The winners of the Lettre Ulysses Award – a prize for book-length reportage that I discussed a few weeks ago – have been announced. Alexandra Fuller’s account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier took the 50,000 Euro first prize while A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Moroccan Abdellah Hammoudi and Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend won the 30,000 Euro second prize and 20,000 Euro third prize, respectively.
When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction?
Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.)
Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list:
Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War
Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list):
There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include:
Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir
Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works:
Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch
Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.
I was ruminating a bit about the Pulitzer Prize this week and wondering why it isn’t a bigger deal. The bookstore I worked at in Los Angeles may not be indicative of national trends, but while I was there, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award moved more books than the Pulitzer. (The Nobel Prize had a bigger impact on sales than all the other awards combined, believe it or not.) I think part of the reason that the Pulitzer fails to capture the interest of readers is that it’s much less controversial than other awards. Pulitzer winners are almost always safe picks. But part of it, I think, is that the award has no build up. The judges do not announce the nominees (aka the shortlist) in advance, instead the finalists are revealed at the same time as the winner. It’s pretty obvious that having a shortlist would build interest – some might say artificially – by placing the prize in the public eye for longer. But I’d argue that the Pulitzer is worthy of this treatment. Though the picks are often safe, taken together, the Pulitzer winners are an incomplete, but still compelling bunch of books. The Pulitzers are primarily a journalism award, and that, I think, matters too, in that it allows us to equate the novel with journalism, which, at its best, is meant to be a noble and unfrivolous pursuit. (And this isn’t just the J-school grad in me talking.) Finally, giving the Pulitzer a shortlist would just be more fun and it would give us book bloggers more to natter on about.Previously: Excerpts and links for the Pulitzer winners and finalists.
On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.
The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.
However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.
What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.
Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.
Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.
“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.
Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection of a non-fiction writer is a rare development for the Nobel, which has overwhelmingly favored fiction writers over the years.
Alexievich is known in the U.S. pretty much exclusively for her powerful book of non-fiction, Voices from Chernobyl, which was translated by Keith Gessen and initially published in hardcover by Dalkey Archive Press. The book relies on the testimony of survivors, in the vein of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Dan Wickett wrote about the book in these pages in 2005:
I don’t think I set this 300-plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.
Alexievich’s book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Zinky Boys, takes a similar approach, as do several other volumes which have as yet not been published in English translations.