Linda Holmes works responds to a recent interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, author of ‘The Marriage Plot’, showing how not to answer hard questions.
Nothing is more vexing than a question where 10 percent of the public discussion is spent trying to answer it and 90 percent is spent arguing about whether it matters.
It’s lengthy but worthwhile. Anyone grappling with complicated questions (in this case: why are the gender ratios so out-of-whack in areas of publishing and reviewing?) would do well to read it:
[W]ithin this short discussion, it’s surprising how many different ways Eugenides argues that the issue of gender bias in literary culture doesn’t strike him as much of an issue, at least in the forms in which it’s come up so far. And all of them are patterns you’ll see over and over again as people grapple with what’s important enough to take on and what isn’t. It matters not so much because this one response to this question is important, but because it provides such good examples of the kind of rhetorical thicket you often have to get through to keep these discussions alive.
I urge you to at least skim over the points raised (I listed the problems, not her analysis of them). You may find yourself being asked in an interview to offer an opinion on a complex problem, and you don’t really want to preface this with Jeffrey’s casual, ‘I heard about that.’
- Limited Interest/Information: It doesn’t matter enough for me to know very much about it; how could it really matter?
- Please Accept These Exceptions: It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t apply in every case.
- The Telephone Game: It doesn’t matter (what was it again?).
- Ambiguity: It doesn’t matter because nobody’s proved anything one way or the other.
- The Ad Hominem Argument: It doesn’t matter because of who brought it up.
- Impatience: It doesn’t matter because even if the question is valid, it’s petty.
- Making It Personal: It doesn’t matter because it’s just axe-grinding.
- When Geniuses Are Starving: It doesn’t matter because I’m more invested in a different problem.