Out of the Box

Publishing online is a quite an experience for an academic. Last week I published two pieces—one I had written a couple of months ago, the other I had written very recently. The first, a review of recent biographies about J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee at the Los Angeles Review of Books, was part of my larger goal of building a reputation as a public critic (as opposed to a purely academic one). The second came from another place entirely and has gained more attention than any single piece of writing I have ever done, including the two academic books I have published.

Here is the story of that second article.

As I venture into the arena of biography, I have become increasingly aware of its lack of diversity and of my position as a minority, simply by nature of my gender. This was brought home to me quite concretely when I read a study published in The Mayborn Magazine concluding that of all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women (and 5 percent by people of color). How can that be, I wondered. I got my answer when the National Book Awards longlist for nonfiction was recently released. Out of ten books, only  one was written by a woman, a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?.

Roz Chast

A couple of great pieces ran directly in the announcement’s aftermath at The Washington Post and Slate. But I kept wondering, where were all of the other great nonfiction books written by women this year, and why is nonfiction, as Waldman says, the “patriarch” of the literary world? I couldn’t stop thinking about the gross imbalance of the NBA’s longlist. All the way to and from work I composed sentences in my head and thought of authors whose works I had read or been hearing about. I started compiling lists of my own and shortly after I got home, an essay about it just tumbled out of me. I had a million other things I needed to be doing, but I knew I had to write about this or I wouldn’t be able to shut my mind off and go to sleep that night.

The next morning I wondered what to do with the piece I had written. It had started as a something for this blog but had grown into something more. I wanted to make sure people in the literary world read it. But how could I reach them? That isn’t my turf. I’m rather a newbie there. I have made a few contacts, however, and one suggested I try The Millions. I had heard of it mentioned frequently as one of the main sites people go to for literary news and commentary. I found an e-mail on their site and sent in the piece. Less than 24 hours later I had a note saying they would take it, as is.

This was only the beginning of an experience that could not be farther removed from the realm of academic writing. Not only did I write about an issue that felt urgent and that touched on issues of significance to a large number of people, but I found it easy to find an outlet for it. When it appeared, a scant 10 days after I had written it, the Twitter notifications began before I had even had breakfast. People were reading it and commenting on it as far away as South Africa.

Most of the response has been quite positive, although a few conservative voices high jacked the comments section. Overall, however, I feel as if my small voice, which has felt caged within the walls of academia, is finally being heard. If this is what it means to be a writer or a public intellectual, then I’m hooked. I don’t think I’ll ever go back into that cage.

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