December 08, 2011

Are women writers getting a fair shake? Karol Nielsen, author, comments

Karol Nielsen is my guest writer today and it is my pleasure to introduce her to you.
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,
"I'm hopeful."

Here is her guest essay. She and I welcome your comments:

“Call Me Person”
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.

But I worried about the numbers. Had we favored men like the others? It was a relief to discover that Epiphany had almost perfect gender parity since its premiere issue. And how had I done? As nonfiction editor, three out of five essays published in the magazine were by women, and as senior editor more than half of all works appearing in Epiphany were by women. During that time, three of the four essays honored as notable works in The Best American Essays and the only distinguished story honored in The Best American Short Stories were by women. The results delighted me. Maybe the true victory is more than equality in publishing. It’s equality in our thinking. Maybe I was right, after all, that I am a person, like you.

Visit Karol's website for news. Buy her book and read my review of it on Amazon.    

December 04, 2011

Guest Essayist: Charles van Heck

I introduce to you today to Charles van Heck, a generous soul and elegant essayist. We “met” via Google+, of all places, and a meeting of the minds magically emerged. That merging of thought strikes me always as the gift of connection that I suspect has to with the reading that has infused each of our quite separate lives with narrative, that has placed meaning and form on the chaos of existence. 

William Gass describes this sense of oneness in The Test of Time: “And we, who read and write and bear witness and wail with grief, who make music and massacres, who paint in oils and swim in blood—we are one: everywhere as awful, as possibly noble, as our natures push us or permit us to be.”

Some Background on Charles:

Charles van Heck is a native of Oakland, New Jersey. He has a degree in history from Ramapo College of New Jersey as well as degrees from the University of Dayton and the University of Michigan. A theological librarian, he has taught both theology and American literature, and been the invited speaker at churches of various denominations. He’s worked with the terminally ill, underprivileged, and served as a volunteer during the hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Charles has completed two novels. Mister Lincoln's Elephant Boy is historical fiction based on the documented record Second Volunteer Michigan Infantry and tells the story of Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye who served for three years during the Civil War as Franklin Thompson. He’s also written a mystery set in the 1950s titled Her Future Past. His poetry and articles have appeared in various journals. Charles lives with his wife in Michigan where he enjoys gardening, cooking, painting, and getting away—he loves to travel.

Wanderings in Woodhull County
by Charles van Heck

There are mornings at Whitman Pond when I want to wander the fields, to forget about writing and simply blend into the landscape. Yesterday morning, though, there were errands to run. A walk would have to wait until the afternoon.

I had driven over to Handy’s Hardware store in Bolivar to pick-up a bottle of fuel stabilizer for the lawn mower and some burlap to wrap around the shrubs. Then there was an errand to run for Irene Longworthy at the Sublet Pharmacy. Both stores were decorated for Christmas. Jack Handy, a Baptist in good standing, had a Menorah Tree. That was something new for me. Phyllis Amacher, over at the Sublet Pharmacy, though I think, gets the prize. She had a good sale on her leftover inventory of Halloween candy and cards. The display was beneath a navy blue tree decorated with the “Nightmare Before Christmas” ornaments, orange lights, and black garland.

The holidays don’t mean very much to me. I’m tired of the news about retails sales; Black Friday stampeding hoards pepper spraying one another for midnight sales, and Cyber Monday. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit of a Scrooge, but it seems to me the magic, mystery, and wonder of the holidays, be it Chanukah or Christmas has been lost. Most importantly, the meaning of the holidays has been replaced by mindless consumerism.

My mother, Alice May Bunt, grew up on a farm in Allentown, New York. She seldom spoke about her childhood. She did speak about the Christmas that her grandmother gave her a handkerchief embroidered with her initials. Her father would cut a tree. It would be placed in the parlor and decorated with candles. On Christmas Eve the candles would be lit, eggnog or hot cider would be served. A few songs would be sung. Then the candles would be extinguished.

My father, Charles van Heck, Jr., would talk about coming home from church on Christmas morning to find the tree decorated in the living room of his parent’s apartment in Brooklyn. He remembered his father cooking dinner, and the family gatherings around the table. I don’t recall him mentioning one gift that he received.

Simplicity? Perhaps. Those were different times. The economic reality from 1914 to the eve of the Second World War was harsh in the agricultural and immigrant communities; particularly during the Great Depression. My mother’s father would lose his farm to the bank. He found employment in the oil fields of Allegany County, New York.  My other grandfather shuttered his corner grocery store because his customers could no longer pay their bills. He went to work as a chef at The Browns, a Borscht Belt resort.

Driving into Evoraburg, I stopped at the Red & White Market for a few groceries and the mail. The floorboards are worn; a few creak as I moved along the narrow well stocked aisles. There is a large fan in the back where Volney Poort stands behind the meat counter. I ordered a fresh chicken for Christmas. “You’ll have to pick it up two days before,” he said. “We’re going to be closed Christmas Eve.” Claribel Poort rang me up at the cash register. “Is Terri going to make a fruit cake?” she asked.

It was obvious from the containers of candied fruit, but the folks of Evoraburg tend to either question or state the obvious, then gossip about it until the obvious becomes unrecognizable. Before the week is out it will be around the village that Terri is baking sweet potato pie for Christmas and I was seen driving off with Ursula Lovecraft, the high school nurse, who happened to be leaving the store the same time. Small towns are like that.  “You forgot your mail, Charlie,” Claribel called. Yes, I was seen leaving the Red & White with Ursula Lovecraft and was in such a rush I forgot my mail.

Outside the air was crisp. The sky was overcast. In the village square, known as Peace Park, the volunteer fire department was putting up an ice skating rink. Doug Seiters, Harvey Cooney, and Ernie Lange of the village Department of Public Works were hanging lights and other decorations on the gazebo and the trees. Watching the workers, I found myself recalling special winter nights in my hometown of Oakland, New Jersey.

Every December there was a Christmas Carol Sing-along outside the Ponds Church. The street was closed off. Hot Chocolate, coffee, warm cider, doughnuts, and cookies were served. There was always a good size crowd. Afterwards, my parents and their friends from the Oakland Volunteer First Aid Squad, some of the police officers, and volunteer firemen would gather at the home of Arnold and Connie Monks. They lived next door to the church. Their home was warm, and nicely decorated. While our parents conversed, we kids got to play. I recall those evenings with fondness and affection for the Monks.

Those days seemed less hurried, less materialistic, and definitely more innocent. At times I feel as if I am playing at being an adult. This is especially true at the house. It seems odd to have accumulated the furniture, paintings, and necessities. Occasionally, I expect someone to tell me I have to clean up the mess. I know that won’t happen.

At this point in my life, I have less interest in things and more in simply being, enjoying, and sharing. I have an extensive library; a carryover from my days in academics both as a student, a theological librarian, and a teacher. John Adams once remarked that he had spent an estate on books. I too have such a passion for books.

I miss teaching undergraduates, meeting with scholars, giving talks at various churches. To some measure that is why I created the Whitman Pond website at the urging of others. Whitman Pond is a place for stories, poetry, art, humor, and commentary on current affairs in a quiet voice. There is enough anger and rancor in our media outlets. I wanted to create an environment that mirrored the living room of Arnold and Connie Monks, and my grandparents’ front porch where people conversed. What was most important to me was to create a place that honored the code of respect for others regardless of their race, creed, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation that my father instilled in me.

Some will say that I am attempting to create an idyllic place based on the past. Perhaps. The historian Joseph J. Ellis has observed, “…all attempts at making the past relevant to the present inevitably require some measure of distortion.” I prefer living the present moment to dwelling in the past. However, I believe the past should inform the present. But a warning, I ascribe to the notion that simplicity is seldom what it appears.

With the groceries and mail in the car, I started across the street to Chaim’s Kosher Bakery and Deli for lunch and to visit with Chaim and his wife Yocheved. Woodhull County Sheriff Patty Hoppack drove past and waved.  After lunch, I returned to the house, then, after changing, went for a walk in the hills around Whitman Pond as a light snow began to fall, stirring me to catch snowflakes on my tongue, and reminding me of the approach of the holidays.

You may visit Charles' website Click here: On Whitman Pond and read more of his elegiac musings.