On Invisibility, Gender, and Publishing

Chris Jackson's post, last week, on gender and book-publishing generated some mail into my inbox. Here's a guest-post, and partial counter to Chris, from writer and film producer Alyss Dixson

A quick note: My sense is that this could get really hot. Please don't ruin an important conversation with your need to have the last word. This is not debate club. When in doubt, walk away. If you know you nothing constructive to offer, walk away.

I'm going to start out by thanking Chris Jackson for prompting this post. From past experience arguing with the men in my life, I know it's a zero-sum game to attack someone whose stated intent is to level the playing field, so when I read his "All the Sad Young Literary Women" post (on this very blog) very early on Monday morning--too early to be rational, and, I admit, through one open eye on my iPhone--I immediately sent it out to a group of women friends and colleagues for feedback. I will also admit that when I sent it I was peeved at the gender bias in the tone, not the message (mostly). 


 I work with a newly formed non-profit group known as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Letters (vidaweb.org), and this is what we do - find ways to quantify, discuss, dissect and "disintermediate" (as Mr. Jackson put it) the work of those gatekeepers, and listmakers and other cultural production monetizers and arbiters out there in the world of arts and letters. The Atlantic can definitely be counted as one of those arbiters, so I read it regularly. VIDA formed in response to a dilemma women writers of all genres face: the lack of balanced representation in publishing and literary awards and colloquia. 

Last year, founder Cate Marvin sent out an email entitled, "As I Stand Here Folding Laundry" to a group of friends that resonated with enough women writers that it went viral, appearing on listservs and blogs and generally putting a finger on an issue that had gone unfingered, serving as a call to action to address the dearth of consideration given to the cultural production of women writers. Last year's Publisher's Weekly Best-Of debacle in which they included an astounding (drumroll, please) ZERO writers of the female persuasion, and their follow-up defense that the world is now--I'm not sure what to call it? Post-sexism? Beyond the need to examine one's own motives and biases when declaring material superlative?--underscored the urgency of this mission. 

Julianna Baggot (another woman active in VIDA) wrote in the Washington Post about it, eloquently pointing out that Publisher's Weekly was not alone, the Pulitzer had gone to only 11 women in the past 30 years. So, based on the fact pattern, one is either to believe that women don't write, don't write well, or, most probably, aren't considered for recognition in the same ways that male writers are. We are, essentially, invisible. 
A quick digression: when I was a kid, most of my toys were educational, I had a chemistry set, an electronics kit (I built my first radio with my dad in the basement), and an anatomy doll, the Visible Woman. Anyone of a certain age remembers this doll, see-thru skin, molded to the contours of mature womanhood, a tracery of blue veins, red arteries, and the best part, loads of diminutive, detailed, plastic organs layered inside. Heaven. This struggle of women writers, reminds me of playing with this doll. We take apart the industry, the culture that represses, devalues, ignores or pushes aside women's writing; we critique the quality of the writing; pit commercial writing against literary writing; argue about topicality and subject matter and emotionality. 

In short, we look at the dazzling bits inside ignoring the clear plastic shell that encases them. Women in this society, and sadly, many others, are devalued, and not only by men, often we find ourselves devaluing other women, as well. This is how invisibility works. The concerns of women writers are pushed aside, the statistics (which VIDA has been, and will continue to, compile) are ignored, the issues are not discussed, or are glossed over with simplistic strategies for which we find ourselves grateful (at least something is being done, right?) instead of galvanized to demand more, to push for more, to create a dialectic that is inclusive, instead of amending the one that isn't. 

I'm not in anyway elevating Mr. Jackson's post to the tone deafness displayed in the great Publisher's Weekly Afro Pick Controversy of '09. Calvin Reid really stuck his foot in that one, and to his credit, he apologized to those offended immediately--although one can't help but wonder if PW's policy as stated in his letter to BlogHer about the controversy ("The image was not run by female staffers black or white to vet it because I'm not sure any of our covers are ever vetted in that manner.") has been changed. 

But when Jackson's piece recounts a female colleague asking him when last he read work by a female author, instead of problematizing and contextualizing her question (why is she asking him this, what larger discussion does this tie back to, what's the meta here), he lightens up with, "It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss." Really? 

Background: In a past life I was a film producer and studio executive, my stock and trade the writers, directors, actors and producers whose names and reputations were, and are, treated like fantasy football teams, so it seemed disingenuous to me that someone with enough connections to post in the Culture section of The Atlantic wasn't equally attentive. Mr. Jackson shows how even our sympathizers can poison us with the pen of the incredulous cheerleader ("...I've also spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader's direct experience... and apparently I've been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.) As if to say, Look! Women write! Some of them are readable! 

It brought to mind the work Tim Wise has done to address White privilege and ethnic biases--as a woman, my dissecting gender bias doesn't change it. As I said at top, introducing the topic of male readers' bias against women's writing is welcome, using this platform to advocate for greater inclusion is needed. However, lacking a deeper examination of Mr. Jackson's own apparent gender bias results in a potentially much more destructive gender-blindness, (and I'm riffing off of Mr. Wise's great essay about liberal racial bias, With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glen Beck? Racism and White Privilege in the Liberal Left, and this Julian Bond reference: "To be blind to color, as Julian Bond has noted, is to be blind to the consequences of color, 'and especially the consequences of being the wrong color in America.'"). 

Perhaps, over the course of the next few years, decades, lifetimes, we, as women writers and readers (Fact: women readers outnumber men, the NEA report on reading from 2008, Reading on the Rise, notes that women readers account for 58 percent of adult literary readers) will decolonize ourselves, find a way to overthrow the literary patriarchy that overlooks, and at times outright smothers women's literary expression and cultural production, and celebrate that we create more than just the bodies that populate the planet. 

Instead of fighting to receive four-figure advances (as the average black woman writer of a black woman's lit book does), and against marketing categories that often spell the death knell of book tours and newspaper ads, we'll argue that it shouldn't be chick lit v. literary lit. that there isn't a lack of female talent, or an overabundance of frivolity, but, rather, question why the spout is so narrow. Why are the stories we tell, from science fiction to kitchen table drama, not purchased, reviewed and promoted in the same ways that men's writing is? Why are we not lionized (or is that lionessed?) in the same numbers as the men? 

On an optical level, invisibility works by bending the light pointed at an object. The object doesn't disappear, atoms dispersing and separating to let light pass through it, but, rather, deflects light to the objects behind it, allowing them to reflect back at the viewer. If women writers want to become visible we can't mollify ourselves in the face of oppression with phrases like, "He means well," "It's better than nothing," "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." I'm hopeful that the work VIDA is putting in to provide data and challenge assumptions, will inspire our male colleagues and readers to do more than just combat their "reluctance" to read work by women writers, but to eradicate it, to pull the scales from their eyes and look around them. And see us looking right back.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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