Recommended Reading: Poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa on her obsession with lost stories and found textual objects, as well as the efficacy of rereading.
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): Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History Dianne Ackerma’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us 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.
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“When gender’s not there, it sort of leaves room for us to focus on these other differences—and most of them end up being insignificant, too.” An interview with Emma Ramadan, translator of Anne Garréta's Sphinx, on writing, translating, and understanding genderless characters.