There’s an important essay going around that, if you haven’t read it yet, you should read now before finishing this post. It’s called On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins, who is known to me by her fantastic 2013 debut collection of short stories, Battleborn, which won five literary awards.
The essay is actually a speech Watkins gave as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. Either way, the content rattled me.
At the core of her essay is an anecdote from Watkins of an experience early in her career — which is to say, not that long ago — with a male writer named Stephen, who was already established as a novelist, memoirist, and editor in chief of an online literary magazine. I won’t get into the details here but the man behaved badly, to say the least, and then wrote about it in a newsletter that he emailed to a few thousand subscribers.
Watkins says, “I am not interested in why Stephen did what he did. I was a women’s studies minor, I get it. What I’m curious about is what I did with what he did.” Essentially, nothing. Until she gave her speech.
But why? She says, “The truth is, the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me was not a revelation. I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.”
And she admits to pandering to it. I was shocked to learn that she wrote Battleborn, a collection that I truly admired, “for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain.”
This was a revelation to me. That a woman as talented as Watkins had been writing for men. I wondered, am I doing that? Certainly not consciously, but I have to admit that if I run down the shortlist of the writers I admire, most of them are men.
Why is that? It’s not because men are better writers. And it’s not for a lack of women writers. I’ve taken dozens upon dozens of writing workshops over the last decade and the overwhelming majority of people in attendance are women.
Perhaps it’s because women are underrepresented in the literary arts. An organization called VIDA tracks the number of women that show up in literary journals and reviews, and the only surprise in their findings is when women represent a higher percentage than man. It’s rare.
Or maybe it’s because we stick to our own kind. A 2014 survey from Goodreads shows that men prefer reading men and women prefer reading women.
That same year, the author Joanna Walsh launched The Year of Reading Women. Alas, I am two years behind. I confess that I didn’t know anything about it until today, when I decided to write this blog and announce that come January 1, 2016, I will spend the entire year reading nothing but novels and short stories by women.
For starters, I just picked up or am awaiting delivery of books by the following: Joy Williams, Marilyn Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kaye Gibbons and Chimamanda Adichie. For starters. I’ll write some bits about each of them; talk about what stands out, what I love. In this way, I intend to purge any unintended biases and at the same time expand my literary horizons.
Tracy Staedter is the founder of Fresh Pond Writers, a writing workshop for experienced writers.
Photo: Gerry Lauzon