Disrupting Publishing Linkspam: 9/15/2015

Last week I collected and curated articles about racism in publishing by writers of color. Anyone who follows my twitter probably knows that disrupting oppressive cycles in publishing is something I’m all in on. I think these linkspams will probably be a regular thing going forward, but I wanted to broaden the scope because there are multiple axes at play here. Race is a major one, and a predominant one given how visible race often is, but it’s not the only way voices can be silenced, so here I’m aggregated as many marginalized voices as possible from as many vectors as possible, and the more intersectional the better. As always if you’ve read something I missed please link it in the comments.


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang for Buzzfeed

White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it.

Malinda Lo’s tumblr post in response to Jenny Zhang’s piece

Women who write literary/realistic fiction about women are often asked about how their fiction is autobiographical, even if it is clearly not. I don’t believe that men are asked this “is your work autobiographical?” question nearly as often. I wonder if writers of color are asked this question even more than white women, because the white majority has a hard time understanding that writers of color could imagine stories about characters of color who are not them. It’s a weird, slippery, erasing state of belief about writers of color.

“Regarding the Yellowface Poet” by Franny Choi

i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen
for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.

a stone house. i confess: if someone has looked
at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,

i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more
for my gook name, for my saint name,

for my good vocabulary & bad joints,
i’ve welcomed them into this house.

“On Visibility in Diversity That Isn’t Race” by Kayla Whaley

Speak Up!: A Graphic Account of Roxane Gay and Erica Jong’s Uncomfortable Conversation by Mari Naomi for Electric Literature

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An interview with Ursula K. LeGuin by Choire Sicha

It worked very much against women, because they were likely to have the nine-to-five job and really be responsible for the household. Doing two jobs is hard enough, but doing three is just impossible. And that’s essentially what an awful lot of women who wanted to write were being asked to do: support themselves, keep the family and household going, and write.

“Encouraging Diversity: An Editor’s Perspective” by Rose Lemberg in Strange Horizons

When I founded Stone Telling, I knew I wanted the market to be diverse. I talked to both poets and editors before founding the magazine and heard from quite a few that there just weren’t that many PoC poets in the field, and that very few poets write queer content. I was planning to solicit, but heard back from a few folks that I should expect to quickly run out of PoC poets from whom I could solicit.

That did not happen. What happened was that the field grew in response to a welcoming market.

Snow Blindness: A Follow-Up To Nicola Griffith’s Analysis of Book Award Demographics

I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but by training I’m a statistician. I don’t live off my writing, and in my day job, I work as an analyst for a large urban school district crunching numbers. Back in grad school, I taught stats to undergrads who would really rather be anywhere else, bu I like stats. Always have. So I read Nicola Griffith’s post “Books About Women Don’t Win Big Awards: Some Data” with great interest. The first thing I thought of when I read is was I bet this replicates with other marginalized identities. I bet it’s not just gender; I bet it’s race and sexuality and class and everything else, too.

I had some time this weekend. Not much, but enough to do a little digging. I did what she did–mostly–but for race. I looked at four out of the the six prizes she looked at* for the same time span she looked at (2000-2015) and coded whether the author was White or a Person of Color. I dug up what I could on the book in question to try and figure out, if I hadn’t read it (and I hadn’t read most of them), if the protagonist(s) was White or a Person of Color**. And then I crunched some numbers. Here’s what I found:

  • Lit awards are exactly what you would guess: blindingly White, White as the purest arctic snow. Generally, over 80% of Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award or NBCC prizes went to White writers.
    • Also, unsurprisingly, intersectionality matters. When you look at both race and gender, that arctic snow is full of dicks. Big, pasty dicks. Women of color and men of color made up 9% of the award winners apiece. White men were five times more likely to win an award than people of color. White women were three times more likely to win an award than people of color.
  • Griffith found that even when women writers do manage to win a prestigious award, they tend to do so when they’ve writer about men. Race in writing seems to be of a more peculiar character:
    • Writers of Color, the ones who won these awards at least, wrote exclusively about People of Color. Who knows; maybe they were bored of the absolute blinding whiteness of the narratives they see day in and day out and felt no compunction to contribute to that.
    • White writers mostly wrote about other white people, but a few broke the mold and wrote about People of Color and were awarded (probably by a panel of White people) for it.

That’s the high-level TL;DR summary, there. I’m going to roll up my sleeves now and dig into the data now. Stick around if you’d like! To start, here are the four awards I looked at:

POC=People of Color WP=White people

POC=People of Color
WP=White people

You can see that the trends are remarkably consistent across the awards. The NBCC is the only one coming close to bucking that trend–NBCC was more likely to give the award to POC authors and to books featuring POC protagonists written by White authors. The Man Booker Prize, on the other hand, was the most blindingly White of the bunch. This mirrors quite closely what Griffith found with regard to gender: Man Booker had the highest number of awards given to men who wrote about men, and NBCC gave a relatively wider spread of awards to men and women writing about men and women.

pie1

The pie chart above collapses all the awards I surveyed across the award giving body to get an aggregate sense of race trends. There are two main points of interest here: first, that over 80% of awards for the last 15 years of these four major awards have gone to White writers. 80%–FOUR FIFTHS.

The second point of interest is that the flexibility of writing gender that Griffith found–men writing women, women writing men–isn’t present to the same extent here. Some White people are writing People of Color, but People of Color are interested in writing their own narratives, not adding to the already bloated collection of White narratives. And yet, the preponderance of awards are still going to White narratives written by White people–or narratives of color written by White people.

note that the women author's pie graph is smaller. That's on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

note that the women author’s pie graph is smaller. That’s on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

For my final trick, I overlayed Griffith’s analysis and my own. I coded my set of data for both race and gender of both the author and the book’s protagonist to see how the two pieces of demographic data interacted (because, you know, intersectionality matters).

The graphs above split out the combination of the author’s race and gender and their book’s protagonists’s race and gender. The graph on the left shows the proportions for the men winners (60% of the dataset). The graph on the right shows the proportions for the women winners (40% of the dataset). What the above data tells me is that White men write about anything and everything and get awards for it. Mostly they write about other White men, yes, but they are the ones crossing gender and race lines most in their writing and get awarded for it.

I would have liked to do more. I wanted to add sexuality into the mix, but it was very hard to determine author’s LGBTQ status with just a cursory internet search. Only two of the winning books, Middlesex and The Line of Beauty, were book that I knew dealt with LGBTQ themes. I would expect similar patterns to emerge should that data become available, though.

*Griffith also looked at the Hugo Award and the Newberry Medal. I excluded these from my analysis due to time constraints which is a fancy way of saying ‘then I had to give my kid a bath.’

**There were some cases, like The Road, where movie adaptations of an arguably non-race-identified protagonist was cast as White, which I then used as essentially canon evidence of Whiteness.

On Not “Leaning In”

leanin

I confess I did not come to Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN with the best intentions. I did not come to it in good faith. I had, in fact, been actively avoiding it since it came out a little over a year ago. When my best friend invited me (remotely) to participate in her “lean in” group, I declined. Because of all this, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to review it per se. So, this isn’t really a book review. This is more a manifesto in response to Sandberg’s manifesto.

I read LEAN IN as part of my intentional efforts to live the anti-oppressive beliefs I espouse. I am white, and I try to name and own that privilege as part of making spaces safe and comfortable for the people of color I interact with. And so it happened that in a rare Denver tornado warning I found myself in the basement of my building with a friend and colleague. She is black, and we were meeting specifically about anti-racist work we were doing in-house when the sirens blared. In the basement, we found ourselves cornered by a pair of white women co-workers. Conversation turned to LEAN IN, which the three of them had agreed to read together. The other two women were farther along in the book than my friend. They started chattering about it—about “tiara syndrome” and about “how women really are holding themselves back”—and I watched my friend’s face become a carefully blank slate. I know her well enough to know what signs to watch for when the unbearable whiteness of our work environment begins to really eat at her.

“I’ll read the book,” I said. The words just slipped out of my mouth. My friend cut me a sly look and smirked at the other two.

“Oh, you will?” asked one of the other two.

“Sure. When are y’all trying to have it read by?”

“June 1st,” said the other.

“No problem.” And it wasn’t. As far as I know, I’m the only one of the four of us to have actually finished it.

The security personnel waved us back upstairs. My friend and I hung back and let the other two women disappear into the crowd. We mounted the nine flights of stairs together. “I don’t really want to read that book,” she said. “And I don’t want to read it with them.”

“Yeah, how’d that happen?”

“I just got roped into it. At least if you’re there I won’t be the only one calling bullshit on it.”

Which is why I read it: to call bullshit on it. And that’s what this not-review-sort-of-manifesto-thing is.

***
1. Nothing Ever Trickles Down
Taking career advice from Sheryl Sandberg is about as useful and relevant to me as taking lifestyle advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. LEAN IN is GOOP for career ladies. Throughout, Sandberg admits that her book really is targeted at a specific group of highly ambitious and well-positioned women. She takes a strange position that by helping them specifically—those women who are, quite frankly, the most privileged sector of women—she will somehow spur a movement that helps all of womankind.

This is the same type of trickle-down activism that turned me away from the Occupy movement and marriage equality campaigns. I am not interested in political activism that leaves behind the worst-off. Focusing on the privileged members of a marginalized class has been historically used to divide and conquer, to bait and switch, and to give marginalized people just enough that the most well-connected and wealthy of them stop complaining. The complaints of the most marginalized members of that group are then easily discounted.

The women Sheryl Sandberg is writing for are women like her: the kind that can mobilize a multitude of privileges to get their foot in the door, period. These are women who are probably white, since having a black-sounding name on your resume is likely to keep you from getting hired in the first place. These are women who likely have no physical or mental disabilities, since they’ve typically excelled in school. These are women who are probably straight and partnered, since Sandberg more than once talks about how important it is for her readers’ husbands to lean in to the home and hearth as they themselves lean in to their careers. And they are probably cisgender since not once in 288 pages does Sandberg even acknowledge that trans* folks exist. More on that later, though.

My point here is that I’ve come to see movements that focus on the better-off segments of a fucked group as a waste of time. And this has been, historically speaking, the great weakness of white feminist work—it is another way whiteness supercedes everything else. It is white women (and middle class women, and able-bodied women, and cisgender women) telling everyone else to be patient, that once they’re in power things will be better. And that has never worked. The homeless, the forgotten, the women trapped in spirals of violence and poverty cannot afford to be patient. In the words of the black poet, Pat Parker:

SISTER!, your foot’s smaller
but it’s still on my neck.

There is an ethical breach there. How can Sandberg not see that?

2. Copying the moves of those in power keeps them in power
Largely Sandberg’s tactics consist of telling women (white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women) to behave more like their male colleagues. Take up more space. Be more confident. Assert yourself. Negotiate harder.

She discusses why this is difficult, drawing on social psychological literature about power and social penalties women face when they do these things.* Her arguments position other women as the key to change here: if women would stop buying into these biases, if women would band together and cut each other breaks, then real change could happen. And maybe she’s a little right, but I think she’s mostly wrong here, too.

True change is not a simple shift in composition. It’s not a matter of more women in power at any cost and executing that power in any way. True change is a matter of fundamentally altering what we socially construct as power, as valuable, as worthy. What she’s preaching here isn’t change. It’s assimilation.

3. Anti-oppression work is intersectional or it is bullshit
That’s the heart of my objection to LEAN IN. Undergirding both Sandberg’s trickle-down strategies and her emphasis on assimilationist tactics is the idea that there exists a universal experience of womanhood. But the universal experience of womanhood is a myth.

Sandberg is pushing women to assimilate to a white masculinity. Women, generally, face social penalties when co-opting hegemonic masculinity, but women of color especially are at a disadvantage here. The social penalties faced by women of color are, across the board, far steeper than those faced by white women. And these tactics are not accessible to all women—embodying traditional masculinity is an especially fraught idea for trans women.

Adding to that is the fact that the women Sandberg is leaving behind with her book are the very ones who, due to structural and systemic oppression, are less likely to be employed at all much less shooting for the C suite. There was no way to translate Sandberg’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to the lives of single mothers, struggling women of color, trans women facing down daily violence, etc.

4. I exist; I resist
I can’t lean in. Truly, I can’t. At work, I am partially out. Thanks to our intersectional existence, there are many different axis along which a person can be out. It took me two years at my place of employment to out myself as having grown up poor, and that was still a pretty safe self-outing. I’m white, and poor white people are seen differently than poor black people. I’m highly educated—a person with a doctorate who grew up poor has “made good.” I’m upward bound. My class background is now little more of a footnote to my coworkers. Flavor text.

To a few at work I’ve outed myself as someone with anxiety and depression. This has happened mostly in the context of work I’ve done supporting students with disabilities, so there were reasons to disclose this, but still there have been raised eyebrows.

But I’m not out as queer. Or poly. Or, most importantly and most well-guarded, as trans*. For my sexuality and family structure, I’m in the glassest of glass closets. I don’t name it, but I don’t hide it, either. A few people know—when asked directly I give a direct answer. But most people at work don’t know. Still, it’s risky: I live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being queer.

But my gender. Oh, my hard-won prickly gender. I know I read as butch. And, oddly, sometimes at work someone will refer to me as ‘he’ with a bewildered look on their face as they stand staring at me in a dress. There is, I think, some way I’m telegraphing my transness. But not on purpose. I’ve resigned myself to getting continually, habitually misgendered at work. There is work me—a woman—and there is real me. Comfortable non-binary me. Protections for trans* people are thin on the ground. I would say that my place of employment is fairly queer-friendly, but being LGB friendly in no way means that the T is acceptable. I work in education. I work in central office administration, not directly with children, but the stigma and fear surrounding transgender people is still strong.

I can’t lean in. I can’t risk hustling and making enemies and quitting if it looks like I’m going nowhere. I’m the breadwinner of my family. And I’m on thin ice—queer, trans*, crazy. I have strikes against me. I’m an upwardly mobile, highly educated, conventionally intelligent and successful white person. And Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. I’m far more privileged than most people, and Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. It begs the question who stands to gain from her book. How can she foment revolution when she’s only speaking to a handful of people?

*I am, actually, deeply familiar with this literature. I spent a good amount of my grad school career steeped in these theories and did some research on them myself. To her credit, she gets them mostly right, but the limitations of that work and those theories are ultimately what drove me personally from the academy.

Why A Woman Writing As a Man is Different Than A Man Writing As A Woman

A few weeks ago, Writer’s Digest published an article by James Ziskin titled “Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV”. I let this article simmer in my saved folder in Feedly for awhile. I knew I wanted to read it, but I also knew I would Have Words To Say after I’d read it, and I wanted to be in the right headspace to clearly articulate said Words.

James Ziskin has written a novel which features a young woman as its protagonist. “I write like a girl,” he says. “More precisely, I write as a girl.” I have not read Styx and Stone, so I can’t say one way or another if he succeeded in my eyes.

What I can say pretty definitively is that I have a huge amount of skepticism that he truly succeeded. The thing is that it is inherently harder for a man to successfully and authentically write a woman character than for a woman to write a man. This is a product of living in a socially stratified and hierarchical society. My background and training is as a psychological researcher, and much of my research focus on the exploration of power dynamics. There’s a robust finding in social psychology that social status and interpersonal attention are inversely related; that is, the higher up you are on the totem pole, the less you pay attention to other people. Especially those people lower than you on the totem pole.

12032013_statusattentiongraphic

Susan Fiske (1993) looked at this specifically in work contexts: an employee pays a whole lot of attention to their manager, but their manager typically pays little attention to them. We’ve all been there, right? You know how your boss takes their coffee, what it means when they get fidgety. You can predict how that meeting will go simply by the way they walk over to your cubicle. But your manager probably knows little about you—they don’t even know if you drink coffee, period, much less how you take it.

This finding has been extended to look at how the use of social power changes the way people attend to others and whether those using power can take people’s perspective. Guess what? The use of power tends to turn people away from thinking about how those around them feel, or how their actions might affect others (Galinsky et al., 2006).

What does all this have to do with Ziskin’s article? Well, the thing is that power is not only used in the workplace. Power is ubiquitous and nebulous. It’s a chameleon that manifests differently in the various domains in which we live—we experience, submit to and use power in our personal lives, with strangers, in schools, etc. It’s no stretch to map these findings onto society writ large; if we think of social status as markers of privileged identities, then the reasons why I am so skeptical of Ziskin start to get clearer.

I am a Female Assigned At Birth genderqueer person, which means that I was born what the medical establishment considered female and was raised as a girl. I am read by virtually everyone I meet as a woman; I am not physically androgynous though my gender presentation is all over the map. I have an authentic, if atypical, insight into what it is to be a woman in modern American society. I will posit that Ziskin does not.

12032013_attentionlines

A really big part of being a woman is learning to pay lots and lots of attention to the men around you. You learn that very early on—men are more likely than you to have wealth and opportunities and as such are usually the gatekeepers to you yourself getting access to those opportunities. Men are potentially dangerous (if you have not already, please read Schrodinger’s Rapist ). As a woman you have to learn to read men’s moods and be able to predict their actions with a fairly high level of accuracy. It’s not all that different than an underling knowing what kind of coffee their boss likes—in each case, noticing all the little things that can predict the bigger actions is important. Knowing how someone who has power over you is going to use that power is a necessary skill. It can, quite literally, be a matter of survival.

I should say here that I think this framing of social dynamics is an inherent part of the tension between marginalization and privilege. It is, in fact, a mechanism that helps to create and reproduce marginalization and privilege. What I mean to say that I think this dynamic where the marginalized has to know and understand the privileged better than the privileged ever know the marginalized is a common element of oppression. We have a lot of different ways of coding this: code-switching, being stealth, staying in the closet are all examples of marginalized people learning the way the privileged act and mimicking that in order to stay afloat.

But what does this mean for writers? It means that no one writes in a vacuum. It means that all of this happens through socialization and internalization of norms and perceptions that don’t disappear just because you’ve decided to tell a story. It means that no one writes from a place of objectivity; nor should they. It means when Ziskin sits down to write as Ellie Stone he does so having lived as a man in a society that privileges men over women. In essence, he is writing right into his own blind spots. Now, again, I haven’t read his book. But in the article he’s penned, he describes his heroine this way:

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960′s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t. She’s a realist, though, aware that a woman can go only so far in a man’s world, so she accepts a lowly position as a fledgling reporter for a small upstate daily. Her beat includes Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary meetings and high school basketball games. But Ellie’s the smartest person in the room, a quick wit, and one of the fellas when it comes to holding her drink. She’d better be able to hold her drink, or be prepared to defend her honor.

If this is at all indicative of how Ziskin writes Ellie Stone in his novel than I would wager that he is not successful in his endeavor to “write as a girl.” This reads as a what a man thinks a woman thinks like. Over and over in this short block of text he asserts patriarchal dominance. He falls into the trap of going out of his way to assert her as beautiful. He mentions in an off-handed way that she deals with sexual harassment and possible sexual assault but the deep-bred visceral fear these interactions bring up in most of us who live as or are read as women is missing. I am also curious as to what he means by “she plays like a man…[but] she’s all woman.” The only way I can understand this is through gendered binaries of what women do and what women are like imposed by men—which are sometimes accurate due to patriarchal restrictions but often are just plain wrong. In short, Ellie Stone may very well end up a cipher; a set-back-then-when-men-were-men-and-women-were-women version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl .

This isn’t entirely Ziskin’s fault, though I do think it’s an act of eyebrow-raising hubris that he feels so very comfortable writing women that he has proclaimed himself a master at it in a widely-read high-profile blog. The thing is that Ziskin can’t write Ellie Stone authentically because he literally does not know what would make her authentic. He hasn’t lived it. He doesn’t understand male privilege enough to know when to check himself in the writing and when to reassess his own writerly instincts.

I did some thinking after reading Ziskin’s article. I can name, easily, a number of women writers who I think have successfully captured a male voice—Ursula K. Le Guin comes immediately to mind, as does Susannah Clarke. Agatha Christie. J.K. Rowling. Margaret Atwood. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. It is much harder for me to think of the reverse. Phillip Pullman does, for the most part, an excellent job with Sally Lockhart. I recently reread Mieville’s Embassytown, and I’m again impressed by his female lead. And that’s all I could think of on my own. I fielded the question to some of my women friends who are voracious readers, and I got Sally Lockhart again and Lyra from His Dark Materials. So, well done, Philip Pullman! Another suggested the lead in John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos, which I have not read, but which she says can still be read as problematic. A friend also cited Hopeful Monsters which I have not read and she says is pretty obscure. And that’s all we got. Five of us wracking our brains—brains that hold massive libraries—and that’s all we got. My point is not that it can’t be done, but that for a person with privilege to write a person marginalized along that same axis is extremely difficult. Mr. Pullman might as well be a unicorn.

And I don’t mean to vilify Ziskin. I am, I will admit, irked at the arrogance it takes to declare yourself successful at this, but, again, this isn’t really about him. It’s about how we don’t write anything in a vacuum and how every single word we write and choice we make as writers is informed by the lives we have led. A couple of months ago I had this wonderful idea for a book—the kind of idea that makes you feel high when it comes to you, truly inspired. The kind of idea that comes to you so perfectly and fully formed that it feels like you could write the whole damn novel in one go and you search desperately for the closest keyboard. I was about to launch in on it…

…and I stopped. Because the lead character was a black woman living in Baltimore just after the Civil War. And I just…I had to take a deep breath and put the idea on hold because I cannot speak to that character’s experience authentically. I can’t. I have some understanding of some of the issues facing the Black community in an intellectualized and abstracted academic way but I am in no way a part of that world. I am a well-meaning White person, and I had to check myself because the world does not need another well-meaning White person writing about the Black experience like they know anything about it. If I ever do write that book, it will be after a dissertation’s worth of research and even then it might never see the light of day. I have written about racial oppression before, but only in secondary fantasy contexts where the oppression doesn’t reflect the real histories of people whose voices are already silenced. And even then I get pangs of worry that I’ve overstepped my bounds, that I’ve been disrespectful and appropriative in presuming to know how that might feel to live through.

I guess to wrap up I would say this: not only is it inherently difficult to write about a person who is marginalized by privileges you hold, but I don’t think it’s appropriate, either. We have plenty of male writers writing women’s stories; we could use more women writing women’s stories. We have plenty of White people (like me) writing Black people’s stories; we would do better to shut up and hand the mic over to Black people, to step aside and let them tell their stories instead.

I don’t believe Ziskin can write as a girl. I don’t believe he should.

Cited:
Fiske, S. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping, American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Galinsky, A., Magee, J., Insei, M., & Gruenfeld, D. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074.

Link

Fantasy Faction and the Sexism of “Mary Sues”

And here is one of the biggest problems with the Mary Sue criticism. It’s too subjective. Your Mary Sue is my awesome hero. My Mary Sue is your sympathetic heroine. Your Mary Sue is my empowered female character. And it’s that last point that is particularly important because Mary Sue is a gendered insult. Most characters accused of being Mary Sues are female. The term for it is a woman’s name. Some people even claim that men cannot be Mary Sues (or Marty Stus or whatever) at all. Think about that. Female characters are annoying for being ‘too awesome’, but it’s just impossible for a man to be too awesome.

At this point the author dropped her mic and walked away.