Where Are the Women Who Can Write Bestselling Nonfiction?

By , Contributor

Laura Hillenbrand

You wouldn’t think that Publishers Weekly’s list of The Week’s Hottest Reads would itself make for interesting reading, but insights about gender roles in America turn up in odd places these days. This list of bestsellers for June 23 tells us something important about the differences between the subjects that men and women choose to write about.

The list includes the 15 top titles in hardcover fiction, and the fifteen top titles in hardcover nonfiction, and when you sort them out in terms of the gender of the writers, you find that the fiction category is evenly divide - eight titles by men, and seven by women. Some of these titles represent another installment in a well-established franchise by a well-established author, such as Buried Prey, by John Sandford, and Hit List, by Laurell Hamilton.

So far, so good. But when we look at the list of nonfiction bestsellers, we find a very different situation. One of the titles, Guy Fieri Food, is collaboration by a man and a woman, so it’s a wash as far as gender roles are concerned. Of the remaining 14, no less than ten are by men (three of these are collaborations between two men). Of the four hardcover nonfiction bestsellers by women, two are autobiographical (Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Chelsea Handler’s Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me), and one is Ann Coulter’s current rant, Demonic. The remaining nonfiction book by a woman is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit.

But Laura Hillenbrand is a special case; she may be the only well-known author who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, so she rarely leaves her house. She has acknowledged that she compensates for her lack of mobility by writing about men (jockeys, soldiers) who led active lives.

So why is it that with the exceptions of special cases like Laura Hillenbrand and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, women don’t write as many bestselling books that require interviews and research as men do?

I offer two possibilities, mostly as a way of broaching the topic. One is this: women have been writing successful novels for a long time; we have only to think of perennial favorites like Jane Austen and George Eliot. Then, too, in the 21st century chic lit has such a large, enthusiastic readership that there are literary agents in New York who specialize in it. So there are precedents and conventions to guide verbal women who want to write novels.

And there’s something else. This is only a guess, and I have no way to proving it. I suspect that a lot of smart, verbal women who a generation or so ago would have found a creative outlet in writing novels have gotten Ph.D.s and become professors. They are writing, and often writing important scholarly books, too, but very few of them are ever going to appear on the Publishers Weekly’s list of the Week’s Hottest Reads.

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