07 November 2009

The PW "dudes-only" list kerfluffle: seriously? only men?

If you read blogs - book blogger, industry, or otherwise - you've probably heard of the Publisher's Weekly Best of 2009 list comprised solely of male authors.  The intent was to eliminate bias by not considering the authors' genders...right.  I've got what amounts to a minor in biostatistics and I can tell you that unless you draw the names out of a hat there's going to be bias, conscious or not (I'll ignore the irony of a "Best of 2009" list that is published two months before the end of 2009).

Statistically speaking, if you ignore gender then the male/female ratio in the final list would be proportional to the male/female ratio in the longlist (which I guess numbered in the thousands).  But we're not talking about random assortment here, we're talking about a list generated by a value judgement made by humans.  Gender will bias the outcome unless you can find readers who know absolutely nothing about the novels under consideration (i.e. a group of blinded subjects), have them read each book under consideration without information as to who the author is/what gender the author is, and then make the final list based on the blinded group's opinion.  That's absolutely not going to happen - it is unrealistic.

A few people have brought up the "devil's advocate" position that there would be outcry if the "Best of 2009" list consisted of all female authors.  I'm sure people would cry bias on that instance, too, even if claims were made about the non-gendered consideration of the list.  PW also claimed to ignore genre, too, and in that instance they did hit a 50-50 split between fiction and non-fiction (conveniently enough).  But....is the publishing world split 50-50 between fiction and non-fiction?  I don't think so.  And did they consider YA or children's books?  Those books do consitute a genre based on age.

Personally, I find several titles on the list inferior to critically acclaimed titles released this year.  In particular, I am disappointed that The Help by Kathryn Stockett is not on this list; anything that is a "word-of-mouth" bestseller and very highly praised critically deserves "Best-of" recognition.  Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize but neither she not Stockett even made the fiction longlist.  Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor failed to make the history longlist, too. 

What's my point?  This is all subjective.  Publisher's Weekly should have said this is the list and not tried to say they avoided gender and genre; because the list-makers are human and there will always be bias.  Better to acknowledge the bias as it is than try and dismiss it.


  1. As someone who tends to prefer female authors, I have a hard time understanding any list that was all boys. No thank you.

  2. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief. What is this, the 1950s? I'm talking in terms of the level of sexism. Geez.