A Writer’s Job: A Public Response to Michele Filgate’s “Literary Self-Loathing”

George Sand

George Sand

I’ve tried to put it out of my mind and move on, but seven hours later, I’m still livid over both the tone and the content of Michele Filgate’s “Literary Self-Loathing” article over at Salon.com. Yes, I left a comment, but that didn’t seem to bank down the embers of my ire. Please take a moment and read the article. Then come back.

I take issue with a great number of things in that article: that writing is about winning awards, or getting to the top of the NYT best seller list, or getting reviewed by literary luminaries. Writing is not about any of that. That’s about competitiveness and capitalism. And it strikes me as pretty rich that the author of the article bemoans her self-loathing for not having finished her novel. In my view, that’s entirely appropriate self-loathing doing its job.

However, what offended me most was the well-worn and badly referenced tirade against the PATRIARCHY (I have to put that in capital letters because that’s how it sounds in the article, regardless of how it’s typeset) and all the ways in which is has rendered this poor woman unable to sell voluminous copies of her book, or win a Booker Man Prize, or get a good publishing deal when she hasn’t managed to finish her book yet. How utterly unfair.

I’m not denying there IS a patriarchy and I’m not denying that certain minorities are very poorly represented in the list of literary luminaries. They are, and it is wholly indefensible that they are. What pisses me off is someone who uses this excuse to whine and not actually write the novel.

In the 18th and 19th Century, incredible women writers were forced to use male pseudonyms just to get their work published and have it taken seriously: Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Amantine Dupin de Francueil (George Sand), all the Brontë sisters ( Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell). Later, writers like Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) who wrote Out of Africa.  Certain genres, like sci-fi and detective fiction (as opposed to cosy mysteries) at one time had a great bias against women writers, and so they did take male pen names in order to get published and read. And these days, there are male writers who have to use a female pen name to publish in the Romance and Erotica genres. There are writers who have had to choose pen names because their real names revealed their ethnicity – it was too Black, too Jewish, too Russian. I myself took the pseudonym of Remittance Girl as a tongue in cheek salute to the erotica writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries who not only couldn’t get published, or reviewed with any seriousness, but actually risked jail time to write what they wrote. It’s disgusting that this bullshit gender or ethnicity bias has ever happened and may still be  happening on the part of publishers, critics, readers…  It is despicable that anyone should have to relinquish their identity in order to be judged on the merit of their work. It’s just not fucking fair.


All those people who could justifiably complain about the PATRIARCHY cramping their style managed to get their bloody novels written and get them published.  And they are in our literary canon today because they did it despite the PATRIARCHY. Perhaps it was because they weren’t so busy worrying about who might not review their books or which award they might not get, or how many books they might eventually sell.

The PATRIARCHY may be responsible for a lot of shit, but if it actually stops you from sitting down and writing then perhaps you weren’t cut out to be a writer. Certainly it is less likely to inhibit you today than it ever has in the past. If you are so delicate of feeling that you can’t pull yourself to get to fucking work because you’re worried about what might happen down the line, then think of another pursuit. Because writing is hard.

It’s hard because there are so many brilliant writers to aspire to emulate. It’s hard because it’s lonely. It’s hard because you owe your reader honesty and authenticity and accuracy. It’s hard because it’s lonely. It’s hard because there are limits to what language alone can communicate. Did I mention it’s hard because it’s lonely?

It is also sublime.

So, after you have read Ms. Filgate’s list of all the reasons you can’t write, let me give you my reasons for why you can and should.

There is never enough good writing in this world. There are a million stories aching to be told. Language is a deep, plush velvet that begs to be stroked in a thousand different ways and every time you rewrite a sentence, you caress it differently. There are worlds for every book written and there are more waiting to be written by you.

Female, male, trans, Black, Asian, Gay or Straight:  take this voluptuous, imperfect tool and make something powerful and beautiful with it. Worry about all the ancillary stuff after. You can’t fight the powers that be unarmed and your sharpest weapon is the best piece of writing you can possibly produce.

21 Thoughts on “A Writer’s Job: A Public Response to Michele Filgate’s “Literary Self-Loathing”

  1. Here here!! Very well put!!

    ~Mia~ xx

  2. Wow. Ignoring the patriarchy angle, what a load of public pity party. I know a lot of people full of self-loathing with a fraction of her advantages or ability to overcome it with a creative outlet. They meet in church basements and introduce themselves by their first name and which Step they’re working.

    They also don’t spend a lot of time whining. It gets in the way of moving past the self-loathing and getting well. Something she should do and you echo.

    • There are a lot of things to pity people for. Legitimate reasons to feel real compassion for someone. This just ain’t one of them

  3. Yes. Yes. Yes.
    I agree with you–Write because it has you by the throat not because you rail against the “machine” or some hierarchy (there is always something–it doesn’t matter what it is). Oh, how you voice this well.
    Write because the story and characters just bug you to the point of insanity, and if you have a blank page realize–it’s just a season, and like you said, it’s damn lonely, but you’ll walk out the other side.
    And write.
    This is FABULOUS article.
    Thank you.

  4. Write because a story sings to you, write to get the voices out of your head, write for a billion reasons but never, ever write for acclaim – what a pointless and hollow reason to go through such a gut-wrenching wringer.

  5. Yes!

    The problem, I think, is that of internal versus external motivation. Writing, I think, by its very nature is self-exploratory and, to borrow Freud’s concepts, id- and ego-driven. However, that writer is seriously in the space of the super-ego – looking at herself as part of the literary establishment and at her relative status/accomplishments/financial reward inside that group. Needless to say, that’s a stance that *might* serve you well if you’re at a lucheon with Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling, but since there will always be somebody with a higher status, more books sold and more and better-regarded literary prizes to their name, this way lies madness.

    Never mind total writers’ block. (Which is where I think the writer in question is, currently, as I’ve never met a whining *productive* author.)

    Right now, it also reeks of entitlement. The newbie whining about her lack of success without actually having put the work in – and getting SALON as a platform for a frankly self-indulgent whinefest. Shut up, put the work in, and commence whining after you’ve written 5-10 books, then we talk again about how the PATRIARCHY has stolen your keyboard.

    I want to recommend her a list of 5 books against writers’ block – then again, they are out there for anybody to find, plus lots of free blogs that would give her half a clue about how to tackle writers’ block from the inside not by throwing a self-pity-party and hoping that the internet will cheer her all the way to completion of her award-winning, best-selling miracle book.

  6. I’ve met this writer so many times. I start eying the exit as s/he begins their whine about how *unfair* it all is.

  7. I used to have a serious problem with self-doubt when I considered the outlets for my writing and whether I would be able to get it published. But after starting my own press, that part of my doubt is gone and no longer stands in the way of my actual work. I have an outlet, and so does anyone else who has internet access and wants to self-publish.

    I must say that I appreciate not working under that false sword any longer. Now I can focus on making my work as good as I can and then send it out into the world. No whining here.

  8. Writing anything with ANY purpose other than to tell a great story, fiction or non, is a sure route to a shallow, unengaging read. It takes discipline even to churn out dross.

    A writer doesn’t become a writer by getting lucrative contracts or celebrity blurbs or even by being published. Writers WRITE.

    We all would like recognition for our work, a modicum of fame perhaps, and regular paychecks (let’s hear it for being able to quit the day job!)–while I’m dreaming I’d like to be tall and athletic, with a good singing voice and 20 years younger.

    While I’m waiting for all that, I’ll be here at the keyboard, even on sunny days, even when my friends are doing something fun. That’s the only way I know how to do this.

    • “Writing anything with ANY purpose other than to tell a great story, fiction or non, is a sure route to a shallow, unengaging read”

      I don’t think non-story-form writing always results in shallow reading. There are genres in which a story structure is not appropriate, like philosophy or scientific writing. But these are genres with very specific aims.

  9. This is something I think about quite often. Part of why I continue to write the way I do and about the things I do is because there is a patriarchy. Because I am so far outside of the White Male everything. In terms of that universe I am beyond unsuccessful.

    In the context of infiltrating and fucking with that world I win at all of it.

    The things that make that author unable to write fuel me and sustain my continued attack on that world one word at a time.

    As an aside fuck I loathe Salon.

  10. Great response.

    I write for myself. At the end of the book, if I’m happy that I told the story I wanted to tell, that is beautiful. If anyone else likes it, and if Amazon puts a few dollars in my pocket, that’s all bonus.

  11. korhomme on December 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm said:

    Two alternatives: Jane Austen wrote for her and her family’s amusement. Sir Walter Scott wrote to pay his (publisher’s) debts. Jane, you could say, was ‘self actualised’, Sir Walter was ‘existing’.

    Meanwhile, publishers publish to make money. Write an airport novel, a blockbuster, if you want to be rich or famous.

    Alternatively, write a (school) textbook. Who now remembers Ronald Ridout?

  12. I’m a little late to the party, but DAMN. I’m crawling back to my corner to finish my synopsis I’ve been dragging my feet on for days. I wasn’t even clever enough to think up excuses. Thanks for the inspiration (a swift kick in my ass by the time I was done reading). Hehehe

  13. Paul McGranaghan on March 31, 2014 at 9:21 pm said:

    I loved reading this, and your piece on phenomenology. The second last paragraph of this is inspiring stuff.

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