Monday, March 10, 2008

The New Kings of Nonfiction edited by Ira Glass

When I first heard the title of this essay anthology, edited by the peerless host of This American Life, I thought it odd that he/they picked such a gender-specific title. I'm sure someone will say well, these are metaphoric kings so they can be women. Baloney. Kings suggests men, always has, and I gotta imagine always will. And if this had been an anthology of male writers--and declared as such--I'd have no problem with it. But it's an anthology of twelve male writers and two female. Twelve and two. Now my question is do editors of anthologies such as this (an anthology intended more for the public than the classroom) have a political and ethical responsibility to diversity in their selections?

What Ira Glass claims to have done in making his choices is just picked through essays he'd saved over the years--his favorites. And most of them are written by authors who are white, male, middle-class, and approximately his age. It's not really surprising that a reader would favor writers who resemble him, but I can't help but feel Glass had a bigger responsibility than simply picking his favorites. Maybe I only reacted strongly because I'm a woman and a writer and so felt excluded in a way that women readers might not, but I think a table of contents like this sends an implicit message that men write better than women, or at least that Ira Glass, a well-respected public figure, thinks so. In other words, it matters on a larger scale what Ira Glass says his favorites are. Interestingly his radio show, This American Life includes what seems to me to be a mixed balance of men and women and definitely aims to represent a wide swath of America (though I'm sure many think it's a very NPR audience politically-approved swath), so it's not like Glass isn't aware of a need to represent a bigger picture. And maybe part of the issue is these are all the same kind of essay--very New Yorkeresque profiles (though many were published in New Yorker clones such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine. Only the David Foster Wallace essay breaks from the traditional journalistic form, so in that case it's 13 to 1 against diversity.

With all that said, case by case, I loved these essays. They are fantastic. It's just that put together as a book collectively they make a bigger statement that I have to assume Glass didn't intend to make.

1 comment:

Elena said...

Ahah! Your post here totally makes me feel I'm on to something here! I wrote an email this morning to This American Life about the absence of women storytellers in the live show last night. I'm pasting it here so you can read it, especially since I also included our conversation about sexism. I know I might have simplified your argument in order to be concise, so feel free to correct it!


"Women in Comedy‏"
From: Elena Machado
Sent: Fri 5/02/08 9:33 AM

Last night, May 1st, I attended the live showing of This American Life at a local movie theater in South Florida. During the show, I was struck by the fact that women were absent as storytellers.

I know this isn't always the case, but in last night's show it seemed that women only appeared as part of a couple (like the husband/wife Jackie O. story) and otherwise not at all. I started thinking that maybe this was part of something more systemic when the boys comedy camp story came up and Ira Glass mentioned the editorial meetings at The Onion, which were comprised of a bunch of men and one woman.

Afterwards, my friend who had come to the show with me, Papatya, and I started talking about why aren't there more women in comedy. Are women less interested in doing comedy? Do their family lives prevent them from staying in comedy long-term? It seems that on Comedy Central the main shows are always hosted by men and that their staff basically includes one lone woman (Daily Show has only one female "reporter" and she _happens_ to be married to one of the male comedians on the show!). It can't possibly be that women are less funny, right? But Papatya and I came at the problem from different perspectives: me thinking that women are being kept out because of sexism, and Papatya thinking that men hire men, not out of sexism but laziness, and that women will only get in if women hire them, so its a woman-centered problem.

So I was wondering if you might consider interviewing these "lone women" in comedy and asking them how they explain their existence, how they made it and why more women didn't make it there with them.