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Gender, blah, blah, blah by Katherine Angel

It’s happened to me several times at a literary event — sometimes one at which I’m reading or speaking — that a kindly, affable chap, after regaling me with a long account of his next book, smiles generously and asks me what I do at Penguin, or how long I’ve been working for the venue. When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Books with 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.

...

Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.

...

Inequality in literary magazines and inequality in pay are both important, and in connected ways. The visibility and status of women’s writing is important precisely because of a web of marginalization across all areas of life. If women’s voices are always peripheral to male voices intoning from the center of culture, then their voices are peripheral on all issues: the pay gap, consent, harassment, rape, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, the glass ceiling, childcare. The obscuring of women’s voices in media platforms, however elite, however niche, is part of the obscuring of their voices in general; and a lack of commitment to, or an inability to hear, their voices in literary culture is related to the same lacks and inabilities in relation to their voices in harassment, in sex, in courtrooms, and in the workplace.

So: what can be done? Magazine editors, like everyone, operate in a world already shaped by inequality. What are their responsibilities — what are anyone’s responsibilities — toward questions of social justice? It’s not clear that an editor’s job is necessarily to redress inequalities; it’s not clearly part of his or her brief. An editor wants to create an interesting, vibrant space, and to increase circulation. (Making money may not be a viable aim; not operating at a loss might be an aspiration.) At what point does and should an institution decide that it’s going to try, actively, to push back against inequality? And how does it do so?

Comments

( 2 comments — Add your .02 )
browngirl
Jan. 5th, 2015 04:17 am (UTC)
*makes notes*

In my experience, pushing back against inequality can sometimes be financially beneficial as well -- editors may gain more female readers (and thus customers) than they lose male .
caitri
Jan. 5th, 2015 04:42 am (UTC)
You know, I've often wondered if there was some silent publisher logic, ala Hollywood "wisdom," about women not being "serious" readers outside of genre.
( 2 comments — Add your .02 )

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