Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bookplanet: famous women journalists

The Lionesses: Review of JOURNALISTAS: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists, edited by Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane.

I worked for many years as an investigative reporter in Washington, digging into all manner of government grubbiness for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In this trench-coated, gumshoe world, I only occasionally encountered other women among the journalists poring over documents in obscure federal agencies or pounding on the closed doors of K Street, the capital's famous corridor of lobbyists. By long tradition, this was men's turf. It was telling that one of my colleagues once anonymously described me in a published profile as having "balls like cast-iron cantaloupes."

More women have since flooded into journalism, including its investigative and top editing ranks. Still, according to several recent studies, our presence lags on the mastheads, opinion pages and front pages of premier publications.

Into the breach comes "Journalistas," an anthology that bills itself as the best writing by women journalists over the past 100 years. I first picked up the volume with annoyance - I hated the title and still do. It sounds silly and is redolent of all sorts of dopey words for female journalists, including one of my least favorites, editrix. And I'm not a fan of anthologies. Reading them is often like feasting on a meal of hors d'oeuvres. Such collections tend to dilute the narrative drive that makes much journalism compelling in the first place. And the idea of isolating "the best writing" from women journalists seemed dutiful, something aimed for Women's History Month rather than a comfy couch on a cold day. Would this "greatest of" collection, limited to women, match up when read against the work of such lions as Joseph Mitchell or A. J. Liebling? And I have never been fully persuaded that women do really speak and write in an entirely different voice from men, so the idea of segregating them in a book did not thrill me.

But most of the pieces collected by Eleanor Mills (an editor at The Sunday Times of London) and Kira Cochrane (a novelist and former journalist) are so marvelous that I quickly cast aside my doubts. Their choice of writers, including Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy, as well as a number of British writers who were less familiar to me, is superb. The book is divided into subject areas, and I was glad, in these times, to see the authors boldly put war first - before home and family.

The brightest jewel is Martha Gellhorn's utterly chilling account of Dachau in the earliest days of the liberation in 1945. Gellhorn's writing is emblematic of many of the fine articles in this volume - striking in its spare style, full of moral authority, but utterly lacking any surplus emotion or distracting detail. Perhaps the British roots of the anthologists led them to a preference for journalistic crispness in the English style. It serves their readers extremely well.

Born in 1908, Gellhorn had a long and prolific career; she started writing for The New Republic in her late teens and moved to Paris in her 20's to work for United Press. She covered the Spanish Civil War, Vietnam and conflicts in Central America, but produced some of her most memorable work about World War II. Before the world was familiar with the monstrous pictures and full dimensions of the Holocaust, Gellhorn was its witness. In a dispatch called "The Face of War," she wrote of Dachau: "We have all seen a great deal now; we have seen too many wars and too much violent dying; we have seen hospitals, bloody and messy as butcher shops; we have seen the dead like bundles lying on all the roads of half the earth. But nowhere was there anything like this. Nothing about war was ever as insanely wicked as these starved and outraged, naked, nameless dead."

Even in work from the 1930's, the voices in "Journalistas" are surprisingly contemporary. Maddy Vegtel, writing in Vogue, describes becoming a mother for the first time at 40 in words that could have been published yesterday. Daring to cite late motherhood's possible advantages at a time when having a baby at that age was almost unthinkable, she writes: "It is hardly likely that after the baby is born she'll decide that what she really is cut out for is to run an artificial flower shop or that she needs a complete change of husband, which may eventually lead to the child having, besides a father and mother, a couple of stepmothers and stepfathers as well, and cause general emotional upset."

A profile by Erica Jong of the Clintons' fascinating, fraught marriage published in The Nation in 1996 is positively prescient. Jong saw the inevitability of a Monica Lewinsky , at a time when the young and eager intern was still far from Kenneth Starr's net. This Hillary, the simmering wife forced into the background during her husband's re-election campaign, has been so overtaken by Senator Hillary that Jong's perceptive portrait should be required reading for anyone evaluating whether Hillary is presidential timber. Jong captures her unquestionable smarts but also her penchant for striking bargains to acquire power. No one reading this piece could be surprised by Senator Clinton's multisided utterances on Iraq policy or the steely discipline that helped get her elected.

It is hard to fault an anthology that brings the reader bounty from the likes of Nellie Bly, writing about Bellevue in 1888; Pauline Kael, the celebrated New Yorker film critic, whose 1987 review of "Fatal Attraction" is reprinted here; and Zelda Fitzgerald, writing in McCall's magazine in 1925 about "What Became of the Flappers." The book also features one of Sontag's final essays, "Regarding the Torture of Others," published in The New York Times Magazine in 2004 after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal unfolded.

And how do you begin to choose among the brilliant possibilities in the oeuvre of Joan Didion , a writer at the very vanguard of the New Journalism? (The editors selected a 1961 Vogue essay, "On Self-Respect," and a profile of Georgia O'Keeffe from Didion's 1979 essay collection, "The White Album.") Another fine and recent article included is Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel-and-Dimed," about the working poor, which echoes the work of the female social realists of the first half of the century. Originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1999, it inspired her terrific book of the same name.

I could have done without some of the more dated polemics, including one from 1917 by the anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, opposing World War I. There are also some gaping omissions, most notably Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," the stellar essay originally published in The New Yorker that made the term "banality of evil" part of the modern world's psyche and that should be reread annually. In the book's foreword, Mills explains that she and Cochrane excluded Arendt because she wrote mostly in German - a poor excuse.

Carol Gilligan, the psychologist and gender expert, has said that women are less predisposed to judge, and while this could be seen as moral relativism, she argues it's more a recognition of the intricacies of real-world situations. Most of the writers in "Journalistas" do have a special eye for intricacies, but they are also full of brave judgments and passion for political life in all its dimensions. Mills gets it right when she puts forward a simple justification for this book: "This is not just a women's collection; it reflects the great dilemmas and struggles of humanity in the last century from an often new point of view."

(Jill Abramson is managing editor of The New York Times.)


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