Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The flamethrowers: feminism and literature


Guess my name

“Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati.” — Claire Vaye Watkins

Have you read the Tin House essay, “On Pandering,” by Claire Vaye Watkins yet?
I read it and started getting kind of upset. Watkins has a lifetime of catering to male standards and values, and it seems a white male writer named Stephen Elliott was a dick to her once, so.

As George Carlin might put it, I happen to be a white male writer.

As I started to craft a pithy post about how all of us in the lit-biz have to pander to one degree or another, I realized that I understand where Watkins is coming from so why should I try to contradict her? All white males aren’t dicks, and some women are dicks. It’s a big wide world. And the lit-biz, at the top levels where they dish out Pulitzers and National Book Awards, is dominated by men. Women get short shrift in the “seriousness” sweepstakes. It’s true that many popular female writers happen to write light and breezy novels with relationship themes (and if I were a woman, Occasional Soulmates would certainly fall into that category), but a number of them also write serious books about much larger themes. Heidi Julavits comes to mind. Rachel Kushner. A.M. Homes. Jane Smiley. Lots of them. (Almost forgot — Smiley did win the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres.)

Read the piece and chime in, if you like. It’s a big issue. Watkins makes some deeply uncomfortable points and she raises hackles all around. But as a man who just published a book about three hundred women taking matters into their own hands and forming their own society, I don’t care to be tossed into the same dick-tub as Stephen Elliott.

And, with reference to the Salon column that talks about the essay, I have read Bridget Jones’s Diary!

8 comments on “The flamethrowers: feminism and literature

  1. Adrienne Morris
    December 2, 2015

    Couldn’t even finish the article. She’s too annoying. “I was like so totally freaked out by landing an amazing agent!” yuck!

    Yeah girls and women delight in watching men perform–old as history. Why do women need so much male approval for their work? Why don’t they rely on other women to help promote them? It’s because most women see every other woman as a rival for male attention and do whatever they have to to tear women to shreds. You’ve got my blood pumping today!

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 2, 2015

      It was tough to get through, that’s for sure! I made it all the way to the comments, which were almost as aggravating as the article. A lot of “You go, girl!”

      What bugs me is that she’s clearly a success in her art. She has arrived. I guess she considers herself a failure unless she wins a Nobel one day, but there’s a phalanx of white dudes standing in her way.

      • Adrienne Morris
        December 2, 2015

        Adult women who say or write “you go, girl” should be . . . ugh. I won’t say it.

        I read a similar article by a painter–all male artists were mean. So? Why do these women care? I think she mentioned how Jackson Pollock was better respected for his art than his wife or lover who also painted. Was it his job to make her famous? In this day and age many women become famous even without talent. I took a feminist theory class to boost my GPA. 3 HOURS talking about the unfairness of shaving. All you had to do is write papers about feeling victimized to get an A.

      • Kevin Brennan
        December 2, 2015

        That kind of critic tends to overlook some great male/female partnerships, plus successful women who did their thing on their own, without latching on to mean men-tors. A lot of thinking in many disciplines (not just feminist theory) comes with a lot of dogma.

        Thanks for the chats today, by the way!

  2. cinthiaritchie
    December 3, 2015

    Well, I guess I’m in the minority because I loved that article, and found it to be uncomfortably true. Yeah, Kevin, you’re a dude and yeah, you write women-strong books, which is so, so cool.
    But wait! Women who write “light” subjects since as romance aren’t taken seriously while men who write “light” subjects such as hunting and outdoorsy stuff, are shined upon by the literary lights.
    As someone who has worked as a journalist and newspaper editor for 15 years, I can easily say that it’s still a man’s world. Yeah, more women are writing and more women are publishing but there’s still a huge distinction between what’s considered “serious” in terms of male and female writing subjects/books, etc.
    That said, not all white men fall in the “dick” category and women can be pretty awful and limiting, too.
    The cool thing is that even though old white men might dominate the publishing world, self-publishing allows for more voices to be heard, and in more diverse means.
    But I think we all have to do our part and read both male and female voices, and more minorities, too. I think we all need to read something that makes us uncomfortable, that makes us flinch, at least once a month.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 3, 2015

      That’s why I said I could genuinely understand where Watkins was coming from. It’s true that a Tom McGuane and a Jim Harrison and probably lots more get a different kind of praise than a Helen Fielding, which is not to say that Fielding ought to get a Booker prize. Heck, I saw a picture of the Pulitzer Prize Board last week and it was maybe fifteen men and two women! That truly does suck.

      But I do think things are changing. I just didn’t find Watkins’s rhetorical approach very constructive… or focused on the real problem, which is that there aren’t enough publishing companies with women at the top.

      Maybe that Koch daughter can do some good after all! http://wp.me/p3sx1Q-10P

  3. cinthiaritchie
    December 3, 2015

    P.S. I know the name of the lovely woman in the pic because I used the same pic on my blog, hee, hee. Cheers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 3, 2015

      Pssst. Don’t tell anybody! Now excuse me while I go hang some yellow wallpaper…

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This entry was posted on December 2, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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