This past fall, I went with seven other third-year nonfiction MFA students from the University of Pittsburgh to New York to pitch editors and agents. Incidentally, we are all women. All young women. Not a single one of us was pitching a memoir or personal essay: one of us was writing a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, one a true crime story about a coal town murder, one immersion journalism about gay square dancing, one narrative nonfiction about a highway in Peru and its impacts, one a profile of a small-town filmmaker, and finally, in my case, literary journalism about Mexican migrants returning to Mexico after years in the U.S.
We would sit around a table in a Midtown office with a generous view, and we’d each give our prepared pitch–Peru; Mexico; Alexander Graham Bell; Henry Ford and square dancing; Braddock, PA. And then the listener would sit back, digest, and say,: “So, this is a story about a young girl…”
The first time we were slightly taken aback. “Well, not really, but I mean, I’m the one writing it and so I’m guiding the narrative…” We tried to be accommodating, tried to find a way in which the story of gold mining or oralist history could also be a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. At first it seemed like a quirk. And then it became a pattern. We crammed in eight, ten meetings a day, skipped lunch, and thus got to see our pitches transform like landscapes in a time-lapse video: certain words and references were dropped, holes were filled in. And what we noticed was that two writers in particular started to emphasize the personal, because that was what drew interest: they’d given their pitches sans personal details and backgrounds, and the moment they mentioned their families, their histories, they could see the difference. “So it’s the journey of a young girl…”
Neither wanted to be present in her book; each saw it as a story apart from her own experience, although of course that experience had played a role in shaping their stories. And if we were men, I find it hard to believe that this detachment would have been questioned and the personal pushed so strongly. It seems incredible that if Chris Jones were pitching, say, climate change in South America, it’d become the memoir of a young man’s quest for self-discovery. But there seemed–not everywhere we went, but frequently enough for it to be a topic of discussion each night over nerve-calming beers–to be several presumptions at work when women pitched these stories: 1) that women would not write a journalistic story unless it had a personal angle and 2) that the personal should trump the journalistic, because what would sell was not necessarily the strength of the writing or reporting but the familiar formula of the young woman on a journey…the cover with a bright daisy and a cast-off pair of flip-flops on a serene beach. (The latter is perhaps unfair, but given all the discussion recently about the marketing of women’s writing in comparison to men’s, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.)
At the time, I read that trip as an example of the difficulty women face in establishing themselves as “serious” journalists: it seems if they go so far as to dip a toe into the personal, they’re tossed into the pool of memoir, where swim the snakes of derision and triviality (in an academic hiring meeting: “Her book is a memoir. Anyone can write a memoir.”) And so I reacted by firmly placing myself in the camp of serious/detached/impersonal, yanking myself entirely out of my book, adhering to this absorbed formula that personal writing is somehow easier, weaker, cheaper, more feminine, more frivolous, and “serious journalism” is strictly objective, hard, complicated, male.
Then, several months later, I realized I had put up an artificial wall between myself and my work and the work was suffocating for it. I was not writing a memoir, but I had to be in the narrative, shaping and directing it, and in some places my experience had to inform it. Several of my colleagues in the program were facing a similar problem: they’d become deeply wary of the personal, but certain personal experiences were intrinsic to their reported narratives and essential to deepen them. I wanted to occupy the middle ground between Reporter and Author, that fertile territory that Didion sowed, and as writers do I began looking for models who laid claim to such space. It took about five minutes to realize that many of my favorite contemporary writers lived here: John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Ian Frazier, Matthew Power, Tom Bissell…and it seemed there was not a woman among them.
The recent Port cover, which heralded “a new golden age” for print magazines with a glorifying shot of six white men in suits, has sparked an unfolding sequence of discussions about magazines, long-form journalism, and women writers and editors. At first, there was the predictable (to all but the editors of Port, apparently) flurry of well-deserved criticism–they couldn’t locate a single female editor, not Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones, not Ellen Rosenbush of Harper’s? And then the discussion shifted to women’s magazines, and why they aren’t publishing “serious”–a problematic adjective, for what constitutes “serious” anyway and what might its opposite be?–journalism. In The New Republic, Jessica Grose hinted at multiple causes for this: women’s magazines do not compete at the NMA awards in the general interest category, like men’s magazines, but rather in a “service and fashion” category; women writers fear being pigeonholed as writers for women’s mags and not getting more “serious” work; there’s a strong prejudice among men and women writers alike against women’s mags; stories at women’s magazines tend to be shorter and more middlebrow (possibly because women’s magazines have much higher circulations than men’s). Meanwhile, the editors at women’s magazines accused men of fetishizing length (wink, nudge) and fought back with a #womenatlength hashtag.
Amanda Hess, however, took aim at the root cause of this disparity: on Slate, she claimed that women’s magazines are unwilling to invest the time, money, and editorial effort in “serious journalism,” and instead choose to focus on cheaper stories that are friendlier to advertisers. She pointed out a number of stories hashtagged #womenatlength, or featured on Longreads’ list of 21 pieces of “serious journalism” by women, and explained that for as exceptional as they may be many are ultimately personal essays, which, she concluded, are “easiest to pull off with a lack of institutional support.”
I understand that Hess’s point here is that women’s magazines–and, for that matter, men’s magazines–are unwilling to provide women the funding, support, time, and editorial backing necessary for long-form and in-depth reported features. But I also think that this argument, in placing the personal squarely in the feminine camp and putting it in opposition to the “serious,” has the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing that age-old assumption that men’s writing is objective and hard and important, challenging to edit and worthy of significant compensation, whereas women’s writing is subjective and frivolous and easy, simple to edit and worth less both financially and intellectually. This stark divide between personal/easy/unserious and “objective”/hard/serious has a very real impact on women writers who want to both put themselves in their stories and be taken seriously as reporters and writers of narrative nonfiction.
I know that intensive long-form reporting does take much more money and backing than long-form stories that can be hung on the frame of a personal narrative: I take no moral or technical issue with that. But singling out women’s magazines for leaning on personal writing reinforces tired and frustrating stereotypes. It renders “personal” the domain of women: of ovaries and divulgences and memoir. (And singling out women’s magazines for catering extensively to ads is, as Jessica Grose points out, unjust and illogical: men’s magazines are chock full of ads and short service pieces.) It also has the effect of making the personal seem like a terrifying and perilous terrain for women writers: do not tread there, for thee will be struck down into the land of memoir.
And yet men’s magazines and general interest magazines also publish personal writing that includes a strong reporting element: it’s just not called personal. It’s called “criticism” or “putting yourself in the story” or “voice-driven” or “narrative,” or “travelogue” or “history” or “new journalism” or simply a “literary journey,” as The New York Times referred to Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. Compare that to the work of a writer like Lauren Slater, nearly all of whose books are labeled memoirs (how many memoirs can one person write?) despite the fact that several of her books use inward journeys only as frames for larger psychological and scientific questions. (It shouldn’t come as a shock that Slater writes predominantly for women’s magazines.)
The new/gonzo journalists are the most phenomenal example of this disparity: Hunter Thompson’s work is, for all of its fervent subjectivity, ultimately categorized as journalism; similarly Mailer’s and Orwell’s. But take the work of Deborah Copaken Kogan, also a badass reporting from the frontlines of a war zone: not only was her book classified as memoir (and not “nonfiction novel” or “gonzo journalism” or “new journalism”), it was given the title “Shutterbabe,” and the original cover photo involved a camera covering a vagina. (“I tell them it’s usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina,” Kogan writes in a recent article in The Nation about the book.) Joan Didion’s work, meanwhile, is now as frequently categorized as memoir as it is new journalism.
Thus the “I” in a woman’s writing has the alchemical effect of converting it into traditional women’s work–personal essay, memoir–whereas the “I” in a man’s work is a rhetorical device, a detached or quirky or “gutsy” narrative decision. It’s a wily craft choice for men, a solipsistic indulgence for women.
Case in point: David Foster Wallace’s writing is hardly ever considered “personal,” although it’s infused with a deeply personal ethical sensibility, it adheres to a distinct personal “I,” and it is almost excessively subjective. It’s hard to imagine anyone calling out “A Ticket to the Fair” or “Shipping Out” now as lesser, easier, cheaper stories, although undoubtedly if a women’s magazine sent an up-and-coming female journalist to a county fair or a cruise ship it would be considered the height of superfluousness. Oh, let’s play this game for just a second: what if a woman had written about how Obamacare affected her family? Would it be considered “a reported but essayistic GQ piece on the political ramifications of Obamacare,” as Ann Friedman labels John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Grotesque,” or a personal essay?
Friedman makes it clear that “American Grotesque” is not the latter: she writes, “Sure, we all know that where politics gets interesting is where it intersects with the personal. But rarely does such an intersection make its way out of the personal essay and into a reported piece of journalism.” That is, JJS has transcended the personal essay and landed in the terrain of seriousness: the women Hess highlights, however, have failed to do so…because they are women?
From the days of uber-macho gonzo journalism–for the new journalism was an intensely virile and almost exclusively male phenomenon–men have had the permission and the authority to get personal without their work being sold or categorized as such, perhaps because a man’s experience, like a man’s magazine, is presumed to be of general interest, the standard and status quo, whereas a woman’s experience is the exception. This item sold separately. Men have always been able to live their lives in public; women’s lives have historically been personal, interior, hidden. In Mexico, the kitchen is often a teensy dark room huddled off to the side of the house; this drove me mad when I lived there. One day, surely after slamming my knee on the table a foot and a half behind the stove, I asked my husband about this. “It’s because the kitchen is a private place, a woman’s place,” he said. “That’s why it’s hidden from view.”
Men’s perspectives, meanwhile, are inherently assumed to be critical-political-intellectual. The male voice is the voice of reason, whether it is speaking of personal experience or not, and the female voice is that of emotion: interior, weaker, other.
This is partially a problem of permission and authority: Vanessa Veselka, one of the few women writers who does straddle the personal and the reported (though in GQ, not in women’s mags, which might make the difference), admits in an interview with The American Reader, “I had lot of very strong women models. And so anything I’ve done I’ve always done with a certain amount of—maybe unearned—authority.” For all of the digressive bashfulness of John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace’s writing, they have a tremendous amount of authority: they are simply seeing and absorbing the world, passing it through the filter of themselves and their minds, and they believe and their editors believe and we believe that this is fascinating and riveting enough. Yes, they do reporting, and yes, they do research, but in stories like “Shipping Out” and “You Blow My Mind, Hey Mickey!” what we’re buying is the writer’s consciousness, the most personal of the personal. Women, meanwhile, often struggle to achieve permission and authority to assert their views not as contingent or relative or limited: hence the need for creative writing teachers to constantly berate them to take out all those perhapses and I thinks. Can women lay claim to such authority to assert the subjective as true and essential instead of confessional and partial, personal? If women’s work was not so easily categorized as “personal,” women might be more willing to assert their voices instead of needing to hide behind facts; behind a stiff, “serious” objectivity. What if we stopped considering “memoir” and “personal” as such feminine terms, or started applying them more assiduously to male writing that is spared them by default and assumed to be serious, canonical, critical-intellectual?
I don’t doubt that women need to be trusted with more funding, support, and institutional backing for heavyweight journalism. But they also need to be trusted to write an “I” that isn’t necessarily “personal,” and by association, frivolous or confessional. They also need to be trusted to wade into the subjective without being swept away by memoir, and perhaps we’d all be surprised by the “serious” journalism that would emerge if more women found root in that increasingly lush territory between strict journalism and the essay, between the dreaded memoir and reportage. If, in other words, they didn’t have to choose between the journey of a serious journalist and the journey of a young girl.