Women Writers 101

This weekend, I sat down to write a syllabus with the goal of featuring more female writers than male ones. Wouldn’t it be awesome, I thought, to feature all female writers? Without saying a thing to my students: just taking it as a given, the way syllabi that feature more than 90% male writers never point to this choice as an explicit decision, taking for granted that this list of men is a fair and standard representation of canonical nonfiction as opposed to a distinctly male one.

But in the end, I chickened out. This was the breakdown I came up with:

Women (15)

Katherine Boo
Alma Guillermoprieto
Barbara Ehrenreich
Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sonia Nazario
Ariel Levy
Emily Witt
Joan Didion
Eula Biss
Maureen Dowd
Jamaica Kincaid
Natasha Ginzburg
Sally Shivnan
Jo Ann Beard
Mary Karr

Men (12)

Chris Jones
David Foster Wallace
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Blaine Harden
Peter Hessler
Charles Bowden
Rolf Potts
Daniel Orozco
David Sedaris
Aleksander Hemon
Tom Ireland
Tim O’Brien

Chris Jones’ “Home” is one of those stories that makes me feel like I’m floating in ether when I’m done reading, as if I’ve been transported and can’t fully return to the concrete banality of my life. I was obsessed with Peter Hessler when I lived in China, fascinated by how he could tread so lightly and naturally in a place where I felt I was always slamming up hard against my own assumptions, prejudices, or misunderstandings. And leaving David Foster Wallace off a syllabus of contemporary nonfiction felt like the worst sort of righteous ignorance, putting politics and principals above…behold the rays of shining light…the craft.

And yet, as Roxane Gay pointed out in a recent piece for Salon about the fall of Jonah Lehrer, the myth of the white male genius is one of the most conservative, prevalent, and doggedly perpetuated myths of American society. Young, brilliant, white, male! Check, check, check, check: DFW was the perfect candidate. He was brilliant. He was a genius. I don’t want to suggest that this was pure fabrication, that his talent was inflated, but rather that, in his perfect fulfillment of all the myth’s categories, he, as Gay points out, probably had his road to canonization smoothed far more than many women or writers of color might in similar situations. Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine handcrafted assignments for him. Nurtured him, worked with his neurotic footnotes and drafts the size of novellas. Made exceptions for him. And the result is a writer whose work is one of the seminal oeuvres in both contemporary literary journalism and fiction.

What are the implications of this? For each David Foster Wallace, and John Jeremiah Sullivan (whose trajectory has not been quite as soaring and whose work is more limited to essays and feature writing, but who has nonetheless become a germinal figure in nonfiction) who is taught over and over again, who cannot not be taught, who is mentored and handed assignments and published (while editors act baffled at why their publications have so few female bylines), how many women writers are ignored?

By always returning to the stories I’ve been taught, that have been consecrated by the literary establishment as the works of nonfiction to read and to teach, the unmissables that in the meantime help keep the white-male-genius myth going, am I showing a lack of creativity that ultimately keeps women writers in the margins?

I had to search for women writers. I had to make including more women an active goal, or my syllabus would have, by default, by lazy instinct and tradition, been mostly men. I corresponded with two friends and fellow instructors – both women – about the quest to include more women writers and they attempted it, too, but ultimately the emails included lines like this: “I think it’s already a little man-heavy…” The go-to writers, the ones you put on there all tired out on Saturday before school starts, relieved to have already filled two weeks of reading slots, are almost all men. Talese. Wallace. Thompson. Krakauer. McPhee. And even a random perusal of lists of the Top 50, 100, 150 Magazine Articles of All Time turns up, maybe, a lone Susan Orlean adrift in a sea of Wallaces’ and Krakauers’ and Jones’.

I’ve stayed true to the establishment’s priorities: I have a Jones, I have a Wallace, I have a Sullivan. But what if I nixed them? What if I sought out lesser-known, lesser-celebrated pieces by women writers who haven’t had their path to the glory of genius greased by an industry with an abysmal record of gender equality? Would I be doing my students a disservice, and heading down a dangerous slope of political idealism over aesthetic merit? Does it matter, you might ask?

Well, I’d like to see my writing on a syllabus someday. I’d like to at least get it read, as I imagine most of my female contemporaries would as well. And when we know that the default – especially, especially, in nonfiction and journalism – will always be men, that the men will edge out the women on the syllabi and the lists and on the page in major magazines, shouldn’t we make an effort to push the default back towards, at the very least, equality?

I know it makes almost no difference to my students. Unless they’re hyper-aware of gender issues they will probably, like most of the American public, read it without consideration of whether the author is a man or a woman. But later, they’ll remember a few pieces. They’ll say, who wrote that “Shelter and the Storm” story? And they’ll remember it was Katherine Boo. A woman. And maybe they’ll pass it on. And maybe they’ll teach it someday. And maybe Boo, sometime, will be a staple of journalism syllabi. More likely, however, they’ll remember Wallace, because if they keep going in nonfiction they will encounter him over and over and over again.

But maybe, next semester, not in my class.



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