Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.
Jonah Lehrer is part of a system that allows magazines, year after to year to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color. He is part of a system where the 2012 National Magazine Awards have no women nominees in several key categories. He is part of a system where white editors belabor the delusion that there simply are few women or writers of color who are good enough for their magazines because said editors are too narrow in what they want, what they read, what they think, or just too lazy to work beyond their Rolodex of writers who look and think just like them. He is part of a system that requires an organization like VIDA to do an annual count that reveals a disheartening, ongoing and pervasive practice of a certain kind of writer predominantly gaining entrance to the upper echelons of publishing. He is part of a system that exhausts itself denying these problems exist or that these problems matter.
Which is another thoughtful way to say, that we’re really tired of excuses from the publishing industry failing to reflect the reality of the reading population. So tired in fact that within a day after the Sunday NYT Book Review dropped, another genius child created a Tumblr mocking (criticizing) fixed gender roles in their ‘How To _’ issue. Just last month, writer and contributor to Bookforum, Ruth Franklin, released an open letter to the editors in an effort to get them to reach out to more women reviewers as well as review more books by women.
The literary tastemakers just two years ago were so eager to crown Jonathan Franzen, the Great American Novelist ™ that it prompted novelists Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner to call people out (the New York Times, Time Magazine) in their bias toward white male writers and white male reviewers. Franzenfreude, as it came to be known in the twitterverse, pointed out also that some may view our criticism of this bias as sour grapes, or bitterness because Piccoult’s and Weiner’s books aren’t held to the same standard. A criticism that misses the point entirely. This year, the Pulitzer committee couldn’t decide to award the fiction award between the late David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson and Karen Russell.
Change, we know, is slow. Still, considering how many women writers I know (and you know too), in addition to good number of women who work in publishing, it’s disappointing that this isn’t a tidal wave.