Blunt Talk with the Blunt Instrument: On Giving Advice to White Male Writers

Earlier last month, poet and Electric Literature’s resident Blunt Instrument advice columnist Elisa Gabbert fielded a question from a white male poet who recognized his privilege as such and wanted to know how to continue writing and publishing ethically within a publishing system that lacks diverse representation. Unlike many in the publishing world who admit that there is a problem, but don’t put forth ideas for how to fix it, Gabbert made concrete suggestions which came down to: read more women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers, and don’t take up more than your fair share of time and space in the literary ecosystem. Many white male writers took this to mean that Gabbert wanted them to stop writing, period, so they unleashed their rage where it festers and boils best: the comments section.

As a bi-racial Asian American writer who interviews authors, and runs a library at a high school whose population is 94% people of color, the lack of diversity in publishing concerns me, so I was eager to discuss and analyze the reaction with Elisa. We conducted this conversation over Google Chat.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015:

Adalena Kavanagh — 8:25 PM
Who do you think were more surprised by the reaction to your advice: men or women?

Elisa Gabbert — 8:26 PM
Oh, men I assume. If anyone actually was surprised.

Adalena Kavanagh — 8:28 PM
I wasn’t surprised by the comments on the actual piece, but there were several reaction pieces, one in the Atlantic (where the author didn’t bother naming you) and another piece in the National Review — did those surprise you? What did you think of those pieces?

Elisa Gabbert — 8:30 PM
I was surprised at the magnitude of the coverage, yes. It’s an advice column! On a literature site!
I admit I didn’t read them in full, for different reasons — the first (National Review) because it was so obviously absurd. (There is no way I’m going to have common ground on a social issue with a writer for the National Review.) The second (at The Atlantic) because I was on vacation with only my phone and it was so long-winded, and because I was irritated that the writer basically stole the letter without even mentioning me. He later wrote me an email apologizing for that, and added a note to the piece, but it felt somewhat disingenuous.

Adalena Kavanagh — 8:33 PM
One thing that struck me about both is that they were more concerned about the possible future loss of “great literature” from white men, than the current silencing of women, people of color, and non-heterosexual writers.

Elisa Gabbert — 8:34 PM
I mean, that’s it exactly. It’s horrifying that this even needs to be said. It’s a kind of racial narcissism.

Adalena Kavanagh — 8:36 PM
Yes! When things are going in their favor they see it as a meritocracy, but when you call to change the system — to bring some diversity, all of a sudden there is this fear that opening the gates will dilute the quality.

Elisa Gabbert — 8:38 PM
And they are crying “not fair” — it’s not fair to hold a white man back just because he’s a white man! But if you try to explain that the existing system is tragically unfair to women, POC, LGBTQ, etc., they either won’t accept it or don’t care. Only caring about “fairness” when it negatively affects you is just toddler behavior. And I use the word “tragic” because systemic racism goes way, way beyond these hypotheticals about what types of “suffering” would result if the next David Foster Wallace self-censored. Aside from the Charleston shooting, a particularly heart-breaking recent example is the story of Kalief Browder, who was arrested and thrown into jail for (allegedly) stealing a backpack. He insisted that he’d been wrongfully accused and refused to plead guilty, but could not afford bail. After three harrowing years in Rikers, he committed suicide. This is not an isolated incident. Racism denial is as real and important as climate change denial or Holocaust denial, but we don’t seem to have a codified concept of it — it doesn’t, like the other two, have its own Wikipedia page.

Adalena Kavanagh — 8:43 PM
They misread the column. First off, they’re conflating writing with publishing. No one can stop you from writing, but a system that is racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. can prevent you from publishing. And the man who wrote to you wanted ideas for how to seek publication in an ethical way. Second, they changed the argument. All of a sudden you were attacking the imagination, and the right of white men to write from points of view other than their own.

Elisa Gabbert — 8:44 PM
Yes. The second part I think was actually willful. They were just baiting their audience, telling them feminists are as bad as they want to believe we are.

Adalena Kavanagh
How do you feel about white men (or white women for that matter) writing from points of view that are not their own?

Elisa Gabbert
I’m not dead set against it, I just think it’s fraught territory. I mean, there is a long tradition of male novelists writing female characters, and that doesn’t feel *necessarily* problematic to me. But I’m squeamish about doing it with race. The risk for unexamined appropriation/exploitation seems SO high. Do you have this same sense? Why do you think that is? It must be connected to the feeling that a white woman “identifying as black” is NOTHING like a man identifying as a woman.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:01 PM
I’m willing to give individual writers the benefit of the doubt, and that goes for writers of all races/gender/sexual identities, but I’m going to be looking at the actual writing through a more critical lens for sure. This might be because I am bi-racial Asian (Irish and Taiwanese American specifically) and as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I don’t really know what it’s like to be Asian, or White for that matter. I can imagine it, sure, and I’ve written Asian, White, and bi-racial characters (and other races) but I’m very conscious of how my writing represents those characters. I ask myself if I’m stereotyping in any way. Sometimes I’ve looked at older writing I’ve done and seen where I did stereotype at times (and I think about this stuff so much! So imagine what people who don’t even think that it’s an issue are doing.)

Elisa Gabbert — 9:03 PM
But on the other side, there’s the problem of requiring that these underrepresented groups only “write what they know,” as the poet Pedro Poitevin put it. In other words, we want Latino writers to write the Latino experience and nothing else. Another friend of mine pointed out that when black writers write for the New Yorker, it’s always to write about race issues. Almost as though editors are killing two birds with one stone — publishing people of color and “writing of color” too.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:15 PM
Yes, that’s a huge problem. I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t write outside their experience. I just think people should be thoughtful about it. I have become frustrated because it seems like the only non-fiction I see published about Asian Americans has to do with racism faced by Asian Americans — and while that is an important topic, and valid point of view — it’s not the entire experience. When that’s all I see being published, I feel like I’m not learning anything new, and those pieces are published for a white audience (or non-Asian American audience). But this all also goes back to representation — not just in who is being published, but what they are allowed to publish. Before you wrote your column, did you talk to any non-white writers? What did they have to say?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:18 PM
I talk to (and read) non-white readers on the regular, so I didn’t feel like I needed to do further “research” per se. (I did ask a black writer, Mensah Demary, to read the column before I published it and offer feedback; he suggested no changes.) I have been thinking about the submit more vs. submit less thing for years, though; I didn’t just come up with that this month. In spaces that have achieved better diversity, I think it’s partly achieved not just through women/POC “leaning in” but also the white men who are already in power leaning BACK.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:23 PM
And that’s what angered many white men. You suddenly placed the problem at their feet. It’s easy to tell others to submit more, especially if you subconsciously know you historically have a better shot at getting into certain publications (it’s like being a legacy at certain colleges) no matter who else submits. Some people suggested a blind submission process instead of having white men submit less. What’s your take on that?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:25 PM
Good point about subconscious knowledge. I think a blind submission process would do some good!
But there’s still the problem of “coding.”

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:26 PM
Yes. I worry about the coding.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:26 PM
Like the aforementioned Latino poet who writes what they know. Orchestras do blind auditions; it largely solved the problem of sexist orchestras.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:27 PM
I think writing has a different context, though.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:27 PM
It’s not quite the same is it? A man playing a Mozart piece versus a woman playing a Mozart piece. It might be different if they were playing their own music. Maybe we’ve all been trained to hear the music men write as better? A question that has obsessed me for years is, “Why are there no great female composers?” So much to unpack there — who says there aren’t, for one???

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:30 PM

Regarding music: women aren’t encouraged to play music, or compose. I used to be a drummer in a rock band. It’s definitely still a boy’s club, even if many of them believe they are progressive or feminist.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:31 PM
SUCH a boy’s club.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:32 PM
YEAH. Tell me about it. I often got asked which band I was there to see.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:32 PM

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:33 PM
It’s not for the self-conscious.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:33 PM
I feel, especially now, that I’ve self-selected into a very progressive little enclave. But in the larger world, if we can take someplace like Reddit to be at all representative, women are the goddamn enemy.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:37 PM
Getting back to writing: a reader for a lit journal said that if a story has a non-white context, he checks to see the race of the writer — and this is coming from the best place. You can’t tell my background from my name, so I always include my ethnicity in my cover letter, but I resent it. I think: white writers never do this, but I also don’t want a reader at a journal to think I’m doing yellow-face and reject my story because I have an Irish last name. I want to get to a point where all of this is irrelevant! So, completely blind submissions in writing don’t seem like a complete solution now, because our contexts aren’t blind. What do you think of my argument?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:37 PM
Yes, that’s a very good way to put it.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:41 PM
Going back to subconscious knowledge of power — I think with many of the men who were upset, they really do feel powerless, even though they as white men are in the most privileged group in our society. Individuals have a hard time seeing how they are part of a system — especially if they are white and poor. Class, like race and gender, is part of privilege. How do we get individuals to see that it’s not about them as individuals, while asking them to make small individual changes?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:44 PM
I don’t know, man. All I can hope is that with more exposure some people will suddenly switch over and get it. Most of us, at one point, didn’t get it, so it does happen.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:44 PM
Maybe let’s shout out a few responses that “got it”?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:45 PM
Yeah! Do you have any?

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:45 PM
Ha ha. I could look! Here’s one :

Elisa Gabbert — 9:45 PM
Yes, that really cheered me up. I got some great tweets along the lines of “I was annoyed by your column at first but then I thought about it, so thanks.”

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:46 PM
But this makes me think about your comment on twitter — it’s hard to tell now if men’s comments online are parodies.

Elisa Gabbert — 9:46 PM
Did you see the Telecaster thing on The Hairpin?

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:46 PM

Elisa Gabbert — 9:46 PM
Very hard to distinguish between the actual misogynist assholes and the men who are just mocking the misogynist assholes.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:47 PM
Yeah. And that’s some white knighting going on too, like — let the ladies have this, will you?

Elisa Gabbert — 9:47 PM
I don’t necessarily mind it, it’s just fucking hard to tell the difference! Look at this conversation:
It seems like there was a lightbulb there — like “oh wait, people can’t tell if we’re satirizing or not.” You’re banking on people knowing your politics when you do that.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:49 PM
It’s so hard to tell tone from text!

Elisa Gabbert — 9:49 PM
Especially with strangers.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:52 PM
I think the most difficult thing for people to accept was that if we truly achieve diversity in publishing, that means that some people who are currently being published, will not in the future (because the industry really cannot support diversity, and the current amount of white men and women being published). Scary thought for some!

Elisa Gabbert — 9:52 PM
My position is, equality is more important than any one person’s success. But, there’s not really a hard limit on how many magazines there can be. It’s at the top where things get crowded.

Adalena Kavanagh — 9:56 PM
“Equality is more important than any one person’s success.” I love that.

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