Karol Nielsen is the author of Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011), a Gulf War love story. Poets & Writers selected the memoir as a New and Noteworthy Book. The Jewish Book Council invited her to guest blog about her book. The blogs also appeared in the Forward. Excerpts from her memoir were honored as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her poetry collection, coming out as a chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. She has contributed nonfiction and poetry to Smith Magazine’s The Moment anthology (Harper Perennial, 2012) and many literary magazines, including Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and Epiphany before she became an editor of the magazine. A journalist for 15 years, she covered Latin America, the Middle East, New York City, and international finance, contributing to The New York Times, New York Newsday, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Stamford Advocate, the Buenos Aires Herald, and others. She has an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. And she says,
Here is her guest essay. She and I welcome your comments:
“Call Me Person”
by Karol Nielsen
by Karol Nielsen
I came to my feminist sensibilities slowly, first awakening in college during a summer internship at a think tank where I only remember one woman on staff who was not a secretary. And this woman had been an ambassador to the United Nations. Halfway through the summer, I stopped going to the office and went to the Georgetown University library to finish my research paper on the 1973 oil embargo. It was a long and lonely summer, and for the first time, I realized that my father was an unusual man.
He was my running partner and a natural ally whenever either of us got into trouble with my mother. He was a combat veteran of Vietnam, but at home he so disliked the role of disciplinarian that he fully delegated this dirty job to my mother. She had just as much faith in me as my father, but she worried that I would be judged, and judged hard, so she’d reprimand me for my ripped jeans or my split-ends or a foot that wouldn’t point at a diving meet. That was girl stuff. I couldn’t be bothered.
During college, I used to have long philosophical discussions with a friend who was tall and beautiful and strong. We met in Shakespeare class the first week of school, and she became captain of the women’s crew team at the University of Pennsylvania by our senior year. (I quit as a freshman because I wasn’t a morning person.) Over a cup of coffee, she once said, I see myself as a woman, you see yourself as a person. It was true. I wanted to be a person, because a person isn’t bound by gender. I wanted to travel and write and live freely and bravely and adventurously, an equal to all others.
Maybe I was wrong to look at myself as a person, because the think tank wasn’t the first place I’d noticed this two-tiered system for men and women. I had rejected the idea of applying to Columbia University, since my year was going to be the first to admit women. This seemed absurdly backwards, and besides when we visited the school it smelled of urine. I looked at the urban campus and thought, There’s no place to go for a run around here, and it stinks! When I finally fell in love with cosmopolitan New York, I moved to the city the summer of the garbage strike and learned to hold my nose.
A few years after college, I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where my favorite professors—a winner and a future finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, both of them men—were among the most inspiring and encouraging professors I’d ever had. I cannot say this about the man I had for introductory reporting and writing, a white-haired preppy who used to be the dean of the school. (Nora Ephron had delivered his mail at Newsweek at a time when all the editorial positions were held by men.) During the first week of class, he spoke these unforgettable words: The newsroom is mostly white and male; women and minorities, it’s not too late for a tuition refund. I thought, Well, that’s going to have to change!
As a journalist, most of the support I’d had from women came before graduate school. Afterwards, I worked almost exclusively for men with the exception of my editor at New York Newsday. More women have promoted my literary work, including the editors who chose my memoir and upcoming chapbook, but when I counted heads, more than half of the literary magazine editors who chose my creative nonfiction and poetry were men. Did men like my work better, or were there simply more of them working as editors?
Some discovered my work in the slush pile, and others have solicited work directly, like an editor who asked me to contribute to his magazine after reading a thread on Facebook about my last story as a stringer for The New York Times. A divorced woman had driven to Manhattan from Maine to shoot herself in Penn Station. I interviewed the police officer who talked her down, but at that time the newspaper did not credit stringers for contributing to stories. It happened before Easter weekend, and it hung over me as if it had had a tragic and irreversible ending. I knew I no longer had the stomach for stories like this.
It had been a plumb job for a recent journalism school graduate, and the policy for stringers wasn’t personal. My male classmate who had recommended me for the job didn’t get credit, either. Still, the editor liked the tone of my comments. There’s no bitterness, he said. I thought of bitterness as deadweight, something you had to toss off so you could get on with breaking barriers, and for me that meant pretending there were none.
Mostly, I lived in a bubble of hope as a writer, until I read the devastating statistics complied by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, showing the gaping gender gap in book reviews last year. The New Republic book review editor Ruth Franklin suspected that the problem began in publishing, so she tallied numbers from the 2010 catalogues for a range of large and independent presses. After eliminating categories of books such as cookbooks that were unlikely to receive reviews, she found that the VIDA numbers roughly reflected the proportions of books by women that came out last year.
Women made up the majority of “avid” readers, based on a 2010 book-buying survey, so why weren’t there more books by women? More discussion followed. Were men more prolific? Were they more aggressive at submitting work? Were they writing worthier books? Or were editors and critics and judges favoring men? Only a dozen women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Only one book written by a woman made Esquire’s list of 75 books every man should read. V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman writer is his equal: too sentimental, too parochial.
It’s ironic that I earned an A-plus in development economics from a progressive professor at Penn who assigned Naipaul’s post-colonial novel, A Bend in The River. I had a habit of overlooking sexist scenes in books, not to mention the lives of authors, because I was drawn to stories of travel and adventure and ideas, and with Naipaul’s work I was taken by the sense of isolation in a remote jungle, the sort I’d imagined my father had experienced in Vietnam. It was the first time I’d read a book that captured a feeling that had been part of me for as long as I could remember.
VIDA released another study this spring, finding a historical gender gap in The Best American Series, including notable works as well as those anthologized in the books. Two excerpts from my memoir have been honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays, but suddenly I felt overcome by the odds as a woman with her first book released this fall.
My publisher, Bison Books, the paperback imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz were Bison authors, too. The Millions took note of the press’s winning streak in the Nobel Prize for Literature. It had published the winners for three years in a row, including Herta Mueller, one of the few women to win the prize.
I was profoundly honored when the press chose my memoir, Black Elephants, as a giveaway at BookExpo America 2011, passing out 150 advance review copies at the convention. Another 25 went directly to book reviewers at top newspapers and magazines. So far, I’ve had praise from men and women and quality press for the book, including thoughtful interviews in the Daily Brink and Women’s Voices for Change, a reader recommendation in the Christian Science Monitor, a strong review in Kirkus, and honors from Poets & Writers as a New and Noteworthy Book and the Jewish Book Council as a guest blogger. The Forward published the blogs, too.
I can go on these sorts of honors for long years, like a camel stumbling into an oasis. Black Elephants also topped my publisher’s bestseller list the month it began to ship. I had been promoting the memoir on social media since I got a book deal two years ago, but it was startling to me, because my Amazon Author Central sales graph looked like a volatile stock during the pre-order stage. I decided then that I would no longer look at the sales rank because it began to seem meaningless, to me. I didn’t write the book to become an instant bestseller. I didn’t write it with any expectation other than telling the story as well as I could. And because I kept having trouble getting it published I kept making it better. And better.
I’m aware, of course, that a Big Book Review might help my book sales, but I also know that books are sold word of mouth. So I hang in there. And I talk. On social media. In taxi cabs. At bars, like I did when I heard a man speak with an Israeli accent. I told him that I wrote a Gulf War memoir, a love story between an American writer looking for adventure and an Israeli traveler dreaming about peace. Turns out he was a teenager during the Gulf War. He remembered running to the roof of his building to watch incoming Scud missiles. We laughed. War is absurd. He said he was going to Israel, would buy the book for his mom.
Some of my friends are impatient for my success, hoping for an appearance on national television or The New York Times bestseller list. One friend suggested that I send the book to President Obama. It’s an idea. But, frankly, it’s been consuming enough to follow up on dozens of galleys already out there and send more as leads come along. Call me cheap, but I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a publicist when the in-house team has championed my book. It’s not easy for independent and university presses to get the attention of big prestigious newspapers and magazines, but I’m still doing legwork because I believe in my book and its core message about war and peace.
While waiting for the response to my galleys, I comforted myself with the notion that if you’re ignored you can’t have a bad review! And no doubt the odds for women were worse in George Eliot’s time, when she chose to publish under a man’s name, and most likely worse when my professor felt compelled to tell us that the newsroom was still mostly white and male. I was never blind to this reality. It’s just that as a matter of survival I chose to ignore the odds, so that I could do whatever it was that I’d wanted to do. And that was write.
But I, too, had become part of the system as an editor of the literary magazine, Epiphany. It hadn’t been included in the VIDA survey, which focused on book reviews in the most influential publications, but I had to see how the magazine had performed. I spent an entire day from returning with my morning cup of coffee well into the evening tallying numbers for print editions, going back to the premiere book in 2004, which included an excerpt from my memoir solicited by the former nonfiction editor, a longtime mentor.
The excerpt was honored as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2005, and after my mentor left the magazine, I was hired as the new nonfiction editor in 2007. I was promoted to senior editor of the magazine in 2009, managing the staff of readers and recommending nonfiction, fiction, and the occasional poem, though I was never the sole voice in deciding what went in and what stayed out. I lobbied intensely for the works I believed in, winning some, losing many during the editorial review process that involved three evaluations and final approval from the other editors. It was rare that all of us routed passionately for the same work, and while this was a source of intense frustration, it consistently yielded quality.