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The New Yorker’s probability problem

By Harriet Staff

Anne Hays’s open letter to The New Yorker has been making the blog rounds for a couple of days, drawing out the usual dismissive responses that surface whenever anyone raises the issue of balance and fair representation in culture.

For those of you just catching up, when Hays noticed that she received two issues in a row from The New Yorker with a disproportionately small number of female contributors, she returned them along with a promise to do the same for any future issues containing work by less than five women.

So then someone set the internet on autopilot and thus began the stock accusations of the complainant privileging her own gender (or race or nationality or ability or class) over quality; the phantom tiny pool of female writers from which the The New Yorker could choose; that this isn’t worth discussing when birds are falling out of the sky (because no two injustices have ever existed simultaneously on Earth, ever, so one automatically negates the other); and the basically correct assertion that The New Yorker, being in the publishing industry, has the right to publish whatever it wants to suit its business goals. If those goals necessitate sticking to a certain established style (“But it’s a style established by men!” cry the feminists), then women who feel underrepresented should write in that style (“But you want us to write like men!” cry the feminists.) And so on.

Hays’s supporters, most noticeably Jezebel, are doing her valid points no favors when they characterize her response as a boycott of a “no girls allowed” club. Hays has not vowed to stop supporting the magazine in whole until they turn it around or shown any signs that she believes there’s a conspiracy afoot. In fact, she’s taken the measured tactic familiar to any consumer faced with a product from a trusted brand that has arrived in the mail defective: Return it and let them know that as a loyal customer, you expect better.

I have enclosed the January issue and expect a refund. You may either extend our subscription by one month, or you can replace this issue with a back issue containing a more equitable ratio of male to female voices. I plan to return every issue that contains fewer than five women writers. You tend to publish 13 to 15 writers in each issue; 5 women shouldn’t be that hard.

She’s even giving The New Yorker the benefit of the doubt and continuing her subscription, only minus the defective products. Any grade school intro to probability will tell you that if your bag of M&M’s comes with only one red M&M when you know that there are normally just as many reds as blues*, something went wrong behind the scenes. It may not be intentional, but it’s certainly not right.

But then women aren’t supposed to be good with math, either.

*For all its hyperbole, Jezebel has a pretty good breakdown of how other lit mags sort their M&M’s

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 7th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.