Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Now I have Queen stuck in my head

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember the We Are Champion fiasco from a while back. If not, here's the short version: I saw a link to a newish online journal, whose second issue included only work by men. I made a disparaging remark about it here. Mayhem ensued; comment streams here and elsewhere (notably, HTML GIANT) devolved into utter shitstorms. I lost three days of my life. I've mostly recovered, though I think I'm still considered an enemy (if not THE ENEMY) over at the G.

Gene Kwak, the editor of We Are Champion, and I didn't exactly hit it off, unsurprisingly, but in the wake of the debacle, we backchanneled and basically came to an understanding. Later he asked me some really great questions about what people (editors, teachers, citizens, etc.) can actually do about gender bias, besides complain about it. The Q&A is now up over at the We Are Champion blog. (Amy King's answers will be coming in a day or two.)

Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Since historically, literature has been domineered by the patriarchy, what advice would you give to teachers to broaden horizons? Is it a matter of using more contemporary examples? Finding new angles on or reinvigorating a push toward established members of the canon (Dickinson or Plath for example)? Unearthing overlooked members (admittedly this is the more difficult example) of historically relevant movements/epochs? Others? Does it feel like an uphill battle as so much of literary history has skewed toward males that even if you were wanting to introduce elements to widen the purview of the canon, it'd still have to be within the context of "well this is what's been established"? Can we just cannon the canon (this part is only semi-serious)?

EG: All of these approaches sound feasible to some degree. I also think it’s crucial, when teaching literature, to bring in the history of literature, to explain the context in which the writing was created and celebrated. When teachers give students a reading list that is 90% men and don’t talk about why it’s so skewed, students just inherit the idea that a male bias is fine and normal. If no one else is questioning it, why should they? So if you’re teaching a class on 19th century British poetry, obviously almost all the surviving examples are going to be by men, but you can talk about why that’s the case. If we’re talking about high school English or a general poetry class, I think contemporary examples are key in any case, but if they’re balanced, they’ll have the added bonus of demonstrating that women are writing and publishing great work. Whether or not they feel comfortable admitting it, I do think a lot of people have this ingrained idea that men write more “great,” “ambitious” books. And it’s partly because books by men are more frequently reviewed, promoted, awarded, recommended, talked about and so on. (Probably also a factor: Men are encouraged to believe that if they’re going to bother writing they need to be “great.”)

Is it enough to have diversity of submitters or should there be a reach for diversity in subject matter as well?

EG: I think this is essentially up the editors. I wouldn’t personally be that excited about a journal that focused on a certain subject (I keep thinking poems about dogs), but I guess there’s a market for that. Probably more common is for editors to focus on a certain style. Take Artifice, which only considers work that somehow acknowledges its own artifice. There’s nothing in that editorial statement that prevents diversity in subject matter or among submitting authors. Still, not everyone is going to be interested in reading it or submitting.

The thing is, people tend to read and like work that is similar to their own. Only reading what you already like can be sort of limiting, in the sense that you can’t really know if you like something until you give it a chance. If you’re at all interested in expanding your horizons by traveling, trying new foods, doing new things, listening to different kinds of music … it seems worthwhile to keep an open mind about writing too. More exposure to work written by people who aren’t just like you helps you learn how to read it.
Big thanks to Gene for asking such good questions. Got better answers than mine? That's what comments are for (that and shitstorms).


  1. I followed the link and read the full interview. This is one of those subjects that opens up layers and years of thought and talk for me. (And obviously not just for me.)

    I was particularly struck by your comment that "men are encouraged to believe that if they're going to bother writing they need to be 'great.'"

    What's interesting to me is that, although I don't specifically recall ever being encouraged to believe this, it's certainly been a notion I've been conscious of for, I guess, all the time I've been writing. Yes, the notion that, what's the point of doing this (i.e. writing poems) unless I want to be (for instance) the next Walt Whitman, or the next Neruda, or the next Homer or Sappho, or at least can conceive of that possibility.

    I'm obviously speaking here only of my own subjective experience, and I don't suggest that my experience is necessarily a typical example.

    It hadn't occurred to me, though, that this might be something related to gender bias in the culture (I'm not saying this very precisely, vocabulary being the sometimes ungainly thing it is), though it makes sense that it would be.

    I won't try here to get into what "great" really means -- at one time in my life, I felt that if I could be as great a writer as, say, Sappho, that might be adequate, though over time I've come to feel that if I can just be great enough to read Sappho, that might be enough.

    This is all somewhat random and not sure how coherent -- some of the places my thinking went when I read the interview.

  2. Lyle,

    I'm very glad to hear you got something out of the interview. I think part of where the "greatness" thing comes in is that men are led to believe (whether it's in so many words or via subtle signals) that they need to do something worthwhile with their lives -- become a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, what have you -- that they should be making money or at least making some kind of difference. So there's this feeling that if a man is going to give up those traditional career routes to be an artist, he better be a really *great, important* artist. However, the assumption seems to be that women probably aren't going to become doctors or pillars of industry anyway, so they might as well fool around with paint or a pencil. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but do you see what I mean? I do think people inherit these ideas that men should do "serious" work (and so they're pushed to excel more in math and science) and that the arts are a frivolous pastime. This may sound like the '50s, but I know of someone about my age whose parents quite obviously hold these views.

  3. "that they should be making money or at least making some kind of difference"

    that's how i feel about myself, but only because i worry about what potential girlfriends would think of a guy with no purpose or prospects or ambition. ideally i'd like to never work at all, but that would make me look bad.