Should White Men Stop Writing? The Blunt Instrument on Publishing and Privilege
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I am a white, male poet — a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals in and out of the writing community — but despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male. Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore, and that the torch has passed to writers of other communities whose voices have too long been silenced or suppressed. I feel terrible about feeling terrible about this, since I also know that for so long, white men made other people feel terrible about who they were. Sometimes I write from other perspectives via persona poems in order to understand and empathize with the so-called “other”; but I fear that this could be construed as yet another example of my privilege — that I am appropriating another person’s experience, violating that person by telling his or her story. It feels like a Catch-22. Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story. I genuinely am troubled by this. I want to listen but I also want to write — yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another. How can I reconcile the two?
I have thought a lot about your letter. I know that you’re not the only white male writer asking these questions. As a white writer myself, I’m not necessarily the best person to answer. But this is my column, so I’m going to do my best, because I think it’s an important issue.
I want to come at your question from a different angle though. You ask whether the time to write from your experience — the “white, male perspective” — has passed. I think this is the wrong question. The white male experience was not more important in the past than it is now. In Western culture, the white male experience has been overexposed, at the expense of other experiences, for centuries. The only difference is that the culture — at least the subculture that’s important to you — no longer accepts the white male perspective as default. You can and should respond to this shift, but I don’t think the answer is to stop writing.
Instead, you should do what you can to make sure your own perspective is not getting more exposure than it deserves — that you’re not taking up more than your fair share of space. Many people have been angered, rightfully, by recent stunts in conceptual poetry that exploit real tragedies, like the death of Michael Brown, for the benefit of white artists. So I think you’re right to be concerned that persona poems could come off as a form of exploitation and appropriation; there’s also a risk of self-congratulation and unexamined complicity. Even if your goal is to learn and to empathize, one wonders why your act of inhabiting a woman’s or POC’s perspective would be more deserving of readership than writing by someone who has lived that experience? And the problem is, because of your status as a white male, whatever you do write is easier to publish, all other things being equal. Whether or not you or your editors and readers are aware of it, you get automatic bonus points. You’re at the lowest difficulty setting in the video game of life.
When the VIDA counts come out and multiple publications are shown to publish far more men than women (with the numbers for POC writers looking even worse), editors make excuses about their submission pools — they get far more submissions and pitches from men than women. Then people inevitably respond by telling women to write more, submit more, and pitch more. I think this is exactly the wrong response: Instead we should tell men to submit less. Pitch less. Especially white men. You are already over-represented. Most literary magazines are drowning in submissions. Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You — white men — have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves. (And I’m suspicious in any case that perfectly balanced submission queues would always lead to gender parity on the other side.)
So here are my suggestions for things you can do — so you can “listen” while also writing, so you can write your own experience without denying anyone else’s or colonizing their stories:
Read more books by women, POC, and LGBTQ writers. Make their experience a bigger proportion of your reading, and learn that way instead of by appropriating their voices. Then amplify what you love — recommend those books to friends, teach them if you teach, give them away as presents. If you edit a magazine, make sure you’re not overexposing white male authors, giving them too much space because it’s what you relate to. Even if you don’t edit or teach anything, you can promote more diverse authors to editors and teachers you know.
Don’t be a problem submitter. When I edited a magazine, we got far more submissions from men, and men were far more likely to submit work that was sloppy and/or inappropriate for the magazine; they were also far more likely to submit more work immediately after being rejected. When you submit writing, you’re taking up other people’s time. Be respectful of that. I said in my last column that getting published takes a lot of work, which is true — but most of that work should take the form of writing, and revising, and engaging with people in the writing world, not just constantly sending out new work, which starts to look like boredom and entitlement.
Think of this as something like carbon offsets. You are not going to solve the greater problem this way, on your own, but you might mitigate the damage.
I’m sure some people would tell you to stop writing; I’m not going to. There is already more writing produced every day than anyone could ever be expected to read, and producing writing is not necessarily an imposition, since people have the option not to read it. I’m not even going to tell you not to write about race or gender; you might even be obligated to. There are surely non-exploitative ways to do so; I wish I knew the formula for how. The best approach is likely to work toward good writing regardless of your subject matter; to me that means choosing complexity over obvious, trite sentiments, and avoiding self-flattery — don’t cast yourself as the white savior.
The Blunt Instrument