Friday, April 17, 2009

Bias


There are few areas in life wherein bias can't be found. The nature of people seems to be to sort each other into us and them; the more you look like us, the better we like you.

In writing, some of this you can get past, because -- in theory -- an editor is judging the story and not the writer. If they love the piece, they say, it won't matter if it was written by a little old man from Fairbanks, or a fourteen-year-old girl from Auckland. The story is supposed to stand on its own. So they all say. 

But: there are biases, and they set in before the editor reads the tale.

A couple of quick examples: If you are trying to sell something to a two-fisted men's magazine, or for a male action series like, say, Slaughterers Army, and your name is Janelle Louise Beaumont, I'd bet money your chances aren't very good. 

If you are writing a sweet romance novel about first love aimed at young women readers, Dick I.M. Hardwick is probably not the name you want to run under the title. 

This is because a lot of men, especially younger ones, don't think a woman can write action/adventure with a male viewpoint. And a lot of women -- any age -- don't think a man can write romance novels from the female head.

Not all readers, but enough so that an editor in that field is going to have to be blown out of her socks to get past that; you start with a strike against you. And if they do love it, don't be surprised if they ask you to come up with another name to put on the cover.

You can fix this easily -- a pseudonym does it. "Dash Riprock" might be over the top, but a man's name if you are a woman writing hard-hitting action with a male protagonist saves you the first unearned strike. Ditto a woman's handle if you are doing romance.

Should it be this way? No. Is it? Yes. There are examples out the wazoo, James Tiptree was Alice "Racoona" Sheldon; C.L. Moore was Catherine Lucille. I know a guy who writes romance novels under a woman's name -- I won't rat him out, because he is still doing it. 

Some years ago, a mid-sized city symphony orchestra decided to hire a new player. The details of the the town and instrument escape me -- Minneapolis? Milwaulkie? -- but the gist was, they decided to do blind evaluations, because some of the committee believed there was a bias against people of color or women. 

Hard to imagine that artists would feel that way, hey?

So, the players sat behind a curtain, the judges making the evaluation couldn't see them, had no information, they had to judge strictly on the musical performance. 

Wouldn't that be a loverly world, where you were judged on your ability and not your race or gender or age? 

Turned out the best player was a woman, and they hired her. One of the judges later admitted that he didn't think women could play whichever instrument it was as well as men, and allowed how, if he'd known, he might have been more critical of her audition. At least he was honest about it.

It's out there. If you are going to write, best you snoop around and see what the conventions are, and what you can do to shade the odds in your favor. Yeah, the story still has to work, but it might get a better chance if the editor isn't set against you going in. 

2 comments:

theahb said...

The Boston Symphony Orchestra holds auditions like that every time a chair opens. The play behind a blank screen, and the panelists evaluate them. It's all very non-political.

Steve Perry said...

Good for them. Though I have heard that in some places, the "fit" of a player has to be considered, vis a vis how well they get along with others.

This might be valid, given that you can be a great musician without any social skills. Okay for YouTube, maybe not for public orchestras ...