Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When satire fails

In a totally out of control thread at HTML Giant (of all places!), Kirsten Kaschock left the following satirical comment, frightening in its accuracy:
My take is this: when I see a magazine or many magazines who publish much more work from male-identified authors than female-identified authors, I assume that it is because it is the best work out there to be had. I assume the editors looked at everything they could get their hands on and chose what they thought was best. If that means more male-identified writers than the other, so be it.

And if that pattern occurs in aggregate and over years, than the only logical assumption I can make–giving everyone the benefit of the doubt–is that there is more good writing out there done by men, or–alternately–that women are not trying hard enough to put their work out there. And if that pattern continues over decades, then it becomes clear that women simply aren’t as ambitious, as talented, and/or as committed to writing as men are.

Now, of course, there may be specific breaks to this pattern. Exceptions that, as they say, prove the rule: Dickinson, Bishop perhaps. But, it’s actually very simple, isn’t it? Magazine editors are out there to put out the best product they can–and what does culture or content or modes of existing in the actual world have to do with good language?


And the minute we attempt to tie the judgment of literature to something like a body or to a political consideration like gender or race or any of the isms, is the minute we lose the possibility to transcend the body and produce truly great work… true reflections of what is best in humanity… the universal… the sublime. I for one do not wish to lower my standards.

I tell you, this whole discussion is making me fear for my sons… what kind of an uphill battle they may face if they should choose to excel as poets. It’s truly disturbing. The kind of wrath they may face if and when they choose simply to become great–the jealousy, the complaints of mediocre women writers who envy them.

I’m sick about it, I tell you. Sick.
What's even more frightening is that a couple of people immediately chimed in to agree.

Of course, this isn't a failure of Kirsten's rhetoric. It's a failure on the part of readers to see the fallacy in this conservative logic.

To whom it may concern: Sexism isn't okay. It's as bad as racism. It's as bad as gay bashing. It's discrimination and it's hateful. Go read some of the comments in that thread and imagine they were written in response to a gay man or a black man expressing fair and civil concerns. Would you be so flippant and dismissive then? Would you tell them to stop their vague bitching and build their own empires?


  1. Orchestras were all men at one point and after someone bitched they held auditions behind screens. Big surprise: women achieved parity in no time. You could do this in poetry too, but of course editors would lose their ability to diversify the "modes of existing in the actual world" in their journals. Sexism is beside the point. It's about the modes.

  2. That's one of my favorite examples of unconscious bias at work. Not sure what you mean by "sexism is beside the point" though. It is the point.

  3. Her comment was kind of funny because she gets the tone so right, but then people started jumping in and "supporting" her. And citing the Bell Curve work as scientifically grounded. I stood amazed.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I wish I could say I was surprised that some people immediately agreed with Kirsten's pretty obvious satire, but I'm not. Disappointed, sure, but not surprised. Some of the biggest misogynists I've ever known outside the frat house I once inhabited have been fellow writers, clueless about their male privilege. I read one not long ago on the creative writing jobs wiki musing about whether being a white male on the job market meant he was at a disadvantage to all these women and people of color and LGBT folks. I shook my head and sighed.

    When I was putting together my National Poetry Month thing for The Rumpus, I considered opening it up for submissions, and decided against it because I wanted balance, and since I have no publishing history with either women or people of color or the LGBT community, I wanted to be sure I represented as many voices as possible, and I couldn't guarantee I would get that through open submissions. And I think I did okay--not perfect, but okay. Some people didn't respond to the request, but most did, and I got a good bit of variety.

    Undoubtedly someone will jump on me for going that route instead of opening it up and getting "the best work," as if that's a more subjective practice. Go ahead. I'm proud of the diversity in the project, and that was my goal. And it's a lot easier to defend than an all-male project.

  6. Brian, I thought the range of voices in that feature was really commendable. It was also just really high-quality writing.

    Open submissions don't always lead to the best work. Far from it. I think open submissions are important if you're looking for new voices, people you aren't already familiar with or who might not be established or even published yet. There's not much of a point if you're just going to publish the same old lineup from every other journal edited by people you know, or if you feel like you have to take all poems by men just because only men submitted. A few men keep submitting to Absent, with poems that are totally wrong for the journal, over and over and over and over again. Am I obligated to eventually take something they write just because they keep submitting?

  7. I wish HTML Giant could be MORE internet literature magazine blog of the future, LESS troll castle. Maybe we need a foil--Shrill Bitch Palace!

    Also, E, if I didn't say it on yesterday's thread--that cardigan sounds gorgeous. I would like a soupcon of Breton, myself. He needs some cooption, anyhow.


  8. This is the shrill bitch palace. Feminists and feminist sympathizers are welcome here.

  9. So what are the officially recognized demographics at Absent?

  10. If you really care, just go check it out. it's on the public internet.

  11. Kirsten did a huge public service, she put out a sexist creep sign-up sheet and all the sexist creeps rushed to sign up. Always good information to know.

  12. It was the desire to "debate" bell curve theories and the respect for "bravery" that made me lose a little faith in humanity. These kinds of discussions feel increasingly futile. Some people cannot be reached. But on the whole, I didn't find the discussion out of control. Maybe I'm becoming inured to Internet commenting but I felt the troll to sane individuals ratio was much better than normal.

  13. Thank you, Elisa and followers.

    The recent discussion, both highly readable and highly entertaining, on gender bias in the arts has inspired me to launch my own online literary publication, Antinym Review.

    Antinym is now accepting submissions of poetry, short fiction, essays, photography, etc., for its debut issue. Works from artists of all social groups will be considered. In selecting works for publication, our editors will not be biased by race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, gender identity, or political affiliation. And so that readers will not be biased in their appreciation of the works we choose to publish, no writers' or artists' names will accompany any of the works on the site.

  14. elisa, i said that you were vaguely bitching because you don't seem to care about solutions. i do apologize if that word or my using it insulted you, i forget about the whole reappropriation thing and you know, to me it's just a word that, as matt said, means 'complaining.' so, for what it's worth i apologize for, in a roundabout way, calling you a bitch; that was not my intention and i have no problem whatsoever with pointed, well-intentioned bitching - i do it all the time. the only reason i said it in the first place, is that your comments seem to suggest you're more interested in swatting a bee hive than anything else. and i did not suggest women build their own empire - maybe someone else did, i dunno - on the contrary i suggested that you (and others) encourage women to submit to these places that don't accept enough women. i realize that isn't the only problem, but it is one part of the problem. for instance, at titular we're lucky to get a good number of submissions from women. and while we probably publish as many women as men, we still get more submissions from men. i guess that means that, on the whole, we like most women writers more than men - i know i tend to myself - but if we don't get the submissions, we can't publish them - luckily, we do, but i think others probably don't because of this disinterest that happens when women don't see a lot of female names. so, maybe it's a small step and of course you have your own journal to worry about, but if most women simply write these journals off (pardon the pun) the situation is unlikely to change. sexism is a two way street: part of it is prejudice, and i still feel that dismissing a journal that appears to have a male bias is itself sexist, and exacerbates the situation. of course, you have every right to do so, but i think it's a little hypocritical. as i said at amy king's blog. i really do hope this shitstorm results in more women submitting everywhere. again, it's not the whole problem, but it's like, step one or something.

  15. Hi Reynard, I do care about solutions. I think more women editors is a start. Especially women editors who care about these issues. I think soliciting women until you achieve parity in submissions is a solution. I can name a number of editors who have done this successfully (such as Reb Livingston and Matthew Henriksen). In any case, I wasn't talking about you specifically (though you did say I was bitching). I think Jereme said I should start my own something or other instead of tearing others down. Well, I have my own blog, I edit my own journal, and I write my own poetry. That doesn't mean that I can't comment on what other people are doing. And I think editors can and should take responsibility for their own submissions and what they do with them.

    Also, I think TALKING about this stuff, actually raising the issues and not ignoring them, is part of the solution too.

    Calling something sexist (because it excludes women) isn't sexist. That argument isn't very good. You'll have to try harder there.

  16. i don't think calling something sexist is sexist. i said dismissing it and refusing to read it suggests a prejudice against what men have to say. anyway, fair enough, it's your right, and it doesn't really matter.

    in terms of solutions, cool, i wish people were talking about that instead of all the other stuff. there has been very little talk of what to do. so i guess i agree with you about talking, at least some of the talking, helps. but a lot of what's gone on has been rhetorical dogma from both sides. and dogma doesn't help anything except to make it seem like we're not getting anywhere and never will, which is defeatist. i agree about editors too. i would say that is just as necessary as male editors getting more submissions from women.

    so yes, i would love to see more female editors and more women submitting more stuff to everyone, despite how many swinging dicks are on the masthead.

    jereme is less than a dick, he doesn't even exist.

  17. I have no prejudice against what men have to say. If you look at the past couple issues of Absent, you'll find plenty of work by male writers. A while back I wrote up a post pointing to a bunch of online poems that I like and return to. Many of them were by men. I have read and enjoyed work by the contributors to Gene's magazine and take no stance against them -- I take a stance against the gender bias in the lineup, that is all.

  18. So what, exactly, is the difference between poetry written by a woman and poetry written by a man? Couldn't a woman just as easily have written, say, "The Road Not Taken," or a man write lines like "These fleshless lovers met, a heaven in a gaze," etc.?

    How do you define the distinction? Is it really biological? Does possession of a different sex organ by default result in different selections and arrangements of words?

  19. I'm not sure why the solution has to be women cleaning/fixing other editors' houses/magazines. I have my own house/magazine/press, etc. I take responsibility for those things. Editors need to take responsibility for their own publications. It's their publications. Their visions. They make the calls, not the people they aren't publishing.

  20. If there's no difference between poetry written by a woman and poetry written by a man, there shouldn't be any difference between poetry written by two different men. So why publish 12 different guys? Just find one and publish 12 12 of his poems.

    Also, go read this:

    for some good thoughts on how language is gendered.

    Also, forget the writing: What about the people? If only men get published (because writing by women would be the same anyway), only men get credit, only men get jobs, only men get paid.

  21. "So what, exactly, is the difference between poetry written by a woman and poetry written by a man?"

    Okay, let me explain this as if you were two.

    You have a body.

    That body is involved in writing. You sit at a desk, with your legs crossed or spread. The feeling of the chair on your ass is different depending on whether you have a bony ass or not. You also have genitals, or you do not.

    They, the genitals, are sometimes involved in how you sit at a desk. They are involved (by assumption, not in actuality--) in how you are treated in the world. Do you disagree?

    How you are treated in the world makes it into your psyche. Do you disagree here? Your psyche is involved in the way you use language. Perhaps you disagree here?

    Please, tell me exactly where you find the fracture between body and language. Tell me EXACTLY AT WHAT POINT you find it possible to utterly transcend culture, your body, the effects of culture on your body. I WANT TO KNOW.

    Writers are not disembodied heads in jars, although for some reason they like to refer to themselves as if they are. Do you disagree? Are you a disembodied head in a jar? If you are, and we were in a relationship--would you be upset if I took a lover, because I WOULD TAKE A LOVER.

    Your body writes. Your body is gendered. Being gendered matters in this world. How we are treated as gendered beings alters us. WE MAY HAVE THE ILLUSION OF NOT BEING EFFECTED because we exist in some or all of the default positions of our culture.

    It is STILL an illusion.

    I admit this: I can write experimentally because I am privileged. Many people who do not enjoy the privileges I do find my experimentation to be masturbatory in the extreme. I AGREE WITH THEM. But this is how I must go on to be true to myself. I am occasionally embarrassed by my masturbatory self, but I try to do other things to compensate for it.

    I DO NOT ASSUME that those who criticize me are cunts or bastards. I assume that they have a point, perhaps a point arrived at BY THE FACTS OF THEIR VERY BODIES. To call those bodies irrelevant is the worst kind of privilege.

    Language over body. What a fucking joke.


  22. yeah, even if work by men and women were exactly the same all the time—and they certainly aren't—it would still be unfair not to include women.

    if you're hiring a group of doctors for a new clinic, obviously all doctors have the same knowledge and abilities, so it doesn't matter to the patients what the gender breakdown of doctors is. but does that mean it would be fair to only hire male doctors?

  23. Elisa & kirsten,

    Sorry, but I don't buy it. Of course your physical qualities and, by default, how the world treats you because of those qualities, make it into your psyche. But to summarily categorize poets as either men poets or women poets is no different than making a distinction between fat poets and skinny poets, or left-handed poets and right-handed poets. As a tall person, my style of writing might be slightly different than that of a short person; right or wrong, the world thinks more highly of people of greater stature which might affect my overall sense of self, etc., etc., and that might somehow find its way into my work.

    The real difference is the subject matter a poet chooses to write about. A poet, male or female, who writes about issues important to women could be classified as a "woman's poet." Likewise, a woman who writes about NASCAR and wet t-shirt contests from the point of view of a man, might be considered a "man's poet."

    Do we make this same gender distinction in other forms of art? Could anyone really tell whether a photograph was taken by a man or a woman? Could one tell, on first listen, whether something was composed by Felix Mendelssohn or Fanny Mendelssohn?

    To be honest, I just read through the latest online issue of Absent and, if I didn't have the poets' names to go by, in most cases I wouldn't have known whether the poet was male or female. Sure, I might have been able to make some educated guesses based on the subject matter but that's beside the point. The poetry was good. Period.

    To insist that there is some fundamental difference in creative inclinations based on genitalia is short-sighted. We, both men and women, are intellectual equals but we are all unique individuals. We all have access to the same tools but we do not share the same experiences. A poem by one woman is not the same as a poem by one man. And 12 poems by one man is NOT The same as one poem each by 12 different men.

    And, kirsten, if I did turn out to be a disembodied head in a jar, I would hope that you would take a lover. Just turn the jar around out of respect for me when he/she come over. OK?

  24. What about my point that women deserve to be published also EVEN IF their poetry is no different from that of men? You didn't address that. Do you not agree.

  25. Definitely. I agree. If the poetry is good, then sure, it deserves/needs to be published. If it sucks, it doesn't. Are editors really dismissing good poetry because the poet's first name is not Dick?

  26. May I ask you something? Would you ever consider having one of your poems published anonymously, knowing that readers would never know your gender?

  27. My point isn't that men and women write fundamentally differently-- it is that bodies affect language. And that language is connected to the physical world we live in, write from. To pretend that magazines should present themselves as if they are above or outside of the world of their authors is a lie... physically, socially, culturally, economically. Literature is of the physical world.

    I don't want to be involved with self-deceivers, that's all.

    And all this talk about anonymity is deception--a way to pretend that the body and the person is irrelevant-- a way to feel post-whatever you are uncomfortable with in a world that is so un-post that people are killed everyday because of all the things you say cannot be deduced from a name.

    Perhaps our current president should have campaigned in white face, because race doesn't matter in politics.


  28. Antinym, it is a fact that most journals publish more men than women, consistently. Most prizes go to more men than women, consistently. Wouldn't this imply that editors, whether they are aware of it are not, sometimes dismiss good poetry because the poet's name isn't Dick? (Or do you think this must mean men are better writers? And if so doesn't that contradict your big theory about language over body?) Plenty of studies have shown that work written by women, when readers think it is written by a man, is received more favorably.

    And why shouldn't I get credit for the work I do?

    And I agree with Kirsten, this idea that gender and race don't matter seems like a distraction from the fact that women ARE discriminated against, minorities ARE discriminated against. So gender and race obviously do matter to a great many people.

  29. this anonymous journal idea of antinym's just sounds like an excuse not to give a shit. an escape from accountability.


  31. "...women ARE discriminated against, minorities ARE discriminated against."

    Elisa, are you then implying that the discriminators are non-women non-minorities, i.e., white men? Is this not a stereotype of sorts?

    I agree that discrimination is rampant in our society. But why are women and minorities discriminated against? Because THEY have been stereotyped.

    If I were to submit a poem to a feminist (not womens only) publication and signed it "Dick" would I receive the same consideration as a poet with your first name?

    The point I've been trying to make is that no two people are alike. One woman and the next woman share much in common but, in many ways, they are as different as fish and tress. If I added up all my qualities, both physical and psychological, everything that makes me who I am, I'd probably find I have more in common with the average woman than the average man. A lot of the same software. Just none of the same hardware.

    I don't know if there's any solution to gender bias. I don't know if there ever COULD be either. People will always be different, both individually and in groups. And people will always think differently. Sadly, the best thing may be to just ignore the problem, hope that over time it will go away on its own, and move on to fixing problems that face ALL of us -- woman, man, black, white, fat, skinny, left-handed, and right-handed.

  32. I didn't say that. Everyone does it (women too!) and not always intentionally.

    Wow. What issues affect everybody? Surely you realize that most problems affect some groups more than others. A war generally affects the people living in the country where it's taking place a little more than everyone else. A recession hurts the poor more than the rich. What exactly are these problems that affect EVERYONE? You mean, like, the threat of an asteroid destroying life on Earth? That's a problem, sure, but I still think sexism, racism, poverty, obesity, and war and worth devoting a little time too.

  33. "Sadly, the best thing may be to just ignore the problem, hope that over time it will go away on its own, and move on to fixing problems that face ALL of us -- woman, man, black, white, fat, skinny, left-handed, and right-handed."

    how does something go away on its own if no one's trying to fix it?

    problems like sexism do "face all of us"--a problem isn't just a problem for the offended, but for the offenders too. everyone, white men included, are better off if women and minorities aren't discriminated against.

  34. OK. Let's take on poverty, obesity, and war then. That should keep us all busy for a while.

    Getting back to the psyche issue...

    Why do some women feel the need to pigeonhole themselves as women poets? Would you agree that, all in all, you have more in common with an American male than an Inuit woman?

  35. The fact that I'm a woman, AND a poet, doesn't pigeonhole me as a "woman poet."

    Almost everything you're saying seems largely irrelevant.

  36. Matt,

    "how does something go away on its own if no one's trying to fix it?"

    Some things can't be fixed.

    There are certain laws of nature that we just have no power over. As long as we require two distinct sexes for our species to survive, then there will always be differences which will give rise to bias and discrimination.

    Give us a few million years and maybe we'll evolve into truly bisexual beings, capable of reproducing by ourselves. But even then there'd be bias, I'm afraid.

  37. Elisa,

    "The fact that I'm a woman, AND a poet, doesn't pigeonhole me as a 'woman poet.'"

    Sorry. I wasn't referring to you. I was just making the observation that many poets who also happen to be women classify themselves as women poets, as if the designation somehow implied a different creative output. Of course, there's a difference but it's all poetry in the end.

    It's like electricians who also happen to be a women calling themselves women electricians, like it's going to make a difference in how well the appliances run in my house.

  38. Did you read Mike Young's latest post? He talks about the reason people say things like "woman electrician" and "lady copy" or, to go the other way, "male nurse." It's because if you just say "electrician," everyone assumes it's a man. If you say nurse, everyone assumes it's a woman. (But the doctor, of course, everyone assumes is a man. See that old riddle about the man who takes his son to the hospital, and the surgeon refuses to operate, claiming, "This is my son.")

  39. What poets actively refer to themselves as "women poets"? Who is out there saying "I'm ___, and I am a woman poet"?

  40. Antinym,

    "Some things can't be fixed." Sure, I believe that most problems never go away. However, leaving them up to so called "laws of nature" and ignoring problems such as the ones raised in this blog and on HTML Giant just helps continue these inequalities. Bias and discrimination can be "fixed," at least on a personal level, by accepting and appreciating the differences that are part of humanity.

    "Give us a few million years and maybe we'll evolve into truly bisexual beings, capable of reproducing by ourselves." I think you mean "asexual." I'm pretty sure bisexuals cannot reproduce by themselves.

    However, this is about the publishing world and as Elisa said "it is a fact that most journals publish more men than women, consistently. Most prizes go to more men than women, consistently." And that is not ok. If you are arguing that "it's all poetry in the end" why is it, then, that men get published more and win contests more?