Skeptical about Carl vs. Carla

In an intriguing post published in Jezebel, author Catherine Nichols claims that she conducted a blind experiment. Ooh, I love experiments!  And who doesn't want to hear about hidden gender bias?  Count me in.

Her test was:  she sent query letters to agents under her real name (she had published short stories, according to the post) and then -- after having been rejected-- sent queries to agents using a male pseudonym.  The writer in me wants to jump up and say, there you go!  It's gender bias.  I wrote the most fantastic comic novel (well, a fantastic comic novel) and most of my queries got a polite no.  Ah but if I had only been a Carl and not a Carla.

But the researcher in me says, hmm, wait a minute.  Different query letters often get different responses.  It's the nature of a query. That is why new writers are urged (not that I listened) to alter their queries.  Different pitch, different response.  When market researchers test copy, they are careful not to alter simple variables like color or size of font.  That's what we mean by a "clean" experiment. Any variable can pollute the results (this process is well examined in Allegra Goodman's novel, Intuition.)

Perhaps, as the fictive male, Ms. Nichols's letter had a different tone.  She couldn't have included her prior history, for example, so  whatever fiction she'd published or career credentials had to go out the window. "George" was presented (presumably) as a hot young debut writer-- and the same content (as many experiments show) given a new context (hot young writer) has different effects.  So, yes, there could be real gender bias (I admit that I veer sharply toward women's literary fiction, rather than its male counterpart.)  But I'm not yet convinced.  Call me skeptical, but I'd need to see the queries.

You can read her account here:

Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name.
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