Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Diversity, The New York Times Book Review and Excellence

Geralyn Horton in comments linked to an NPR interview with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a past editor of The New York Times book review. The topic was this:

According to a recent study by a liberal media watchdog group, the Times has, quote, "an exceedingly narrow view of who's books deserve review and who is fit to discuss them," unquote. The group is Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR. And they examined every politically-themed book critiqued by The Times review between January of 2009 and February of this year. The report said that 95 percent of the U.S. authors reviewed were white and 87 percent were male. The book reviewers were even less diverse.

Hmm. Do you know what? We have already hit the first obstacle, and I'm not even discussing the actual interview (where Mr. Lehmann-Haupt is to defend the Times, natch). And that obstacle is this: What percentage of U.S. authors writing political books are white? What percentage are female?

The answers to these questions matter a lot, but we don't get them because of that diversity angle. If the actual authorship percentages reflect population percentages of gender and race, then what the Times is doing affects women considerably more, because there are many more women. It particularly affects women of color who are counted as absent twice there.

No. I don't like the diversity angle. It has become something about representing all groups by adding a pinch of that and a spoonful of this, and it allows the hidden assumption that those "other" groups don't really deserve to be represented without the diversity angle. Their books are not good enough. Here's Mr. Lehmann-Haupt:

But that's always the aim is to find the most interesting books. They get, what, 50,000 books a year. They go through them. They are always conscious of the fact they were newspapers, so they respond to what seems politically important, what seems to be of interest to their readers. And that's how those choices are made. They're never made are we representing, you know, (unintelligible).

There you have it. Diversity is something different from trying to find the most interesting books, the best reviewers. The latter two just happen to be pale-male (nothingwrongwiththatofcourse).

But what if the problem here is one of fairness, of possibly fantastic books not getting covered because the author or the reviewer doesn't belong to the correct brotherhood, doesn't have certain numbers in his or her cell phone, doesn't discuss the only issues which that powerful brotherhood regards as important and possibly excellent? What if?

Now I fully understand that someone like Mr. Lehmann-Haupt isn't going to come out crawling on his knees towards Avignon and muttering mea culpa. Of course not. That's not his task in this interview, either, and interviews like this will always raise those protective hackles in the interviewed. What will the answer be if someone accuses you of overlooking possibly fantastic books when it was your job not to overlook them?

It's obvious: To explain that you have not overlooked them. But then the only possible conclusion is that the only really interesting political books are written by white men.

I am not arguing here that there aren't all sorts of valid reasons for some of the relative scarcity of, say, female authors and reviewers. Men still write more political books than women, for example, and women are less aggressive in selling their work. But to suggest that excellence and relevance and what might be of interest are all neutral concepts, independent of who does the judging is silly.