January 4, 2016
On pandering … and exclusivity
by Jessa Crispin
Literary critic (and forthcoming Melville House author) Jessa Crispin mentioned to us a piece she’d written recently that a webzine had assigned to her but then, for reasons that are unclear, killed. We thought it should live, and are happy to run it in their stead …
First, there was an essay called “On Pandering.” In this essay, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote about spending her time “watching” (white) (straight) (middle to upper class) men, pandering to them, writing for them, anticipating their tastes and preferences in order to get shiny gold stars from them for her books. Because the men who bestow gold stars also bestow favorable book reviews, grants and awards, acceptance into the literary establishment.
Then there was a Facebook post and a conversation with Marlon James, who noted that writers of color are often asked to watch (white) (straight) (middle to upper class) women, pandering to them, writing for them, anticipating their tastes and preferences in order to get shiny gold stars from them for their books. Because the women who bestow gold stars also bestow publication in literary magazines, book sales, and while maybe not acceptance into the establishment, certainly entry ways are greased with agents, low level editors, publicists, slush pile readers, who tend mostly to be women.
I have to admit I didn’t know that Marlon James’s remarks were controversial until much later. I had read “On Pandering,” and I had thought it was ridiculous. Watkins kept trying to universalize what seemed like a personal problem, in that “Ladies, am I right?” kind of way I find obnoxious. If that essay was doing anything, it was pandering to a kind of (white) (straight) (middle to upper class) self-empowerment feminist that wants to believe that by writing short stories about her personal experiences she is burning down the patriarchy and building something better. “Thanks for visiting babeland,” I wanted to tell her. “But some of us actually live here.”
So when I read James’s remarks, I thought, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. And the people in my twitter timeline agreed with James, it was only posted with a sense of affirmation.
“What do you think of the response to James’s comments?” a writer asked me several days later.
“Oh you mean that everyone agrees with him?”
I did my diligent googling and found that actually there is a world outside of my twitter feed and that some of it thought James was being unfair. The same women who cheered Watkins were booing James, no gold stars for him.
White women don’t actually have any power in the publishing industry, they wanted to assure him. Sure, they sit on judging panels, they have editorial positions at magazines, they work in publishing, and they are the single largest market for books. But come on, that’s not power. And while it is true that things are not super great for white women in the literary world, it’s really fucking terrible for writers of color, male or female, that’s probably the fault of white men, not us. Once (white) (etc.) women get an equal share, we are definitely going to make a little room for everyone else. Yeah.
It is easier to complain about the power you don’t have than to think about how you are exerting the power you do have. And fighting for your own rights is not the same as fighting for equality. Women working for gender equality, rather than the equality of everyone, are not heroes. They are working in their own self-interest. Just like men are. But it becomes heroic within the community of women, in that aren’t we all so brave way, when you surround yourself with people who are exactly like you and agree with you on everything. People fight for inclusion when they are the ones being excluded. When it’s someone else, it is suddenly not their fight.
It’s also important to remember that inclusion is not true inclusion when you are only including things that resemble you. So, if you happen to find a writer from Japan who writes stories exactly like Alice Munro, and you like or write stories like Alice Munro — I am guessing Munro and her copycats are who James was referring to when he summed up white women literature as “bored suburban white woman in the middle of ennui, experiences keenly observed epiphany” — then it’s not exactly inclusive of you to support that Japanese writer. You’re not fighting racism, you are rewarding a writer for meeting your expectations.
Sure, people have a sense of taste, and prefer certain stories, sentences, tone, characters. And yet that taste is absolutely shaped by our politics and our worldview, but it’s not talked about enough, how the stories we tell about the world affect the way we see the world. When “On Pandering” was released, I read comments by writers of color who complained that white people wanted writers of color to tell them stories of suffering, because that is how white people feel about race. When they want to read stories by writers of color (that’s not very often, let’s be honest), they want to feel pity, because feeling pity allows them to feel heroic for even paying attention to these issues (these lives) at all. White people like nothing more than to feel heroic. I mean, have you read our books and watched our films?
The problem is not about white straight men being dicks. The problem is about people in power wanting to see their realities, their interests, their inner most hopes and dreams reflected on the screen and on the page. This does not require empathy, this does not require discomfort. And so any group that becomes the “gatekeeper,” who is able to use their power — whether that be purchasing power or critical power or the power to assign work and hand out money — will simply recreate this problem with a certain segment of the population allowed in and a certain segment of the population kept out, unless this problem is examined and discussed.
This has a lot to do with my twitter bubble, where my reality is reflected by people who agree with me about things like Marlon James’s take on literature. And I like my bubble. Who wouldn’t? It tells me I am smart and right every day. Every day, people say things I agree with, do not say things I find disagreeable, and I get to nod and smile and think to myself, “Yes, isn’t it so interesting that all the world’s smartest people think exactly the same way I do? Not at all suspicious, that.”
The response to James’s comments show that we have a long way to go — not at ending gender disparity, but ending our own need for creating exclusivity. The New Republic accused James of “inherently derailing” the conversation, and yes. Yes he did, but also yes the conversation needed to be derailed. The desire of white feminists to make him go away, to refuse to allow the conversation to be derailed, if anything just proves his point.
Jessa Crispin is the founder of Bookslut, one of the country's first book blogs, and the author of the recently released The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (University of Chicago Press).