You can probably have sex without writing but it seems (this week at least) that writing without sex* is impossible.
The Daily Beast’s Mark Dery explains in this article how Strunk and White’s famously popular The Elements of Style is in fact a call to reject feminine, or flowery, prose.
“No book is genuinely free from political bias,” George Orwell wrote, in his essay “Why I Write.” “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” The opinion that the canon laws of usage, composition, and style—our unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes “good prose”—have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. Obviously, it’s easier for you to make out my meaning if the pane you’re peering through isn’t some Baroque fantasy in stained glass. But the Anglo-American article of faith that clarity can only be achieved through words of one syllable and sentences fit for a telegram is pure dogma. The Elements of Style is as ideological, in its bow-tied, wire-rimmed way, as any manifesto.
Meanwhile, Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel was tired of receiving rejection slips for her unpublished novel. So she sent it out under a male name. No prizes for guessing the depressing result – the responses she was offered as a man were far more encouraging than those she received as a woman. For the same novel.
Nichols mostly sent the draft with male name to one set of agents, the draft with a female name to a different set.
…but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent.
Nichols’ discussion of the implications of this experiment is thoughtful and thought-provoking. The Guardian thought it was worth a look too (although the comments are so predictable as to make you weep).
As I’ve mentioned already over at Whispering Gums I think this (relatively) new focus on gender bias is in fact the real Third Wave of feminism. The first wave focused on human rights, the second focused on legal rights and only now do we begin to be publicly aware of the intrinsic and insidious culturally embedded nature of gender bias.
It is particularly telling that even the Arts industries – including publishing of course – are susceptible. Calling out this bias, drawing attention to it, is a good thing. And possibly the only way to address it? The Stella Prize is a clear and positive example.
But I also wonder if we need to move towards blind assessments. Using orchestras as an example, a switch to blind auditions can explain between 30% and 55% of the increase in the proportion female among new hires.
Some short story competitions require a cover page with contact details but the story itself to be in a separate file without the author’s name. There’s no reason why job applications – or unpublished novels – can’t be assessed in the same way. Yes, of course the people doing the assessment would discover the applicant’s gender at interview but at least that first bias hurdle would be removed. So I’m off to think about how I might implement it in my own workplace…
* OK, yes. I mean gender. But I bet I caught your attention….