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.