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.

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.

 

 

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

So our ex-President Mrs Mary Robinson is to open the State’s first presidential archive and research centre in 2017.  Good for her.

In a touching piece in the Irish Times, Robinson-biographer and acolyte Lorna Siggins tells us that “A quarter of a century after her promise to keep a symbolic candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, former president Mary Robinson has outlined plans to brighten her north Mayo birthplace with the State’s first presidential archive and research centre.  The €8.35 million centre in her former family home – the 19th-century Victoria House, overlooking the river Moy in Ballina – will open in the second quarter of 2017, Mrs Robinson said in Ballina at the weekend.”

€8.35 million!  Wow, that’s very generous of her, isn’t it?  Why, I’m almost ready to forgive her for quitting her pathetic little job as President of Ireland in 1997 two months early so she could nail down a real job with the United Nations as their High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Oh but wait a minute, Mary isn’t paying for the house – you and I are footing most of the bill it seems.  Here’s what Lorna tells us:

  • €1.5 million has been provided by Mayo County Council to buy the house and to provide an adjoining site for construction of an annexe, along with architectural and design services;
  • The State has committed just over €2 million through the Department of the Taoiseach;
  • Mrs Robinson has donated her archive, valued at €2.5 million, to the State, under section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which provides that people who donate heritage items can credit the value against certain tax liabilities.

So this vanity project for Mrs Robinson will cost the Irish citizens up to €5.5 million, depending on what is the net effect on the State coffers of the tax foregone as a result of the big fat tax credit she will get.  She may not have thought enough of us to serve her full term as President, but obviously our money is as good as anybody else’s.

It seems that the archive “will house files relating to Mrs Robinson’s legal work, her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 and her term as UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.”

I am impressed with the prescience she showed in keeping safe all those boxes of files spanning some five decades.  She must have been confident from an early date that history was being created.

However, in my self-appointed role as intrepid defender of the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer, I have to ask two questions: (a) How come the archive is worth €2.5 million and who decided this?  And (b) how come the papers in the archive are Mrs Robinson’s to donate in the first place?

The latter question is interesting.  Mrs Robinson, both as President of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was effectively employed by and paid for by Ireland and the United Nations respectively.  Under most legal systems and contractual arrangements with which I am familiar, any materials produced in the course of the execution of the paid-for role belong to the employer organisation, not the individual involved.

Why are the files relating to her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 not already the property of the State?  Why are we effectively paying for them twice – the first time through her salary when she was President and was generating the relevant papers, and now in giving her an 80% tax credit for handing them over to us?   Maybe we need to take a look at the terms of our Presidential “employment contract”.

If Mrs Robinson is anything, she is ethical and law-abiding.  So I’m sure everything is above board.  But somebody has to ask the right questions.  If you are waiting for the Irish Times to ask any challenging questions of her, don’t hold your breath.

PS…. I note that for our money we also will get a research centre that will have “a particular emphasis on the ‘critical area of women’s leadership’, unleashing ‘energy for change’ through women’s empowerment”.   I can’t wait.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…..

 

I think there should be mandatory jail sentences for those who publish bar charts and other graphs that show a misleading position as a result of selecting an incorrect base line or y-axis (usually, but not always, this should be zero).

Here’s a particularly egregious example from a publication that should know better, the Sunday Business Post.  It appeared in its 11th October 2015 edition.  Visually, the current minimum wage appears to be less than 20% of the living wage.  However it is in fact about 75% of it, and setting the y-axis to start at zero would have given the correct visual impression.

File 19-10-2015, 15 13 47 So why didn’t they do this?  Careless journalism, careless editing, lack of numeracy, or a deliberate wish to create a striking image where there was no justification for it?

The Sunday Business Post is in dishonourable company in this practice.  Here are two choice examples from Fox News in the United States, which of course has a political agenda to promote.

        Fox chart

Fox unemployment-rate

Rather than using a nonsensical bar chart, it would have been better had the Sunday Business Post not published it at all, and instead allowed the reader to draw the necessary information from published text.  However that would probably have gone against another apparent Sunday Business Post policy – that of using up lots of space with unnecessary (or unnecessarily large) photos and graphics.  Cheaper than actual journalism, I suppose.

 

We have heard a lot in Ireland recently about politicians and their consciences.  Famously, Lucinda Creighton broke with Fine Gael as she wouldn’t follow the party whip and support the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.  She asserted the need to follow her conscience, which apparently was telling her that the Catholic Church’s hard-line position on abortion had to be followed.  Many people’s reaction to stances such as that of Lucinda is to say something like: “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of Mr/Ms X, but I admire him/her for taking a stand on a matter of conscience”.

But this is a superficial analysis.  Because the essence of Lucinda’s stance is to deny all Irish women the very thing she insists on having herself, namely freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.  And abortion is a matter of conscience.  It’s not like murder or theft or arson, matters on which there is a consensus in all civilised societies, regardless of religious beliefs, and against which we properly (and indeed necessarily) legislate.

Lucinda obviously believes that her conscience must be given greater weight than those of hundreds of thousands of women in Ireland who believe that women should be allowed have an abortion in Ireland, whether because of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, because of a pregnancy arising from rape, or for any other reason that their conscience permits.

As Gene Kerrigan has so aptly written,

It’s possible to have a personal position against abortion – which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position – which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.   Otherwise, you’re saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows….

…There are women who just don’t – for reasons that are not your business or mine – wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.  We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around – that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because – for instance – the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Lucinda exiled herself from Fine Gael as she wanted to retain the status quo for our ultra-punitive abortion laws instead of making the marginal relaxation which the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill involved.  Following your conscience cannot be a “get-out clause” for doing bad things or (and this is key) for refusing similar latitude to other people whose reasoned and informed consciences tell them something completely different.

Dr Ryan Walter, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, wrote a fascinating article (“Conscience votes corrupt our political system”) on the relationship between politics and public representatives’ consciences.  It was in the context of proposed same-sex-marriage legislation, but it is relevant in this debate.

“Many politicians appreciate the freedom for debate and personal reflection that comes with conscience votes, but this is exactly why they are so dangerous. For conscience votes have the potential to undermine one of the defining principles of secular liberal democracy: the separation of religion and politics….

…We know from empirical research that politicians will tend to hold a mix of these views [on how best to represent their constituents and to serve the public interest], but the point to underline is that all these visions of politics require the politician to fulfil their public office rather than pursue private interests. This includes personal moral and religious interests. We are perfectly comfortable calling politicians corrupt when they steal from the public purse, but we are inconsistent when we do not decry injecting personal religious belief into legislation that will govern the lives of all Australians, regardless of faith.

…. [Conscience] tells us only to look inside ourselves but not what we’ll find there, which could be all sorts of things: university-student ideologies, religious convictions, moral visions. It is the role of political parties and the ritual of parliamentary process to discipline these private enthusiasms by subjecting them to the duties invested in the public office of a politician.”

Ask your actual or potential public representatives this question: “Do you believe that Ireland should be a secular democracy and that we should separate religion and politics?”  If they say no, well at least you know where they stand, and you should commend their honesty.  If they say yes, then tell them that you expect them to act accordingly when performing their duties as a legislator, and not to vote according to their “conscience” where that conscience is informed by religious views that are not universally accepted.

As Bertrand Russell said, “…the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”

 

Art vs religion

12 January, 2015

Clive James’s review of John Bayley’s collected book reviews , which was included in “The Revolt of the Pendulum”, has this:-

He just doesn’t think that art and religion make a good match, especially if the religion is an adopted one, as in the case of Waugh – and the case of Graham Greene, by whom he is enthralled even less.  Without precisely calling those two eminent Catholic converts perpetrators of a put-up job, he makes it clear that he thinks their religiosity detracts from their scope of vision rather than adding to it. …..

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved. Bayley is at his very best when he is pushing his insistence that the mundane is sublime enough. (‘Boots and shoes’, ‘the detail and the dailiness’: the phrases keep on coming.) He is surely right. Art, by making bearable sense of the world, is out after religion’s job, which is probably why no religion in its fundamentalist phase has ever liked it. Art is its own ideal state, which is probably why Plato didn’t like it either.

Famously, Islam prohibits the depiction of human and animal forms in art.  The Taliban even went to the trouble of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But strict Protestantism used to be none too keen on depictions of God and the saints.  I heard a historian claim recently that 99% of all religious artworks were destroyed in England during the Reformation.

Below is a quote from Bobby Kennedy on what Gross National Product means and what it does not mean. 

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Fantastic rhetoric, for sure, equal to anything JFK (or his speechwriter) ever produced.

But to add a corrective balance to RFK’s outpouring, look at what Eduardo Porter, in “The Price of Everything“, has to say.  If you are a romantic type, look away now.

Porter quotes Kennedy but goes on to add:

“Yet despite its growing popularity, the belief that money has little or nothing to do with happiness is misleading. Like Schopenhauer’s musings and Mariana’s troubles, the sweeping rhetoric about the emptiness of material wealth supports a dubious proposition that the pursuit of economic progress is somehow a waste of time because it does not deliver what is most important in life. Despite the scepticism about run-of-the-mill economic growth, despite the angry denunciations of materialism, it is usually better to have a big gross domestic product than a small one. Just ask one of the more than 3 billion people – half the world’s population – how happy they are making do with less than $2.50 a day.

In fact, surveys find that richer people tend to be happier than poorer people. That’s because money provides many of the things that improve people’s lot. Richer countries are generally healthier and have lower child mortality and higher life expectancy. They tend to have cleaner environments, and their citizens often have more education and less physically demanding and more interesting jobs.  Richer people usually have more leisure time, travel more, and have more money to enjoy the arts. Money helps people overcome constraints and take control over their lives.  Whatever Kennedy said, gross national product does allow for the health of our kids.

Researchers in Britain found that an extra 125,000 a year increased people’s sense of satisfaction with their lives by one point on a scale of one to seven. A study in Australia pored through surveys to understand how people’s feelings of happiness responded to life’s events. It found that a windfall of $16,500 to $24,500 provided more or less the same boost to happiness as getting married.”

And that’s presumably Australian Dollars.  So getting married is only worth €15,000 in happiness terms. Clearly something wrong with that analysis!