You’ve all read it. If not, here it is.
My gut reaction was to treat this, more or less, as absolute gibberish. Not because it’s offensive, but because it’s so utterly apart from anything I know that it might very well describe an extraterrestrial experience. It’s a look into some… other world, anyway, the world of an academic from someplace in America, who worked… someplace in America, I’m guessing. It’s also an academic who’s a white woman and who—I infer—has a romantic and/or sexual interest in men, and who has had a child. Whatever ‘a romantic or sexual interest in men’ is. It’s all really quite incomprehensible, so much so I’m tempted to approach this with an anthropological if slightly put-off curiosity. The heterosexual occidental other, you know, with the weird name.
It turns out, just so, that I wasn’t alone. Well, I don’t think anyone described their response to it in quite the terms I used (slightly distasteful, bizarre, gibberish), but certainly it came up: my experience is nothing like this, I don’t relate to this at all, the bit about men has nothing to do with me as a queer woman, does she realize how much people of color pander to white women? I’d quote tweets, but I haven’t asked permission and anyway, no need to preserve in record what many people might’ve meant as one-off thoughts.
And then there’s that, the us. The universal us! This is all very uplifting, I guess, though I hope she knows (she does relate an account where an Eskimo woman tells her, ‘But if they call the cops you better hide me under your invisible cloak of white privilege’) that when the people of color punch up, she of necessity offers herself to be punched. That when the white canon is burnt down, her bibliography must also be consigned to the cleansing flames of revolution* and that her ‘us’ doesn’t include her, actually. (One WOC in litfic said, in just about so many words, that she—qualified, well-liked—taught at the very same college the white author did, but never had even a shot at tenure. So there we are, for one.)
*I am unfamiliar with the writers she names, save here and there; I think Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz were the only two names I recognized and know are of color. She shares an agent with the latter. I’m guessing she is very successful, or bound for success and a lot of money and/or awards.
Or rather, I’m sure she thinks it includes her, but to a lot of us, the ‘us’ doesn’t take us into account. This was a common sentiment I saw voiced: what’s with the us? And so on. And incidentally, a very successful woman of color who expressed her dissatisfaction with this nebulous us was attacked by a (much less successful) white man with some virulence and… oh, see for yourself, why don’t you.
Charming, don’t we agree? White men can say anything.
But enough about him.
Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.
James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.” It is Lee K. Abbot I hear in my mind. This has little to do with Lee himself, a mentor I admire, a writer I adore, whose encouragement has helped land me before you, whose support I treasure. I am not talking about Lee K. Abbott who once turned to me in workshop when I was a first-year MFA with a dead mom, a desert rat without a proper winter coat and in bad need of a thumbs-up, and asked me, because I’d turned in a story he liked, “Claire, who are the great Nevada writers?” And when I sputtered something about Robert Laxalt and Mark Twain he stopped me and said, “No. You are.” I am speaking not of Lee Kitteridge Abbott the man but what he represents. Or rather I am talking about them both, about the representation and the man himself, for didn’t I know he would like that story, about an old prospector who finds a nubile young girl left for dead in the desert?
Glad you like it, Lee. It’s for you.
Apart from the fact that I have no idea what or where Nevada is (is it in Spain? Surely not, the author is so evidently and incredibly American) and the fact that I have no idea who most of these names are—save Mark Twain—I’m a bit puzzled. But then, if I have an ideological-artistic issue, it’s what I read too many white women. I don’t suffer old white men gladly in my reading, by and large, and dead ones even less so. Not all of us have a ‘white man deep inside of all of us’, tall or little, and though she lives under the white man’s thumb the rest of us live under his fist and hers. Brass knuckles or velvet glove, a fist is still a fist, unless the fist becomes a bullet. White men and white women are both proficient at brutalizing.
The weird gulf in experience widens as we proceed to…
nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.
I’ve watched boys play the drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve watched them golf. Just the other day I watched them play a kind of sweaty, book-nerd version of basketball. I’ve watched them work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight, and drink. I could probably write my own series of six virtuosic autobiographical novels based solely on the years I spent watching boys play Resident Evil and Tony Hawk’s ProSkater. I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life, and I watched boys in my education. I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw—especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Thomas Hardy, watched Raymond Carver. I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.
I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.
Yes, no: throughout adolescence and early adulthood I was forever stuck at the ‘boys are gross’ stage, or what we’re taught of as a stage, before a lot of us realize that actually it’s no stage but an orientation.
(I also haven’t read, again, most of these white men: I enjoyed Dickens but never felt moved to emulate, I couldn’t get through even a page of McCarthy, have not cracked open any title by any of the rest. Or most of these white women either, to be fair, but I have read Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz. Why would I need to watch boys play anything, in any case, when I was capable of playing games on my own? There’s the problem of sexism in gaming, and then there’s the question of: if you were interested, why not play? Why watch? I assume she doesn’t mean on Twitch and I’m guessing she doesn’t mean the problem of that one hate movement. Maybe I’m being too literal-minded. But I don’t get it. Does she mean that she had to put up with a lot of boy-watching because she was interested in boys? Or that she couldn’t play games in company because it’d come off as unfeminine? Once more, anthropological territory.)
I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.
I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart” (that’s Moore on July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.
I want to call the kind of writing she wants to do (vulnerable, telepathic heart, flinching) the white woman’s thinkpiece, the feelings industrial complex. This is not precise: those things are far from the white woman’s province exclusively. But white women occupy a unique position among all demographics in that they alone are allowed to be vulnerable and still retain status. I mean partly the phenomenon of white women’s tears (relevant anecdote here) but also that, under white supremacy, cis white women are pedestalized as more feminine, more virtuous, and more fragile (while still retaining agency) than any other women. Black women are ‘tough’ and ‘angry’; East Asian women are submissive dolls and mindless; Latina are fiery, and so on.
To be vulnerable is to be fully human, and of all women only white women—defaulted heterosexual—are considered fully human. This isn’t a luxury afforded to the rest of us; showing softness isn’t a feasible option for a lot of us, because it is immediately assumed as weakness, and then opens us up to further brutalizing. Only look at that white man screaming at Roxane Gay, and all she did was just mildly disagree with ‘On Pandering’. The rest of us could write confessional, intense, urgent fiction yes. But success for such qualities is primarily reserved for white women.
Back to the gender matter, to pretend it can be separated from the race matter. I know what she is doing and what she’s speaking in opposition of, but through saying that ‘not writing like a man’* is to be flinching, wide open, telepathic heart-ful, to be vulnerable and all about one’s innermost feelings, what comes across is not a rejection of flat gender roles but reinforcement of them. Several of the women of color discussing this on twitter remarked that they have owed some of their career breaks to white women. For me, that hasn’t been the case.
*I’m guessing that she doesn’t consider any other gender in this essay outside male and female, so ‘not man’ is ‘woman’ as far as her essay’s concerned.
About a year ago I had a baby, and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.
I don’t care to write what she names as contrary to writing like a man.
When we burn it all down, I won’t follow where white women lead, because I know from experience that white women compete to be their men’s equal: oppressive, violent, and untrustworthy. When we burn it all down, I will still not read straight white women, if I can help it.
I write what I want, and what I want to make is ruthless, politically resistant, rarely concerned with the profundity of having babies (because I am not interested in babies, as I am uninterested in boys; you can be interested in neither, and not be ‘like a man’) and the domesticity of the occidental other’s household.
I won’t pander to straight white women.
In closing, I don’t think this essay is evil or racist, though it is exclusionary. I’ve seen queer women of color say they related strongly to it and that they appreciate the conversation around this (so do I!), but at the end of the day it’s speaking to a very particular sort of experience, one that’s primarily white, very heterosexual, very American. Very MFA. It makes demands that are not new, the same ones mainstream white feminism has always made, to no betterment of anyone who’s not a privileged white woman.
At the same time, I’m happy to see that it’s being critiqued, considered, and gently rejected by many, many women in litfic who are queer, of color, or both. There’s no stifling of opinion and thought the way there would have been, had the author of ‘On Pandering’ been an influential woman in science fiction/fantasy; there is nuanced dialogue, not empty and mindless show of ‘solidarity’ that doesn’t go further than ‘sexism is bad [and white feminism can do no wrong, in fact there’s no white feminism because white women and women of color are basically identical, so a woman of color criticizing white feminism is punching down, somehow, in bizarro world]’, and so on. There’s no desperate derailing that criticizing white feminism makes you the real misogynist, and that the author is a prestigious person with prestigious friends, so how dare you.
Instead, there’s useful exchange of ideas. So here’s appreciation for all the women of color and queer women of the literary fiction world speaking up. Thanks, all.