Sarah Menkedick, the up-and-coming star editor of Vela, selects 40 Town's "Tiny Birthday," by Laina Richards, for Vela's weekly round-up of "Women We Read." Writes Menkedick, "This piece is full of careful, heartbreaking little details – the Tootsie Pop wedged between the bananas, the grief-muted exchanges between waiting parents, a hand the size of a nickel. It is one you read with your heart clenched in both empathy and fear; the prose is soft, respectful, elegant, and honest, and doesn’t need to resort to sentimentality to make us care, deeply."
Know what's really weird about 40 Towns? 11 out of 13 contributors to issue no. 1 are women. The five stories we have in the hopper are by women. There are two talented men in issue no. 1, one of them a transman (noted at his request), and I wish there were more. But since I began teaching literary journalism and creative nonfiction, women have always been the strong majority in my classes. That's as true here at Dartmouth as it was in NYU's graduate journalism program. Many of my pals who are, like me, working writers as well as teachers, note the same thing: the gender demographics of their students are almost opposite to that of the contributors at the magazines we write for. (See VIDA, an organization that keeps count, for the miserable numbers.)
On the one hand, it's a mystery. What's happening to all these great young women writers?
On the other, it's not: Women get sidelined in the literary world the same way they do in so many other lines of work. Literary journalism, in particular, can be unfriendly to women. Or, worse, friendly in all the wrong ways, diverting women writers toward "women's subjects" and burying those stories behind "general interest" stories by men -- as if anything that was important to half of humanity isn't a subject for all of humanity.
Then there's the narrative voice favored by so many leading publishers of literary journalism. Nobody says it's male; it just is. There's the John McPhee school and the Hunter Thompson school, the young dudes who want to be DFW and the responsible Remnicks. There are Gladwellians and Eggerites and Jungeristas.
I think half of the writers on this list are brilliant, and of course even now countless writers of all genders emulate Joan Didion. But then, Didion is always the exception cited by defenders of the literary journalism men's club. The point and the problem is that on average more middle class, middle educated, white men are going to wind up sounding like McPhee or Thompson or DFW or Junger and getting published because they do. As long as those are the reigning paradigms, literary journalism will be a man's world.
Maybe the demographics I see in my classrooms will change things. Maybe 40 Towns will help. In the meantime, there are an increasing number of websites by young writers dedicated to drawing attention to and publishing literary journalism and creative nonfiction by women, among them Vela -- travel writing -- The Riveter, and Ann Friedman's Ladyjournos! tumblr. There'll be more. We didn't create 40 Towns to be part of this trend, but we're proud that it is.
Editors, writers, and media makers respond to 40 Towns via social media:
"This is a good thing. Congratulations, Dartmouth heroes."
--Kyle Minor, author of In The Devil's Territory and Praying Drunk
"So much good stuff here."
--Ann Friedman, former executive editor of Good and curator at Ladyjournos
"One of the great pleasures of summer 2013 has been reading 40 towns."
Pamela Kingsbury, U. North Alabama, editor, Southern Scribes
"I have been following this and believe it should be a model for other programs/universities."
--Jill Talbot, author of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction
"I think publishing + writing in general could use a lot of 'I didn't know I couldn't do that.'"
--Marthine Satris, editor, MP Publishing
"Really enjoying the output from the 40 Towns crew. Great stuff."
--Brittany Shoot, managing editor, The Magazine, contributing writer, Sojourners
"Huge props to Jeff Sharlet & his Dartmouth students for 40towns [dot] com. So many absorbing #longreads."
--Andy Kroll, Mother Jones staff writer
"Something really good is happening at @40towns."
--Meera Subramanian, author of Elemental India & contributor, Nature
"I luxuriated in the long, deep stories. Thanks."
--Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both & former US correspondent, New Scientist
"This is a real find. 40 Towns publishes literary journalism about the Upper Valley by students in Jeff Sharlet's creative nonfiction courses at Dartmouth College. The linked story is a revelation. A young Kenyan woman comes to know an elderly Jehovah Witness in a meditative piece on endings."
--Mikel Ellcessor, cofounder, Radiolab, General Manager WDET (Detroit Public Radio)
"I love the Shady Lady story. I really really love it."
--Jason Fagone, author of Ingenious and Wired contributing editor
"This is lovely. Reads like fiction."
--Atossa Abrahamian, Reuters, editor, The New Inquiry
"experiments in literary journalism: @40towns, inspiring collaboration btwn Jeff Sharlet & his students at dartmouth."
--Visual artist Alyce Santoro
"Awesome." -- Duncan Murrell, contributing editor, Harper's, Director of the Writing Program at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies
Portraits from a libertarian jamboree in New Hampshire, an "open carry" state.
I met Alex, a student at the University of New Hampshire, while he was sampling some chili in advance of the big cook-off. Guns are forbidden on his campus, much to his frustration.
"I've heard that at Dartmouth there's an armory for students' guns," I said.
Alex didn't like the sound of that. "Might as well hand your gun over to the police."
"I don't open carry at home," said this man, washing a pot near his family's tent. "I don't want to be a target."
"Is it for hunting?" asked my four-year-old daughter.
"Not this," he said. "It's for protecting my two little girls."
You can just make out Chris Pacia's .40 caliber beneath his boa, donned for the festival's ongoing "Big Day Dance Party." The gun's loaded with 11 rounds; Chris is carrying a specially-made magazine with 15 more in his pocket. He's just come from a talk on investing in ammunition, and he's heard some vendors at the festival will accept bullets as currency. This is Chris' first open carry. He bought the gun a couple of months ago. "After Boston--I mean, the Connecticut thing--I thought, I gotta get a gun before I can't anymore."
Kaylene does like to open carry her own weapon, but this one happens to be her husband's, a .357 Taurus.
"There is chaos and darkness within me," this little boy shouted with glee as he pushed his pals on a roundabout. His father poked his head out from a motel room above a decommissioned police cruiser. "I'm fine!" the little boy hollered. Then, to me: "Want to see my badge?" It read: "Shiny Badges Don't Grant Extra Rights."
I took these pictures at the tenth annual Porc Fest. "Porc" is short for porcupine, a mascot members of New Hampshire's libertarian Free State Project decided was friendlier than the "don't-tread-on-me" rattlesnake. I attended just to visit some friends, but as it happens I've reported a bit on the Free State Project in the past.
Students at NYU's Arthur Carter Institute for Journalism are now making a local magazine as a part of New York: Bedford+Bowery. Less documentary, more newsy, hipper, less longform, more fun, less despair; but the idea seems to be roughly the same as that of 40 Towns: There's no reason young writers shouldn't be doing real work. Too often teachers, wedded to the apprenticeship model, hold young writers back from publication and the lessons it offers.
A kindness for 40 Towns from The Millions, one of the sites that has made popular literary criticism vital again in the 21st century.
Via Nieman Storyboard, we just learned about a great new(ish) radio documentary show, Snap Judgment, hosted by Glynn Washington. We just listened to the latest episode, "The Outsiders" right now, in which a reporter/producer Lea Thau meets a "Man on Fire" -- an amiable, mild-mannered Tibetan comedian who committed self-immolation in protest of China's occupation. That led us to Thau's podcast and this episode with the legendary literary journalist, Gay Talese on his marriage to star editor Nan Talese, scandal, and his book Thy Neighbor's Wife.
Longreads.com is one of a few excellent new aggregators of long, mostly narrative journalism from all over the web. Together, these sites -- there's also Longform.com and Byliner.com -- are making it possible to read a wide range of literary journalism without all the noise that surrounds it in magazines. There's no news-you-can-use, no fashion spreads, no gadget reviews. If one of these sites features a celeb profile, it's because their editors think it's better than hackwork.
Longreads.com is first out of the gate in recognizing that much of what's being written by younger writers is better than hackwork because so many younger writers don't even know what a hack is, yet. For better or worse, most college writers aren't writing to pay their bills. So if they can escape the tyranny of grades, they can write simply to write well.
That's the theory behind 40 Towns. We're thrilled that Longreads.com has noticed -- they've just made "The Shady Lady," by our assistant editor, Danny Valdes, their fourth College Longreads Pick of the Week.
40 towns began with the two courses in reading and writing creative nonfiction, emphasis literary journalism, that I taught at Dartmouth College in 2013. We began the course by listening to documentary radio producer Larry Massett's "A Night on Mt. Shasta" (the fourth story in this episode of Hearing Voices) and subscribing to Valley News, a remarkable local paper we read to begin developing our sense of the region in which we'd find our stories. So we began with the fantastical and the factual. Between the two courses, the books we read all or most of were:
Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
Lauren Slater, Welcome to My Country
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
John Berger, A Fortunate Man
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
The books we read parts of were:
Norman Sims, ed., True Stories
Lawrence Joseph, Lawyerland
Rosemary Mahoney, Whoredom in Kimmage
Sonia Faleiro, Beautiful Thing
Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
Peter Dexter, Paper Trails
Tracy Kidder, Hometown
Tom Bissell, Magic Hours
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Lucas Mann, Class A
Kathleen Norris, Dakota
Ben Hecht, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago
William Craig, Yankee Come Home
Greg Bottoms, The Colorful Apocalypse
Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days
John McPhee, Pieces of the Frame
Additional essays we read were:
Michael Paterniti, “Driving Mr. Albert” (Harper's)
David Foster Wallace, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (Rolling Stone)
Terry Williams, "Voices from the Tunnel" (Grand Street)
Leslie Jamison, "Fog Count" (Oxford American)
JoAnn Wypijewski, "The Secret Sharer" (Harper's)
JoAnn Beard, "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow" (Tin House)
Matthew Teague, "The Aftermath" (Philadelphia)
Jeanne Marie Laskas, "Underworld" (GQ)
Jeanne Marie Laskas, "America is Bull" (Esquire)
John Jeremiah Sullivan, "You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!" (NYT Magazine)
Joe Tuzzo, "Toro! Toro! Torito!" (The Revealer)
Vivian Gornick "On the Street" (The New Yorker)
David Searcy, "El Camino Doloroso" (Paris Review)
Mary McCarthy, "Artists in Uniform" (Harper's)
We also looked at photographs by Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, Mary Ellen Mark, Milton Rogovin, Sebastio Selgado, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, John Thompson, and William Eggleston.
A number of students took on extra reading in the genre or close to it, including work by Janet Malcolm, Jane Kramer, Wendy Doniger, John D'Agata, David Shields, Ted Conover, Michael Lesy, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.