Culture

Is It Right for a Publisher to Accept Only Women's Books?

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The phrase “wheels of justice,” of shady proverbial origin, is a popular way both to celebrate and lament the process of law. These wheels do turn, we are told, but they turn slowly. Are there not also wheels of injustice, constructed of a much stronger alloy, and forever counterposed to the forces of equity and morality? Most certainly there are, and they operate in too high a gear for us to bear.

The worst injustice is that which its perpetrators claim is meant to correct another. Nowadays one finds examples of this almost at random. A small British publishing house called “And Other Stories,” for instance, has committed itself to publishing only women writers for the year 2018. The stated reason is to correct the imbalance in women’s representation in the literary world, particularly when it comes to writing prizes. A senior editor at the publisher, Sophie Lewis, took to the pages of The Independent, one of London’s daily papers, to explain her company’s decision.

And Other Stories normally publishes men—in fact, according to Ms. Lewis, “even though most of us [at the company] are women, most of our books are by male authors. Fascinating, experimental male authors, but still male.” She continues: “We have been putting it about, gently, for the last few years, that we’re particularly looking for fiction by women. They could be from anywhere really. And what do people send us? Why, more exciting, boundary-pushing men, of course.”

Now, it’s possible, though not at all likely, that since its establishment And Other Stories has received submissions almost exclusively from male writers. Since they have published women, they obviously receive submissions from both men and women, even if the number of submissions from men has been consistently higher. Which means that during its regular selection process, the company’s editors are willing to reject women on grounds of quality, and have done so. I’m assuming, of course, that And Other Stories doesn’t automatically publish every woman writer who sends work over the transom. Again, mathematically possible, but not likely. The year 2018, then, will be a time when the publisher will offer its readers the kind of writing that might ordinarily end up in a rejection pile. This ought not to surprise anyone familiar with quota systems. Identity politics, by its very nature, is concerned with quantity rather than quality. (This, by the way, would also be true if the publisher had decided to accept only men for 2018.)

The implicit admission is that the publisher does not, on average, find the women writers who send them their manuscripts to be as good as the men: if it did, there would be no need for this pledge, as the proportion of women writers in its output would already be higher than it is, if not as high as it would be if the company adopted a women-only policy. In promising to publish only women under these special circumstances, the publisher is demonstrating that it would not do so under normal circumstances.

One could argue in return that the problem is a general lack of submissions from women writers, not just lower rates of acceptance. Still, unless every woman who submits a manuscript is accepted automatically, this excuse doesn’t hold: And Other Stories is normally willing to reject women writers, even when they submit at much lower rates than men.

Couldn’t a lower number of submissions, then, help to explain the lack of female winners of literary prizes? Presumably “progressive”-minded companies like And Other Stories are not involved in discouraging women from trying to write and publish—there are many bestselling women writers, and it’s not a secret that women dominate publishing as a business. I suspect the publishing world, whether mainstream or “indy,” is composed largely of people who share similar political sympathies.

Is there some fundamental law of the universe stating that, absent some discriminatory conspiracy, the number of male-written submissions and female-written submissions at any given publishing house will always be equal? And is there some corollary that, absent some discriminatory conspiracy, the number of published manuscripts from each sex will always be equal as well? What reason do we have to suspect that in the great numbers game of life every human endeavor, at every stage of completion, will be equal in terms of all categories of identity?

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This brings us to the decision to have a women-only year. Is it a just decision? The free-market libertarian might say that the publisher has every right to decide how it uses its own property or deploy its own resources. Indeed. But this is like saying there is no problem with cursing at old ladies on the street since we are legally permitted to do so. There must always be a distinction between freedom itself and what one chooses to do with that freedom.

In order to be willing to punish someone for his biology, and to think it virtuous to do so, you have to believe that he is guilty not for any specific transgression, but for simply living. Contemporary ideas of “oppression” make this an easy conclusion to draw. Oppression is no longer thought of as something individuals do to other individuals, in the manner of a potentate’s jailing or killing dissenters. Oppression, so the theoreticians tell us, is something that “society” does; it is a reflection of its “structure,” an impersonal force. If all the ideas, customs, institutions, and laws of a society are inherently rigged to benefit only one group of people, oppression becomes a product of the dominant group’s mere existence, not its actions. It is possible, in this view, to receive all the benefits of discrimination without practicing discrimination yourself. Perhaps women are not writing and submitting because of “structural discrimination”?

There is no way to disprove the theory of “structural discrimination”: the alleged oppression has been moved to a level of abstraction that shields it from all empirical evidence. Thus there is no way of knowing when the “oppression” has been eradicated. What exclusionary measure, then, would not be permissible during the never-ending struggle? Once you submit to the basic logic, it’s hard to resist the more creative applications of it. What if many companies in many sectors began pledging to hire only women for a year? What if, to correct perceived “structural” imbalances in healthcare outcomes, a clinic decided it would accept only patients of a particular racial or ethnic group? And what if this were a matter of law and public policy, rather than of private enterprise? How could a supporter of gender-based publishing possibly oppose these measures, if their purpose is to correct structural injustice? It isn’t surprising that those who believe in collective victimhood also believe in collective punishment.