Last year, as I wrapped up writing my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a writer who battled gender discrimination in her own day and has been unjustly forgotten in ours, I grew increasingly aware of how women continue to be sidelined in the literary world, thanks to the work of VIDA. Then the National Book Award’s nonfiction longlist came out, and I was astonished to see that only one book, out of 10, was by a female author. Reading the Mayborn study, which revealed that only 20 percent of prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years have gone to female authors convinced me that the NBA’s gender imbalance was not an anomaly. I wondered in a piece here at The Millions whether fewer women wrote nonfiction, which some have called a guy’s club. However, I came to the conclusion that there were plenty of important nonfiction books being written by women that deserved to be considered for the prize. In fact, some of the books I highlighted did go on to win other prestigious prizes: Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age won the PEN Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Diane Allen won the Francis Parkman Prize for Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. This year’s judges of the National Book Award seem to agree that women’s nonfiction writing is abundant and prize-worthy. The 2015 nonfiction longlist includes seven female-authored books, out of 10, the largest percentage of female nominees in the prize’s history. The longlist also contains two books by people of color, compared to last year’s one. What is even more interesting than the numbers, however, is the types of books on the list. This year’s longlist could not be more different than last year’s in ways that go beyond gender and race but also suggest why this year’s list of authors is more diverse. Last year’s list, as well as those of the past few years, were heavy in genres and topics typically dominated by (white) men: national and military history; biographies of men, especially presidents; and economic or war reportage. This year there are no biographies at all on the list, and only two histories, although both take unconventional approaches to their subjects: Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln explores the private responses to Lincoln’s death, rather than its public meaning. Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i focuses on the indigenous politics and culture of Hawaii. Last year, only one memoir, a genre in which women writers have been rather prolific, made the longlist (and of the past 50 nonfiction books nominated, only 4 had been memoirs). This year, fully half of the nominated books can be loosely classified as memoirs, according to The New Yorker, three of them by women. (All are described below.) A related genre, the essay, is represented by one book on this year’s list: Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying. Last year I particularly noted the disappointing lack of books that blurred genres or categories. I speculated that women may be more likely to write about history, science, or culture from a more personal perspective, injecting memoir into the usual nonfiction fare. This year’s list contains three such works, two by women, one by a man of color, and all of which suggest the power of writing about larger issues through a personal lens: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, and ostensibly America, attempting to explain America’s perilous neuroses about race through memoir, reportage, and history. Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is unconventional science reportage that recounts the author’s friendship with an octopus and documents the emotional lives of the species as well. Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran combines memoir and conversations that take the reader into the history and theology of the Quran. Two other works on the list that defy easy categorization and offer innovative approaches to the genre are: Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is classified by its publisher as a science book but is subtitled A Natural and Cultural History, suggesting the ways it also crosses genre boundaries. Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs could be described as a kind of collage of text, photographs, letters, diaries, and reproductions of saved items, such as the notes she wrote on a negative’s envelope. Another indication that this year’s nominees are untraditional is that four of the authors are better known for their work in other genres or art forms: Sally Mann is a photographer; Susanna Moore is a novelist; and two are poets: Tracy K. Smith, author of Ordinary Light: A Memoir Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir Overall, it’s fair to say that this year’s list more accurately reflects the diversity of nonfiction as a genre and points toward innovations that promise to invigorate it. It is tempting to believe that the National Book Awards took the many criticisms of last year’s list into account. One sign of their effort to do things differently this year may be the fact that three of the five judges are women (last year there were two), one of whom is African-American (the same as last year). Even more telling, however, is the fact that the chair of this year’s panel is one of the authors conspicuously absent from last year’s list: Diane Ackerman. I concluded my essay last year with the hope that “the subtle biases that govern our understanding of literary value” will seem to us one day a quaint reminder of an earlier era. I had no idea my hope would be so quickly realized, at least for this one award for this one year. Such biases are still the norm, however. A recent study of the major fiction awards over the past 15 years determined that novels by and about men dominated, while those focusing on a female protagonist won zero Pulitzer Prizes, only two Man Booker Prizes, two National Book Awards, and one NBCC Award. There is still much to be done to ensure that awards in all genres are not gender biased and that judges can recognize merit outside the usual boundaries of the white male perspective. My hats off to the judges of this year’s NBA nonfiction award for accomplishing that goal.
Not only has VIDA released its 2014 numbers, including its first count of women writers of color, but the organization has also published a handout: “Things You Can Do Right Now To Advance Women’s Writing.” The value of the VIDA count (which this year showed more improvement but also persistently low representation of women writers at some publications) has been questioned since it was first produced in 2009. All along the VIDA organizers have insisted that the numbers are intended to spark a wider discussion about why women’s perspectives are undervalued and how change can be effected. Their new list of recommendations is a tangible effort to encourage that change. The list comprises many sensible actions, encouraging women writers to submit their work “everywhere” and readers to “buy more books by women.” At least one of the recommendations has been challenged by Phoebe Maltz Bovey at The New Republic, specifically the call to writers to “have your female characters say and do important things.” Echoing Katie Roiphe, Bovey argues that telling women they should write about “important” subjects perpetuates the problem that “the small-stakes narratives coming from female authors aren’t treated as serious literature.” Meanwhile white men are given the latitude to write about anything and are treated more seriously, whatever they write about. Bovey is right, although I doubt the VIDA people were trying to be prescriptive about what writers write. However, her argument raises larger issues about what kind of literature we value and touches on one of the other recommendations in the handout, specifically that teachers “teach books written by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters.” As a professor of American literature who has contributed to the recovery of women writers and argued for their inclusion in the canon, I could not agree more. But it’s not that simple, for the message sent to women that what they are writing isn’t important or serious enough is not a new one. It is as old as literature itself. And its persistence has everything to do with how women’s literature is treated in college and university classrooms and, in turn, how it is treated in the literary world. According to the VIDA website, the organization began with an email from Cate Marvin that asked, in part, “Has anyone else noticed all these incredibly accomplished women writers whose work seems to go consistently unnoticed and unrewarded by the American literary establishment?” The roots of the problem are deep, as many have indicated. Some have pointed to the largely male cadre of editors running the major magazines and thus assigning book reviews. Others to the classification of women’s literature as “chick lit,” or to its relegation to what Meg Wolitzer called, almost exactly three years ago, “The Second Shelf.” The real issue, of course, is not the numbers, although they are important. The underlying issue is how we decide what writing has value. For so long as the lives and experiences of women and people of color are undervalued, so will their writing be. One respondent to Wolitzer’s article called for the end to the gendering of children’s literature, for not only do boys stay away from girl’s stories, but so do “girls come to accept that boys are uninterested in stories by or about women.” The issue is complicated, of course, by many women’s desire to promote stories about girls, the “strong heroine” complex that Bovey decries. But surprisingly little discussion has taken place about how the intense gendering of children’s literature embeds gendered literary preferences in our psyches. Another respondent to Wolitzer’s article, the literary scholar Marjorie Pryse, pointed to the persistence of all-male or nearly all-male reading lists in colleges and universities. She seems to admit that her efforts (and others’) to revise the canon to include more women and people of color have not yielded substantial results. I would agree. I hear regularly from my students that the vast majority of their literature courses include almost no women’s writing, let alone that of writers of color. One told me just last week that her Victorian literature class had only one woman on the reading list, out of 15 weeks’ worth of reading. I suspect that my students’ experiences are not unique. Lilit Marcus wrote in a piece for Flavorwire, “[a]s an undergraduate English Lit major, I had several classes where every single author we read was male.” There is no VIDA count for academia, but D.G. Myers, a former English professor at Texas A&M and Ohio State, counted the top 25 writers most frequently cited over the past 25 years in the MLA Bibliography, the primary database of literary scholarship. There were only 5 women on the list, a fair approximation of the percentage of women writers being published and reviewed in some of the most retrograde literary magazines. What is taught and researched by academics impacts what the publishing world values as well. As one indication, Modern Library publishing company’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century included only nine books by women. The understandable result of all of this, in Marcus’s words, is that “there are still many readers in the U.S. who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that men have contributed most of what we know to be literature.” And until that changes, until we collectively (and not just inside of academia) believe that women writers have produced important literature in the past, then the devaluation of women’s writing in the present will persist. I don’t mean we should simply acknowledge that a few women have produced so-called “great” literature. We are already doing that. What I mean is discovering value in the many, many texts women writers have written since the first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written (by a woman) in the 11th century. Now I hear you saying, well sure, there may have been a lot of writing by women in the past, but it isn’t worth reading now. It was magazine filler or sentimental schlock. There was certainly plenty of that, produced by men and women. But there were hundreds of women writers producing important, significant, even great literature. Ask the dozens of scholars recovering these works and I’m sure each of them could recommend a list of women writers who deserve to be read today and valued. My own list of largely unknown women writers whom I think deserve wider recognition includes: Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894), whose stories and novels, many of them published in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly, show why she was often compared to George Eliot and Henry James. Her story “Miss Grief,” about a woman writer’s frustrated attempts to gain entrance to the male-dominated literary world, should be required reading for every person interested in the VIDA count and the status of women writers today. Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), whose story “Life in the Iron Mills” is as powerful as anything Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and is widely considered the first important Realist text in American literature. Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), whose slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is as significant as Frederick Douglass’s more well-known narrative. Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), who has been called “next to Melville and Hawthorne, the most strikingly original voice in the mid-nineteenth-century American novel,” particularly for her complex and challenging novel The Morgesons. Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), whose stories of Chinese immigrants, such as “Spring Fragrance,” are delightful as well as provocative. The Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938), whose fascinating stories and essays, including the autobiographical “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” show how the late-19th-century literary world provided opportunities for a diverse range of voices, not only on the margins but also in the well-respected Atlantic Monthly. Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), whose stories, such as “The Revolt of Mother,” are finely wrought tales of thwarted lives asserting their own kind of freedom. When my students encounter these works in my classes, they don’t question why we are reading them. Instead, they wonder why they have never heard of them before. They also learn to read differently and with different expectations. As many have noted before me, if we look for the woman writer who wrote the equivalent of Moby Dick, we will be disappointed. We can’t expect women to have written about whaling adventures, or assume that because they didn’t, they haven’t contributed anything important to literature. To raise the value of women’s contributions doesn’t necessarily mean devaluing male canonical texts. It means simply appreciating the perspective of the other half of the population and not hiding behind the idea that only the “great” works of literature deserve to be taught, or that editors only seek to publish the “best” writing (as many of the publications exposed by the VIDA count have insisted they do). There is much, much more to be said about how the low estimation of women’s writing of the past contributes to the devaluing of women’s writing today. But I think it’s time to begin to recognize that what happens in college classrooms today has an impact on the students, male and female, who will help to create the literary world of the future. Academia tends to assume that it has little influence on the outside world (particularly in the humanities), but there is nothing unimportant about the portrait of the literary past it presents in its classrooms. Image Credit: Flickr/James Jordan.
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.