The whole “are we in the Golden Age of [television/cinema/strong female characters/craft beer/I could go on]” construction, on its face, seems annoying and pointless. It is not a thing that could ever be objectively discerned, and also who cares, and whatever happened to Gilded Ages, etc. But it’s worthwhile to rejoice in the idea of treating creative endeavors the way that many people treat sports; an arena in which you can make arbitrary distinctions of quality (“Would LeBron beat Jordan?” “Is Abby Wambach better than Mia Hamm?”) that are impossible to prove, because these debates, which can have no real winners or losers, end up spiraling into examination and discovery. For sports you start busting stats out of the archives, moments from crucial games, these glimmering snapshots of perfection. And for the arts — in this case, for literature — you pull your favorite sentences off the shelves, you excavate characters from disparate novels and shove them right next to each other to get a closer look. And you leave the room with a rosters of writers to add to your reading list.
The trickier issue with the NYT’s structure, of course, is that “women” is plunked in front of the word “essayists,” a distinction (one would think) the NYT would not make were this a list of men. For a reminder of this, look at Esquire’s list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read.” It is not called “80 Books By Men Every Man Should Read,” although, were Esquire so inclined to highlight that fact, it would be; there is only one book by a woman on the entire list.
Strayed addresses this complication immediately: “Would we ever think to ask if this is a golden age for men essayists? Is it even credible to use the phrase ‘men essayists’? Why does it sound incorrect in a way that ‘women essayists’ doesn’t?” Even though the gist of the framework is a positive one — that there have been heaps upon heaps of fantastic essays, all marked with the scent of a woman’s ink — something about the extra qualifier feels irksome. Maybe it’s just that writer impulse to omit needless words, and wanting to think that “women” should be a needless word in a conversation like this one. Or maybe it isn’t needless, and shouldn’t be?
When I was in high school, we never really called the Varsity teams “Varsity.” But we always called the Junior Varsity team “JV,” and we definitely called the ninth-grade-only leagues “freshmen.” It goes without saying that The Team is the Varsity team; only the best can go out into the world without an adjective as supplement. As Strayed puts it, “I’m of the opinion that as long as we still have reason to wedge ‘women’ as a qualifier before ‘essayist,’ the age is not exactly golden.”
But still: reasons to celebrate! First, the very welcome presence of Strayed’s byline under the NYT’s Book Review header, a section that has not always been so diligent about gender equity in both the writers employed and the authors reviewed. And then the matter at hand: “Essayists who happen to be women are having a banner year.” She cites Roxanne Gay, Leslie Jamison, and a scrappy unknown named Lena Dunham as voices leading a pack of sharp, insightful female writers who, through the troll-filled yet still-more-democratic-than-print world of the internet, have a more meritocratic shot at visibility and readership than ever before.
A tip of the (woman) hat to that.