The Chronicle Review

Why Don’t More Women Write ‘Big Books’?

April 02, 2017 Premium

Pui Yang Fong for The Chronicle Review
Let’s try a thought experiment.

In 10 seconds, try to think of as many big, popular works of history as you can. I mean those kinds of high-profile books about empires and civilizations rising and falling; battles and ideas that shaped that world; lives of rulers and statesmen.

Now, how many books like that were you able to name — by women? How many, that is, besides Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (which last year spent 18 weeks on best-seller lists)? When I first tried the game with a (senior, male, historian) colleague, both of us spent those seconds struggling.

The kinds of books I have in mind are what Beard herself has called "big books by blokes about battles." These books are "big" not because they’re long, but because they tend to be about big subjects — battles, wars, the ancient world (say, last year’s Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity by Michael Scott) or even the Course of Human History (this year’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel).

A 2016 article on Slate gave this sort of book a different label: "uncle books," that is, "tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair." The authors of that piece, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion, set out to investigate a hunch that women are relatively scarce in the land of uncle-book writers. They calculated gender distribution statistics for the previous year’s "popular history" books. Of 614 titles published by 80 publishing houses, 76 percent were by men. (I’d also be curious to see the disparity between male and female authors working with literary agents, which in the U.S. are all but required for trade nonfiction.)

The smaller supply of women writing popular history books is a problem. That problem doesn’t exist because we’re missing some sort of particularly "female viewpoint," or books on "women’s issues" in history. The issue is that public conversation is lacking a diversity of opinions and perspectives not only on the usual big-book topics — "the invention of the West," "how X civilization rose and fell," etc. — but also on what kind of topics deserve having big books written about them. If more kinds of people wrote these books, we’d surely see big books about more kinds of things. The Harvard historian Jill Lepore used the history of Wonder Woman to tell the big story of the struggle for women’s rights in the 20th-century United States. How many male academics would ever have thought to do that?

Women in academe may be wary of breaking the educational mold that trains us to think small.
The nonfiction gender disparity also makes little sense, given that women read much more — and buy many more books — than men do. In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report on "public participation in the arts" in the United States between 2002 and 2012. Subsequent articles about the report were fond of quoting its claim that "Men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction, while the opposite holds true for women."

That statement is technically true, but it is also misleading. According to the report, 48 percent of women surveyed had read a work of nonfiction in the last 12 months, but only 37 percent of men had (35 percent of men had recently read a novel or short story, versus women’s 55 percent). And the genre’s overall distribution of readers is actually 59 percent to 41 percent in favor of women. That’s a lot more aunts than uncles.

Part of the reason that women in our field might shy away from big-book writing is the impression that it takes a particularly "masculine" chutzpah to write them. Books that tell centuries-long stories and make mile-high claims require confidence and swagger, an air of authority and a willingness to generalize and gloss over the outliers.

Nonblokes tempted to write big books might even worry that it takes the kind of "male" voice and prose that the Gender Guesser — a website that guesses the gender of the writer based on a 300-word snippet — has reduced to an algorithm ("professional female writers," the Guesser notes, "frequently use male writing styles").

Graduate work encourages women and men alike to ask big questions but develop deep expertise in small archives. Dissertations in general are notorious for tending toward the x-axis of obscurity. A small topic is the manageable answer to the combined realities of funding pressure — the pressure to finish the Ph.D. quickly — and the premium on theses that demonstrate total expertise with novel arguments. The tenure process cares not a whiff for trade nonfiction, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it might even hurt a case.

Tenure itself is, of course, no great equalizer. Even leaving aside the academic’s notoriously difficult second book (often the associate professor’s "promotion book"), what about the third and fourth? After all, the men seem to be managing it. Why does it seem that more men than women take the midcareer turn toward the big?

Women in academe may be wary of breaking the educational mold that trains us to think small, or at least to be more measured. A 2011 study showed that women have a greater tendency to see nuance than men do, while men tend to see the world in categorical terms. Meanwhile, the outright sexism that Mary Beard has battled as a result of her public writing and presence is at once terrifying for would-be female authors and proof that there is a problem.

We might further conclude that after their dissertation book is safely out the door, women are less likely to turn to writing big because we don’t see more women doing it. I wouldn’t have guessed that this was such a problem — let alone that the big books out there often really do read with a "masculine" voice — if I hadn’t tried to write a big book myself.

Writing about a large topic for a wider audience proved far more difficult than the academic writing I was used to. I had to learn to compose with more confidence and project authority on topics beyond my comfort zone. Throughout it all, I found "popular" books by female classicists reassuring. Like Beard’s SPQR, Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks and Barbara Graziosi’s The Gods of Olympus: A History came to feel like typeset cheerleaders. I even took an armchair road trip to Dollywood with Helen Morales, a colleague and author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Roadtrip Through Tennessee, just to see how a female Hellenist writes about a subject not (obviously) classical.

In his recent piece "Classics Beyond the Pale," Dan-el Padilla Peralta wrote of how he was attracted to the classics department at Princeton as an undergraduate in part because of the "realization that many of the faculty were, like me, immigrants." He also told of how, once he realized how his teachers’ "journey across borders and languages had constituted them," he could not "help but detect the echoes (however faint) of this journey in their scholarly production."

When I started to immerse myself in "big" writing about the ancient world by women, I also thought I could hear "echoes (however faint)" of journeys and stories that spoke to and encouraged me. This writing might not have always reflected my own kind of thinking, but it did provide a compass and companionship.

All of this led me to conclude that, if more women wrote big books, even more women would write big books.

The persistent gender disparity among "big" nonfiction authors has provoked no small amount of hand-wringing. And yet the articles that sound the alarm tend to avoid the obvious, but difficult, question of what we can do about it. I’ve got a few ideas.

There are programs already in place for other genres of writing for the public. Ventures like the Op/Ed Project organize op-ed-writing workshops, arrange pairings between would-be writers and mentor-editors, and offer advice on how to write and place opinion pieces. Could we create — and could universities support — a similar initiative geared toward helping female academics find agents, sign contracts, and write and market big books?

Those of us who teach graduate students should also encourage them to start thinking about the more-ambitious book they’d one day like to write. You cannot, and should not, write a dissertation on the rise and fall of Rome or ancient Greece. You can, however, use your dissertation to start thinking about how you would write a book about one of those topics.

Rethinking the way we teach undergraduates may be even more important. Even as we guide them to craft arguments with nuance and subtlety, and to critique the big narratives that are already out there, we should also train them to get comfortable thinking and writing with a wider scope.

This point became clear to me only recently, during a meeting of my undergraduate seminar. The students’ assignment was to answer the question, "Is there such a thing as Western civilization?" in 600 words. In a class discussion on the challenges of such an assignment, a female student reflected that it was difficult because students are often asked to write long but narrow research papers rather than to take big positions and express them succinctly. She confessed how relieved she was that no one apart from me would be reading her thoughts (which were in fact beautifully constructed and argued).

I understood and was worried by her reservations. They suggested to me that, as teachers, we can craft more assignments to increase confidence about expressing opinions and interpretations in polished prose and a short space — assignments geared to help students find a public voice. After all, if we want to change who’s writing the uncle books, nieces seem like a good place to start.

It is still by and large men who write the books that all of us read, and who steer the conversations that big nonfiction books create. (Writing by male critics also dominates prestigious review outlets such as The New York Review of Books.) Trade nonfiction is powerful: It shapes public knowledge, whether by informing the scripts of documentaries (and the documentaries’ very topics) or underpinning the authoritative narratives presented in textbooks. These are the books that land on public-library shelves. We should be thinking about what kind of message it sends to readers, especially young readers, when the popular history books that get the loud fanfare and big to-dos are overwhelmingly written by men.

Naming the problem is often the first step toward finding its solution. The second step, at least in this case? To sit down and get writing.

Johanna Hanink is an associate professor of classics at Brown University and author of The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. A version of this piece originally appeared in Eidolon.