My beach reading this week is Joan Didion: her famous essays on the 1960s collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (1979), and her novel from that era as well, Play it As it Lays. I’ve completed the essay collections, and came across this 1976 article about Georgia O’Keeffe that reminded me about the conversation a few days ago about women writers and artistic creativity and confidence: Continue reading
Katha Pollitt has some ideas for reclaiming the moral high ground on abortion rights. I agree with her that abortion needs to be seen more visibly as a part of women’s health care. We all know women who have had abortions–some of us have assisted them in some way, and a third of have had abortions ourselves. I’ve helped one friend recover from an abortion. I’ve never had one myself, and count myself fortunate, not virtuous. There’s no question but that if I had become pregnant before I wanted to be that I too would have sought an abortion.
In fact, it was my planned, wanted pregnancy that made me feel even more strongly about the importance of abortion rights. Some women begin to question the morality of abortion when they become pregnant, and I always wondered if pregnancy would change my mind. It didn’t–in fact, it struck me as even crazier and more absurd that so-called “pro-lifers” cared more about the little jelly bean inside my uterus than the adult human woman in which it grew, a human with adult responsibilities and family and community ties. It struck me as the most clueless and obnoxious form of misogyny–the utter erasure of living, breathing women and all of our labor, hopes, and creativity in favor of the potential human life growing in our uteri. The notion that anyone but me would presume to make decisions about the rest of our lives enraged me. Continue reading
The title of this post refers to a 1998 essay by Francine Prose, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” Nearly twenty years later, the results aren’t encouraging for women. Over at Jezebel, Catherine Nichols writes about sending out queries to agents for the same novel, with the same cover letter and writing sample, under both her real name and in the name of a male alter ego. The results are even more depressing than you’d imagine (h/t Megan Kate Nelson for the RT that alerted me to this article):
I set up a new e-mail address under a name—let’s say it was George Leyer, though it wasn’t—and left it empty. Weeks went by without word from the agents who had my work. I read another study about how people rate job applicants they believe are female and how much better they like those they believe are male.
Her hit ratio as Catherine was two requests to see the whole manuscript out of fifty queries, so 1:25 positive requests. As George, her hit ratio was 17:50. Nichols concludes that he is “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”
Who was is brilliant new writer, George Leyer, and when can we read his brilliant novel? Continue reading
Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience. Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?” Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III. I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.
One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age. But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.
How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented? Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one. That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together. Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading
Howdy, friends! Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016). For part I of this series, “Crossing Over: What is my book about?” click here. When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make. The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.
After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction. He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again. (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)
The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me. I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns. I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading
Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.” She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read. They’re eating our lunches!
History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.
In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.
To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling. His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points: Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively. I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working. (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)
This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two. Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading
While I was buying a ticket Saturday afternoon to tour the archaeological dig of Chateau St. Louis, the remains of the original fort and governors’ houses in Québec City, I was wished a “bonne fête” (happy holiday). The Parks Canada employee had to remind me that “c’est le quatre Juillet!” (“it’s the Fourth of July!”) Duh. I had spent all morning and most the afternoon at the Cathedral on a top-secret mission, and I think my brain was working so hard trying to speak and read French again that the American holiday fell completely out of my consciousness.
Having spent Independence Day weekend with our Francophone neighbors to the North, I may be particularly susceptible to this argument by Dylan Matthews, “3 Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake.” After all, the people of Québec famously refused Benedict Arnold’s kind offer to join with their southern neighbors to throw off the yoke of British tyranny. The legacy of more than a century of warfare with rabidly anti-Catholic New England colonists made Anglo-Americans unreliable allies in the eyes of most Canadians, to say the least.
Here’s Matthews’s argument, in brief–first and foremost, slavery ended sooner in the British empire, and he uses Canada as a compelling counter-example for U.S. Americans to consider:
Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there too in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.
This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.
Second, the American Revolution was really bad for First Nations peoples–not that Canada’s record is awesome, just less awful than U.S. imperial expansion: Continue reading