Book Review: HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

For reasons both good and bad, How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ reads like it could have been written yesterday. Actually, the book is older than me—published in 1983—but Russ’ smirking, clear-eyed perspective is still relevant.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing investigates historical and social reasons that may have kept whole generations of women from writing in the first place (things like differential rates of literacy, disparate access to education, women’s historical lack of leisure time and position as wife as a second work shift). She also interrogates how it is that when women somehow do manage to write that women’s writing is ignored, slandered or undercut. The book was published by the University of Texas Press, which puts it squarely in the realm of academic works, but the writing is colloquial and accessible throughout. You do not need to be steeped in literary criticism or feminist theory to read and understand Russ’ arguments here, which is a great strength*.

She argues that what is considered “good” or “worthy” literature (and by extension, that which is taught and thus survives across generations) is designated as such by privileged groups who have a vested interest in keeping themselves privileged. The ways in which they limit entrance or access to literature are by mental acrobatics such as assuming women writers didn’t really write their works, or that it doesn’t matter if they wrote it because it’s the wrong kind of work, or that maybe they wrote it and maybe it’s good but it’s the only good thing she ever wrote. Some of this is deliberate, but just as much is unconscious bias. Each chapter is broken into one tactic that has been used to suppress women’s writing, and Russ packs her chapters full of anecdotes, survey results, and historical examples to support her claims. And, somehow, she does it with a wry and witty voice that makes the writing lively.

Still, the book is not a perfect one. It’s centered very squarely on white middle class women’s experiences. Russ occasionally throws in an anecdote about her friend and colleague, Samuel Delany, a Black scifi writer, but he himself is tokenized in the doing. Clearly throughout the text she attempts to draw parallels between gendered exclusions in literary circles and race-based exclusions, but Delany pops up over and over again as if he is the only Black writer she knows (and as if Black writers are the only voices who can counterpart the voices of white writers). White lesbian authors pop up far more frequently than writers of color, and women writers of color are virtually never mentioned in the main body of the text. This lack of intersectional focus irked me while I read it—it’s such a good book, and also such a clear example of the failings of second wave feminism. Russ uses the Afterword to acknowledge her failing here, directly addressing her unfamiliarity with and inability to capture the struggles of women writers of color. She talks about stumbling across a beautiful, rich treasure trove of writing by women of color—a parallel canon, as it were—which unintentional struck me as fetishizing and exoticizing of women of color’s experiences.

That said, her idea of a parallel literary tradition is what resonated with me most. The book is predicated on the idea that the established canon should include more women, which yes, it should. But underlying that idea is an assumption that women writers should want to be part of that canon, which I’m not entirely sure is the case for all women writers, or all marginalized writers more broadly. This, again, strikes me as a distinctly white middle class second-wave feminist reaction: when barred entry break through the bars. Personally, when I am turned away from something I return to my community and make a safe space there (be that along class lines, lines of gender or lines of sexuality). I am more interested in creating and participating in alternative literary traditions, exploring what the limits of queer or working class or trans* writing can be, than gaining approval of wealthy cis straight white men. I’m pretty much done trying to impress wealthy cis straight white men.

But (always there’s a but) not everyone has that option. I am not trying to make a living from my writing, but other marginalized people are. And, frankly, to make a living off your writing you still have to impress wealthy cis straight white men to do it because they hold the keys to the kingdom. A quick google search shows that women’s writing is still suppressed a full thirty years after Russ wrote her book:

Unfortunately, the following passage is just as true today as it was when she first published this book:

Women’s lives are the buried truth about men’s lives.

 

The lives of people of color are the buried truth about white lives.

 

The buried truth about the rich is who they take their money from and how.

 

The buried truth about “normal” sexuality is how one kind of sexual expression has been made privileged, and what kinds of unearned virtues and terrors this distinction serves.

 

4/5 stars

*Russ points out in the book that “women always write in the vernacular” and that this difference in language is one way that women’s writing has been historically devalued. The same can be said of the less-educated and working class—a consistent criticism I have and have heard about academia is that it uses language as a barrier to entry and as a membership check. That is, academia trains you to use words like reify and polemic and semiotic and in the doing makes your work utterly unintelligible to people without higher degrees. As someone whose work in graduate school was explicitly focused on class identity, this was a tension I ran into over and over again: how to communicate with the groups I want to communicate with given the resources I suddenly received without speaking “too low” to my adviser and “too school” for my friends and family.

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.

Book Review: HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED

Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is another in a long line of books which tries to determine how we can better serve “underperforming” children—specifically children in poverty and children of color. Tough posits a fairly new approach to this social problem: character. He draws a distinction between cognitive skills, which are most often expressed through academic ability, and noncognitive skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, and eagerness to learn. Over the course of some 200 pages, Tough explores how and why these noncognitive skills develop from a variety of approaches—interviews with students and educators, positive psychological research, studies of rats’ mothering habits and biological stress responses.

The context of the book, though, is as important to my reading of How Children Succeed as its actual content. This is a book I see around my workplace often. It was, in fact, loaned to me by a coworker. And last year, while I was on fellowship as an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow, some of my cohort read it in a book study. I work in the ed reform movement (something I have deeply ambivalent feelings about), and this book is fast becoming part of the ed reform lingo. It’s a natural fit. This book (and by extension its writer) comes from the same place as my TFA alum and Broad resident coworkers: this is a book written by a deeply privileged person who wants to fix education. That’s a noble goal. But the problem I see over and over in the ed reform movement is that these privileged people cannot see past their privilege, and so the ways they want to fix education continually read to me as shallow and ineffective.

Tough’s book is a great example of this tension. Tough grew up middle class, white, cisgender and male. At several points in the book, he discusses his decision to drop out of Columbia University as a tortured eighteen year old. The fateful dropout decision is not predicated on some external forces (a financial crisis or having to return home to take care of a relative in a tight spot) but on a vague notion that he wants to “try something that’s new”. Tough ends up bicycling halfway across the country, then returns to college only to drop out a second time. So, this is the author’s background. His research and reporting for the book takes him to the South Side of Chicago where he tries to understand the lives of struggling high schoolers. He seems to see these kids’ struggles mostly as a result of two things: the high levels of stress they’ve encountered in their short, violent, impoverished lives and the apparent absence of secure attachments to caregivers. Tough uses research on the HPA axis and biological effects of stress and research on attachment theory to largely explain why and how these kids haven’t yet developed the cognitive skills needed to get them to and through college. And while both of those things may play some small part in their current trajectory I believe he severely overstates the effects of both.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I am white, but I grew up poor and queer and struggling with my gender in a small, conservative town in Texas. My parents were both trapped in substance abuse. I was alternately neglected and abused by them, and as such, never developed a secure attachment to either. I also excelled in school (though I was a troublemaker). I got out—got into college, graduated, and then got a doctorate. I am what educational psychologists call “resilient”. I have what Tough calls character in spades. My sister is less resilient. The major difference between my sister and I? She is dealing with a different level of mental health issues than I am. She has a learning disability that was never diagnosed. She didn’t excel in school. In a word, she didn’t look like she could pass as middle class.

Tough makes the case that if poor kids have a positive adult role model to help them develop ‘character’ that they can ‘succeed’. He never stops to consider that what he has deemed ‘character’ is a very white middle-class idea of character. It is deeply steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, for instance, and it may be that poor kids of color are developing a different kind of character, a set of noncognitive skills acutely attuned to the context in which they live. My avoidant attachment to my parents growing up, for instance, was a totally appropriate way of managing my relationship to unstable and unreliable caregivers. The same with his unspoken assumptions about what success looks like—this is a white, middle class idea of success. When Tough abstracts character and success from the context these people live in, divorcing it so neatly from the structural and institutional oppression caused by racism and classism, he presents the answer to our ‘education system’s failures’ as very simple. While reading the book, the message I got was that all we have to do is train poor black kids to act like well-off white kids and they’ll do just fine. The fact that this strips them of their culture, that it separates them from their families, that faking-it-til-you-make-it is another kind of colorblindness is not addressed. And I can say from my personal experience that I faked-it-til-I-made-it. That’s exactly how I got to and through both college and graduate school. And now I’m upwardly mobile but I’m still a kid who grew up poor. Navigating social class has only gotten harder as I’ve moved up the social ladder. I can’t imagine what it would be to be black or Latino on top of it and to have my marginalization so clearly written on my skin.

The heart of my issue with the ed reform movement, and this is something that Tough’s book falls prey to, is that it doesn’t see the American education system for what it really is. Today, the American Dream is synonymous with educational attainment. The problem is that the American Dream was never meant to apply to most of America. We’ve constructed our education system to explicitly create class divisions along racial lines. Our education system is not failing—it’s achieving exactly what it’s built to do. There’s no reforming it. No amount of character classes in charter schools attracting smart but impoverished kids of color is going to change that. The ed reform movement is a predominantly white, middle class movement and as such it is a movement that makes certain assumptions about the fairness and good faith of the institution of education as it currently exists that are false.

I succeeded in life because I am privileged enough to blend in with the privileged ruling class. I’m white. I’m academically gifted. I was an avoidantly attached enough kid that I was fully comfortable leaving behind my broken family. I worked very hard to lose my scraggly Texan accent when I arrived at college. The noncognitive skills that got me where I am today are largely those that let me forcibly blend into an unfamiliar environment ripe with opportunity. I am a fluke. I am the exception. And it’s not my kid sister’s fault or the poor black kid on the South Side’s fault that they didn’t make it. For other people it’s not so simple as just developing a better character, and on every page I felt insulted at the implication that Tough felt he’d found the silver bullet in this. There are no silver bullets. There’s no reform. The only thing that will work is rebuilding the system from the ground up. There’s no improving an inherently racist and classist institution—there’s only replacing it.

bookreview2stars