No Female Writers Need Apply

June 1, 2011 § 16 Comments

Not The Best Essayists, Apparently

The folks at VIDA have given us in-depth numbers regarding the large gender imbalance in the Best American series, especially Best American Essays:

In the Best American Essays Series from 1986 through 2010, the numbers look dire across the board. Works by women accounted for only 29% of those published in the anthology. There was only one year in twenty-five that the number of works by women published in the anthology outnumbered the works by men.

It seems that even during those years that women were guest editors, female nonfictionists were poorly represented.  The one exception seems to be the year Joyce Carol Oates made the picks.

Go here for in-depth statistics:



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§ 16 Responses to No Female Writers Need Apply

  • But at least we’re cute, right? Like those women in the photograph?

  • So, we must continue to press on.

  • I’ve been stunned by the bald statistics. The causes seem complicated to outline, but certainly the fact that the essays themselves originate in magazines like The New Yorker,where male essayists dominate the field, play a tremendous role. These statistics force us to look at the structure of publishing and pause.

  • Thedesertrocks says:

    I still have my rejection letters from the liberated 70’s era and now, even though I have more competition, there’s the wonderful ability allowing me to push delete on my computer, giving me a small, albeit comforting morsel of satisfaction.

  • rbmoreno says:

    Thanks for highlighting this. I’ve long wondered about how the numbers break down. Cheers to Oates, Rich, Hass, Muldoon, Wagoner, et al. for pushing the envelope.

  • Stephanie Downie says:

    Wow, I just went to the Amazon page for the Oates issue to see what kind of reviews it got (only two available there–the usual Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly). I don’t think I’ve ever seen such negative responses to an editor’s picks in this series. Hmm.

    • To Quote ‘Kirkus Reviews’:

      Oates, in her introduction, defines the essay, a la Randall Jarrell, as “prose works of certain lengths that have many more things right about them than wrong.” Montaigne, Hazlitt, Mandelstam would roll in their graves! Only Richard Rodriguez’s “Late Victorians”–domestic architecture as sexuality in gay San Francisco–brings a remarkable voice to bear on an idea worthy of the great essay masters. From most everybody else here, the essay seems to be something that (1) can’t quite be fiction and (2) must be too long (or, if short, smug). Gerald Early’s intriguing piece about black female self-image overshoots the runway and travels on and on and on…forever. Likewise Mark Rudman’s at first genial piece about walking. Ditto pieces by Reg Saner, Jane Tompkins, Garrett Hongo. On the short, smug side, Elizabeth Hardwick’s impressions of New York’s desuetude must be the most pretentious thing she’s ever written, Gretel Ehrlich’s contribution the same. Intellectual and stylistic mediocrity is the province here of Woody Allen, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Frank Conroy, Dorien Ross, Amy Tan, and Joy Williams.

  • Kate Hopper says:

    So frustrating. The latest BAE was pathetic.

    And if you look at motherhood essays, I think there have been only three total in BAE since 1986. I’m sick to my stomach.

  • David LeGault says:

    This came up on a different website, but do we know whether or not these are blind submissions to the editor of the series? My sources tell me this is the case with the short story series, though gender (like the aforementioned motherhood essay) is probably more likely to shine through in nonfiction regardless.

    Still terribly imbalanced, but it becomes more interesting if the editors are reading anonymous submissions.

  • Obviously, Naipaul read the Brevity blog, and was inspired:

    In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

    He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

    The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

  • Oh that Naipaul, always a classy guy.

    In my brief semi-career as an editor, gender equality has often eluded me. When I served as the fiction editor of Ninth Letter, we were always scrambling for more submissions from women writers, I could never quite figure it out. Now, I’m currently Ninth Letter’s nonfiction editor, and the opposite is true–we’re publishing more female than male writers. In the forthcoming winter issue our nonfiction section will have an 80% female to 20% male ratio.

    I have no theory as to why this is.

  • rbmoreno says:

    “Your use of the word ‘master,’ is chilling. My father’s family is from a part of the world that has been colonized and conquered many times over. For many Jordanians, education and literacy has come in the form of British schools and the English language: but can anyone claim that the colonized subject is the master of his or her own home?” (Diana Abu-Jaber’s “From One Writer To Another: Shut Up, V.S. Naipaul,” at

  • Sounds like Kirkus reviews just doesn’t know what to like in an essay (though they did get Rodriguez’s essay right: it’s wonderful). At AWP, Robert Atwan made a quick reply to this issue, saying that (here I’m reducing, summarizing) women tend to write more memoiristic nonfiction while men tend toward more essayistic. I understand enough of the current creative nonfiction zeitgeist to know that most people make no distinction on this genre question, and I find myself fascinated by essays by women all the time, many of them in the BAE. I also believe that BAE publishes a lot of not-very-personal stuff, which I tend not to enjoy or think worth the “best” tag, and most of that kind of stuff seems to be written by men. Both 2010 (Hitchens) and 2007 (David Foster Wallace) were full of this kind of writing. Perhaps worth noting that the “notables” list seems to be more balanced lately, which might show that Atwan is changing his selection methods.

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