Dear Nonfiction Reader of High Taste and Open Mind:
We need your help!
International Women’s Day is this week, and the VIDA Count is out, and still, well, depressing. On top of this, we at Vela have been a little ruffled by our most recent batch of brush-ups with the byline gender gap – I’ll spare you the particulars save this one: The Electric Typewriter’s latest list “100 Great Nonfiction Books” places Essay Collections at the top of the page (no women), and then, in its Memoir category includes several essay collections by women, including Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Perhaps I’m lacking in some crucial sensibility with which to discern the difference, but I see nothing about Didion’s relationship between the I and the eye in Slouching that is more “memoir” (a word that is pronounced, au courant, in that withering tone applied to the word “novels” during the Victorian Age) than David Foster Wallace’s I/eye in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or John Jeremiah Sullivan’s in Pulphead.
In ANY case, we decided that we’d try to avoid any soapboxing (oops) and instead try to do something productive.
So here’s the plan: we’re going to compile the Unlisted List. A list of women writers of various forms of creative nonfiction that future list-makers and anthologists, should they notice that their inclusion of women (i.e. 21% in the article mentioned above) is on the paltry side, might peruse and thereby make their “bests” and “greats” better and greater, their collections more representative of the world we live in, rather than reminiscent still of those dead white guys we were raised up on. Because here’s the rub as we see it: women read works by and about men and by and about women, but the male experience and the male perspective is still seen as more universal, more public, than the female. And the only way we can begin to rectify this is by making writing by women as visible as writing by men, and by extension the female perspective as normal and the female experience as mainstream, as universal, as the male.
So. Here’s where YOU come in, you well-read man or woman. We want to know which women writers you like “best,” who you think belongs on those reading lists and what works you wish got more attention. Sure, we all love Joan Didion, but who are her literary daughters and granddaughters writing the essay? What actual memoirs by women – opposed to essay collections – speak personally to the universal experience? Who is your favorite woman writer this year, and who of all time?
Please send us your answers via the form below. You don’t have to fill in all the boxes or list only one per category – this isn’t a ballot or a test. You can even come back tomorrow when you think of someone else and submit again. The only parameters are: Women Writers and Nonfiction. And please give us enough info so we can find the work (our secret agenda is to discover more great stuff to read ourselves). Then please pass this on to anyone whose literary taste you admire…
…and THANK YOU!
LOVELOVELOVE what’s coming in right off the bat. (Sneak peek: Lia Purpura, Jo Ann Beard, Mira Ptacin, Emily Rapp, Alice Sebold, Mary Roach, Eula Biss, Roxane Gay, Katherine Boo, Anne Fadiman, Annie Dillard, Erica Jong, Sarah Manguso, Mary Ruefle, Alison Bechdel, and many, many more!) Thank you to everyone who has submitted suggestions and spread the word in these first hours–please, don’t stop! We’re insatiable.
So many good Canadian non-fictioneers!
A conversation with a Canadian nonfiction writer who told me there weren’t many Canadian women nonfiction writers inspired me to make a list: http://pomegranatewomenwriting.wordpress.com/45-2/
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Molly Beer, Molly Beer,
Yet again that sneaky, sneaky byline gender gap creeps up and bites me in the ass as I spew my testosterone-fuelled man lists around the place without a care in the world. Perhaps you will be patient enough to let me make the (no doubt hopeless) case for my defence?
First of all, The Electric Typewriter is nothing more than my own perfectly misformed personal man baby. I built it myself from hypertext and glue, and filled it with things that amazed me. I make no claim of completeness or objectivity, indeed any utility anyone draws from that little Frankenstein of words and electricity is purely a result of its incompleteness. Anything that appears on the site first has to sneak its way onto my reading list (in general I only read things by authors I’m familiar with or that come with a personal recommendation of some sort), so the site will always be skewed in one way or another, and in no way represents anything except my personal taste – hence the absence of superlatives in its descriptive headings.
(That said I’m massively grateful for tips about excellent nonfiction, of any sort, that could be included which can be deposited here – http://tetw.tumblr.com/ask – and absolutely positively promise to assess anything submitted in the same unscientific, mood dependent, haphazard manner regardless of the gender of its author!)
Ok, disclaimers taken care of, now let’s get down to business.
In your ill-advised and somewhat insulting attack on the wholly innocent and highly generous attempts of a perfect stranger to make the cold hard world a just ever so slightly nicer place by sharing the meagre scraps of beauty he has managed to gather along the perilous journey we call life, you seem to be insinuating that we are collecting the work of female authors (and Tom Wolfe!) under the derogatory heading of ‘memoir'(which I apparently can’t pronounce properly??!!), while man writers get to gallivant freely around the altogether more savoury ‘essay collections’ section of the list which enjoys a hallowed position ‘at the top’ of the page. I apologise in advance for my use of crude language, but this criticism is completely fucking bonkers.
My understanding is that memoir, which can exist in forms other than essays, is a highly personal and subjective form of writing about an author’s own life and experiences, while the broad term ‘essay’ can mean more or less anything. I think you’d have to admit that ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ and ‘What the Dog Saw’ are very different in terms of both style and content, and in my internal taxonomy ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’ and ‘Pulphead’ fall closer to the later while ‘Slouching’ is more the former. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s my list, so being wrong is my prerogative.
What I find offensive is the implication that I am corralling female writers into some inferior ghettoised genre. I love memoir, which is why 10% of the whole list is made up of (what I think of as) memoir. The suggestion that I was sneering about women, even subconsciously, while putting them in this category, is weird and rude.
I’m pleased that the list has played a part in inspiring you to put together a collection of your own, in the meantime you might enjoy my collection of articles about women, which are almost all by women – http://tetw.tumblr.com/Women – or this collection of articles by women about war – http://tetw.tumblr.com/post/34840559659/women-on-war – which we posted to…. drumroll please …. address the byline gender gap.
Ok rant over. Can we be friends now? If you have the time to put together a list of your favourite articles, essays, or nonfiction books, we’d love to feature it on the blog.
All the best,
Dan (The Electric Typewriter)
Karen Karbo has written books ABOUT “kick-ass women,” specifically Katharine Hepburn, Coco Chanel, Georgia O’Keeffe, and soon, Julia Child. The New York Times said this, “Karen Karbo is a very funny writer – from near slapstick to wry wit. Amazing”
P.s. you should read this http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html
Just wanting to make sure my recommendation went through. Is there supposed to be a confirmation email? Best of luck with this project! I love reading a good memoir.
No, there is no confirmation email–you didn’t give us your address after all. But I am most definitely getting your recommendations–thank you!
I left out the terrific American writer living in Italy, Linda Lappin, who has a book about Katherine Mansfield, articles about travel and reading and a new book out soon.
Find her work and read her.