The Chronicle Review

Where Are the Queens of Nonfiction?

July 04, 2008

Ira Glass, host of the radio and television program This American Life, claims that nonfiction is the most important and impressive art form of our day: "We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing, in the same way that the 1920s and 30s were a golden age for American popular song. Giants walk among us, Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling."

To commemorate and canonize this golden age, Glass compiled an anthology of some of the best nonfiction writing. The paperback original, published last fall, with proceeds benefiting a nonprofit tutoring center, received prime display space in many bookstores. Its title: The New Kings of Nonfiction.

Huh? Glass is a trailblazing icon of alternative, indie culture, a very with-it, 21st-century guy. What was he thinking? Why did he choose a gender-specific title for his book?

Glass makes no mention of gender in the book's introduction. He does, however, discuss how frustrating it was for him to come up with a good title, because this hot new genre does not have a better label than "nonfiction": "Sometimes people use the phrase 'literary nonfiction' for work like this, but I'm a snob when it comes to that phrase." He is apparently not as sensitive to the fact that the word "kings" excludes women.

The title belies not so much a gender bias as a gender assumption, a basic error akin to those my first-year composition students make when they write things like, "Since most of us grew up watching video games …" on their way to making other points.

Even more jaw-dropping, though, is the fact that none of the critics who reviewed the book even noticed. They scolded Glass for choosing well-known and oft-anthologized selections. But not for the title.

There are drag kings in the book. Two of the 14 contributors are women: Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and Coco Henson Scales, whose contribution originally appeared in the gossipy New York Times Sunday Styles section. Both of their essays revolve around gender. Orlean's essay, "The American Man, Age Ten," profiles a boy. Henson Scales's "The Hostess Diaries: My Year at a Hot Spot," tells about her experiences as a young woman working at a trendy club, including the fact that she spent an hour getting dressed for work every day: "I spend nearly every cent I make on clothing. My rent is always late. But people compliment me on the way I look, and I glow with the attention."

We could write off the book's title and the gender disparity in contributors as Glass's idiosyncrasy — he chose what he likes, and he prefers male writers. He makes no claims of comprehensiveness: "I don't pretend that the writers in my stack of stories are representative of a movement or a school of writing or anything like that." But, he goes on, they do have some things in common: "They're incredibly good reporters," and they are "all entertainers in the best sense of the word." He further explains that he "decided to stick with stories that are built around original reporting of one sort or another, not essays."

Sad to say, there is plenty of other evidence that those in positions of publishing power prefer male to female writers. Most of Glass's selections are from the most prestigious national "think" publications: Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. And those publications run far fewer pieces by women than by men.

A few years ago, two women — Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a writer and former editor at Glamour, and Elizabeth Merrick, director of a women's literary reading series — tallied the ratio of male to female contributors at those four magazines on their own Web sites. The numbers called attention to a significant gender disparity. According to Konigsberg, on, during a 12-month period (from September 2005 to September 2006), there were 1,446 men's bylines and 447 women's bylines. At Harper's, the ratio was nearly seven to one, at The New Yorker four to one, and at The Atlantic 3.6 to one.

I did my own tally. From May 2007 through May 2008, Harper's published 232 men and 51 women (a ratio of about 4.5 to one) and The Atlantic published 158 men to 49 women (a ratio of about three to one). In 2008, The New Yorker has published 185 men and 51 women (about 3.5 to one). Things are not getting much better.

As disheartening as those statistics are, closer inspection of what women do publish in such magazines makes the disparity even more disturbing. Many of the women's contributions are not features. (At The New Yorker, they might be a Talk of the Town piece, a poem, a cartoon, or a dance review.) And many are about being a woman. For example, the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic contains three substantial pieces by women. One, by Eliza Griswold, is both political and reported, and it does not integrate her personal experience. But the other two use personal experiences to make claims about women's lives. And in an almost absurd twist, both argue that women should start settling for less.

In "Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough," Lori Gottlieb, a single mother by choice, argues that women over 35 should stop being so picky and just marry the best available candidate. As she argues, "Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and … most likely, she'll say that what she really wants is a husband." To those who proclaim otherwise, she says: "Either you're in denial or you're lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you're not worried, because you'll see how silly your face looks when you're being disingenuous."

The other female contributor is Sandra Tsing Loh. In a review of Jonathon Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher subtitled "How a Pushy, Type A Mother Stopped Reading Jonathan Kozol and Learned to Love the Public Schools," she describes herself as "the sort of impressionable woman whose eyes seep tears while reading … heartrending descriptions of racial inequity in public education." Even so, she wanted to send her children to public school — "If I could have afforded either a $1.3-million house in La Cañada or $40,000 a year to send my two girls to a private school … I wouldn't waste two minutes on social justice" — but since she could not, she writes from the "flea's-eye view of a mother" about her experiences improving her daughters' public school.

Might women be publishing less, and less-serious material, for reasons other than long-standing sexism on the part of editors and publishers, and female authors' acceptance of it? A case could be made for an erosion of women's hard-won gains.

Perhaps the newly revitalized nonfiction genre that Glass celebrates does tilt masculine. In 2005, Robert Boynton published an anthology, The New New Journalism, that similarly lauds contemporary nonfiction. He calls its practitioners "new new journalists," heirs of the "new journalism" of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer. Boynton, like Glass, notes new new journalists' skills at reportage as a hallmark of the genre. And, like the new kings of nonfiction, they skew male: Only three of the 19 writers included are women (Susan Orlean again, Jane Kramer, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc).

Also like Glass, Boynton celebrates how this generation is reinventing "the way one gets the story. … They've developed innovative immersion strategies (Ted Conover worked as a prison guard for his book Newjack and lived as a hobo for Rolling Nowhere) and extended the time they've spent reporting (Leon Dash followed the characters in Rosa Lee for five years)."

That may be the rub — especially considering the self-described lives of Tsing Loh and Gott-lieb: Female writers are busy raising children. It is hard to climb Mount Everest or become a hobo when you have to pick the kids up from school every day at 3:30.

Concomitant with the return to rigorous and exhaustive reporting is a decreased interest in language. "The days in which nonfiction writers test the limits of language and form have largely passed," Boynton argues. And Glass omitted what he calls "essays" from his collection because they do not contain original reporting.

What seems to be emerging is a twofold definition of the best contemporary nonfiction: either reported pieces that are unconcerned with style, or essays that are not reported but are stylistic. Whether or not the two categories are really mutually exclusive, reported pieces are coded as masculine, and essays as feminine. Cynthia Ozick makes an argument at least for the latter in "She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body," in which she defines an essay as "a stroll through someone's mazy mind" and refers to the genre as a "she." Essays are contemplative, and for Ozick, "the meditative temperateness of an essay requires a desk and a chair, a musing and a mooning, a connection to a civilized surround; even when the subject itself is a wilderness of lions and tigers, mulling is the way of it. An essay is a fireside thing, not a conflagration or a safari."

Sitting by a desk or a fire — playing with language and form — sounds like an activity even mothers can manage. And by so doing they inherit the genre defined by Montaigne, Emerson, and Orwell. (Men, to return to Boynton, get to continue the work of Wolfe, Thompson, and Mailer.)

My argument — that trends in nonfiction favor men who light out for the territories over women who quietly work two inches of ivory — is specious, filled with generalizations, lacking nuance. To be honest, I do not really want to make it; I dragged my heels writing this essay. Even worse, I am a single mother. There is a bit of damned if you do, damned if you don't in all this.

But I cannot stop noticing the numbers, and the titles. They are hidden in plain sight.

Anne Trubek is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 43, Page B14