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Book award list raises a question: Where are the women?

Maybe it was just the way the cards fell this year. Still, it does stick out. In some sectors, the National Book Award is better regarded than the Pulitzer.

Maybe it was just the way the cards fell this year.

Still, it does stick out.

In some sectors, the National Book Award is better regarded than the Pulitzer.

Panels of five respected judges are assembled for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature. They draw up "long lists" of 10 books (an innovation begun last year). A long list is a nice thing, a way of honoring a group of high achievers. A short list follows, and then the award itself.

The long list in nonfiction for 2014 came out on Sept. 17. The short list comes Wednesday, and the winner Nov. 19. The list has exactly one woman's name on it: that of graphic novelist/cartoonist Roz Chast, for her memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, about her relationship with her aging parents.

Why so few women? Out of nearly 500 nonfiction submissions, of which about 150 were by women, one woman?

(In 2013, three female names made the long list. George Packer won for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.)

Far from everyone thinks this is meaningful. "I think it's just a fluke," says Angela Baggetta, managing director of Goldberg McDuffie Communications in New York. "In some years there is only one woman, some years there are three, and some years a woman wins. It depends on the judges, and the book, and how it speaks to them." She also says the panel in nonfiction was made up of "people who have representativeness on their minds."

All good points. No one is saying this panel was anti-woman. This year it includes two women: eminent nonfiction author Gretel Ehrlich (Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami) and Ruth J. Simmons, Brown professor, first African American woman to head an Ivy League college (Brown, 2000-12), and frequent name on woman-of-the-year lists. This isn't a panel deaf to inclusiveness.

Plus: There doesn't have to be anyone of any one gender or background on such lists. Talent and excellence happen where they happen. Merit is unequally distributed anywhere.

Even Baggetta says, however, that "with the long list, it does stick out."

Lara Heimert, vice president and publisher of Basic Books, says, "I don't think history bears the 'luck of the draw' theory out."

A study from the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas surveyed Pulitzers and National Book Awards in nonfiction in the last 20 years. More than 75 percent of Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners were from the East Coast. Eighty percent were male, 95 percent were white, and 57 percent were white East Coast guys.

The National Book Award for nonfiction was only slightly different. About 68 percent of winners and finalists were East Coasters, 70 percent male, 90 percent white, and half were all three.

Women, to be sure, have won. Katherine Boo won two years ago for   Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a beautiful book. And Germantown's own Patti Smith won in 2010 for Just Kids, her memoir of her pre-rock life and friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. But scan the list. A lot of guys. A lot.

"These things are obvious, and we're putting up with them. Didn't we go through this already, in the 1970s?" So asks Roxana Robinson, an accomplished writer of both fiction (Cost) and nonfiction (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life) and also president of the Authors Guild. "For whatever reason, we have a cultural bias toward men, and it persists over the years. War, peace, rich, poor. We celebrate male writers."

Robinson says: "We're in a misogynist swale right now . . . a period dominated by the electronic tech industry, very overwhelmingly male. It's so powerful and interesting, imaginative, full of innovation. There's a sense that what men are interested in is more important."

To be sure, women write excellent nonfiction. Heimert names Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln), Margaret MacMillan (The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914), or Cheryl Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail). Anne Boyd Rioux, writing in the blog The Millions, wonders why fine woman-penned books got stiffed this year, such as Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History or Diane Ackerman's The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us.

Heimert points out that memoirs and essay collections, two kinds of nonfiction with a wide female audience, often are treated as separate from the main. Rioux says they don't come up for awards very often. Thus Barbara Ehrenreich's Living With a Wild God or Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist are nowhere to be seen.

What to do? "It's a very complex question," Heimert says. "When something dramatic and noticeable happens, as it has this year, a good thing also happens, a conversation, and everyone, including readers and prize committees, have to do some soul-searching."

Robinson has an idea. "Why not have awards for men and for women? Hollywood does it for best actor and best actress. In order to get some balance, you can make a strong argument for giving awards to both."

The nonfiction short list comes out Wednesday. As of now, Roz Chast has a 10 percent chance of winning in November.

National Book Award Long List, Nonfiction

Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury)

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books/ Henry Holt & Co.)

Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster)

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Ronald C. Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (Little, Brown & Co./ Hachette Book Group)

Matthew Stewart, Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright Publishing Corp./ W.W. Norton & Co.)