Karen Abbott is the author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007), American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (2010), and most recently Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. She is a well-received author who focuses on nontraditional women in history. Basically, she’s a badass writing about some historical badasses.
However, the Washington Post review of Abbott’s newest work would have you believe that Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy (released by Harper on September 2, 2014) is of the same caliber as the magazines marketed to women over the checkout counter. Jonathan Yardley writes in his WP review, “At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best it seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a women’s magazine.”
Now, I am not sure which women’s magazine he is referring to in the passage. If he’s talking about tabloid (which are arguably for any gender) then I can see why that may be irritating to read. A magazine like Lilith or Bitch and I start to wonder what the problem is with the comparison.
Obviously it is meant to be derogatory, but the first passage he sites in his review doesn’t quite fit the bill of magazine-speak, “War, like politics, was men’s work,” Karen Abbott writes, “and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself, but now there was a question — one that would persist throughout the war — of what to do with what one Lincoln official called ‘fashionable women spies.’ Their gender provided them with both a psychological and a physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.”
Yardley also seems to be extremely skeptical about Abbott’s facts in the tale, “In her introduction she is at pains to say that “this is a work of nonfiction, with no invented dialogue,” but this leaves unanswered the question of sources for her descriptive passages.”
Abbott’s response to this assessment, because she was proactive enough to write a response to Washington Post, is important, “Yardley somehow missed the 24 endnotes I provide that support every detail of that scene. Indeed, he overlooked a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources and that far exceed the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style.” Twenty-four endnotes about the one scene that Yardley chooses to take particular issue with, it is as if he did not read the book at all.
His language throughout the review is pointedly distant and skeptical. Compare “In “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy,” Abbott claims that “as many as four hundred women, in both North and South, were posing and fighting as men.”” with “In doing so, Edmondson becomes one of about 400 women who, Abbott reports, actively served as soldiers, posing as men, during the Civil War.” The latter sentence is from Janet Saidi’s excellent review of Abbott’s work for the Christian Science Monitor. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive to word choice here, but wait! These are writers writing about writers, so no.
It is disappointing and frustrating to see Yardley’s review, but after days of wading through articles about GamersGate it is not surprising. Women writing about topics that men have typically covered, or women writing at all, is not respected in mainstream media. Karen Abbott ends her response to Yardley’s review with this hilarious point of fact, “Still, thinking I might have something to learn about proper nonfiction scholarship, I read Yardley’s biography of author Frederick Exley — and was shocked to discover not one endnote, which he dismissed as “clutter.” Passages about Exley’s mother’s dieting habits and dinner menus are presented as fact, with no documentation. For himself — dare I say — Yardley sets the lowest standards of all.”
I have not yet read Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, but I did enjoy American Rose immensely and look forward to adding her new work to my shelves.