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Data!

[ 8 ] September 7, 2010 |

The XXers have done what I was too lazy to do with respect to the NYTBR’s treatment of female writers, and the data supports Weiner’s position (at least on the more general point of whether the NYTBR gives proportionate attention to female writers) more powerfully than I would have guessed.    It’s not just the raw numbers, which (as the article notes) could be the result of sexism at different stages of the publishing process, but this very useful list of books given reviews and, especially, double reviews.     Looking at it, I know how I’d address this issue:

Weiner seems most concerned about how we, as a literary culture, draw the boundaries around a certain group of books. Let’s call this category zeitgeist fiction—commercial fiction that is for some reason deemed worthy of serious analysis, either because of sales (Twilight), cultural impact (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or surprisingly spry writing (High Fidelity).* Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”

Authors given two reviews for a single book by the Times include the “commercial”* writers Steig Larrson, Scott Turow, Stephen King, John Irving, Nick Hornby, Elmore Leonard, John LeCarre, Christopher Buckley, and Stephen Carter, not to mention John Grisham(!) and Dan Brown(!!). There are some female equivalents, but many fewer, and Bushnell is the only one whose novels seem to clearly fit in a “chick lit” category. When you throw in the “literary” novelists whose status as major novelists is highly contestable (such as Moody and McInerney) and major novelists who few would consider at the peak of their form (such as DeLillo and Updike)…I think it’s hard to argue that the overrepresentation of men in the NYTRB is simply a question of what publishers make available or a product of not enough women meeting the NYTRB’s high standards (not that either of these were plausible explanations anyway.) Eyeballing the list I think that “literary” female authors are probably underrepresented too, but when it comes to popular writers Weiner’s criticisms seem especially well-supported.     If — as Tannehaus says — the NYTRB’s goal is to  “identify that fiction that really will endure,” the bar for creating allegedly enduring art seems to be a lot lower for men than women.   I’m going to boldly predict that 100 years from now very few literary anthologies (in whatever form they take) will have sections devoted to the short stories of John Grisham.

*I emphasize that by “commercial” I do not mean “unworthy of attention” or “devoid of aesthetic merit” — I like several of the first set of authors — but the discussion seems to treat these writers as different than “literary” authors such as Mitchell or Morrison or Pynchon or Munro, whether the distinction is useful or not.

UPDATE:   In comments, Farber notes that the NYTBR and the other book reviews in the Times are editorially independent.    Fair enough, but in the context of this specific criticism I don’t think this gets the Times off the hook — what books both wings choose to cover is surely a relevant question even if the decisions aren’t coordinated.    And while Tannehaus doesn’t bear personal responsibility for the double reviews, it remains the case that while he claims that he can’t cover what its detractors call “chick lit” because his review is dedicated to high literachoor that will stand the test of time, a quick perusal of the books he actually chooses to review indicates plenty of middlebrow fiction that straddles the blurry lines between “literature” and “entertainment,” genre fiction that sometimes ditto, the work of outright hacks, non-fiction of no discernible merit or cultural impact, etc.

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Two things memeorandum informs me that Google will be the death of:

[ 4 ] September 7, 2010 |
  1. Rick Santorum’s presidential hopes.
  2. Howard Kurtz’s patience Serious journalism.

Sadly, I believe these are both overreactions.

War Is Boring I

[ 7 ] September 7, 2010 |

[I’m breaking this review into separate posts. Part II will be up tomorrow.]

David Axe’s War Is Boring belongs, in a very general sense, to the grand tradition of American road trip narratives. Unlike Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, in which the Nobel Laureate set out to reconnect with an idea of America; or Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the good doctor set out to obliterate that notion altogether; or Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which a creative writing professor ignores both the country and all notions of it in favor of calling attention to his own profundity—that is to say, unlike those nonfictional account of road trips by American authors, the travel narrative that frames War Is Boring is not aimed at an American audience. I mean this literally: Axe recalls the past five years of his life as a United Nations van and its driver, Adrian Djimdim, shepherd him across Chad. That he tells his story to someone who has experienced life in a conflict zone is significant because it allows him the sympathetic space required to recount the intimate moments and minor worries of combat life without seeming a solipsist.

The wars to which he flashes back in conversation are not about him in the way that Salinas is about Steinbeck, Las Vegas about Thompson, or Pirsig about Pirsig. They are not an extension of himself because War Is Boring partakes of no Emersonian “upbuilding of a man” and Axe refuses to serve as a delegate for our moral improvement. For example, later in the novel, after being mistaken for former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, he informs Djimdim that:

As Djimdim is presented as an observant listener, he must have recognized that Axe had fed him a similar line earlier:

Note that the difference is not in growth, but simple addition: Axe doesn’t correct him, he merely adds the names of his actual employers, committing what could be called a sin of omission by addition. He presents himself here not as a model to be emulated, but a person for whom old, successful habits die hard—that is, as a sympathetic example of our flawed species.* But War Is Boring is always as much about the narrative as it is the narrator, even when the stakes of the conflicts narrated are not altogether clear. While that might seem a criticism of the book, I don’t mean it as such. The view from the ground will always be more chaotic than its aerial equivalent, as Axe himself argues via juxtapositions like those that open his chapter on East Timor:

The helicopter is as isolated from the events below as it is in Axe’s camera, but for the moment, so is Axe. That first panel fails to inform us whether the narrative is in its Chadian frame or East Timor, and the second one only provides visual clues as to when and where we are. Moreover, the perspective Axe and, through him, the reader has on that helicopter is a familiar and unpleasant one: the isolation of the helicopter somehow representing both imperialist ambitions and the sinking feeling in a soldier’s gut as his last connection to a life outside of war pulls into the sky. In fact, this framing of the conflict occurs throughout the chapter on East Timor, neatly paralleling the fact that Axe feels like he learned little in the two weeks he spent there.

*If I seem excessively focused on the personal or confessional aspects of the narrative, it’s likely because I’m working on my lesson plans at the moment, and War Is Boring slots in nicely with the theme of “Confessional Comics.” Reading it in conjunction with Craig Thompson’s Blankets, the content of which could hardly be more different, makes plain one of Axe’s strengths as a novelist: his willingness to depict his self-important or oblivious behavior, as in the “Detroit” chapter, bolsters his credibility throughout.

Indeedy…

[ 32 ] September 7, 2010 |

Via Matt, Marty’s on a bit of a roll today:

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

I like the “pretend that.” It’s nice to see some clarity from Marty is apparently decided on the question of whether Muslims are actually worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment (apparently not), and is now concerned only with the question of whether he needs to pretend that they’re human while in polite society.

A Rock and a Hard Place for Western-Funded Aid Groups in Pakistan

[ 2 ] September 7, 2010 |

The Pakistani Taliban has been designated a terror organization by the State Department. On the face of it, this would seem to be a no-brainer. The group has bombed minority mosques, tribal elders and murdered women. It has attacked US and Pakistani interests in the region, and is suspected of involvement in the slaying of Benazir Bhutto. The threshold for qualifying for the US State Department list has also been breached: the group has claimed responsibility for the Times Square bombing, and State says it has corroborated this claim.

But a practical political downside of this designation is that it will shrink humanitarian space in Pakistan while the country is in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in its history. Funding guidelines and the power of the purse-string make it extremely challenging for aid groups to do business with black-listed local organizations, and in the US it is a federal offense to provide “material benefits” to any such group. In a recent ruling the Supreme Court interpreted “material benefits” so broadly that even disseminating international law to such groups could result in penalties for aid organizations.

Now, consider four facts. Read more…

Journalism and political science

[ 4 ] September 6, 2010 |

Just adding a couple of thoughts to Rob and Scott’s comments on the Yglesias post on the absurd anti-incentives for political scientists to engage in public intellectual work.

First of all, it’s my impression that the professional incentive to avoid any sort of public intellectual work or engagement with the broader public in the discipline is not universal. I expect it’s common (although not hegemonic) in PhD granting departments, but in other types of departments, the value of such work would vary considerably. I’m still feeling out the situation at my new job, but I’m reasonably confident public engagement would certainly not be treated as a negative, and I imagine that while it couldn’t substitute for peer-reviewed traditional academic work, it would probably be viewed as a net-positive. I expect this is closer to the norm in most non-research university departments.

More substantively, I suspect a good amount of the distance between political scientists and political science scholarship and political journalism has little to do with a lack of communication or professional incentives for political scientists. As we’ve discussed on this blog numerous times, one major finding is the field of American politics is that elections are mostly a product of what are sometimes referred to ‘the fundamentals’–the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent. Evidence suggests that the quality of a campaign matters primarily at the margins. This is hardly cutting edge stuff, nor it is particularly difficult to understand. Indeed, I recall seeing this expressed in the works of at least two of the journalists on that panel.

This particular bit of knowledge about American elections is unlikely to penetrate political journalism in any significant way because taking it seriously would necessitate a significant shift in how political campaigns are covered. Indeed, it would render a good deal of the content of election coverage largely pointless–or at a minimum, less important than it is often claimed to be. Thus, it will continue to be ignored, even if political scientists talk about these findings in public forums and accessible ways. In making this observation, my intention is not to highlight the unseriousness or frivolity of political journalists. I would fully just about any professional group (including political scientists) to respond similarly to information that threatened the value of their long-establisnd practices of political journalism quite this directly, but the possibility remains, and I expect it will limit the extent to which political science findings to penetrate the world of political journalism substantially. Obviously, this doesn’t apply universally, and some wonkish blogger-journalist types, like Drum, Yglesias, and Schmitt, already can and do take political science research seriously, at least occasionally. But I would expect this trend to remain serious outside of the journalistic mainstream.

I’m agreeing with who? what? how does that work?

[ 0 ] September 6, 2010 |

I have quite a bit to say about last night’s extraordinary episode of Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” but am pressed for the time at the moment (in part because I’m putting the finishing touches on a review of David Axe‘s exceptional new book, War Is Boring, and in part because those Mad Men posts always take my a couple of days to process).  That said, I did want to call attention to the fact that the episode left me nodding my head in agreement with everything Mike Potemra wrote about it at The Corner, because that’s a noteworthy event in itself: the “spectral” note did ring “false,” the scene that followed was “an especially great moment,” and there was a “lot of truth in that couple of seconds.”  More from me on this front shortly.

The Kuwait of Comedy Gold…

[ 3 ] September 6, 2010 |

It should be obvious that the Pete Rose Roast to be held this Saturday at the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Indiana stands a good chance of being the most disastrous thing to ever happen on September 11.

Politics by Military Means?

[ 5 ] September 5, 2010 |

Army Colonel Matthew Moten has a piece in this month’s Foreign Affairs criticizing the declining professionalism of the US military:

Professions gain and maintain the trust of society with proven expertise derived from a long, formal education, years of practice and a demonstrated commitment to employing that expertise wisely and ethically. If the military loses the confidence of society, it will be exceedingly difficult to establish the interpersonal trust essential for effective political-military relations.

I found Moten’s piece thoughtful and informative, however it left me with two questions. Read more…

And the Way They Provoked Those Nice Boys From the Pinkerton Agency!

[ 15 ] September 4, 2010 |

Roy follows up on Michelle Malkin with some examples of union violence.

APSA Panel on Political Science and Journalism

[ 7 ] September 4, 2010 |

I was in the audience for the APSA panel that Scott refers to below, although to maintain my anti-establishment cred* I sat in the back, away from the front row seats reserved for “major” political science bloggers.  I live-tweeted the proceedings, and unlike Dan Drezner managed to avoid comments about Ezra Klein’s hair.  The panel consisted of Marc Ambinder, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, and Mark Blumenthal.  Some impressions:

While Barry Pump is being a touch over-snarky, he’s right to note that the enterprise had a bit of the lecture to it, in the sense that the blogger/journalists were telling the political scientists what we needed to do in order to be relevant.  On questions of blogging, journalism, and political science I am very rarely stirred to defense of institutional academic polisci, but I nevertheless felt myself stirring.  “This is what you need to do in order to make us pay attention to you” was a regular refrain from the panel, and while there is some utility to that message, it can come in shapes and sizes that provoke more or less irritation.

In part because of the constitution of the panel, discussion was weighted very heavily towards quantitative work in American politics.  I found this very interesting, especially given that half or more of the blogging political scientists in the room worked in other subfields, using qualitative methodologies.  I asked a question on the topic, and got some interesting answers, especially from Matt Yglesias.  Yglesias noted that it was curious that quantitative Americanist polisci received the most attention, given that this subfield/methodology tends to produce work that is virtually impenetrable to outsiders.  In addition to the fact, however, that voting behavior data is near and dear to the hearts of the Beltway journalist community, Yglesias suggested that what many journalists were looking for from polisci was a “men in white coats bearing Truth” effect.  Voting behavior articles impenetrable to anyone not having four semesters of methodology under their belt were, once explained to journalists in single syllable words, quite useful because they allowed the journalist to write in terms of a Conclusive Study that Totally Determined the Veracity of Some Point Beyond Further Question.

This was both very interesting and quite troubling.  It was interesting because I get the sense that it’s true; journalistic depictions of political science work often take the character of “studies have shown” which is a way of making a Truth claim.  Qualitative work is more difficult to fit into the Scientific Truth framework, in addition to being more difficult to summarize.  It’s troubling because while most political scientists tend to realize how tenuous claims to social science “Truth” are, it’s unclear that journalists have the same sense.  Political scientists know that, even apart from the brutal quantitative-qualitative battle, there are serious methodological fault lines within quantitative political science that bring the delivery of Scientific Truth into question.  All of the battles over proper treatment of variables and the appropriate characterization of causal claims kind of disappear when a journalist wants to know what “studies have shown.”

The question of subfield prominence also bears more attention.  By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms.  I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research.  IPE might be an exception to this.  The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media.

I’m tempted to say that the boundaries between good journalism on international affairs and qualitative political science in comparative and international relations are relatively thin, but years of experience selecting books for the Patterson Summer Reading List tells me that this isn’t true.  An academic book and a journalistic account really are very different, even when they tackle vaguely the same subject.  The former includes a clear theoretical perspective, and the presentation of information is provided with some methodological structure.  Journalistic accounts operate according to different (although not necessarily better or worse) structures.  Moreover, I can certainly appreciate why journalists don’t have the time to delve into full investigations of the area studies and comparative literature, or even to read some of the longer academic books in the field; I’m an academic, and I barely have time to read books anymore.

What the panel didn’t really touch on, and what I’m interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they’ve been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command.  I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have?  While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I’m not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that’s dying faster than our own is the right way to go.

*Dr. Farley does not now and has not ever possessed “anti-establishment cred”.  He simply arrived late and didn’t want to look like more of a doofus by pushing his way to the front.

I Have Seen The Future

[ 21 ] September 3, 2010 |

Like Rob, I’m heading off to the American Political Science Association Annual Conference for the weekend, and while I’m thinking about my professional obligations as a social scientist and educator, let me point out this newsflash from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Texas A&M University System is moving ahead with a controversial method of evaluating how much professors are worth, based on their salaries, how much research money they bring in, and how much money they generate from teaching, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports.

Under the proposal, officials will add the money generated by each professor and subtract that amount from his or her salary to get a bottom-line value for each, according to the article.

Frank Ashley, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the 11-campus system, said the public wanted accountability. “It’s something that we’re really not used to in higher education: for someone questioning whether we’re working hard, whether our students are learning. That accountability is going to be with us from now on.”

Peter Hugill, who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, blamed a conservative think tank with ties to Gov. Rick Perry for coming up with an idea that he said is simplistic and relies on “a silly measure” of accountability.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle has the original report. Hat tip to Nick Xenos, who brought this story to my attention.