When Women’s Literary Tastes Are Deemed Less Worthy

It’s fairly easy to see how well a movie does financially: Box Office Mojo is an open and available breakdown of Hollywood profits by movies that makes for fascinating reading. It’s not as easy for books. The closest approximation for Box Office Mojo in the literary world is Nielsen BookScan, a semi-accurate database available to authors, via Amazon, and libraries, media types, and publishers, via subscription. If a lay consumer wants to find out whether a particular novel has sold 10,000 copies or only 150, there is no reliable way to do so.

That may be for the best, though, as the results would be disheartening. The vast majority of books published today lose money. One article in Forbes speculates that “99% of titles printed will never sell enough copies to recover all the costs associated with creating and publishing them.” But when a “serious” work of fiction, against these odds, happens to achieve mass success, critics often seem eager to strip its author of his or (more often) her literary credentials.

Many novels that do sell well are mass-market genre reads—romance, mystery, and the like—that travelers pick up in airports or shoppers grab off of discount tables at Walmart. Many novels that don’t sell well, meanwhile, are the kind argued over in highbrow publications. According to a 2009 post by Noah Lukeman, a literary agent, a debut novelist is lucky to sell 7,000 copies in hardcover, while an author of a story collection is lucky to sell half that many. One writer whose bestseller netted him “nothing” (technically, $12,000) put it this way: “Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.”

Two of the top twenty bestselling books of all time, according to The Guardian in 2012, are literary novels: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The Kite Runner, Atonement, and The Time-Traveler’s Wife appear not far behind in the Guardian’s top 100 list. But as Jennifer Maloney of The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, those hits are rarely if ever the ones on which publishers bet heavily. When it comes to literary fiction, there seems to be almost no relationship between the novels that summon advances in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars and the ones that become wildly successful. Hollywood is famously the place where, despite all the money flying around, “nobody knows anything”—producers are always making a gamble by bringing a movie to market. Publishers may know even less.

Perhaps it is because there are so few proven paths to success, and so little success to go around, that when an acclaimed novelist actually succeeds on a large scale, highbrow critics can become vicious. Donna Tartt, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is the rare literary novelist who can deliver on the promise of a six-figure advance. When she does, though, she triggers extreme blowback, as noted in a Vanity Fair essay titled, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?”

Commercially successful novelists such as Jennifer Weiner and Stephen King have long taken issue with the fact that the authors who sell don’t get taken seriously and the authors who get taken seriously don’t sell. But when the critical establishment rejects Tartt and other women who manage to create literary juggernauts, Weiner suggests that sexism is also partly to blame. “Call it Goldfinching,” she writes.

Literary books by men are not immune to Goldfinching. Highly successful novels, such as Anthony Doerr’s Pultizer Prize-winner All The Light We Cannot See and David Nicholls’s One Day, have been dinged for their high schmaltz content. And there are, of course, counterexamples, women who have made it big without losing their perceived legitimacy: No less of a literary Brahman than Harold Bloom recently edited an edition of Amy Tan’s hugely popular tale of mothers and daughters, The Joy Luck Club. And the Italian author Elena Ferrante—a pseudonymous but presumably female writer —has written books about the domestic lives of working class women that have become bestsellers on two continents without suffering any diminution of her reputation.

Still, it is hard not to see Goldfinching as a casting of aspersions on the reading preferences of women, who, after all, represent the majority of the book-buying public. Weiner’s point is more about the deep disdain of authors for female readers than female writers: “you, dear (female) reader, are ultimately the object of the Goldfinchers’ ire. The books you’ve insisted on making popular are bad.” Since female readers en masse rarely embrace the darlings of the New York Review of Books, Weiner observes, their taste must be suspect—and anything they do embrace must therefore be tainted.

In response to Weiner’s essay, the critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who is among those taken to task in the piece, pointed out on Twitter that some female critics participate enthusiastically in these excommunications as well: “the most devastating ‘Goldfinching’ of the Tartt was by Francine Prose.” Weiner’s piece acknowledges as much, referring to dismissive essays by Mary Gaitskill and Ruth Graham as well as those by the occasionally cantankerous James Woods. Women, after all, are not immune to practicing sexism. This is especially true, as Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay “On Pandering” makes clear, when they are aiming to please men, who represent a majority of critics, with their writing. They are the ones, Vaye Watkins argues, whose opinions matter most—tastemakers such as Harold Bloom, who rattled off “Proust, Joyce, Henry James, Faulkner,” when naming “masters of the novel.”

The greater truth remains that authors are scrambling for resources in a landscape stricken by drought. Little wonder they’re fractious and resentful. When there is little financial capital to be shared, what remains is intellectual and social capital. Those who have it will defend it fiercely, even when that means reducing each other to pulp and themselves to caricature.

The Futility of Anti-Abortion Terrorism

During the Second Intifada in Israel in 2000, one way Palestinian militants lashed out against Israelis was by blowing themselves up on public buses. Tourism to Israel slowed to a trickle during this tense time, so two economists wondered whether that meant Israelis would stop riding buses, as well.

Instead, they found that sales of multiple-ride tickets and monthly bus passes were unaffected. Even single-ride passengers who were frequent users of the system didn’t change their habits. Those Israelis who lacked viable options for getting around, it seemed, simply made their peace with the slightly elevated chance that their bus would explode, and got on. It was only among car owners that sales of bus tickets declined.

“People can learn to control their emotions, and economic incentives affect the degree to which individuals do so,” wrote the authors of that study, Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein. Given powerful enough incentives, they explain, people will choose to control their fear.

Planned Parenthood Shooting: The Suspect’s Motive

The U.S. faces its own terror threat—predominantly from homegrown fanatics. An analysis by the New America think tank earlier this year found that since September 11, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by non-Muslim extremists as by Islamist radicals. Robert Dear, the man accused of killing three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last week, appears to be one of these domestic terrorists.

Though authorities have not offered a definitive account of Dear’s motive, he mentioned “no more baby parts” to law-enforcement officials after his surrender, and at least one acquaintance said he praised people who attacked abortion providers as doing “God’s work,” according to the The New York Times.

Attacks meant to intimidate abortion providers and clinics have become a tragically common element of the American abortion battle. The first abortion provider to be murdered was David Gunn, in 1993, and perhaps the most infamous recent slaying was that of George Tiller, who was shot in the head as he served as an usher at his church in 2009. Overall, anti-abortion violence has killed 11 people, and that’s not counting dozens more bombings, attempted murders, and even acid attacks tracked by the National Abortion Federation.

Abortion Clinic Violence Incidents by Year (1976-2005)


There’s been an uptick in threats against reproductive health-care facilities since this summer, when the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life organization, began releasing videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue.

“It is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health-care providers, their staff, and facilities,” an FBI Intelligence Assessment warned in September, according to CBS News. Last week, that nightmare came true.

Anti-abortion terrorism, like all terrorism, spreads fear among far more people than it kills. (This is, alas, the point of terrorism.) Very few people will actually be gunned down on a Tunisian beach, but tourism there is plummeting anyway. Similarly, for people who attack abortion clinics, sowing fear is part of the plan.

But does it work? Attacks on abortion clinics are ghastly and take a harsh toll on the communities where they occur—but do they actually discourage abortion?

Anti-abortion violence actually peaked in the 1990s, and that era also saw a decline in both abortions and abortion providers. In 1993, the year before President Clinton signed a law prohibiting anyone from forcibly obstructing abortion clinics, 50 percent of clinics reported being the targets of violence and harassment.

When the economists Mireille Jacobson and Heather Royer examined whether these attacks were actually reducing the demand for or supply of abortions, they found that the effect was modest. In targeted areas, an attack on a clinic typically reduced the number of providers in the area by 6 to 9 percent, and the number of abortions by 8 to 9 percent. (The impact was felt more severely outside of hospitals: Clinic-based abortions and providers dropped by 10 to 14 percent.) When a murder happened, the effect was even more pronounced. Both abortions and providers decreased ten-fold, and they stayed at that level for years.

But there was a twist in their data. You’d think that dip in abortions would be matched by a comparable rise in births—but it wasn’t. Within a year after an attack, births in the targeted area only went up by about 1 percent, far less than the amount abortions decreased. The reason? Abortion rates in neighboring counties ticked up. The women simply went elsewhere for their services.

“These findings indicate that the primary effect of anti-abortion violence is a change in the location of abortions,” the authors write. Like the Israeli bus passengers, the abortion-seeking women saw few options other than to face their fears and get the procedure done anyway.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that intimidation by anti-abortion groups can’t rattle patients and alter the course of their decisions. In 2000, another study found that more mundane, yet non-lethal, anti-abortion activities—things like picketing, vandalism, and physically blocking patients—have a big effect on the abortion rate. Not only have these activities cut the number of abortions by about a fifth, they have also increased the price of the procedure. In 2011, the vast majority—84 percent—of abortion providers said they experienced harassment, a category that included picketing, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Other studies of women who encountered protesters on their way into an abortion clinic found that 16 percent or so were “extremely” upset by them.

And eliminating facilities altogether, when there are no proximate alternatives, can have an equally dramatic impact. After Texas enacted a law in 2013 that shuttered roughly half of the state’s abortion clinics, abortions there declined by 13 percent.

“Given that big acts usually only target one facility, women interested in seeking an abortion often have the ability to go somewhere else nearby,” Heather Royer said in an email. “But legislation like the [Texas] TRAP laws affect entire areas, essentially affecting the whole abortion market.”

Wide-scale harassment and steep obstacles, especially across an entire region or state, can coerce abortion-seeking patients into giving up. Or at least, the hurdles can make the procedure so inconvenient as to be practically impossible.

When it comes to abortion, meanwhile, terrorism doesn’t pay. Deadly attacks on isolated clinics don’t scare away abortion patients if they are truly determined to get the procedure. Violence is often called “senseless,” but in the case of violent attacks on health clinics, it literally is: It doesn’t even serve the deranged goals of the attacker.

The False Promise of Meritocracy

Americans are, compared with populations of other countries, particularly enthusiastic about the idea of meritocracy, a system that rewards merit (ability + effort) with success. Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence and skills and are less likely to believe that family wealth plays a key role in getting ahead. And Americans’ support for meritocratic principles has remained stable over the last two decades despite growing economic inequality, recessions, and the fact that there is less mobility in the United States than in most other industrialized countries.

This strong commitment to meritocratic ideals can lead to suspicion of efforts that aim to support particular demographic groups. For example, initiatives designed to recruit or provide development opportunities to under-represented groups often come under attack as “reverse discrimination.” Some companies even justify not having diversity policies by highlighting their commitment to meritocracy. If a company evaluates people on their skills, abilities, and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality etc., and managers are objective in their assessments then there is no need for diversity policies, the thinking goes.

But is this true? Do commitments to meritocracy and objectivity lead to more fair workplaces?

Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has explored how meritocratic ideals and HR practices like pay-for-performance play out in organizations, and he’s come to some unexpected conclusions.

In one company study, Castilla examined almost 9,000 employees who worked as support-staff at a large service-sector company. The company was committed to diversity and had implemented a merit-driven compensation system intended to reward high-level performance and to reward all employees equitably.

But Castilla’s analysis revealed some very non-meritocratic outcomes. Women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score. Despite stating that “performance is the primary bases for all salary increases,” the reality was that women, minorities, and those born outside the U.S. needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.”

These findings led Castilla to wonder if organizational cultures and practices designed to promote meritocracy actually accomplished the opposite. Could it be that the pursuit of meritocracy somehow triggered bias? Along with his colleague, the Indiana University sociology professor Stephen Bernard, they designed a series of lab experiments to find out. Each experiment had the same outcome. When a company’s core values emphasized meritocratic values, those in managerial positions awarded a larger monetary reward to the male employee than to an equally performing female employee. Castilla and Bernard termed their counter intuitive result “the paradox of meritocracy.”

The paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups. For example, studies repeatedly find that the resumes of whites and men are evaluated more positively than are the identical resumes of minorities and women.

This dynamic is precisely why meritocracy can exacerbate inequality—because being committed to meritocratic principles makes people think that they actually are making correct evaluations and behaving fairly. Organizations that emphasize meritocratic ideals serve to reinforce an employee’s belief that they are impartial, which creates the exact conditions under which implicit and explicit biases are unleashed.

“The pursuit of meritocracy is more difficult than it appears,” Castilla said at a recent lecture at a recent conference hosted by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, “but that doesn’t mean the pursuit is futile. My research provides a cautionary lesson that practices implemented to increase fairness and equity need to be carefully thought through so that potential opportunities for bias are addressed.” While companies may want to hire and promote the best and brightest, it’s easier said than done.

GapJumpers, a Silicon Valley start-up, is focused on making meritocracy a reality by taking a skills-first approach to identifying the highest-performing talent.  Modeled after research showing that blind auditions block biased evaluations, GapJumpers developed an online technology platform that enables hiring managers to hold blind audition challenges. In the challenges, job applicants are given mini assignments that are designed to assess the applicant for the specific skills required for the open position. All submissions are evaluated and ranked, and the top-performing submissions (minus any applicant identifiers) are then reviewed by the hiring manager who selects candidates to bring in to interview. The result: About 60 percent of the top talent identified through GapJumpers’ blind audition process come from underrepresented backgrounds.

Hiring managers do not expect this outcome. “The high percentage of underrepresented applicants that make it through the skills-first screening process is often met with suspicion,” says Sharon Jank, a social psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, who is conducting her doctoral research with GapJumpers.  In her work, Jank has observed that “hiring managers tend to be surprised that the top performing submissions they pick to advance very often come from applicants without an elite education, training, or experience.  This suggests blind performance auditions are a powerful tool to manage bias and address the pervasive and incorrect assumption that elite pedigree best predicts performance of on the job skills.”

“Our biases lead to sub-optimal talent selection decisions when evaluating resumes,” says GapJumpers cofounder Kédar Iyer. “By scaling the successful and proven method of blind performance auditions, GapJumpers’ results show that real work performance trumps labels on a resume.”

In addition to blind auditions, transparency and accountability also support more meritocratic outcomes. Recently, Castilla published the results from a longitudinal study he conducted with the same large service-sector company that he had studied years earlier. After learning from Castilla’s analysis that there were pay disparities in their organization (white men received more compensation than equally performing women, minorities, and non-U.S.-born individuals) the company asked Castilla to recommend practices to close the pay gap.

Drawing on research showing that transparency and accountability reduce bias because, among other things, transparency provides the information needed to track inequity and accountability puts people on notice that their decisions will be monitored, Castilla counseled the company on actions they could take.

The company then made many changes such as creating a performance-reward committee to monitor compensation increases and sharing information with top management about pay broken down by gender, race, and foreign nationality. When Castilla analyzed the data five years after these changes were introduced he found that the demographic pay gap had disappeared.

American beliefs about the rightness of meritocratic ideals often leads to the belief that those ideals are what guides society. But research shows that a real commitment to meritocracy requires understanding that America hasn’t gotten there—at least not yet. It is this insight that leads to the adoption of practices that will ultimately result in a society where merit truly does equal ability + effort.