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.

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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.

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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: JUST KIDS

just scrappy little urchins who ended up counterculture icons, that's all

just scrappy little urchins who ended up counterculture icons, that’s all

Just Kids by Patti Smith is a rare little gem. To me, Patti Smith has always exuded a punk rock swagger, an only half-bridled aggression. I see her, and I see only the hard, sharp angles of her. And Robert Mapplethorpe: leather, whips, unapologetic sex acts with a peculiar defiant dignity to them. Both of them are creatures who seem to have been launched straight from the scene, fully-formed and antagonistic right from the start.

But they weren’t. Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith about her time living in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe while they were both shaking off the dull scraps of adolescence and trying to break out as artists. Strewn throughout the book are pictures of them as very young excitable artists-in-training joined at the hip.

Smith’s prose reads like a soft-focus fairy tale. The sections set in the Chelsea Hotel, especially, have an almost Dickensian quality to them; they read as a quaint story full of larger-than-life characters, most of whom have hearts firmly of gold. Reconciling this wistful retelling of her youth with the persona I associate with her was intriguing to say the least. And obviously I am not the only one who found the disconnect between Patti Smith’s presence and her internal life jarring — there are places in the text where she discusses how those around her took her for a lesbian (she is straight), or a junkie (she seems not to have experimented with pot until she’d moved out of the Chelsea). Her prose is light and airy, and her memories sepia-tinged and wholesome, despite the fact that anyone who knows the history of that scene knows just how much death and self-immolation is happening just off screen. Patti Smith herself seems to have waltzed through it unscathed, and her writing dances along the edges of the darkness that her scene held*. Without the debauchery, the excess, the Chelsea Hotel in the 70s reads as an almost Victorian affair.

The book is structured in a circle: it opens with the moment Smith hears of Mapplethorpe’s death, then jumps back in time before they have met. Smith discusses her teenage pregnancy and the process of giving her child up for adoption, her failure at teacher’s school, and her time on a New Jersey assembly line in a brisk and somewhat sanitized fashion; again, there seems to be in her writing a distaste for discussions of the negative, of the hard and bleak moments of her life. From there, the book jumps forward to her first meeting with Mapplethorpe, their sweet and heartfelt romance, the little poverty-stricken life they build together, and how hard they worked to evolve their relationship with each other when their life trajectories began to diverge. The book ends with a far jump into the future, back to those last few weeks of Mapplethorpe’s life and ends with his inevitable death, right back where the book started.

Given that the book is told from Smith’s perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that her motives and desires are clear throughout, but over the course of the book Mapplethorpe becomes more and more opaque. A boy who seems simple when she first meets him grows into a man full of contradictions. The person whose viewpoints and life goals seemed to mirror hers so closely at first winds up yearning to be part of the social circles that Smith herself actively avoids. It became increasingly unsettling as I read the book. What does he get from her that keeps him around? How does he see her and their ever-changing relationship? Very little is explored here in the text, and Smith herself seems to take their relationship at face value, as a thing complete in itself with little context surrounding it. It just is for her, and her wholesale acceptance of it is so radically different from the way I, personally, live out my significant life-altering relationships that it was hard for me to understand at times what their relationship was exactly. But there is an authenticity to her writing that explains the halcyon haze through which she remembers that time of her life. That period, above anything else, was her period with Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom she had a love so total and accepting it is essentially blank, without specificities, and all the hardness of that time is drowned out in remembrance of him.

Just Kids is, like most memoirs, ultimately a work that says as much or more about its author than the subject matter itself. The story there is as much in the telling as it is in the content. And it’s a fascinating look into the mind of a woman who is so very different than the person I assumed her to be. It is a love letter to the late Robert Mapplethorpe, but it’s a love letter to her young self, as well. I can’t help but wish there had been some balance to it, some acknowledgment of the difficulties of living so poor, or of loving a man who seems to fall into and out of and into and out of love with her, or of the pain of watching her friends get consumed by drugs right in front of her, but that’s not the book she wrote. It may not be a book she’s able to write. I can’t help but think of her as an unreliable narrator for her own life, but ultimately that’s what we all are. It’s hard to tell the bald truth about your own life. It might be impossible. But still, the unanswered questions nag at me. I found this book absolutely fascinating, but when it was over, it felt insubstantial. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

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*Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov of Warhol’s Factory crew is a bird’s eye account of the dark addictions Patti Smith seems to prefer to keep just out of frame. I highly recommend it, too, and it works as a very interesting counterbalance to Just Kids.

Website update: Published Articles List

Hey all! While I have not formally published fiction yet, I do have a number of scholarly and nonfiction pieces floating around. I’ve compiled a list for any and all who are interested, which will be updated as things come out here. Below is the list of my work to date:

Sanders, B. “Pregnancy and Parenting While Genderqueer.” Hoax 7: Feminisms and Change. 2013. http://www.zinewiki.com/Hoax_Zine

Sanders, M. R. & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Under the radar: The role of invisible discourse in understanding class-based privilege. Journal of Social Issues, 68 (1), 112-217.

Sanders, M. R., & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Social dominance orientation and John Henryism at the intersection of race and class. Political Psychology, 33 (4), 553-573. 

Edelstein, R. S., Stanton, S. J., Henderson, M. M., & Sanders, M. R. (2010). Endogenous estradiol levels are associated with attachment avoidance and implicit intimacy motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 57, 230-236.

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” Justice 20 March 2008. Print. http://rngton.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=790

Cheng, C., Sanders, M. R., Sanchez-Burks, J., Molina, K., Lee, F., Darling, E., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Reaping the rewards of diversity: The role of identity integration. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1182-1198.

Darling, E., Molina, K., Sanders, M. R., Lee, F., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Belonging and Achieving: The Role of Identity Integration. In M. Maehr, S. Karabenick, & T. Urdan (Eds.)Advances in Motivation and Achievement: Social Psychological Perspective on Motivation and Achievement, Volume 15. Elsevier Press: NY.

Sanders, Melissa. “A Military Mother Speaks Out Against the War — An Interview with Sara Rich.” Justice 23 May 2007. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=548

Sanders, Melissa. “The Case of Suzanne Swift — U.S. Female Soldiers Doubly at Risk.” Justice 4 April 2007. Print. http://socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=528

Seid, Jon & Sanders, Melissa. “Washington’s racist plan to divide U.S. & Mexican workers.” Justice 15 Nov 2006. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article15.php?id=462

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexism in the Military — What the Army Brochures Wont Tell You.” Justice 1 July 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=70

Sanders, Melissa. “Stealing With the Rich to Pay for the War.” Justice 1 March 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=131

Sanders, Melissa. “Why I Am a Socialist.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. https://socialistalternative.org/news/article22.php?id=1305

Gallup, John & Sanders, Melissa. “The Myth of American Democracy.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article10.php?id=1297

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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.