the woman writer with (even though the similarity may be scant or non-existent), it usually indicates either that he has read no other woman writer or poet or that he thinks of all women writers as introverted recluses or aberrations (i.e., not happily married wives and mothers).
“She writes like a man.” This is usually used by a male reviewer who is impressed in some way by a female writer he is reviewing; it is meant as a compliment. See also “she thinks like a man,” which means the author thinks clearly, unlike most women, who are held to be incapable of objective thought or thought of any kind (their province is “feeling”). Adjectives that often have similar connotations are ones such as “tough,” “gutsy,” “hard,” “mean,” etc. The assumption is that women are by nature soft, weak and not very good, and that if a woman writer happens to be good she should be deprived of her label or identity as an (inferior) female and provided with higher status by being made an honorary male. Thus the woman writer has, in the minds of such reviewers, two choices. She can be bad but female, a housewife or a carrier of the “feminine sensibility” virus; or she can be “good” in male-adjective terms but sexless, a freak. Badness seems to be ascribed then to a surplus of female hormones, whereas badness in a male writer is usually ascribed to nothing but badness (although a “bad” male writer is sometimes held, by adjectives implying sterility or impotence, to be deficient in maleness). “Maleness” is exemplified by the “good” male writer; “femaleness,” since it is seen by such reviewers as a handicap or deficiency, is held to be transcended or discarded by the “good” female one.
Assignment to the women’s page. A form of cultural segregation. Woman writers tend to be put here more often than men, with usually an attempt made by the reviewer or interviewer to assign them a housewife role (see above) so that the presumed readership can “identify” with them. Needless to say, the women’s page is not thought of as a place where serious critical attention is given to an author’s work.
Grab-bag of individual slurs and slights. We collected a number of interesting phrases and examples: a woman critic put down for being too “subjective,” i.e., female; “the author is too intelligent to follow the orthodox women’s liberation line” (i.e., women’s lib is stupid); “besides she’s a woman, even though very intelligent,” implying in this case the impossibility of communication between reviewer and reviewee. And so on.
Summary of Magazine Survey
In all honesty, we did not find quite as much sexual bias displayed toward women as, given their inferior position in society and, in view of the Ozick quotation, we might have expected. But there is still some, and we feel more work needs to be done on this. We feel also that there is a difference between open admissions and examination of one’s bias (as in the letter from our fourth yes correspondent) and concealed bias posing as objective truth. The latter is surely much more destructive. (We did find, incidentally, two cases of sexual bias displayed toward men by women, although none of our male letter-writers seemed aware of any of this).
Both our letter survey and our reading of reviews indicated that sexual bias, largely directed toward women writers (although by both male and female reviewers) is felt by women to exist and does exist in fact.
These results simply reflect such bias in society itself. If women are held to be inferior, women writers cannot avoid sharing the stigma, and women reviewers may have internalized the judgements of their society to such an extent that they display some of the same kinds of bias that men do. But surely the most literate part of society—the readers as represented for us by book reviewers—have the responsibility of re-examining stereotypes as opposed to reinforcing them.
Of course, the conductors and compilers of this survey must question their own disengagement or lack of it. Have we been objective? In a sexually biased society, can we be objective? We would tend to agree with one of our male correspondents, who argued that sexual bias, here and now at any rate, is always with us. Unlike him, we do not find it silly or naive to try to examine it.