Why aren’t there more women doing longform narrative journalism?
That is a question that Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, asked on her Facebook page. It sparked some interesting comments, from both men and women, and continued a discussion provoked by a recent comment from Gay Talese.
Talese, one of the founding parents of the New Journalism in the 1960s, was asked at a Boston University narrative conference to name some of the women writers of narrative nonfiction that influenced him in the development of his craft. When he couldn’t name one, the social media response filled in the blanks for him with lists of women writers he could have named.
After some reflection, some commentators were willing to give Talese, married to a famous book editor, a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for his candor. He did not say that there were no such writers, only that his exposure to them in his early years could not be defined as influence.
I am younger than Talese by 16 years. I attended all-male Catholic schools from the sixth grade through college. I had no women as teachers at Chaminade High School or Providence College. No women sat with me in a classroom. I can count on one hand the number of women writers we were exposed to: Rachel Carson, Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay, St. Theresa, and, uh…that’s about it. If I had received the question that Talese fielded, I would have been even less equipped to handle it.
But things have picked up since then. Now my favorite writers include Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joan Didion, J.K. Rowling, Alice Walker, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, M.F.K. Fisher, Toni Morrison, Laura Hillenbrand, Sylvia Plath, Olivia Judson and Rita Dove, just to mention some of the women I have been reading over the last year.
So it is possible in life to play catch-up. Which brings me back to Lane DeGregory’s question: Why aren’t there more women doing longform narrative journalism? The answers came from her friends. I won’t identify them, except to say they included several women who write longform narrative at the highest level. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? Or have they not constituted themselves as a club, cohort, gang, posse, an exaltation of larks? Do you need a critical mass to be visible? A treehouse? A website such as gangrey.com?
The answer may be yes. Which is why I always appreciated the efforts of an editor such as Janet Sternburg, who in 1980 published an influential collection of essays by women writers titled “The Writer on Her Work” (one of those rare titles where the key word is a possessive pronoun).
Why not more women doing longform? (Among the arguments, not mine.)
- They are not encouraged.
- They have no role models.
- They have no mentors (men or women).
- They work at downsized news organizations where longform is not encouraged.
- They have responsibilities at home and the workplace, including the raising of children.
Some questioned the premise of Lane’s question, and I am one of them. But, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that women are under-represented in this aspect of the craft. What could we do about it?
My inclination would be to look back at recent decades with an eye on identifying those women who have succeeded in longform. Even if they were exceptions, their determination to go against the grain can turn them into champions for other women. The body of their work can act as “mentor texts,” stories that reveal not just their content, but how to create it.
This is the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1979, the Pulitzers introduced a prize for feature writing. David Garlock has edited the collection “Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories,” a thick volume that compiled the winning work from 1979-2003.
Here are the names of the women who won the prize during that stretch along with the Pulitzer citations when available:
1980: Madeleine Blais of The Miami Herald for “Zepp’s Last Stand.”
1981: Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice. (Received the prize after Janet Cooke’s prize was returned by the Washington Post for fabrication.)
1983: Nan Robertson of The New York Times for her memorable and medically detailed account of her struggle with toxic shock syndrome.
1985: Alice Steinbach of The Baltimore Sun for her account of a blind boy’s world.
1988: Jacqui Banaszynski of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch for her moving series about the life and death of an AIDS victim in a rural farm community.
1991: Sheryl James of the St. Petersburg Times for a compelling series about a mother who abandoned her newborn child and how it affected her life and others.
1994: Isabel Wilkerson of The New York Times from her profile of a fourth-grader from Chicago’s South Side and for two stories reporting on the Midwestern flood of 1993.
1997: Lisa Pollak of The Baltimore Sun for her compelling portrait of a baseball umpire who endured the death of a son while knowing that another son suffers from the same deadly genetic disease.
2003: Sonia Nazario of the Los Angeles Times for “Enrique’s Journey,” her touching, exhaustively reported story of a Honduran boy’s perilous search for his mother who had migrated to the United States.
The second edition of Garlock’s book ends there. Here are subsequent women winners:
2005: Julia Keller of The Chicago Tribune for her gripping, meticulous reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois.
2007: Andrea Elliott of The New York Times for her intimate, richly textured portrait of an immigrant imam striving to find his way and serve his faithful in America.
2009: Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times for her moving, richly detailed story of a neglected little girl, found in a roach-infested room, unable to talk or feed herself, who was adopted by a new family committed to her nurturing.
2011: Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star Ledger, Newark, N.J., for her deeply probing story of the mysterious sinking of a commercial fishing boat in the Atlantic Ocean that drowned six men. The two most recent winners have been women:
2015: Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times for her dispatches from California’s Central Valley offering nuanced portraits of lives affected by the state’s drought, bringing an original and empathetic perspective to the story.
2016: Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker for an elegant scientific narrative of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line, a masterwork of environmental reporting and writing.
This impressive list does not include the women who earned the status of finalist in the feature writing category:
Bonnie Anderson, Nancy Tracy, Michele Lesie, Irene Virag, Malinda Reinke, Lynne Duke, Tad Bartimus (twice), Loretta Tofani, Judith Valente, April Witt, Anne Hull (four times), Julia Prodis, Robin Gaby Fisher (twice), Ellen Barry, Connie Schultz, Tamara Jones, Patricia Wen, Mary Schmich, Inara Verzemnieks, Diana Suchetka, Sheri Fink, Corinne Reilly, and Kelley Benham.
The journalism produced by these women brought to their publications concerns and issues that may not have been on the radar screens of their male counterparts – such as the welfare of children. But, as their stories reveal, they would not be confined to topics that were the product of some women’s ghetto in the newsroom. They wrote about crime and punishment. They wrote about war and peace.
Far from the days when feature departments confined themselves to recipes and celebrities, these writers turned these sections into the most fertile habitat for longform journalism. It may be the shrinking of those departments – and the disappearance of that news hole – that has driven longform writers, both women and men, to other venues.
Regardless, the collected work of these 38 women writers constitutes an anthology of excellence. It should remain a source of inspiration for women writers — and men — for years to come.