Monday, July 07, 2008

The Silent Thunder

That is your koan for the day.

I have a few favorite puzzles in my head, the types of questions which entertain me on rainy days or in the dentist's waiting room or while at a boring meeting. One of those is this paradox: According to various anti-feminist science writers girls are good with words and boys are good with numbers and pinning butterflies against the wall and so on, and this is why there are so few women in hard sciences, so stop complaining about it you nasty feminazis. But where are all those women so eloquent and good with words? That's the interesting puzzle.

An example of these vanishing women is given in Anne Trubeck's piece entitled The Queens of Nonfiction*. A snippet:

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?


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.

I love the way that quote ends, because I have for long observed the de-feminizing (sort of like de-licing) that is going on at Atlantic Monthly. It started with a few new editors and the installation of Caitlyn Flanagan and it seems to have gone on mercilessly ever since, so that the Atlantic is now the go-to-place for really good examples of woman-blaming and for answers to the old question What Ails The Women.

But to return to Trubek's piece: She makes a point which the anti-feminist science popularizes never address within the basic theory they use for women and hard sciences, the one which argues for different genetic talent distributions. Instead, trying to explain the scarcity of women in the field they supposedly ace requires drawing on one of the other explanations in their tool kits. Male aggression and competitiveness, say. But of course then one wonders why that can't be used to explain what goes on in the hard sciences, too. Why hit women with two different hammers?

I'll leave the answer to that for you to contemplate. Trubek takes all the possible explanations for the vanishing writer women more seriously (probably because she hasn't spent so much time hearing them already), and largely goes for the gendered division of labor as the explanation why the Daring Boy Reporters Infiltrating Al-Qaeda (to make up an example she didn't use) are not Daring Girl Reporters (though a burqa would be an advantage there if Al-Qaeda ever decided to admit women):

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.

Speaking about paradoxes worthy of contemplation, have you noticed my recent posts about religion telling women that they shouldn't be bishops and that they really should submit to their husbands and to focus on being wives and mothers? Yet when people like Trubek write about the gendered division of labor we are all expected to act astonished (astonished!) that women choose to do such things, all by their little selves. They just don't want to climb Mount Everest in the search of a good story, to be then crowned the Kings of Nonfiction (and also to be blamed for child abandonment if they happen to be mother-women).

And however hard editors work to find women who'd write about nonfiction topic, alas, they cannot be found. They are all hiding, in Plain Sight.

I'm not trying to release women from any responsibility for failing to submit as much as men do. Of course women should submit more stories. The trick is to stop thinking that they aren't good enough. Have a look at David Brooks' columns in the New York Times, and your heart will soar with confidence. When the rejections come, start collecting them by the type and frame the guest bath with them. One day all your visitors will get a good laugh while sitting there, considering that it's the bathroom of the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Well, thinking that way helps.
*Trubek's column can be read for five days without subscription. I guess that means until 7/9/08.