How to Suppress Women’s Criticism
October 20, 2016 2:34 PM   Subscribe

And in the thoughtless, uncredited, mangled deployment of that phrase — even in praise — Gaiman broke the chain between the two of them; a prominent, living male artist inserted between Russ’ ideas and Jackson’s reality.
On Neil Gaiman, Shirley Jackson, and the importance of not erasing women’s writing by Carmen Maria Machado
posted by MartinWisse (59 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
"whereof I cannot say anything thereof I will decide not to talk"
posted by Sebmojo at 2:53 PM on October 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'd think the quote marks and Title case would be a bit of a clue that it;s a reference to something.
posted by Artw at 3:48 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Which is why getting the title wrong, and failing to credit the author, is such a problem.
posted by misfish at 3:55 PM on October 20, 2016 [25 favorites]


Artw, that's true, it's clearly a reference. And I'm sure you would have got it, and so would Martin, and so would I (thanks to MeFi, although I haven't read Russ's book yet). But if one didn't already know the reference, there's no way to get from Gaiman's quote to Russ - a Google search for Gaiman's exact phrase doesn't bring up anything except discussion of the blurb. I ran the search without quotes, and a quick glance doesn't suggest any reference to Russ there, either.

So I'd agree with Machado's argument that Gaiman's breaking the chain between the two, and that even without active malice, it's problematic.
posted by Pink Frost at 3:58 PM on October 20, 2016 [14 favorites]


And people have the nerve to ask why old feminists seem so angry all the time. It's because shit like this is the rule, not an exception. And that it was done without active malice, that's the part that drives my rage - at the moment that blurb was written, it just didn't seem important enough to get it right.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 4:04 PM on October 20, 2016 [54 favorites]


TBH themain thing I'm getting out of this is the rather more prosaic "don't trust your memory on titles", "get a second pair of eyes to look at anything that's going to see print, even something as dumb as a blurb", and, rather more harshly, "don't assume everyone is going to get your references", which probably means not mentioning Russ at all if it's going to require footnotes and attribution.
posted by Artw at 4:22 PM on October 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


No, this is the takeaway: "Gaiman broke the chain between the two of them; a prominent, living male artist inserted between Russ’ ideas and Jackson’s reality. It would have been such a little, correct thing to keep that link alive ."
posted by crush-onastick at 4:27 PM on October 20, 2016 [41 favorites]


Fingers crossed not fucking up the title would be enough for that, given the audience. If not then don't make allusions to Russ.
posted by Artw at 4:31 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Artw, it looks like you're trying to say "it's just a little mistake, why are you making such a big deal about it?" Is that what you mean?
posted by misfish at 4:39 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


No, this is the takeaway: "Gaiman broke the chain between the two of them; a prominent, living male artist inserted between Russ’ ideas and Jackson’s reality. It would have been such a little, correct thing to keep that link alive ."

One could say, more charitably, that a prominent, living male artist failed in his attempt to forge a chain between Russ' ideas and Jackson's reality.
posted by layceepee at 4:40 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


I’d say its a small mistake multiplied by a bad assumption if the audience isn’t going to get what it is referring to, and the upshot of that is probably that the blurb shouldn’t reference Russ rather than the blurb should forge a greater link to her.
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


One could say, more charitably, that a prominent, living male artist failed in his attempt to forge a chain between Russ' ideas and Jackson's reality.

Which erases the work of Ruth Franklin, the author of the book Gaiman provided a blurb for. "She didn't write it" indeed.

the upshot of that is probably that the blurb shouldn’t reference Russ rather than the blurb should forge a greater link to her.

So the solution to women's writing being devalued and suppressed is to stop talking about women's writing?
posted by misfish at 4:52 PM on October 20, 2016 [8 favorites]


It's ironic that discrimination works better because everyone has plausible deniability and pointing out how small errors accrue into removing women can easily be interpreted as someone making assumptions of bad faith rather than pointing out unconscious systemic bias.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:56 PM on October 20, 2016 [23 favorites]


Fairness isn't a natural state. It is a product of human effort and attention, and it is necessary and wonderful that we make that effort and attention. It's the basis of civilization, and if we don't make it happen, civilization will weaken like a farm on exhausted soil.
posted by amtho at 4:56 PM on October 20, 2016 [16 favorites]


failed in his attempt

That's how I took it too, as sloppiness. I don't think anyone expects to see footnotes in a book blurb, in the absence of which he probably should have used the correct title and maybe a construction like "Joanna Russ's 'How to Suppress Women's Writing'". Personally I'm more inclined to see this as a case of forgetfulness than an attempt to write Russ out of history, though.

Here's the full text of Gaiman's blurb (via an image of the back cover) if anyone's curious.
posted by whir at 4:57 PM on October 20, 2016


For what it's worth, Gaimen tweeted a link to this article a few days ago, with the comment
Good essay. I've written to the publisher asking that the blurb be corrected in future printings.
posted by metaBugs at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2016 [67 favorites]


Personally I'm more inclined to see this as a case of forgetfulness than an attempt to write Russ out of history, though.

That is not the choice.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:00 PM on October 20, 2016 [10 favorites]


That is not the choice.

I didn't mean to suggest that those were the only two possible explanations, but Machado does cite "feminist history [being] in a state of perpetual erasure" in her blog post as an indication of the consequences of breaking the chain of attribution. In any event, I do see the irony of Gaiman breaking that chain when referencing this work of criticism in particular.
posted by whir at 5:10 PM on October 20, 2016


An excellent piece, and the point of it is not to paint Gaiman as a terrible, awful person (so Artw, maybe you needn't work so hard to defend him) but to present the blurb as just one little thread in a huge tapestry of thoughtless erasure, so huge it's practically invisible. Which is what Russ was writing about. And Machado.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on October 20, 2016 [40 favorites]


It does feel really careless. I'm not familiar with Russ' piece, and would certainly have not understood Gaiman was referencing it. I'm glad the blurb is being changed.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


so Artw, maybe you needn't work so hard to defend him

*shrug* I don't know if that's a defending him as such - he's Gaiman's a big old clever clogs who fucked up good and proper by rattling something off from memory when he should have stopped and looked it up. Actually I'm worse than that: I'm saying that if using Russ as shorthand fails its because people already do not remember her. She's already been erased, for the readership of Shirley Jackson biographies at least. He's not removing a rung from a ladder, he's grasping for one that isn't there. Not really the goal of the essay, but it's what i'm getting from it.

And also, because I'm a pragmatist, I'm also saying that if a piece of shorthand doesn't work then remove it and use something else. Reestablishing the memory of Joanna Russ isn't going to happen in a blurb for someone else's book, and clearly it needs doing a bit more than people thought it did.

(which, ironically, probably IS the goal of the essay rather than slams on the blurb, so maybe I should shut up about it.)
posted by Artw at 5:41 PM on October 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


I know it's reverse sexist and all but so much of the time I feel overwhelmed by the need for men to do better in general and more than that feel the need to better and/or simply give a shit about anything they say or do. What's with all the fucking nihilism and nothing matters or is worth a second thought bullshit that comes spewing out at all times.
posted by bleep at 6:04 PM on October 20, 2016 [9 favorites]


If you really want to be in charge then please stop fucking up
posted by bleep at 6:05 PM on October 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


I recently read How to Suppress Women's Writing. It is a timely, sharp, and interesting piece of writing, even 30+ years removed from its initial publication.
posted by palindromic at 6:26 PM on October 20, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm an old (OK, middle-aged) feminist whose supply of fucks has been temporarily exhausted in the past few months by the election season. I want to cut Gaiman some slack here because he recognized his error and its potential implications and has made a concerted effort to rectify it. A writer of lesser talent and character like Jonathan Franzen would likely just shrug it off.
posted by tully_monster at 9:21 PM on October 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's a little weird to be referencing Russ in regards to Jackson in the first place. I'm wondering if Gaiman, immersed as he is in SFF fandom, assumed that everybody would automatically understand the reference. I mean I dd, but I'm very much into the community and politics of SFF fandom. My extremely well-read and feminist partner, had never heard of the book, and it took quite a bit of backstory to understand why people would think this is noteworthy.
posted by happyroach at 9:32 PM on October 20, 2016


And also, because I'm a pragmatist, I'm also saying that if a piece of shorthand doesn't work then remove it and use something else. Reestablishing the memory of Joanna Russ isn't going to happen in a blurb for someone else's book, and clearly it needs doing a bit more than people thought it did.

No-one's blaming him for failing to "reestablish the memory of Russ" or saying he should have included footnotes. Obviously even if he'd said "Suppress Women's Writing," most people probably would not have realized what he was talking about. But some people might have thought "Hey, I wonder why that's in caps and quotes, maybe it's a thing," and searched for it, and found Russ's work. As things stand, they can't do that.

So, yeah, he definitely messed up in a way that tends to... suppress women's writing. Even if it was accidental, which I'm sure it was (unless he's just been pretending to be a thoughtful and decent person for decades so that he could spring this trap in 2016 and then immediately apologize for doing so). A mildly annoyed essay pointing that out seems like a fair reaction.
posted by No-sword at 1:13 AM on October 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


(And a "You're right, I'll ask them to fix it" seems like a fair response from Gaiman himself, too.)
posted by No-sword at 1:15 AM on October 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


I read the actual blurb and that is just not professional editing. It is not a question of putting cites on a dust jacket, it's a question of doing your job as an editor.

Look, I once got a half dozen emails excoriating me as a translation editor when I removed an acute accent from someone's name in a document translated from the French and meant for US audiences, because I knew the accented character wouldn't be properly displayed on most US computers (this was 20 years ago when that sort of thing was predictably common). Why was I excoriated? Because it was their name, and it had an acute accent. I fully understood the critiques. Thankfully they did indeed check on a US computer and realized, oh yeah, accents didn't display. But the point is: these things matter and professional editors notice. Their first instinct as professionals was to excoriate, not excuse.

This is A TITLE. It is not a typo, it is not a misspelling, it is the wrong freaking title. On Gaiman's end it is kinda understandable – and I'm glad to see he asked for it to be corrected – because he's human and used to having editors. He still could've done better, yes. On the editor's end? Not. Professional. At. All. You always check names and titles. Always. Always, always, always.
posted by fraula at 1:47 AM on October 21, 2016 [21 favorites]


He's not removing a rung from a ladder, he's grasping for one that isn't there.

But he could do easily have put that rung back in - simply getting the clearly title-cased and in quotes title correct would make a big difference in the world of Internet search. It's not this individual act so much as that this sort of subtle erasure is the accepted norm and completely endemic, and it is literally impossible to illustrate that without using individual examples.
posted by Dysk at 2:40 AM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think this is a really good essay! I also think there's something I would have discussed which she didn't, even though it relates to a quote from the original Russ essay she cites, “active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral.”

Part of the difference between "dismiss" and "suppress" is the difference between the actions of an individual affecting only themselves and the way those actions affect society at large. Calling it "How to Dismiss Women's Fiction" makes it seem like it's an individual person just deciding not to take something seriously, whereas "suppressing" women's fiction makes it clear that this is happening on a bigger scale. I totally don't attribute any malice to Neil Gaiman here (and it's great to know he's asking the publisher to change the blurb! That's fantastic!), but I think the difference in words is more significant than just the fact that it isn't the correct title. The fact that, when reconstructing the title in his mind, someone assumes that what is happening is dismissal, something personal and passive, rather than suppression, something active that affects others outside yourself, is just another way that women's concerns are minimized because it makes the assumption that the suppression of women's writing and voices is not systemic, and it is.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:26 AM on October 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


I also really like that now, if you Google the phrase "How to Dismiss Women's Fiction", which I have just done, this essay pops up! It's the first result! If the point of the essay is that you weren't able to find the connection between these two women, the essay itself is also the remedy! The chain between Russ and Jackson might have been broken but, by writing the essay, Carmen Maria Machado forged a new link connecting them. I think this is fantastic.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:30 AM on October 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.
posted by Artw at 6:11 AM on October 21, 2016


Blaming the editor is kind of bullshit, no offense. I'm not sure a blurb even has an editor. It's a blurb. And there's very little reason to think that Gaiman is making a reference to a book that really exists. I, as a reader, would not have thought he was. No malice was intended, so I think it's okay to acknowledge that this was Gaiman's mistake and not somebody else's.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:13 AM on October 21, 2016


> Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.

Dude, people will Google almost anything to which Neil Gaiman refers.
posted by desuetude at 6:29 AM on October 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.

I do this with some regularity on stuff I'm interested in. Abstracts and reviews, too. And I look up stuff mentioned in bibliographies and footnotes.
posted by Dysk at 6:38 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.

In the essay she says "It wasn’t quite the right title (and thus couldn’t be looked up)"; now, through the existence of her essay, they are linked and it can be looked up.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:43 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Artw, Ms. Machado did. That's what led to the essay. I do. I am always looking for interesting books and I am a huge Gaiman fan.
posted by domo at 6:55 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.

Also, in a thread about an essay on suppressing and/or dismissing women's writing, this is kind of a one-off, unsubstantive, dickish thing to say. Honestly, it made me feel kind of badly for engaging with the article (which I was doing and this comment obviously wasn't because, again, I was addressing something directly from the original post) and getting uninformed, low-effort pushback on thoughtful points is the kind of shit that contributes to women's voices being heard less.

I'm posting this comment because that off-hand remark which didn't really have anything to do with the post made me feel kind of bad, like I was dumb for trying to the point I made, and I shouldn't feel bad because I was actually engaging with the work and I wanted to push back against that, especially in a thread literally about the suppression of women's voices.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:55 AM on October 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


In the blurb, 'How to Dismiss Women's Fiction' is in caps and quotes. It is obviously a title. Nobody's perfect. Neil himself acknowledged the error. You don't have to jump all over Ms. Machado for pointing it out, or try to pretend that it didn't happen.
posted by domo at 7:01 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


> Nobody is going to Google a title they don't recognize in a blurb.

Dude, you're doubling down right after you said:

> maybe I should shut up about it.

Try taking your own advice.

Also, I constantly Google things I don't recognize when it's clear to me they're allusions to something.
posted by languagehat at 7:13 AM on October 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


When I'm sitting in front of a computer, or on my phone, I habitually google virtually everything that looks even remotely like a reference to something that I don't get. It takes almost no time and it often introduces me to concepts and facts I was previously unaware of.

I'm amazed to learn that people don't habitually google stuff that looks like in jokes, or references to something they don't understand. I mean, you're on a computer that is hooked into a massive database of everything. How could you not take advantage of that?
posted by sotonohito at 8:06 AM on October 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


How could you not take advantage of that?

I'm super fucking lazy.
posted by josher71 at 10:20 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


How could you not take advantage of that?

There's a fantastic number of things I could do that I don't do because I am just not that interested in doing them.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:26 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I find it intriguing* that the use of the word "pragmatism" here translates to "maybe we just shouldn't link to women's writing".

* No I don't.

ArtW, please stop falling all over yourself to excuse Gaiman and make it okay to break links between women's writings.
posted by XtinaS at 10:36 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


He's just a comic book author.

I mean maybe he has some right to comment on marginalization from personal experience.
posted by pfh at 3:08 PM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of a secondary suppression which I've been noticing a lot in the last few years - the target of a given piece of mild critique responds by owning the error, ameliorating their error where they can (as Gaiman has here - elevating the critique and requesting the error be fixed in subsequent printings).

A bunch of secondary people speak in the name of the target about how the critique shouldn't have been made, or should have been made differently. A narrative of "those people are too PC" or "those people are too nit-picky" or "those people turn off allies" is embellished with this new evidence that ignores the response of the person targeted and the mildness and complexity of the critique. The existence of a critique is used as evidence that something has gone too far, or that the people making the critique are the real discriminatory people.

And all of their responses not only dismiss the issue at hand, but also the response of the person they are holding up as unfairly maligned.

Critiquing someone in the manner Machado did, by laying out the situation and providing context and depth, is one of the most respectful things one person can do for the other. It's an implicit assumption of good faith, that the person and community being addressed wants to do better but have missed some crucial steps. The way in which this sort of critique is treated like it should be beyond the pale both distresses and angers me.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:08 PM on October 21, 2016 [15 favorites]


pfh: "He's just a comic book author. I mean maybe he has some right to comment on marginalization from personal experience."

Could you expand on this? Because I can't make any sense of it in this context.
posted by XtinaS at 5:01 PM on October 21, 2016


XtinaS,

My comment relies on some context (if this is something you already know, my apologies, I've never met you and do not know the things that you know and do not know): Neil Gaiman is the writer for a series of comics called "Sandman". Comic books in the past were not widely considered serious literature.

Maybe the word "dismiss" had greater personal resonance to Neil Gaiman than "suppress". I doubt they've experienced much suppression, but have very probably experienced a fair bit of dismissal. That is, their choice of words may have been due to personal experience. On shakier ground, I've gone on to suggest that maybe it is allowable for them to express an opinion colored by their own personal experience.
posted by pfh at 7:24 PM on October 21, 2016


"He's just a comic book author. I mean maybe he has some right to comment on marginalization from personal experience."
...
Neil Gaiman is the writer for a series of comics called "Sandman". Comic books in the past were not widely considered serious literature.


This is preposterous. Sandman is one of the most celebrated graphic novels in history. Gaiman personally won 15 Eisner awards for his work on Sandman, including 4 for best writer. There were also Hugo nominations, festival prizes...etc. It's very hard to argue he was suppressed in any way for his work because of the format. Because he wasn't.

Gaiman has also written many novels, and has recieved extensive audience and critical acclaim for them, including during and immediately after his run on Sandman. For example, during his run on Sandman, Gaiman was also nominated a World Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel for Good Omens. He went on to win 13 Locus awards for his adult and young adult fiction. He's also won 6 Hugo awards. It's gotten to the point that he has started refusing nominations to clear the field for up and coming writers.

The idea that Gaiman has an experience of oppression because he wrote one of the most beloved and best selling English language comics series of all time, or suffered in any way for it, and therefore had an experience that would be comparable to the experience of women authors dealing with entrenched and structural suppression in the literary industry is, frankly, idiotic.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:29 PM on October 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


A narrative of "those people are too PC" or "those people are too nit-picky" or "those people turn off allies" is embellished with this new evidence that ignores the response of the person targeted and the mildness and complexity of the critique. The existence of a critique is used as evidence that something has gone too far, or that the people making the critique are the real discriminatory people.

This would make me angry too, but I didn't see any evidence of it happening in this thread.
posted by whir at 9:01 PM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


We should all be as oppressed as Neil Gaiman.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:41 PM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Honestly, now I wish book cover review blurbs included imbedded links. That could have prevented a lot of this problem.
posted by happyroach at 10:32 AM on October 22, 2016


Good essay. I've written to the publisher asking that the blurb be corrected in future printings.

And this is the correct response.
May others learn a lesson from the error and the subsequent correction.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:43 AM on October 22, 2016


This article sent me back to How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I haven't read in a while. One of the subtler things you notice, reading it, is how copiously and meticulously Russ gives you example after example -- far more than are needed to make her points, sometimes; and that's because she's not giving you all these examples just in order to make her points, but in order to shine the spotlight on women critics and writers who have been overlooked or stereotyped. She's really careful in giving credit to everyone who deserves it.

I like Neil Gaiman and I appreciate his response but I can't help but wish he'd followed her lead there.
posted by Jeanne at 8:33 PM on October 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I might ask why Neil Gaiman is lead blurb in the first place. On reflection I'm finding that odious, even if my will to punish Neil for the incorrect reference is sadly inadequate for this forum.

There's a weird conundrum: Given that Neil has benefitted from the patriarchy, is it praiseworthy for him speak against it? I think it's good that he speaks in that way, but not praiseworthy. It's a behaviour to be encouraged, but the prominent feminist man quickly becomes problematic. (Not an original observation, I should probably provide a reference...)
posted by pfh at 2:46 AM on October 23, 2016


even if my will to punish Neil for the incorrect reference is sadly inadequate for this forum.

No one in this thread has suggested anything regarding punishment. At all.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:54 PM on October 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


.
Maybe the word "dismiss" had greater personal resonance to Neil Gaiman than "suppress". I doubt they've experienced much suppression, but have very probably experienced a fair bit of dismissal. That is, their choice of words may have been due to personal experience. On shakier ground, I've gone on to suggest that maybe it is allowable for them to express an opinion colored by their own personal experience.


Are you suggesting that Gaiman deliberately misquoted the title to make it match his experiences? Because I bet Gaiman would be fucking pissed to have someone claiming that he was being a giant asshole like that. Or are you just trying to come up with a convoluted "justifiable" reason for his accidently misremembering it, which, nobody cares why, nobody is suggesting it was deliberate, why are you making these arguments?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:51 PM on October 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Per Mr. Gaiman's comments about the matter, he was thinking of Russ's essay specifically but also to the phenomenon which she was describing; making a sort of half-reference/half-description flagged with quotes is absolutely a casual writing style that would make sense in a dialogue among peers, or a comment thread here on the blue, or the like. It's too loosey-goosey conversational for a blurb, though, which is why he corrected himself and will ensure that the title is a clear citation in the future.
posted by desuetude at 9:48 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


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