“Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like.”
December 1, 2015 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Marlon James, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, believes that writers of color are “pandering to the white woman.” [The Guardian]
The 2015 Man Booker prize winner Marlon James has slammed the publishing world, saying authors of colour too often “pander to white women” to sell books, and that he could have been published more often if he had written “middle-style prose and private ennui”.
In a recent Facebook post, James wrote a response to a piece titled On Pandering by novelist Claire Vaye Watkins, in which she examined the pressure on female writers to suit male expectations of writing in order to get published. Calling the essay “potentially game changing”, James wrote: “While she recognizes how much she was pandering to the white man, we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman … astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications.” “If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now,” he continued. “Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.”
Previously. Previously.

Related:

- 'Where are the brown people?': authors slam lack of diversity in UK publishing. [The Guardian]
“It’s a perfect loop-de-loop of blame and it gets very wearing – nobody wants to take responsibility,” Shukla, author of novels Meatspace and Coconut Unlimited, said. “When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through.” “So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it? I’ve taken it on myself to be my responsibility. I’m still not particularly well-known, but I have people’s attention, so I can shout for the people who feel disenfranchised …”
posted by Fizz (68 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I also would love to see more people of colour and women being interviewed and featured in major profiles from larger magazines, websites, news outlets, literary journals, etc. If people have more exposure, it becomes more of a normal and acceptable thing. It's not looked at as if its some kind of oddity that a black woman or a writer from some small country in S. Asia wins an award. It shouldn't be this big shocking thing. It's also good for younger children and people who have aspirations to see older persons of colour, minorities, etc. win and do well in their chosen fields (not just writing or literature).
posted by Fizz at 6:41 AM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's an enjoyable irony when he says, "Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like," because everyone knows what a Booker prize winner will look like too. Not that there is a house style, so to speak, but that pleasant, sinking-into-a-hot-bath sense of middlebrow-but-intelligent tourism you get when you pick up one of the winners or one off the shortlist.

This question of pandering is beautifully put and I wonder what other writers think of it? Who is the Important Expected Reader of a gay author? Do all POC authors feel it's a white woman for them, a woman looking for that epiphany 3/4 into the novel?
posted by mittens at 6:56 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Deleted a few comments per commenter request.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:04 AM on December 1, 2015


This seems like a pretty good definition of privilege -- being the person pandered to. It means you're either the market, i.e. the people with disposable income, or the boss, i.e. the people with power, or both. I suspect a lot of white readers will respond to pieces like this and "On Pandering" with "no, you're not trying to pander to white women, you're trying to appeal to book buyers! You're not trying to pander to men, you're trying to appeal to editors!" Which is of course exactly the point.
posted by babelfish at 7:09 AM on December 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


In 2011, the UK was 87% white and only 3% black. Black people are effectively as niche an interest group as science fiction fans, a genre which also has not won a Man Booker Prize. I'm glad that black writers are able to win one at all, but if they also want to write for a black audience, it might be easier to do so in a predominantly black country.
posted by Rangi at 7:13 AM on December 1, 2015


There's an enjoyable irony when he says, "Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like," because everyone knows what a Booker prize winner will look like too. Not that there is a house style, so to speak, but that pleasant, sinking-into-a-hot-bath sense of middlebrow-but-intelligent tourism you get when you pick up one of the winners or one off the shortlist.

Always, though? I have been quite surprised by the recent Bookers and shortlist. I avoided the Mantels, for instance, because I figured that as Booker winners they'd be pretty dull stuff, but while they certainly are easy to read, I found their cumulative effect pretty startling, and I don't think Mantel's other work (Beyond Black, for instance, which starts out like it's going to be all amusing but gets extremely grim and - even with a relatively non-miserable ending - is not a comforting book at all) is particularly sinking-into-a-hot-bathy. And We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is pretty oddball.

Also, I think that some of this is in how one elects to experience the story. I'm reading - at random, someone at my house left behind their copy - The Moor's Account, and I'm having a really different experience from what the blurbs suggest, I think because I'm reading it with an emphasis on the grisly nature of colonialism. A lot of it reads like a horror novel to me, and I don't think it would have done so when I was younger, because I didn't have the historical background or, honestly, the emotional range to really think it through. I think that when I was younger it would have been "intelligent tourism", but now it's really getting me down, which I think is a good thing.

~~~

I do like the Marlon James Facebook post.

I wonder if part of it is that these stories get packed up to be consumed? That's how I'm feeling a bit with The Moor's Account, that it can be fitted (even though it resists this) into a sequence of novels about "exotic" places and histories (exotic to white middle class people) that you read in order to "experience" something, before you move on to "experiencing" something else - today the pre-colonial Americas, tomorrow 1950s Chinatown, Friday a family struggling to get by in 1930s Japan! So all these stories, which are worth telling, will always be read as amusements...maybe serious, and worthy amusements, but amusements.

It's not just for whom one writes; it's the question of what fiction is for. Like, do all these stories that are basically set in the world of Western imperialism and genocide [even when this kind of story is not about Western imperialism and genocide, it's so often the precondition] exist primarily to "broaden one's emotional range"? What are they supposed to do?
posted by Frowner at 7:14 AM on December 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


So what's the solution, babelfish? If an author writes something that does not appeal to me --- a white woman --- then I'm far less likely to buy it. Is it then justified to complain that the fault is mine, that I'm somehow a racist because I refuse to spend my money on something that does not interest or entertain me, that holds no intellectual appeal to me? And editors aren't usually in business to make sure everyone's racial viewpoint is equally promoted: they're in business to sell books, and therefore they have little to no interest in publishing books that won't sell enough copies to earn a profit.

I totally agree that authors are free to write whatever they want, but I'm equally free to purchase only what *I* want.
posted by easily confused at 7:21 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rangi: " Black people are effectively as niche an interest group as science fiction fans, "

You do realize that SF outsells Literary fiction, as do Romance (by a lot) and Mystery? Literary-genre fiction might get more play in the New Yorker, but it's just as niche as the other genres.
posted by signal at 7:24 AM on December 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


Black people are effectively as niche an interest group as science fiction fans

Midnight's Children, which not only won the Booker but was voted later as the best Booker winner of all time, is a science fiction story about brown-skinned superpowered mutants.
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:25 AM on December 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


I'm equally free to purchase only what *I* want.

Sure, but why do you want that in the first place? I'm a Filatino that's read and liked mostly white authors since a young age. It's not a question of skin color, but exposure to other writing styles and priorities. So not the fault of any one person, but what an entire culture prioritizes.
posted by Mister Cheese at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I read this a few days ago and am struggling a little with the idea that an industry so white male-dominated in terms of both who gets published and who writes the reviews is driven by what white women want. Especially when what James describes as white lady fiction sounds so...Franzen-y. I am bothered by how much my white lady privilege is apparently taking over my head on this, and I would be really grateful for pushback.
posted by naoko at 7:28 AM on December 1, 2015 [19 favorites]


easily confused--Compelling/entertaining/enjoyable reading isn't mutually exclusive with challenging/different/foreign reading. Think back to your high school curriculum. I was a snotty tenth grader with a very narrow worldview, and when Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was assigned in class, I was actually angry (!) that I had to read it, and then became completely absorbed in it and amazed that a non-Weetzie Bat book had held my attention for so long.

Outside of high school, we are told what to read by critics, the media, featured displays at libraries and book stores, and literary awards. These agents all wield a lot of power over shaping readers' tastes and preferences. Women don't intrinsically love shoes and books about dieting--but you wouldn't know that to look at a typical display at Barnes & Noble. So I'd say the solution lies in marketing and media. It shouldn't be too hard to swap a Zadie Smith into a display from another "Shopaholic Goes to Vegas" or Tucker Max or whateverthehell garbage book for white people.
posted by witchen at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


This feels like rehashing the usual high brow/low-brow lit argument - do you write "high literature" for only the other high minds to read (and sell very few copies), or do you write for the hoi polloi - meaningless drivel that will sell ? (ie the big kerfluffle when Stephen King won some literary award and was thrashed by the high-brown lit folks.)
posted by k5.user at 7:33 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]



I know it sounds very "not all white women", but I think it would be interesting to break out what different readerships there are within the category "white women", and how those are moderated by class and region, and who among them have cultural authority. I feel like James is referring to a pretty specific group of white women publishers (and to a lesser degree white women readers) who have a disproportionate ability to set the tone.

Also, honestly, there's nothing wrong with an acerbic, suburban novel about women's experiences under patriarchy per se (and I think James would probably agree). The issue isn't "oh, these stories that resonate with older middle class or upper middle class white women aren't worth telling or reading"; the issue is that those stories dominate the market and act only to reassure/mirror rather than to discomfit their audience. I think that's a really tricky thing - on the one hand, I think it's important that marginalized people see themselves/ourselves reflected in fiction, but on the other hand this so easily becomes only an affirmation of an experience, especially when it's one of many, many stories, and especially when it speaks to the more privileged members of a marginalized group.
posted by Frowner at 7:37 AM on December 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


There's an award that I have been a finalist for, more than once, and in both situations I was the only person who knew that I wouldn't win. I looked at the winner and I look at the judges and both followed exactly the same aesthetic. And looked the same as well. I knew right there, what they were looking for in a book and I knew the winner fulfilled it with flying colours, even if it wasn't that great a book. The last contest I judged, the initial favourite was yet again, "bored suburban white woman in the middle of ennui, experiences keenly observed epiphany." And though we'll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.

I don't doubt this at all. I had not realized (affluent, white) women had that much power in deciding what gets published, but if they are buying most of the books, then it makes sense that those books would cater to their POV.

The literary market is so weird, especially right now. I don't think I fit into the "affluent white women ennui" market too well, but that does seem to be what most book clubs read. I tend to stick to sci-fi/speculative anymore mostly because it will not have that stuff in it. Or nonfiction. If it's a best-seller or recommended for a book group, it's probably going to disappoint me.
posted by emjaybee at 7:39 AM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


A corollary to this is that some of the most successful stories about people of color are written by white people. I'm looking at you, Memoirs of a Geisha.
posted by domo at 7:40 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't think Mantel's other work (Beyond Black, for instance, which starts out like it's going to be all amusing but gets extremely grim and - even with a relatively non-miserable ending - is not a comforting book at all) is particularly sinking-into-a-hot-bathy

That's a good point, and certainly a point driven home to me recently when a relative (who is so much more well-read than me I find it embarrassing to talk books with her) sent back a parcel of Mantels I had loaned her, with a note that they were just too dark for her. And I was so offended! Beyond Black struck me as one of the most warmly human things I had ever read, because it somehow manages to keep its sense of humor, a humor that's never cruel...unlike Every Day is Mother's Day, which to me did seem like a pandering novel, a grotesque, more concerned with, I don't know, Mantel's exasperation rather than a sense of humanity. And I should stop here before I go on and on about Mantel, since that's not the point of the thread, but only to say I find her beautiful and yet still a little touristy in the Cromwell books but nonetheless comforting if not in a hot-bath way.
posted by mittens at 7:40 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


A corollary to this is that some of the most successful stories about people of color are written by white people. I'm looking at you, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Oh my god, that book. I cringed all the way though it. My book group loved it of course. Why do I even join book groups anymore :(
posted by emjaybee at 7:44 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think the problem is not that nobody should write books about or for white middle aged affluent woman, but rather the underlying assumption that Literary-genre fiction is the only valid kind of fiction, the default setting and the only one worthy of serious consideration and awards; if this is the case, and current fashions in Literary-genre fiction skew middle aged female WASP, you get that the only valid stories for the official, dominant culture, tend to be by and about Suburb Sally, with the resultant lack of representation of other, equally or more interesting stories.

The problem is intersectional, I think, as certain genres are seen as intrinsically less valuable because of their supposed audiences (see also "I listen to any music except Country (poor white people) and Rap (poor black people)"), and this feedback drives the valuation of stories by their protagonists and authors' perceived social and racial standing.
posted by signal at 7:53 AM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I am for anything that means less media about upper/upper-middle-class white people who make poor life choices and then angst about those poor life choices.
posted by bgal81 at 7:58 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a white, middle-aged, comparatively affluent woman, and I don't do lit-fic. I only read genre fiction, so if anyone is thinking to cater or "pander" to me by writing lit-fic, they're wasting their time and money.

Meanwhile, I want to thank all the MeFites who have pointed me towards terrific sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction by writers of color featuring characters of color and LGBTQ characters. My Kindle is packed with stuff I gleaned from those lists.

Obviously, I'm just one white woman and don't speak for #allwhitewomen! I want to read about characters of color from writers of color - but genre fic, please, not "lit fic." I'm another of those "if it's in a book club, count me out" readers.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:00 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think his point may be a touch undermined by the fact that he's picking up all the major awards for the dudely DeLillo-esque Bob Marley crime conspiracy novel and not The Book of Night Women. But less fiction about bored white people in suburbia having epiphanies would be an unqualified good thing.
posted by thetortoise at 8:02 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


One simple thing that publishers and reviewers can do when broadening the scope of their readers' taste is to provide some contextualization. When you started in on The Great Gatsby in high school they didn't just fling it at you; the ground was prepared over several years of reading in American literature and you probably talked specifically about what some of the interests and themes of the book where, and what milieu Fitzgerald was writing in and what he hoped to accomplish. You'd probably just come through the Transcendentalists and Hemmingway and had talked about the Roaring 20s in history class. Nobody has to EXPLAIN Franzen to a US reader; white middle-aged suburban ennui is a cultural problem we US readers can all locate.

I've been consciously reading more foreign, non-English, non-Western novels this year (and more women, more POC), and one thing that I've found makes a BIG difference is if I can read a review before I start the novel that situates the novel within its culture and within its literary canon. Just simple things like, "a novel about the aftereffects of colonization" or "within a tradition of English-language Nigerian writing that includes X, Y, and Z, and tends to focus on these specific problems" or "using the language of traditional Mongolian folk songs to highlight the internal struggles of the main character ...." It doesn't make me, like, suddenly an expert on English-language Nigerian literature, but when I get to weird or unfamiliar parts of the story where I'm lost because the style comes from outside the literary modes I'm familiar with, I can be like, "OHHHHHHH, right, I see what the author's trying to do here, it's that thing that was in the article!"

Kind-of knowing what I'm getting into has given me the ability to appreciate a much wider range of writing styles and traditions, without getting so lost or frustrated that I drop the book, or in so over my head that I miss 90% of the point.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 AM on December 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Black people are effectively as niche an interest group as science fiction fans

I did just want to point out that while that may be true in the UK, it does not appear to be so in the US, which has a quite large black readership.
posted by mittens at 8:05 AM on December 1, 2015


This quote from the second article I linked to, needs to be highlighted:
“When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through.” “So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it?”
This cycle that repeats itself. We need to change this. We need younger writers who need to push back against the dominant norm. We need publishers and agents who are willing to look past the easy cash grab. We need to choose with our dollars. Realize that so much of this is easier said than done. That many of these issues are institutionalized into larger power structures and its difficult to just change. But, I like to foolishly believe that my dollar can influence that change.

!
posted by Fizz at 8:15 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think the problem is not necessarily with the demographic, it's assuming that the demographic only wants stories about themselves. The fact that the largest group of readers is currently white women is just a numbers thing. That will change over time. The problem is looking at that information and deciding that it will dictate what you publish until the demographics change. Then suddenly we'll only be publishing work that features young, Hispanic men! And on and on.

Ignoring the rest of the population to focus solely on the one largest demographic sucks. It quells innovation, because everything is a carbon copy of the last thing that made it big. It sucks when it happens to music, it sucks when it happens to movies, and it sucks when it happens to books.

It's nice that I'm part of the big demo now, but I hated it when everything catered to boys, boys, boys. I don't want to make someone else feel like none of the cool stuff is "for them".
posted by domo at 8:19 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


The 2015 Man Booker prize winner Marlon James has slammed the publishing world, saying authors of colour too often “pander to white women”

As a white woman, I can tell you flat out mainstream publishers aren't pandering to me, but they do a bang up job of patronizing and insulting my gender. Women in fiction are always appeasing, submitting, sacrificing, whining, and obsessing about having a man. They are manuals indoctrinating women and telling them how great it is to retreat and lose your identity as you wallow in fake problems. That is propaganda, not pandering and if anyone else wants to be told how they are defective for making demands and standing on their own two feet, they can have it.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:24 AM on December 1, 2015 [21 favorites]


I think a tricky part about this whole conversation is that we, as a culture, love to have public discourse about how we hate older white women and how they're awful and ruin everything, etc etc. (The hatred that we as a society feel for older women of color seems different to me - it's more about invisbilizing and disregarding rather than the very public "older white women, so awful amirite".) So James's statement is the kind that I think a lot of people - many of them white, many of them young white women, many of them white men - maybe read in a really simplified way, when it's obvious from James's comments on his Facebook that he is saying something fairly complicated.

I think it's worth unpacking the ways in which writing panders to older white women - James does this a bit with the "acerbic suburban novel" thing, and he also seems to be getting at ways in which stories of people of color are told in ways that appeal to white people. I kind of wish he would point to some specific books or break this down a bit more, because I think there's all kinds of subtle ways that this works - it's not just "this is a novel about an older white woman in a suburb, ergo it's pandering" or "this is a novel about a colorful extended family in Karachi in 1927, ergo it's pandering". But I'm not exactly sure where to start.
posted by Frowner at 8:36 AM on December 1, 2015 [17 favorites]


If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now

This is the part I'm not really getting-- are white women readers/critics really powerful enough to be setting a cultural tone, per se? Large publishing houses market certain kinds of fiction to this demographic, to be sure, but I'm a bit puzzled by the claim that "being aggressively marketed to" is the same as setting a cultural tone, or controlling media empires that decide what makes it into print.

The thing is, I completely agree with him that this kind of fiction is both ubiquitous and terrible. But “white women in peril, both physical and ~emotional~” is a trope that saturates entire cultures and centuries and continents, so I’m not disagreeing with his disgust for it, but I'm confused by the rhetorical jump to the kind of agency he ascribes to white women as readers and critics. The publishing industry (not to mention the movie/tv industry, and the toy industry, and even the porn industry) has been absurdly unresponsive to the very vocal readers (including white women) who explicitly ask, repeatedly, money in hand, for any other stories, any other tropes.

It actually reminds me of this comment in the electric car thread. "Here is my money, please sell me the thing I want." "Nah, you won't like that. But I'll be happy to sell you the thing I have already decided that you really want!"
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:37 AM on December 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I thought the later comments, addressing white assumptions about black privation, were at least as interesting:
James ... said he felt he had disappointed a few media outlets for not having emerged from poverty, instead growing up in the comfort of middle-class Jamaica, with a mother who was a police detective. “The first time I heard a gunshot was a Martin McDonagh play,” he joked, likening the story of one of his character’s, Nina, to his own middle-class upbringing: “Reasonably stable, but not much opportunities; lots and lots of boredom. She typifies a Jamaica that never gets written. You want stuff about the Jamaican ghetto or crime, you can find stuff. You never hear about the middle class.
So much of progressive (white) identity in 2015 is bound up in the ritual disavowal of whiteness itself, the "ugh! White people!" response, and the corresponding desire to performatively consume and appropriate "otherness" as a way of distancing oneself from one's own white identity. But what does it mean for the non-white content producer, though, who's faced with pandering to white progressives eternally hungry for the exotic?
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:41 AM on December 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


One thing I can always count on MeFi for is to periodically remind my why I don't read literary fiction.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:10 AM on December 1, 2015


So James's statement is the kind that I think a lot of people - many of them white, many of them young white women, many of them white men - maybe read in a really simplified way, when it's obvious from James's comments on his Facebook that he is saying something fairly complicated.

James is an award-winning writer. If he wanted to say something fairly complicated, then he could have said something complicated in ways that made it clear that he was saying something complicated.

I think it speaks volumes that, of the characters and situations he mentions in his Guardian interview, he only mentions one female character. Maybe James should have worked on his pandering skills before he started speaking.

I'm sick of being fed shit and told I've already been catered to. I'm sick of men telling me what I want and then telling me I ought to want something else instead. And I'm fucking sick of creating false dichotomies between older white women and men of color in the name of intersectionality, because this is a way to ensure that neither group will win.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 9:12 AM on December 1, 2015 [22 favorites]


Oh hey and just like that you can be a woman or black again, but never, ever both. And you can't possibly be black AND full of suburban ennui AND a woman. That is all just so fucking un-possible.

Anyways, in terms of seeing yourself represented in books, I think it is an interesting conundrum. Most minorities are used to projecting themselves into characters whose minds they find sympathetic, even if their bodies are almost eternally white and male. And when white men bitch about their lack of imaginative empathy (books written by black people are only for black people! only women can sympathize with women), it is total shit.

And yet. And yet, there is something about seeing yourself represented; seeing people like you somewhere that cannot be underestimated. I cried when that interracial cheerios commercial first came out because it was like my family, finally, for once!

So I guess what I am saying is I wish people had more imagination and more opportunities. Which is the same side of a coin and, I hope, an anodyne banner we can all line up behind. Also, black women exist & many of our lives have nothing to do with historical depredation or current urban poverty, and I wish we weren't so constantly erased.
posted by dame at 9:16 AM on December 1, 2015 [19 favorites]


Frowner, killing it as per usual.

I agree that James is skating around a fairly nasty stereotype about older women and how everything they want/think/read/are is inherently deathly boring and the antithesis of the creative life. That's a huge part of what the C.V.W. piece was about. But I do think he is trying - maybe imperfectly - to say something more complicated, which is about the idea that editors have in their heads about women and what they want, and the pressures they exert on writers.

The 'woman' who is being catered to isn't a real woman at all: she's a deeply sexist stereotype. She's a person who does nothing and experiences nothing, so needs to alternately be fed bland stories about about other women sitting around doing nothing, or else to be carried around the world on the shoulders of the authors of color who have been tasked with pre-digesting their experiences and feeding them to her in bland and palatable form.

Of course this woman isn't real; of course she's dull and stupid and shallow and the death of art. Of course she's assumed to be white. That's exactly what C.V.W. was talking about in her piece: how, because the trope of this boring woman is so omnipresent and so stifling, there is a huge temptation to jettison femininity entirely and write for men, about men, and to men. She is the reason why the temptation to pander to men is so strong - she is what female artists are taught to fear becoming...the white ones at least. I don't think that the experiences of white women and men and women of color are necessarily contradictory here, although we are still trying to figure out exactly how they mesh, and the experiences are different for each group. For a woman of color's take on the subject, I think that Jia Tolentino's essay, here, is one of the more nuanced reactions to the C.V.W. article, and is definitely worth a read.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:30 AM on December 1, 2015 [20 favorites]


Literary-genre fiction might get more play in the New Yorker, but it's just as niche as the other genres.

This a thousand times. "Literary fiction" is held up as the "real" fiction, but it is in fact just another genre with its own conventions and niche audience of enthusiasts.

I don't really know what the solution to this is, because the well-known prizes and acclaim are dominated by the literary fiction-genre fandom. Insofar as writers need to get these awards and recognition to boost their careers, it means they have to write genre fiction for a specific audience. But we don't call it genre fiction, even though that's what it is.
posted by deanc at 9:31 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't really know what the solution to this is, because the well-known prizes and acclaim are dominated by the literary fiction-genre fandom. Insofar as writers need to get these awards and recognition to boost their careers, it means they have to write genre fiction for a specific audience. But we don't call it genre fiction, even though that's what it is.

And it's very interesting how literary fiction attempts to engulf other fictions - there's definitely been a literary-fiction-izing of science fiction recently, in terms of actual novels being written that are sort of "literary" science fiction and marketed to literary audiences (Cloud Atlas, for instance; some of these are quite good, some of them aren't; I frequently find them almost devoid of the things that interest me about SF) and in terms of how science fiction novels are branded. All you have to do is compare, for instance, the covers for Samuel Delany's Neveryon books then and now.

There's a discourse which says that if science fiction is very, very good indeed it will be assumed into literary fiction. And there's another discourse which says that literary fiction should adapt such SF tropes as are worthwhile and classy, lifting them up from the body of awful/bad/popular SF. This results in the creation of a sort of weird secondary SF canon - some very good indeed! - which misses out books that are interesting and important but not literary, like The Space Merchants, or books that are literary but are too SFnal, like Hal Duncan's work.
posted by Frowner at 9:40 AM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is the part I'm not really getting-- are white women readers/critics really powerful enough to be setting a cultural tone, per se?

Exactly. Who are these older white female critics who are supposedly the gatekeepers for literary fiction? I can think of one, Joan Didion, but she hardly seems to fit the stereotype that he's talking about here. I follow James on Facebook, and saw the post when he first made it, and unfollowed him immediately because seriously? His response to the essay by Watkins is to assert that literary fiction is being controlled by some kind of middle-aged female mafia, and calling on the apparently loathsome phenomenon of suburban reading groups (as if reading groups in themselves are beneath contempt) which are ways for women to be engaged with literary culture and to support it? Has he never seen the Vida Count?
posted by jokeefe at 9:53 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


So what's the solution, babelfish? If an author writes something that does not appeal to me --- a white woman --- then I'm far less likely to buy it.

Um... maybe not everything has to be for you?

And editors aren't usually in business to make sure everyone's racial viewpoint is equally promoted: they're in business to sell books


Thanks for proving my exact point, about how people will say "it's not about who's being pandered to, it's about who's most likely to make purchases" and completely miss the fact that the two are connected. White people don't just HAPPEN to be more likely to have disposable income.
posted by babelfish at 9:56 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


There's a discourse which says that if science fiction is very, very good indeed it will be assumed into literary fiction. And there's another discourse which says that literary fiction should adapt such SF tropes as are worthwhile and classy, lifting them up from the body of awful/bad/popular SF. This results in the creation of a sort of weird secondary SF canon - some very good indeed! - which misses out books that are interesting and important but not literary, like The Space Merchants, or books that are literary but are too SFnal, like Hal Duncan's work.

I wonder about how we define "good" in terms of literary and other fiction, though. Most of why I avoid genre fiction has to do with what (to me) is a sloppy or amateurish writing style--the overuse of adverbs, lazy dialogue, flat characters, loads of cliched language, etc.--which just aren't problems in what are (again, to me) "good" books. So I'll read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and enjoy it without getting twitchy over the punctuation, but what Amazon recommends next are just all over the map in terms of quality and style. Similarly with YA/fantasy, I can't muddle through something like Serafina and the Black Cloak (I tried!), but Neil Gaiman is enjoyable. There are variations like this in literary fiction too, of course, but it's a safe bet that I won't read a sentence like "'I'm a-coming, Paw!' she smirked as she quickly ran" in the New Yorker.

So my sincere question is: how do you get around that? I'm all for the democratization of published fiction, and I know that the ways we police a lot of grammar/usage are problematic for classist reasons. I don't know whether it's cultural conditioning that makes me gravitate towards work that's endorsed by the New Yorker or whether it's actual quality--which I know, yes, is subjective, but aren't there markers of literary quality that are constant?
posted by witchen at 9:56 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Percival Everett, whose stories and novels are great, wrote a great novel about this called Erasure. It basically satirizes what James is talking about here. As an African American author whose work doesn't conform to expected stereotypes, and who as a consequence receives relatively little attention, Everett absolutely nails the performative choices that writers of color sometimes have to make.
posted by OmieWise at 10:00 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


The 'woman' who is being catered to isn't a real woman at all: she's a deeply sexist stereotype. She's a person who does nothing and experiences nothing, so needs to alternately be fed bland stories about about other women sitting around doing nothing, or else to be carried around the world on the shoulders of the authors of color who have been tasked with pre-digesting their experiences and feeding them to her in bland and palatable form.

Thank you; the description of "pre-digested experiences" of people of color clicked the topic into focus for me. I was having a hard time understanding what types of work James was talking about.

It reminded me of listening to an interview on NPR the other day, in which a female reporter was interviewing a man who was born in Africa and had come to the US as a refugee when young (I missed the first part of the interview, so I don't know the full context). He was describing his mother sneaking off to give birth to him to hide from the gunfire all around them, and I think he said she gave him up to get him to safety as an infant and he doesn't know what happened to her, and he was fairly matter-of-fact about it, and the reporter started crying. She said something like, "I'm a mother myself, I can't imagine, give me a minute..." And I'm thinking, "It's his life, why are you crying? It's not about you." And it seemed like she spent the rest of the short interview trying to shape his experience into her narrative about what an "African refugee orphan" must have experienced.
posted by jaguar at 10:02 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Percival Everett, whose stories and novels are great, wrote a great novel about this called Erasure.

The irony in Erasure being that even though the novel-within-the-novel is sharp-fanged satire, Everett can't help himself, and you end up being very moved by the novelet by its end. (Or I do, at least!)
posted by mittens at 10:05 AM on December 1, 2015


witchen: "So my sincere question is: how do you get around that? "

You read more. Look for lists of award winners, Hugos and Nebulas, read zines and on- and offline magazines, uncanny magazine is good, though it might be too political for some. It's like getting into any genre (including lit): look for recommendations from people and institutions you trust, look for books similar to ones you've enjoyed.
posted by signal at 10:08 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


A Guardian commentator points out that the books Marlon lost out to in the competition in question (US National Critics Circle by the looks of things) were “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel and “Lila” by Marilynne Robinson.

I haven’t read the latter, but “Wolf Hall” was genuinely brilliant: “Not that great” is fighting words!
posted by pharm at 10:19 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


So my sincere question is: how do you get around that? I'm all for the democratization of published fiction, and I know that the ways we police a lot of grammar/usage are problematic for classist reasons. I don't know whether it's cultural conditioning that makes me gravitate towards work that's endorsed by the New Yorker or whether it's actual quality--which I know, yes, is subjective, but aren't there markers of literary quality that are constant?

There's bog-standard genre fiction and there's bad genre fiction (and there's great genre fiction, but that's not what we're talking about). Something like The Space Merchants is perfectly competently written - it moves well, the sentences are grammatical when they're trying to be [as opposed to messing with grammar for a particular effect] , the metaphors are unmixed, etc. It's not lyrical. The characterization is not profound and we don't spend a lot of time on anyone's complicated interiority. There is no attempt to "experiment with language" in the way of literary fiction. If you're looking for Joycean language experiments, you need Dhalgren, not The Space Merchants.

There's also bad genre fiction where your attention is actively, persistently snagged by mixed metaphor, bad sentence construction, obviously implausible characterization, etc.

So there's genre fiction where you can read it easily and genre fiction where it's a chore.

If you're reading SF, you're probably reading it for some of the things that SF does - maybe that's the working out of certain questions about technology, maybe it's specifically SFnal landscape/starscape writing and displacement of perspective (Delany writes about this); sometimes it's the amusement of SFnal language play (Delany again); sometimes it's the desire for a novel which focuses on representing a society or a time and minimizes interiority (Brunner is very like Dos Passos, for instance). Sometimes it's the desire to think through certain things (Joanna Russ's short story about the super-smart future). Sometimes it's the use of large metaphors (Joanna Russ's transtemp stories). Sometimes it's the desire to highlight certain things to examine them for social or political reasons (DuChamp's excellent near future prison-industrial complex novella The Red Rose Rages, Bleeding). Sometimes it's the desire to "see" things that don't or maybe can't exist - an alternate past that isn't a brutal imperialist grind, for instance; or a society where everyone isn't constrained by fear of starvation. Sometimes it's the desire to use certain images or experiences to produce emotional or language effects - again, Joanna Russ's short story "Bodies" and M John Harrison's short story "The Lamia and Lord Cromis" are two of the most affecting pieces of queer writing I know*, and that's precisely because the oddity, delicacy and estrangement factors of the setting allow certain effects.

So all those things are somewhat separate from readability. I've definitely slogged through some bad writing because it was still producing some of those effects. (The first volume of DuChamp's Marq'ssan series is pretty rough going in places, and the series as a whole isn't generally a lyrical wonder - but it's still some of my favorite SF.)

The point is, what are you reading for? If you're reading for estrangement, you may overlook certain betises.

If you're reading genre fiction, you can choose to read only the Very Finest that meets your literary standards. You can read the bog-standard stuff. You can read the stuff that's badly written but interesting in some way.

It's not really a question of "democratizing" published fiction; it's more a question of what you want to read for.

*Harrison is straight, I don't like how he writes women, but "The Lamia and Lord Cromis" is perfect. No one ever believes it's by a straight guy.
posted by Frowner at 10:20 AM on December 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


"It's his life, why are you crying? It's not about you."

Empathy?
posted by gwint at 12:06 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Empathy?

It was a show of empathy, but it prioritized her feelings over his experiences. "Oh, you poor thing, tell me more about your horrible life so that we can all have a cathartic moment about you" is fairly objectifying.
posted by jaguar at 1:22 PM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


witchen: "So my sincere question is: how do you get around that?"

You should post a question to Ask Me that you want to read fiction in ____ genre, that's very high quality, ideally including work by POC and/or female authors. It's very fruitful.

I asked for suggestions on my facebook when I decided to read more POC authors this year, and it turns out that I have not one but TWO friends who are professors of modern American lit who focus on female authors of color, and several additional nerds who are hugely into that conversation, and I got more than a dozen books that were recommended wholeheartedly by multiple people, and another couple dozen "some people like this" and "if you like this, you'll like that" and so on.

You of course get some suggestions from people with terrible taste, and some suggestions that are sort-of tangential to what you're after, but you'll get a lot of great stuff too!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:17 PM on December 1, 2015


This is really interesting to me, and as a publisher, maybe explains why my feminist spec fic anthology (Choose Wisely) has sold so many more copies than my immigrant scifi anthology (How to Live on Other Planets), both released in the same month and advertised through the same channels, even though HtLooP received more press.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:26 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would buy it if he said that the publishers and reviewers don't give him enough space because they tell him he won't play well enough with middle aged women. There are all kinds of excuses used not to publish different voices. But to position the middle aged white woman themselves as the cause?

It's maybe repeating the obvious, but this is from a Pool article about sexism in publishing:

The traditional thinking is that the world of publishing is populated predominately with women, and this is true – most of the editors and publicists and agents that you meet do tend to be female, and studies show that the majority of people who buy and read fiction are women. But VIDA, an organisation which compiles data about male and female representation in literary publications, released their findings for 2014 and the extent of the imbalance between how often male authors and female authors were reviewed by major newspapers and magazines was clear. Only 29 per cent of books reviewed in The New Republic and The Nation were by women, falling to a mere 27 per cent at The Times Literary Supplement.

The Man Booker prize itself is often criticised for the sexism of its choices. In 2014, the long list had 10 men and 3 women. Given the high number of both women readers and writers, isn't that a little bit strange?

Our society isn't comfortable with other voices or different voices (look at the Sad Puppies!). Books which represent those voices have a really hard time getting published. But isn't it too easy to blame another group who is lacking power than it is to really look at the structural racism and sexism which dominate popular media?
posted by frumiousb at 4:17 PM on December 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


It was a show of empathy, but it prioritized her feelings over his experiences.

I think her empathy was for the mother who was forced to abandon her child, and had or has no idea where he might be or what happened to him, rather than the child who was now grown and standing before her. And I'm reasonably sure that it was real, rather than for show, if she had small children herself.
posted by jokeefe at 4:53 PM on December 1, 2015


"Oh, you poor thing, tell me more about your horrible life so that we can all have a cathartic moment about you" is fairly objectifying.

I mean, I see what you're saying, but how is criticizing a woman for how she shows emotion not both problematic in itself, and emblematic of the problems the FPP is describing?
posted by mittens at 5:04 PM on December 1, 2015


Where did the middle-aged bit come from? My literary tastes have not changed much from my childhood and high school years (although thankfully I'm WAY OVER Iris Murdoch): sci-fi, lit fic, mysteries both high and low brow, soc hist, travel, etc etc. But it's nice that *someone's* pandering to me! I don't think it's the book world though and I don't think "white" totally encapsulates my buying power. But perhaps I doth protest too much...
posted by mollymillions at 5:26 PM on December 1, 2015


There's an enjoyable irony when he says, "Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like," because everyone knows what a Booker prize winner will look like too. Not that there is a house style, so to speak, but that pleasant, sinking-into-a-hot-bath sense of middlebrow-but-intelligent tourism you get when you pick up one of the winners or one off the shortlist.

Maybe I just need to read more Booker prize winners, but James' book stood out to me as distinct and not easily fit into a pattern. Middlebrow books have their pleasures, but I wouldn't put his book into that category at all.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 PM on December 1, 2015


"In 2011, the UK was 87% white and only 3% black. Black people are effectively as niche an interest group as science fiction fans, a genre which also has not won a Man Booker Prize. I'm glad that black writers are able to win one at all, but if they also want to write for a black audience, it might be easier to do so in a predominantly black country."

You know that the Booker has traditionally gone to Commonwealth authors (recently opened to any English language book) that have an edition published in the UK, right? So, like, while nailing down the precise racial demography of English speakers is pretty difficult, I'm willing to bet that there are more English-speaking black South Africans than there are scifi fans. Likewise, Jamaica, etc.

"I think a tricky part about this whole conversation is that we, as a culture, love to have public discourse about how we hate older white women and how they're awful and ruin everything, etc etc."

If I had to give a one-word summary of the stereotype, it would be "uncool."

"So what's the solution, babelfish? If an author writes something that does not appeal to me --- a white woman --- then I'm far less likely to buy it. Is it then justified to complain that the fault is mine, that I'm somehow a racist because I refuse to spend my money on something that does not interest or entertain me, that holds no intellectual appeal to me? And editors aren't usually in business to make sure everyone's racial viewpoint is equally promoted: they're in business to sell books, and therefore they have little to no interest in publishing books that won't sell enough copies to earn a profit.

I totally agree that authors are free to write whatever they want, but I'm equally free to purchase only what *I* want.
"

So… Nothing wrong with the representation of women in Hollywood? Because, hey, if dudes don't like it, what can ya do?

There are a couple of big problems with this sort of response. First off, if nothing written by a black author or about a black experience entertains, interests or holds any intellectual appeal for you, yeah, I'm going to assume that you're racist. Because the wealth of human experience is so broad that if you can't find anything by a black author that you think is worth reading, the problem probably isn't black people. Second off, while the business of publishers is to sell books to readers, editors and publishers aren't sluices and mass market readers aren't the only audience — if they were, plenty of lit fic would never get published, because it's prestige shit whose real commercial purpose is to attract authors to the publisher. (And, you know, plenty of people in publishing still do believe that part of their role is to promote literary art, but since you're making an appeal to naked capitalism, it's worth pointing out that even in that sense, the lack of diversity is at least somewhat counter-productive.)

"The traditional thinking is that the world of publishing is populated predominately with women, and this is true – most of the editors and publicists and agents that you meet do tend to be female, and studies show that the majority of people who buy and read fiction are women. But VIDA, an organisation which compiles data about male and female representation in literary publications, released their findings for 2014 and the extent of the imbalance between how often male authors and female authors were reviewed by major newspapers and magazines was clear. Only 29 per cent of books reviewed in The New Republic and The Nation were by women, falling to a mere 27 per cent at The Times Literary Supplement. "

I have a pal who finished her manuscript, and she landed a hotshot agent last year. Her agent's a woman, but generally works on the more mass-market side of things; my friend's one of them MFA writers doing a coming-of-age book about a poor (white) woman. One of the explicit notes that she's gotten back from publishers is to PANDER MOAR to middle- and upper-middle class women. It's been one of those awkward things, because it's been phrased like, "Look, we love it, but if you want it in airports, you've got to make it more relatable." It'd be her first published novel, and having any commercial success would be huge for her, and so it's been something she's wrestled with a lot — it's essentially a (no offense to Eyebrows) "Will it play in Peoria?" situation.

And to the broader issue: Bookhouse and I were talking about how many lit-fic books are totally pandering to the Manfeels of the Cuckolded Professor — Watkins is on point there. I don't notice the I Wish I Wasn't A Suburban Midwest Housewife nearly as much, but it's def a genre in itself — my mother-in-law plows through them (though, to be fair, she plows through ALL THE BOOKS, but I notice them any time I've finished my books and am borrowing from her shelves). In both cases, as alluded above, so often it feels like it's people assuming, condescendingly, that it's what people in those demographics will like. I've pretty much sworn off any non-genre fiction by middle-aged dudes because I get told about their (our) feelings all the fucking time and I just.don't.care anymore. I don't want to act like all my reading is escapist, but I can only imagine how oppressive this shit is for people who aren't middle-class white dudes, and so if it's only women and people of color who are published in lit-fic for the next decades, I feel like I'll have a better range of people whose inner lives don't just remind me of my mental dialogue at its most banal and self-serving. The other side effect is that by getting more women and PoC, I can only imagine that the breadth of expression for women and PoC will grow, diminishing the power of the stereotypes. I'm not all about understated tales of domestic ennui either, but I like Watkins style enough in this that I'd be happy to read her writing on all sorts of subjects — too often, writers, subjects and styles all get condensed down to "woman writer" or "black writer," and I think that keeps people (including me) from being able to distinguish them from a blurb.

Finally: Anybody know if the novel from Watkins is any good? Her voice in this essay was pretty fucking fantastic, but she did do a terrible job of making me interested in Battleborn.
posted by klangklangston at 7:29 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean, I see what you're saying, but how is criticizing a woman for how she shows emotion not both problematic in itself, and emblematic of the problems the FPP is describing?

Because she was a journalist, presumably telling her subject's story, not her own.

I realize I probably explained the whole thing badly, but interviewing someone whose mother died 20 years ago or more should not involve the journalist crying about that death. My mother died 10 years ago, and I had a client who burst into tears when thinking about it (like, I had told her matter-of-factly a year ago that my mother had died, but something triggered her), and it was like, "Seriously? Pull yourself together. *I* am not this upset about it right now." It's using someone else's loss or pain as a way to express emotions you're not willing to claim for yourself. I think it completely ties in to what James is saying -- people of color writing about loss and deprivation is immediately comprehensible, but other narratives are not allowed. (And apparently anyone objecting to people imposing those narratives is a problem.)
posted by jaguar at 8:08 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


...Because how is anyone with any difficulties in their past supposed to work on whatever they're working on right now, if every time they're interviewed the interviewer bursts into tears based on something that happened when they were six months old? It's a straightjacket that prevents any further growth.
posted by jaguar at 8:19 PM on December 1, 2015


Why is it any more the interviewer's job to police their emotions than it is the person who has consented to an interview? In particular with the arts, why wouldn't a genuine emotional response on either side be valid and encouraged (unless someone is so overwrought they cannot go on).
posted by taterpie at 8:21 PM on December 1, 2015


Because journalists are trying to tell someone else's story. If they become the story, they're not doing their job. (I'm a therapist. If my emotions turn into the dominant ones in a session, I am not doing my job.)
posted by jaguar at 8:22 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


When Women's Literary Tastes are Deemed Less Worthy, today in the Atlantic.
posted by jokeefe at 8:45 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


A response by Dreda Say Mitchell in today’s Guardian, which says some of the same things that Frowner has eloquently expressed above & talks more generally about the pigeonholing of ethnic minority authors.
posted by pharm at 4:35 AM on December 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


About the radio host:

As a chronic sympathy-crier, I feel like I understand the immediate crying thing. But, some things I've noticed in myself over time that lead me to try to avoid sympathy-crying:

1. It is often not in line with the sympathee's current situation - the sympathee has processed and is wanting to face the world.

2. It risks pushing the sympathee to comfort me, which is not what I want.

3. It risks bringing up bad feelings for the sympathee - maybe they've put effort into putting aside bad feelings so they can do the interview, etc, and my tears bring up their own pain.

4. It can be very shallow, even if I'm well-intentioned. I'm going to cry, but what am I going to do? Likely, I'm going to pack up and move on with my life, while the sympathee has to live with the situation.

5. It takes attention away from what the sympathee is trying to tell me.

I don't think "making it all about you" is a good description of what happens - I think it's normal and in fact healthy to be moved by a sad event. But I do think that the material consequences of displaying our sadness at certain times and in certain ways have to be taken into account, and this is especially true in formal, public situations like a radio interview.

There are definitely times when I feel like it's been good to have been obviously moved by someone's story, but those have mostly been private times, and times where the person is obviously somewhat worried that I will dismiss what they're saying. Once someone is on your radio show in a sympathetic interview, it's pretty clear that you're not dismissing their account.

I do think that there are lots of social interactions that are sub-optimal but should not be treated as worthy of scorn. That is, I don't think it's a giant moral failing to cry on the radio about someone's personal history, even if it isn't the best way to conduct an interview. I think the internet sort of facilitates the...maybe the over-theorization of mistakes.
posted by Frowner at 5:59 AM on December 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think the confusion about how white women can both have little power in the industry and also be blamed for having too much power comes about because we're conflating white women publishers with white women writers with white women readers with a certain writing style that supposedly appeals to white women. I think we tease out a better method of describing that style in the comments above: book club style.

My suspicion is that book club style is one part Oprah, one part Iowa MFA house style.

Some books are chosen for book clubs specifically because they are marketed to book clubs. Publishers will write on the cover that it's a great book club selection, or that a book club insert is included. They will add a book club guide to the back. They are doing the best they can to beg people to use certain books for their club and in doing so, force 10 people to buy copies whether it looks that appealing to them or not. A glass of wine makes a lot of things look appealing.

Someone mentioned Franzen above. It's not that Franzen wrote The Corrections thinking "Wooooooo boy are white women going to love the heck out of this. It's sooooo middlebrow." Quite the opposite, in fact. He was disturbed to learn that he wrote a book club book. And marketing is what made it a book club book. Both by Oprah and by his publisher.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:00 AM on December 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Following on what Frowner said, this is the "white women's tears" thing, a concept that pushes my buttons a bit when not used with care and specificity, as somebody who really, really cannot control when and where I cry (believe me, I've done everything) and for whom it is an embarrassing physiological reaction and I hate the way I'm made to constantly apologize for it, as though it's a greater human failing than big displays of aggression. ANYWAY. The concept is more targeted than the whole gendered business of policing emotions: there's a dynamic (that I think jaguar was getting at with the interview, but sorry if I'm wrong here!) where in media settings we're trained to direct attention to sympathetic young white women and where their reactions to a given situation become more important to the audience than the POC who was originally speaking, even if the whole purpose of that program was to focus on the individual POC. It's something that comes up a lot in American media in various ways, from The Help-like tropes to crime reporting.
posted by thetortoise at 6:21 AM on December 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


The concept is more targeted than the whole gendered business of policing emotions: there's a dynamic (that I think jaguar was getting at with the interview, but sorry if I'm wrong here!) where in media settings we're trained to direct attention to sympathetic young white women and where their reactions to a given situation become more important to the audience than the POC who was originally speaking, even if the whole purpose of that program was to focus on the individual POC. It's something that comes up a lot in American media in various ways, from The Help-like tropes to crime reporting.

Yes. Thank you.
posted by jaguar at 6:47 AM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Someone mentioned Franzen above. It's not that Franzen wrote The Corrections thinking "Wooooooo boy are white women going to love the heck out of this. It's sooooo middlebrow." Quite the opposite, in fact. He was disturbed to learn that he wrote a book club book. And marketing is what made it a book club book. Both by Oprah and by his publisher.

This is in a nutshell the thing that bugs me about the original Marlon James post and how it looks out of context. He's making an important statement about how writers of color are forced to commodify and repackage their experience and art for a white audience, but in invoking the book-club stereotype (along with a probably-illusory class of powerful older white women critics controlling the publishing industry), he's (probably unintentionally) aligning himself with the Franzenish elite male writers-- usually white, usually wealthy-- who obtain cultural cachet by dumping on the taste of that group. With his new Booker, it seems almost like a bid for legitimacy with that crowd, at least until you read his actual comments on Facebook (or anywhere else), where he engages in detail with and supports women writers of color.
posted by thetortoise at 6:50 AM on December 2, 2015 [13 favorites]


On the repetition necessary to keep the desired reader:

"Well, is 'addiction' what a literary writer should want in readers? And if a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same? In fact it would be far more plausible to ascribe the failure (aesthetic, but not commercial) of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and indeed Franzen’s Purity, not to the author’s willingness to take exciting risks with new material (Ishiguro’s bizarre The Buried Giant, for example), but rather to a tired, lackluster attempt to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein."

-- Tim Parks, "A Novel Kind of Conformity."
posted by mittens at 6:20 PM on December 2, 2015


On Pandering, White Women as Scapegoats, and the Literary Industry as a Hand-Me-Down by Aya de Leon
This is the version of white woman that James speaks of. And this declawed, defanged, spiceless literature is for these white women in the gilded cage. In this context, there can be no three-dimensional protagonists of color as part of such a literary canon because the whole pretext of the cage was to protect this white woman from us–people of color. As part of this system, the male dominated white society has often used white women as pretexts, scapegoats and human shields to justify and protect white supremacy. So with this in mind, I found myself bristling at James’ assertion that we, as writers of color, are pandering to white women.

I don’t disagree with James about the phenomena he observes: a literary industry with white women in gatekeeping roles and with white women set up as the archetypal consumer to be pandered to. I do, however, disagree with the implied notion that white women are the powerful and designing force behind the institution. In reality, the literary industry has been forged by a patriarchal system that decides what would be in its own interest for women to want, tells women that they want it and then sells it to us.
posted by jaguar at 1:07 PM on December 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


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