Unconscious bias or outright discrimination?


Women writers sometimes wonder whether they are discriminated against. Catherine Nichols decided to find out.

1370807524509597217In her article “Homme de Plume,” in Jezebel magazine, Catherine wrote that after sending out queries for her novel to 50 literary agents and getting two requests to read the entire manuscript, she created an email account under a man’s name. She called him George Leyer, for the purpose of her article.

She pasted her cover letter and the novel’s opening pages into George’s email. She sent it off to one of the agents she’d intended to query under her own name. Within 24 hours, George had five resposes: three manuscript requests and two “warm rejections praising his exciting project.”

Catherine wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so she sent out more queries. “Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

One agent who sent a form rejection to Catherine for “her” book, “not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent.”

Catherine wondered whether 1) it’s easier for agents to sell a book by a George than a Catherine to publishers; 2) George’s pitch stood out because it’s unusual for a man to write about a female protagonist; 3) a book by a Catherine, about a female central character, was classified by the agents as “women’s fiction”; agents are subconsciously more receptive to male writers.

“There’s a fundamental change in how I look at my work now,” she wrote. “I quit sendong out queries entirely, and used the critiques that George got to improve the book.”

The edited draft went to the agent who now represents Catherine.  The agent had contacted her about a non-fiction piece she wrote under her own name. But “patience, faith, playing by the rules … would never have brought me there,” Catherine wrote.

Illustration by Joohee Yoon.

 

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About rosemarymccracken

Rosemary McCracken is a Toronto-based journalist and fiction writer.
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