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Of Men, Women, Essays, and Cannibals

The gender divide in contemporary non-fiction

The New Press recently published Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person. It is a great anthology, chock full of fantastic articles originally published in Harper's magazine.Scan the list of contributors and note the names. Fourteen of the fifteen are men.The Harper's anthology follows in the wake of Ira Glass' The New Kings of Non-Fiction (note the title…and all but two contributors are men), and Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism (all but two contributors are men). I have written about the gendering of non-fiction elsewhere so I will not repeat that argument, but the Harper's book provides more evidence that narrative non-fiction of the ilk Harper's and Ira Glass celebrate is a male-identified genre. Women, it seems, do not get to be radical first people.If men have cornered investigative reporting, immersion journalism, submersion reportage-whichever label you prefer-women seem to have a better chance in another subset of non-fiction: the essay. Or, more precisely, the personal essay.The essay is a literary genre (often referred to as the "fourth genre," after fiction, poetry and drama, and definitely in that order) best understood as a meandering rumination that prizes individual insights large and small (what one wore on a first date, the meaning of life, how the two connect). It is anti-teleological, and an essayist need not adhere to one consistent point of view or develop an argument.Michel de Montaigne gets props for originating the essay, and a look at his Table of Contents shows the range of his ruminatory mind:-OF CUSTOM, AND THAT WE SHOULD NOT EASILY CHANGE A LAW RECEIVED.-OF THE EDUCATION OF CHILDREN.-THAT FORTUNE IS OFTENTIMES OBSERVED TO ACT BY THE RULES OF REASON.-OF CANNIBALS.-OF WAR-HORSES, OR DESTRIERS.-OF DEMOCRITUS AND HERACLITUS.-OF AGE.-OF DRUNKENNESS.-OF GLORY.-OF PRESUMPTION.-THAT WE TASTE NOTHING PURE.-OF THUMBS.-OF THE RESEMBLANCE OF CHILDREN TO THEIR FATHERS.-OF REPENTANCE.-UPON SOME VERSES OF VIRGIL.-OF COACHES.-THAT TO STUDY PHILOSOPHY IS TO LEARN TO DIE.-OF VANITY.-OF PHYSIOGNOMY.-OF THE FORCE OF IMAGINATION.-OF EXPERIENCE.In "On Cannibals" Montaigne describes the sixteenth-century European reaction to encounters with the New World. Through his introduction to a cannibal, he comes to better understand Renaissance European mores: "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice," he writes, and later, "I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead."Montaigne speculates, snickers, pontificates. He ends his essay, absurdly, with this line: "They don't wear breeches" (and sends the reader off to check out what he has to say about thumbs.)Back to my point (one is required to ramble when writing about Montaigne). If non-fiction has been divvied up between boys and girls, and the girls are left with the essay, must those essays always be so resolutely personal? So small? As Christina Nehring has convincingly argued, contemporary essays are "damned boring." They risk little. Like good girls, they stick around the house.Maybe us girls best crank up the essay, and give those submersion journalists a run for their first person money. (And yes! there are other arguments to be made-about the need for women to do more submersion journalism, and for editors to better value non-investigative non-fiction, and a raft of gender biases undergirding all this. I am just plucking one point out of many for today). There is a rich lineage of authors to draw upon, from Montaigne to Emerson to more contemporary women essayists, including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Cynthia Ozick, Lauren Slater, to name just a few. We need more.Some wear breeches.

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