Challenge To a (Woman) Writer’s Credibility

Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked, but I was when I read the Washington Post’s review of Karen Abbott’s new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, about four women who participated in the Civil War. Jonathan Yardley compares what he sees as the book’s troubling passages to writing “borrowed from the pages of a women’s magazine.” Apparently, women’s magazines are full of writing that he considers inferior, and because the author was a woman and her subject was women, he felt justified in making the comparison, despite the fact that the book is historical and women’s magazines typically do not print historical essays. His point seems to be that Abbott’s work is more comparable to first-person essays, fiction, and self-help articles. On what basis is entirely unclear.

Liar Temptress

It’s far too early for me to start worrying about how my book will be reviewed, but I can’t help it. Not only do I hope that reviewers will not lump me together with other women writers as a way to degrade my efforts (a common tactic 19th-century book reviewers used that is galling to see still used today), but I also hope that they will accept my authority as an author and scholar in a way Yardley did not for Abbott.

At issue here is not simply the line about women’s magazines. There is also his larger point, framed by this derogatory comment, that her writing lacks credibility because it is not sufficiently sourced. He then quotes a paragraph of descriptive writing that paints a vivid scene and complains that only two items were footnoted. The other details, such as the way a woman was dressed and how she waved at nearby soldiers, were not. It is not entirely clear to me why they should be.

As Abbott has pointed out in an interview, she is writing literary nonfiction, not academic history, so such details are recreated from her reading but do not require a direct source. If she did cite every detail, the book’s endnotes would balloon out of control. And, as she also points out—and this is what really gets me—male writers routinely recreate scenes without citing where they have gotten each detail from, and yet they are not criticized for it. Here is Abbott:

Some male friends who write nonfiction (award-winning and bestselling nonfiction, I might add) take the same sorts of liberties without being subjected to such criticism—or if they are, it’s not as frequent or pointed. We talk about this fairly often, and they readily acknowledge the bias.

Although I am not writing literary nonfiction, as I make the transition from writing for academics to writing for a wider audience, I am also trimming my citations considerably. In the other biographies I have been reading—trade books written by scholars that are heavily researched—it is common for only direct quotes to be cited. Other details that are presumably paraphrased or summarized from sources cited elsewhere are not. I hate to think that I could be opening myself up to criticism (or, God forbid, comparison to a degraded category of “women’s” writing) for following what is common practice.

As I begin the revisions of my manuscript, based on my editor’s comments, Yardley’s review and Abbott’s response are on my mind. One thing my editor has asked me to do is paraphrase many direct quotes. I don’t question her judgment, but I do wonder what will happen to the citations. A nonfiction writer’s credibility rests on them, particularly when the writer is a woman and she has to prove her chops as a researcher even more so than her male peers for the fogeys out there who would seek to discredit her.

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