Genderised Book Reviewing

6 December, 2016

When I mentioned my favourite writers some years ago, I was taken to task because I didn’t include any female authors. I confess I hadn’t even considered gender when assessing whose works I liked to read, but you could say that the criticism “raised my consciousness” about the issue.

Recently I did a survey of the last 100 books I read and found that only 19 were authored or edited by a woman. I was a bit surprised at this low number.  My guess is that this may be partly because I tend to read multiple books by favourite male authors such as Anthony Burgess and Paul Theroux, while female authors (for some as yet unanalysed reason) are generally represented on my reading list by single examples, and the results are thus somewhat skewed.

However, it seems that I shouldn’t have been surprised, as a survey by Goodreads found that, of books published in 2014, male authors accounted for no fewer than 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles.  Before everybody jumps up and down about men being sexist, be aware that female authors accounted for 92% of the 50 titles most read by women!  (I have included Robert Galbraith as a female writer, as it’s in fact J. K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym).

Historically, men have been published much more than women and so, unsurprisingly, we find that in “100 best books of all time” lists, women feature far less than men – the Guardian’s list, published in 2002, for example, has only 14. The 2010 Time magazine list  (which includes only books published after 1923) has 22.   Esquire Magazine’s “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” includes just one book written by a women (Flannery O’Connor – maybe the name fooled them…).

So it was with the aforementioned heightened awareness that I approached last weekend’s Irish Times annual review of favourite books, chosen by selected luminaries.   As might be expected from such a feminist organ, the “paper of record” was scrupulously gender-balanced, with 17 male and 17 female reviewers asked to contribute.  I analysed the gender of the authors of the books mentioned, excluding a few that were compendia of works by both genders, to test the extent to which males favoured male authors and female favoured female authors.

Overall, there were 142 recommendations, with some books being represented more than once within this number. There was a respectable gender balance, with a 60/40 split in favour of male authors.  No need for quotas then (or was this outcome itself the result of a quota being imposed?!)  In fact, I suspect that this outcome probably reflects the gender balance of the authors of all books published in the English language these days, with males outnumbering females, rather than any bias or quality issues.

But when recommendations were further analysed by gender of the reviewer, the position is a bit different. In the case of male reviewers, 73% of the books recommended were written by men.  The women were a bit more balanced, but still favoured books written by women, by 58% to 42%.

So the Irish Times interviewees were still favouring their own gender when it comes to book selections. I’m not surprised that the extent of this bias (if that is the appropriate word) is far less marked than that shown by the Goodreads survey mentioned above – after all, those who write for (and read) The Irish Times are an educated and sophisticated lot, and are less likely to favour crime novels (written largely by men for men), science fiction (ditto), or chick-lit (written largely by women for women).  Biography, history and literary fiction are much more gender-blind.

The attached graphic suggests that I should amend slightly the third of my Rules for Proper Feminists:

“You should accept that job quotas apply both ways.  So if you want fair representation in politics, business, the arts, the professions, and in other such desirable occupations, then you should accept that women should shoulder their fair share of lousy or demanding OR DANGEROUS jobs – in the army, as road sweepers, bike couriers, potato pickers, mine workers and so on.”

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It’s not going to happen, of course.

Adrian Bourke, the brother of ex-president Mary Robinson, will presumably make a nice capital gain from the sale of his Ballina premises to Mayo County Council.  It’s supposed to be bought for €665,000 and be used as Ireland’s first presidential library, housing his sister’s papers.  However  recent reports suggest that the sale has stalled for reasons unknown.

In fact the whole project has come under fire recently, with RTE’s Prime Time last week raising various questions about whether this is a good use of public money, and historian Diarmuid Ferriter writing “If Robinson wants to encourage research into her career, or assessments of her legacy, she should follow the practice of her predecessors and donate her papers to the National Library, the National Archives or one of the national universities, without any need for tax credits or valuations by auctioneers and with no excessively expensive, publicly funded vanity centre.”  Ouch.

And Michael McDowell has raised similar concerns in his most recent Sunday Business Post contribution:  “Are all former office-holders to benefit by tax holidays based on donating their papers, documents and memorabilia to publicly funded ‘libraries’ in future? Or is this to be a one-off?   In my judgment, the Ballina scheme should be called off before it does further damage to Irish public life. And before it needlessly damages the presidency – not to mention damage to her own place in our history.”  Double ouch.

I’m tempted to ask why it has taken so long for these worthies to train their gaze on this project, which is being funded by the public purse to the tune of about €5 million.  Yours truly was a lot quicker into the fray, asking a few pertinent questions 11 months ago.

Mrs Robinson has also been in the news recently as she is selling her home in Mayo. The plug for the house in the Irish Times reveals that “Former president Mary Robinson and husband Nick are selling their Co Mayo home for €2.75 million. Massbrook, a 113 acre estate on the shores of Lough Conn, is located about 20 minutes from Mrs Robinson’s childhood home of Ballina, and has served as the couple’s primary Irish base since they purchased it in 1994.”

Those of you who (unlike me) are familiar with tax matters will be aware that the sale of one’s principal private residence is exempt from Capital Gains Tax (CGT).  However, the relevant legislation, section 604 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, provides that the exemption only applies to the residence plus its “garden or grounds up to an area (exclusive of the site of the dwelling house) not exceeding one acre“, so Mrs Robinson is presumably looking at a CGT bill, calculated at 33% of any gain she and her husband make on 112 of the 113 acres.  Based on an apportionment of the sale price being asked, I’m guessing that the gain might be in excess of €1 million, since the 1994 purchase price allowed as an offset would have been quite small.

However as the State has given her a tax credit of €2 million for “donating” her archive, she will not have to worry about handing over any of the sale proceeds to the Revenue Commissioners.  She will also presumably have plenty of tax credit left over to cover other tax liabilities – such as her Presidential pension, for instance?  On the other hand, wouldn’t it be great if she could let her brother share in the tax credit, so as to cover the profit he will make on the sale of his premises in Ballina?

 

 

 

Here’s yet another example of an Irish politician “calling for” something to happen, as if somebody else is actually in charge of running the country.

From yesterday’s Irish Times:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has called for a national conversation on the exposure of young people to pornography.

Mr Kenny said he has serious concerns young people were being tainted and corrupted by an avalanche of pornography.

“It’s always important that we should have a national conversation about what is important for our children – what is, and should be, a priority for our children when they’re growing up, and when they grow up.

Last time I checked, Enda was the Taoiseach. Has he no views on the matter?  If he doesn’t like the way the country deals with pornography, then do something about it. Irish politicians are ridiculously scared of being seen to have an actual policy on something, in case a few votes are lost back in the constituency. Other commentators have picked up on this.

Contrast this waffle with the way things are done in the UK. You may agree or disagree with the policy, but at least the politicians in power have particular views on things, and are not afraid of taking action.

This from July 2015:

Mr Cameron launched an opt-in system for pornography in 2013, meaning users had to tell their internet providers that they wanted access to adult material. The filter also blocks websites advocating self-harm and anorexia.

After concerted pressure from Downing Street, this year, Sky, BT and TalkTalk imposed automatic filters unless customers asked them to be turned off. 

This is but a single example of this infuriating tendency.  Enda should lead from the front, or get off the stage.

 

 

The Hijab as a Symbol

4 October, 2016

This makes a lot of sense.

 

 

hijab-is-like-confederate-flag

These comments from March 2013, following the death of Hugo Chavez:

President Michael D Higgins:

“President Chavez achieved a great deal during his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction”

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams:

“President Chávez worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Venezuelan citizens. He dedicated himself to building a new and radical society in Venezuela.  His progressive social and economic changes took millions out of poverty.”

And this from yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Venezuela is stuck in a doom loop that’s become a death spiral.    Its stores are empty, its people are starving, and its government is to blame. It has tried to repeal the law of supply and demand, and, in the process, eliminated any incentive for businesses to actually sell things. The result is that the country with the largest oil reserves in the world now has to resort to forced labor just to try to feed itself.”

Just sayin’.

 

In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.