Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why would you let your children read books by racist, sexist bigots?

There is certain strain of extremist intolerance in America today, mostly circulating in universities and in the media. People who believe that America is a uniquely racist and sexist country, oppressing people of color and women in ways that are worse than in the past and worse than elsewhere in the world. They believe that there is readily identifiable and widespread male privilege, white privilege, institutionalized racism, and patriarchy. They have supped at the table of European Marxist scholars and social critics of the 1960s and 70s and have received an understanding that most of the rest of us fail to grasp. They espouse critical thinking and tolerance while blindly following ideology and suppressing discourse and dissent everywhere they can.

They can be found in MFA programs and are heavily concentrated in any university Studies program, in English Departments, in Anthropology, and terribly thick in Education, Sociology and Psychology.

They are delusionists of course. Generally they are inconsequential and marginal so what they think and do has no significant impact on the welfare of the commonweal. Independent of whatever, non-doctrinal writing talent that they might have, they are generally woefully bereft of even the most basic numeracy. Lately though, it seems, they are becoming more and more comfortable pulling back the curtain and revealing just how racist and sexist they are, how bigoted, how ignorant, and how authoritarian.

Is this a good trend or bad? It's good to know who the authoritarian bigots are but it is disturbing that they are so proud of their bigotry. Bull Connor was terrible in his racism but his downfall was his willingness to be so blatantly racist.

There is a common belief among a certain vocal class of writers that the publishing industry is horribly discriminatory against people of color and women authors. The evidence proffered is that only 15% of children's books are about or authored by people of color (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans) versus 34% of the general population. Also offered as evidence of discrimination is the fact that usually about 65% of the elite Caldecott Awards for illustrated children's books are awarded to men.

Fair enough. Two isolated facts. What about the whole context? Have people of all colors won all of the top children's awards at different times? Yes. Are some of the bestselling authors and illustrators people of color? Yes. Do most of the major publishing houses have imprints that focus on books by and about people of color? Yes. Are there major independent publishers who concentrate solely on literature by and about people of color? Yes. Have the number of books by and about Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans been steady or rising in the past twenty years? Yes. Aren't the Newbery Awards (children's literature and the counterpart to the Caldecott for children's illustration) usually awarded about 65% to women? Yes. So this is not an issue of redlining or preclusion. It is an issue of proportionality.

Are there counterfactuals that might explain the disparate numbers? Sure. Social Justice Warriors might be focused on their perception of Social Justice but publishers have to focus on what sells. They have to make a profit. There is evidence that some types of by and about books simply don't sell well. Winning a Caldecott or Newbery virtually assures a long print life for a title, usually of more than forty years. There are some still in print from the very first Newbery award in 1922.

There is a corresponding award for books by-and-about African Americans called the Coretta Scott King Award which is administered by the same American Library Association which administers the Newbery and the Caldecott and which is also awarded annually. Unlike the other two, a winner of a King award is usually, despite the attention and fanfare, out-of-print within five or ten years. For whatever reason, people simply aren't buying those books.

A second counterfactual is that there is a much stronger correlation between winners of any award and the number of books they have written and the number of years they have been published. Most award winners have been writing/illustrating books for more than a couple of decades before they win an award. It isn't race or gender that is predictive, it is volume of work and duration of work. Simplistic evidence of the old adage that practice makes perfect.

Yet another counterfactual, particularly to the claims of a male dominated publishing industry has to do with the actual numbers involved. 60-90% of editors, agents, teachers, librarians are women. From first writing to actual reading by children, at every step of the way, women are the majority of the participants determining outcomes. It would appear difficult to make the argument that all these professionals are under some male hypnotic spell (transmitted by the "male gaze?") which causes them to discriminate against women authors.

So there's the context. A lot of evidence against the proposition that the publishing industry discriminates based on sex and race and hardly any evidence for that argument. More tellingly, the social justice warriors are never able to advance a causal mechanism for the discrimination. How exactly is this happening (given that it is illegal to discriminate based on race and gender)? Sure, there are anecdotes of the "My friend said . . " sort or "They rejected my manuscript and I am sure it was because . . . " sort. But that is anecdote. We love stories but when it comes to reality, we need data and evidence. The social justice warriors are either unwilling or unable to make the specific and concrete case that editor X or publisher Y discriminated against me in this fashion with these results.

In short, it is not true that the publishing industry is dominated by men and there is no evidence that there is any discrimination based on race or sex. But that should be no impediment to a lovely social signalling cause. I am for X even if there is no evidence of X. Its as if we are back in the stone ages associating thunder with angry gods, simply because.

Someone at the recent annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference asked 23 writers about what message they wanted to send to straight white male publishing. The answers are in 23 Writers With Messages For Straight White Male Publishing. It is pitiable that there were at least 23 writers willing to accept the implied but factually incorrect premise the publishing industry is dominated by straight white males. But indeed there apparently were 23 people who were willing to offer an opinion about a subject about which they appear to be factually ignorant. But there's always someone or some people in a crowd if you look for them hard enough. The flat-earthers, the evolution denialists, etc. What struck me was the readiness, in a professional environment among people who nominally are well educated and likely to self identify as liberal and tolerant, for them to express explicitly racist and sexist opinions. And not just express them but advertize them (see 23 Writers With Messages For Straight White Male Publishing for the pictures).

The messages they want straight white male publishers to hear are:
Read less straight white men

Get over it

We owe you nothing

Grow up

Sit down and let us abolish you

She's coming for you

We are not tokens

You've not doomed us. You've doomed yourselves.

Hire women. Diversity makes you strong. (In an industry already dominated by women)

We don't need you

Take a vacation (a long one)
The sophomoric presumption, ignorance and arrogance are quite startling. There's no tolerance or acceptance or respect in this lot.

Why on earth would you let your children read anything by these bigots? Too bad they did not attach their names to their cards. They are perfectly free to express their opinions. It would be nice for them to identify themselves so that readers are able to make informed choices about which authors to support by buying their books.

UPDATE: From Most authors earn less than minimum wage from their writing, survey finds by Nick Clark. The key finding probably underpins the tantrums illustrated above.
The report, compiled by Queen Mary, University of London, concluded: “There is a high concentration of earnings in a handful of successful writers whereas most do not earn much at all.”

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said: “While it’s always been a profession where the biggest authors earn disproportionately more, what’s concerning to see is that the inequality is getting wider.”


The bottom half of writers – those who received less than £10,432 in 2013 – earned just 7 per cent of total earnings between them. “It appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a good living while most do not,” the report said.
Many try, most fail. Failure has to have a cause other than one's own inabilities. Hence the eager hate of the dreaded "other", in this case straight white males.

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