Rebecca Makkai on the varieties of Literary Mansplaining

Rebecca Makkai 2013 Hundred Year House paperback Music for Wartime

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as the short story collection, Music for Wartime (2015)Her story “The Briefcase” was recently anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school literature textbook, Collections.

Makkai is smart, observant, and sharp-witted, and it is reflected in her writing, including this piece written for Read Her Like an Open Book (and originally posted on September 29, 2014).

You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with Rebecca Makkai here.

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

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Right, Like a Man: Chris Jane on the power of gender in an author’s name

Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane    Pretty Much True

I prefer the way I write when, while writing, I imagine being read as a man.

There’s an immediate freedom to not be apologetic. To do as we were taught in high school English and eliminate the self-conscious “I think…” from the writing.

I’m not sure when it happened, the shift into having to pretend.

My father, a single parent, never gave my sister or me the impression that being female was considered a weakness or would limit us in any way. Now and then we’d have to fetch him things, and we were tasked with decorating and undecorating the Christmas tree, but that was because we were his kids. It had nothing to do with being girls. That I was a “girl” was so separate from my identity that I would sometimes be confused about why I didn’t feel more like one. Females my dad’s age who had soft, styled hair and wore perfume and nail polish were curiosities. I wanted to ask them questions about womanhood. I wanted them to somehow infuse me with the kind of femininity I saw blooming in the girls my age who wore clanking bracelets and pink lipstick.

That absence of innate femininity combined with being raised by a man contributed to my being comfortable with – and preferring to be one of – the boys. I didn’t fear them and hadn’t been raised to defer to them. We were friends, and we were equals. It never occurred to me that their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, or opinions were (or should be) more valid than mine. I was pretty sure I was even as strong as they were.

It took a woman telling me I was not, in fact, as strong as a man to introduce me to what is often a completely arbitrary system of inequity: At around 20 years old, I applied to be a stock person at a liquor store in upstate New York. I knew I could lift the boxes because I’d done it for about a year at a previous job. The store owner, a woman in her late 60s, immediately said no upon taking my application. I asked why. “You’re a girl,” she said. I told her I could lift the boxes. I asked her to allow me to demonstrate. “I’m not going to hire a girl,” she said. “I need a boy.”

I wanted to scream at her, “BUT I CAN DO IT!”

Even if I had proved I was capable, she still wouldn’t have hired me. I was a girl, and that was that. Worse was that she wouldn’t even let me try. Automatic disqualification.

It took a little over ten years for gender as a hindrance to come up again (and ten years, when you think about it, is pretty good). I was looking for an agent for Pretty Much True, a book that would seem to have had everything going for it: It was a war novel about the first year in Iraq (2003) that was being shopped around while service members were still in Iraq and that had been written by someone who had first-hand experience with war.

Turns out it wasn’t the right kind of experience.

One agent wanted more action in the first few pages of his war novels.

Said another male agent, “The market for war stories is pretty saturated.” (If you and I were having a conversation, this is where I would pause to allow time for counting through all the new male-dominated, male-written war novels and movies that have been released in the last seven years.)

What he meant was that there was no market for a literary war story written by a woman about a woman if the female character’s war experience didn’t include guts (by this I mean bloody innards), guns, grenades, and guys’ guys.

After the book’s eventual release, I discovered that although a few men had been very receptive and had even endorsed it (one of them decided he liked it enough to publish it), I was having a hard time getting “regular” men to read it. It’s never been a goal to write specifically to women; male readers were/are just as desirable. But how do you get men to read about a woman who isn’t shooting a bunch of terrorists? (And would men who don’t typically read “women’s books” read that story, even?)

“Where’s the drama or action in waiting?” said one male reader who took some persuading to get to read Pretty Much True.

Some of the most suspenseful and intriguing stories involve waiting…waiting for a court decision, waiting to be found by a killer, waiting for an acceptance or rejection letter, waiting for the return of a loved one, and all other manner of waiting. And of course it’s never just waiting; it’s waiting “plus”—plus a story, plus characters, plus conflicts, etc.

But put a woman waiting up against the word “war” in a book by a female author, and the waiting – unless it’s a soldier waiting for the action to begin – is thrust into a male arena where it immediately suffers by comparison and becomes the object of perplexity. “Waiting? What? What are you—really?”

“Your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses,” said a man, who hadn’t read Pretty Much True, while interviewing me about it for a literary blog. “Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community?”

I wonder whether, following the release of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, The Things They Carried, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, or American Sniper, the natural target markets were veterans and active service members.

(I don’t really wonder. It’s assumed that the general public will be interested in the masculine war experience.)

A military consultant working in Hollywood, when approached about the potential film viability of Pretty Much True, said – also without having read the book – that it would be a great story for a specific female-focused cable channel, but that America might not be ready for another “dark” at-home war story. After all, Brothers had just been released.

Yep. One movie that explored nothing at all having to do with waiting, but that did have a woman in a primary role, had just come out. Add 1984’s WWII movie Swing Shift, and there we were flooding the market again.

Amusingly, the same man had mentioned, just moments before, that he thought the public was ready for another war movie.

(You know, a real war movie.)

Because males were clearly having better luck selling their war stories, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe in which Pretty Much True had been published under a male name. Men writing a lot like women, even about women, generally achieve higher literary acclaim and garner more universal interest than do women when the story has nothing to do with war (Irving, Eugenides, Franzen), so wouldn’t the same be true if it were a story about a female during wartime?

No idea. But the temptation to approach future writing and publishing projects as a maybe-male, if even just to experiment with reactions, grew.

I officially decided on the name change at a party in Florida over the summer. When I told a man that I was thinking of using a gender-ambiguous pen name, he said, “I apologize on behalf of my sex.”

It hadn’t even been necessary to tell him why I was doing it.

Said another man, upon seeing the cover for my latest novel and noticing the name change, “I wish it weren’t necessary, but I can see why you’d do it.”

“But people do take women (and women writers) seriously,” it will be, and has been, argued.

It might be easier to agree were people not still saying, “My favorite authors are X and Y. My favorite female authors, though, are ….”

It might be easier to agree had novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay for Wild, not recently thought it necessary to describe Wild as “not like any chick flick” he’d ever seen.

I’ve seen the trailer. Chick flick (read: movie directed expressly at women, and by definition pretty frivolous) doesn’t even come to mi—

Oh. Right. It stars a female.

Obviously that would be the natural conclusion.

My father raised me to be confidently outspoken, and to be myself. Until recently, I’d considered it the highest mark of honor to put my name on my writing—middle initial included. Anonymity was not for me. Pen names, I’d reasoned, were for the timid or the reclusive.

Now I just want to be reasonably sure I’m getting a fair shot at being read by a mixed audience and at being taken seriously as a writer. Life is short, and I don’t want to waste time fighting, no matter how legitimate the fight.

And as legitimate fights go, that this needs to be a fight at all is bleeping ridiculous.

Chris Jane, author of Pretty Much True and The Year of Dan Palace, is a former adjunct English professor, former feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and a former editor at American Fiction (New Rivers Press). Jane’s series of interviews with writers and others in the publishing industry, 5 On, can be found on Jane Friedman’s writers’ resource website. For updates about this (or, if you just wanna), please follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismjane or visit http://chrisjane.net.

THE NATURAL WAY OF THINGS imagines a world in which misogyny is taken to new extremes

Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things

By Charlotte Wood

Europa Editions: June 28, 2016

$17.00, 230 pages


Summer is seen as a time to read light-hearted, romantic novels or thrillers. Something to read on the plane or at the beach. But just as some moviegoers seek out serious dramas during the summer special effects blockbuster season, some readers still crave serious fiction with something important to say. One cannot live on genre fiction alone (can one?).

The Natural Way of Things fits the bill. Australian novelist Charlotte Wood has written a novel set in the near future that is nevertheless a story of and for these times. It is in the narrowest sense a dystopian novel, in that it describes a circumstance that does not yet exist but that requires very little suspension of disbelief to accept. It is this close to being plausible. It has already made a big impression in Wood’s home of Australia, where it was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize as the best novel by an Australian woman.

The story begins as two young women, Yolanda and Verla, awaken from a drug-induced sleep to find themselves prisoners of some sort. They have no idea where they are, who is responsible, or how they got there. Nor do they know why they are in this silent place. Before long, they discover that they are on an isolated, abandoned sheep station in the Australian bush, along with eight other girls in their late teens and twenties. They begin to recognize a few of the girls from sex scandals involving powerful and influential men in the government, organized religion, and business world.

What follows is an experiment in punishment and degradation that seems to have been concocted by modern-day sadistic Puritans. The girls are forced to wear old-fashioned farm-type clothing made of coarse materials, including a bonnet and stiff, ill-fitting leather boots. They are given food that would make convicted murderers go on a hunger strike, and suffer near-constant verbal and physical abuse from two young male guards who seem to have little idea what they are doing and no supervision. A young woman prepares the meals. No one appears to be in charge. The girls overhear something about a crew from Hardings returning later. This corporate entity, with which they are unfamiliar, is evidently in charge of the prison camp.

Verla soon realizes the truth of her situation when she recalls the head guard’s misogynistic rant soon after her arrival.  “Boncer’s words return. In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pigs-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.”

The ten girls face their desperate circumstances in varying ways, some believing their families will find them and release them, others soon concluding that no one knows what has happened to them–that they have essentially disappeared–and unsure of whether escape is even possible. Early on, they are marched across the compound, up a long incline through a thicket of trees until they reach a steel fence. Its steady drone can both be heard and felt coming up from the ground. Boncer demonstrates vividly its effect on anyone who tries to escape.

Over time tenuous friendships and fierce rivalries develop. Verla and Yolanda recognize a similar seriousness of purpose in each other and share a mutual acknowledgment that they are the only two who are capable of figuring out a solution to their dilemma. Their responses differ, but their grudging respect for each other leads to a distant, almost wordless partnership based on their determination to survive. The other girls alternate between supporting and terrorizing each other in a situation reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Thoughts of escape are thwarted by various methods. The situation becomes even more desperate when Hardings does not arrive as expected. The tension is ratcheted up as the guards realize they too are trapped on the station and rapidly running out of supplies.

Wood’s narrative is taut and unrelenting; we experience the dire circumstances along with the girls, as both the characters and reader slowly discover what they are dealing with. The Natural Way of Things is a riveting read, as you charge through the book seeking answers to several burning questions. Who is behind the corporation that runs the prison? How long has this been going on? Are they the first girls or just the latest cohort? Will they be released? When, and what will determine that? Will conditions improve or worsen? What is the point of it all? What is going on in the outside world at the same time?

Wood uses the allegory of this group of young women imprisoned for their sexual escapades to explore the contemporary landscape of widespread misogyny, in which victims of rape and sexual assault are put on trial in the media and in the courtroom, and in which reality TV culture is so omnipresent that even a presidential campaign can feel like a bizarre and interminable episode of Punk’d. It is a world where people seem more fully engaged on social media than in their actual lives and where faceless corporations are an inextricable part of our lives, often knowing more about us than we could imagine. But resentment of the gender double standard has reached critical mass and women–and their male allies–are fighting back.

Wood’s prose has a spare, poetic beauty that matches the austere beauty of the Australian bush setting, which is palpable. One can feel the blazing heat, see the dust in the air, and hear the oppressive silence from the isolation. In The Natural Way of Things Wood has created a world that is equal parts Mad Max: Fury Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In the last 50 pages, the narrative increases in pace and intensity, hurtling toward its literally stunning conclusion. Having reached the end, you will sit there slack-jawed, processing the final images and extending them to create your own epilogue.

The Natural Way of Things is a novel that is not easily forgotten. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea–this one has a bit of arsenic in it–but those who crave a gut-punch of a book with crisp writing, memorable characters, and thought-provoking subject matter will find it an immersive and disturbing reading experience.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist announced

How-to-be-both-US-647x1024  StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes    I Am China  The Country of Ice Cream Star  A Spool of Blue Thread  The Bees

The judges committee for one of the most-anticipated awards in the literary fiction world, the UK’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, has announced the longlist of 20 titles for the 2015 award.

According to The Guardian, Committee chair Shami Chakrabarti introduced this year’s nominees by saying, “I think we need to keep celebrating women’s fiction. We need to celebrate women generally and there’s nothing more powerful than stories.  We need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice.”

This year’s longlist includes well-known writers such as Ali Smith (for How to Be Both), Sarah Waters (for The Paying Guests), and Anne Tyler (for A Spool of Blue Thread), as well as debut novelists like Emma Healey (whose Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa Award), Laline Paull (for The Bees, a thrilling dystopian tale set in a beehive), and PP Wong (whose “The Life of a Banana” explores how it feels to be “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”).

Another nominees of note is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was a National Book Awards finalist and bestseller. Coincidentally, Mandel was named  a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award today (along with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen).

The prize is open to novels written in English and published in the UK and was created to reward “excellence, originality and accessibility” in writing. The judges read 165 books, which they narrowed down to 20. The list of six finalists will be announced on April 13, and the award ceremony will be held in London on June 3.

Chakrabarti spoke extensively on the need for and value in the Women’s Prize, as well as about gender issues in publishing.

“We are still nowhere near where we should be,” she said. “I also don’t think women are getting their due in other literary prizes. I am still surprised at some of the lists and comments made by judges and chairs of judges elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s time to end a women’s prize.

“Literature ought to be further on than it is, given how long women have been writing brilliant stuff,” she continued. “It’s just hilarious to me that we should target a women’s book prize … at a time when women are much further back than they should be, not just in publishing but in politics, economics, health care. I think there is still work to do and there’s an ocean of talent to be discussed and shared and celebrated, and this is one way of doing it.”

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Outline by Rachel Cusk – British – 8th novel

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans – British – 4th novel

Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson – British – 8th novel

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo – Chinese/ British – 6th novel

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey – British – 3rd novel

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – British – 1st novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Canadian – 4th novel

The Offering by Grace McCleen – British – 3rd novel

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman – British/American – 3rd novel

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill – Canadian – 2nd novel

The Bees by Laline Paull – British – 1st novel

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips – British – 2nd Novel

The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert – British – 3rd novel

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – Pakistani/British – 6th novel

How to be Both by Ali Smith — British – 6th novel

The Shore by Sara Taylor – American – 1st novel

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne  Tyler – American – 20th novel

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – British – 6th novel

After Before by Jemma Wayne – British – 1st novel

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong – British – 1st novel

 

Chris Jane on the power of gender in an author’s name: Right, Like a Man

Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane    Pretty Much True

I prefer the way I write when, while writing, I imagine being read as a man.

There’s an immediate freedom to not be apologetic. To do as we were taught in high school English and eliminate the self-conscious “I think…” from the writing.

I’m not sure when it happened, the shift into having to pretend.

My father, a single parent, never gave my sister or me the impression that being female was considered a weakness or would limit us in any way. Now and then we’d have to fetch him things, and we were tasked with decorating and undecorating the Christmas tree, but that was because we were his kids. It had nothing to do with being girls. That I was a “girl” was so separate from my identity that I would sometimes be confused about why I didn’t feel more like one. Females my dad’s age who had soft, styled hair and wore perfume and nail polish were curiosities. I wanted to ask them questions about womanhood. I wanted them to somehow infuse me with the kind of femininity I saw blooming in the girls my age who wore clanking bracelets and pink lipstick.

That absence of innate femininity combined with being raised by a man contributed to my being comfortable with – and preferring to be one of – the boys. I didn’t fear them and hadn’t been raised to defer to them. We were friends, and we were equals. It never occurred to me that their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, or opinions were (or should be) more valid than mine. I was pretty sure I was even as strong as they were.

It took a woman telling me I was not, in fact, as strong as a man to introduce me to what is often a completely arbitrary system of inequity: At around 20 years old, I applied to be a stock person at a liquor store in upstate New York. I knew I could lift the boxes because I’d done it for about a year at a previous job. The store owner, a woman in her late 60s, immediately said no upon taking my application. I asked why. “You’re a girl,” she said. I told her I could lift the boxes. I asked her to allow me to demonstrate. “I’m not going to hire a girl,” she said. “I need a boy.”

I wanted to scream at her, “BUT I CAN DO IT!”

Even if I had proved I was capable, she still wouldn’t have hired me. I was a girl, and that was that. Worse was that she wouldn’t even let me try. Automatic disqualification.

It took a little over ten years for gender as a hindrance to come up again (and ten years, when you think about it, is pretty good). I was looking for an agent for Pretty Much True, a book that would seem to have had everything going for it: It was a war novel about the first year in Iraq (2003) that was being shopped around while service members were still in Iraq and that had been written by someone who had first-hand experience with war.

Turns out it wasn’t the right kind of experience.

One agent wanted more action in the first few pages of his war novels.

Said another male agent, “The market for war stories is pretty saturated.” (If you and I were having a conversation, this is where I would pause to allow time for counting through all the new male-dominated, male-written war novels and movies that have been released in the last seven years.)

What he meant was that there was no market for a literary war story written by a woman about a woman if the female character’s war experience didn’t include guts (by this I mean bloody innards), guns, grenades, and guys’ guys.

After the book’s eventual release, I discovered that although a few men had been very receptive and had even endorsed it (one of them decided he liked it enough to publish it), I was having a hard time getting “regular” men to read it. It’s never been a goal to write specifically to women; male readers were/are just as desirable. But how do you get men to read about a woman who isn’t shooting a bunch of terrorists? (And would men who don’t typically read “women’s books” read that story, even?)

“Where’s the drama or action in waiting?” said one male reader who took some persuading to get to read Pretty Much True.

Some of the most suspenseful and intriguing stories involve waiting…waiting for a court decision, waiting to be found by a killer, waiting for an acceptance or rejection letter, waiting for the return of a loved one, and all other manner of waiting. And of course it’s never just waiting; it’s waiting “plus”—plus a story, plus characters, plus conflicts, etc.

But put a woman waiting up against the word “war” in a book by a female author, and the waiting – unless it’s a soldier waiting for the action to begin – is thrust into a male arena where it immediately suffers by comparison and becomes the object of perplexity. “Waiting? What? What are you—really?”

“Your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses,” said a man, who hadn’t read Pretty Much True, while interviewing me about it for a literary blog. “Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community?”

I wonder whether, following the release of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, The Things They Carried, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, or American Sniper, the natural target markets were veterans and active service members.

(I don’t really wonder. It’s assumed that the general public will be interested in the masculine war experience.)

A military consultant working in Hollywood, when approached about the potential film viability of Pretty Much True, said – also without having read the book – that it would be a great story for a specific female-focused cable channel, but that America might not be ready for another “dark” at-home war story. After all, Brothers had just been released.

Yep. One movie that explored nothing at all having to do with waiting, but that did have a woman in a primary role, had just come out. Add 1984’s WWII movie Swing Shift, and there we were flooding the market again.

Amusingly, the same man had mentioned, just moments before, that he thought the public was ready for another war movie.

(You know, a real war movie.)

Because males were clearly having better luck selling their war stories, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe in which Pretty Much True had been published under a male name. Men writing a lot like women, even about women, generally achieve higher literary acclaim and garner more universal interest than do women when the story has nothing to do with war (Irving, Eugenides, Franzen), so wouldn’t the same be true if it were a story about a female during wartime?

No idea. But the temptation to approach future writing and publishing projects as a maybe-male, if even just to experiment with reactions, grew.

I officially decided on the name change at a party in Florida over the summer. When I told a man that I was thinking of using a gender-ambiguous pen name, he said, “I apologize on behalf of my sex.”

It hadn’t even been necessary to tell him why I was doing it.

Said another man, upon seeing the cover for my latest novel and noticing the name change, “I wish it weren’t necessary, but I can see why you’d do it.”

“But people do take women (and women writers) seriously,” it will be, and has been, argued.

It might be easier to agree were people not still saying, “My favorite authors are X and Y. My favorite female authors, though, are ….”

It might be easier to agree had novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay for Wild, not recently thought it necessary to describe Wild as “not like any chick flick” he’d ever seen.

I’ve seen the trailer. Chick flick (read: movie directed expressly at women, and by definition pretty frivolous) doesn’t even come to mi—

Oh. Right. It stars a female.

Obviously that would be the natural conclusion.

My father raised me to be confidently outspoken, and to be myself. Until recently, I’d considered it the highest mark of honor to put my name on my writing—middle initial included. Anonymity was not for me. Pen names, I’d reasoned, were for the timid or the reclusive.

Now I just want to be reasonably sure I’m getting a fair shot at being read by a mixed audience and at being taken seriously as a writer. Life is short, and I don’t want to waste time fighting, no matter how legitimate the fight.

And as legitimate fights go, that this needs to be a fight at all is bleeping ridiculous.

Chris Jane, author of Pretty Much True and The Year of Dan Palace, is a former adjunct English professor, former feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and a former editor at American Fiction (New Rivers Press). Jane’s series of interviews with writers and others in the publishing industry, 5 On, will soon appear on Jane Friedman’s writers’ resource website. For updates about this (or, if you just wanna), please follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismjane or visit http://chrisjane.net.

Author Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: “Men Don’t Say or Do That!”

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Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: Men Don’t Say or Do That via  Win a copy of Now We Will Be Happy 

Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the newly-published collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my recent review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s ConferenceCallaloo Writer’s WorkshopMacDowell ColonyPrairie Center of the ArtsSewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation. Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in four years. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.

 

By Amina Gautier 

Two years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”

Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.

Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”

But I did not say that either.

What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.

This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.

The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.

Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.

When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.

Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.

To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.

In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.

And that scares me.