Pandering? Yes, I’m Aware. No, I do not give a Damn What the Old White Men Think, and I Never Have. Welcome to the Outpost. 

Claire’s Essay

What am I talking about? This essay, above, by Claire Vay Watkins, in Tin House, which is the topic du jour in literature. And good for her. In it, she admits that she has spent her writing life trying to get the attention of the Old White Men who generally run the journals, MFA programs, and critical outlets that determine who receives attention as a writer. Who, for that matter, is even considered a writer, as opposed to A Girl. (Or, I would add, An Old Feminist.) We should always be thinking about it. Because it’s not just the white men in the literary community. It’s also the white women. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent worrying and wondering how I can open The Rumpus up further to diverse voices. (If you have thoughts, please share them with me.) She has been writing to OWM, she discovers, and not to women, or the rural poor, of people of colors, or other constituencies.

The scales having fallen from her eyes after years of being dismissed by the aforementioned OWM, we should burn the system down, she suggests. And about time. Perhaps now there are enough famous women writers to scorch it good.

It is interesting to me that in this apocalyptic vision, she does not acknowledge the feminist presses or editors who have for years been building an alternate system of presses, journals, and anthologies.

When I began writing, there were only the handful of women writers deemed good enough to be in anthologies edited by men–women such as Katherine Anne Porter, Emily Dickinson, and a very few others–most of whom were given a mere mention in lit classes, and a very few brave women who wrote for women and were taught then mostly in women’s studies classes–Marge Piercy, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, for example.

I started first Wild Dove Studio & Press in 1990, and then Jane’s Stories Press Foundation in 2000, with a few feminist friends, in order to bring more attention to women writers. A few of the women we published early have gone on to receive some attention from the larger lit world that includes Claire’s Old White Men: Gayle Brandeis, Yolanda Nieves, among others. And some, whom I greatly admire, are women like the poet Alice Friman, who lives comfortably in that territory policed by OWM, but still responds to and writes work that speaks especially to women as well. And then there are women like my mentor, Christine Swanberg, who writes and speaks to people who interest her wherever and whomever they may be: aging hippies, people of faith, fellow and sister travellers, some eight books of well-received poetry published through what Christine calls a “dance with the [male] editors,” a dance she has tried to teach me, but which I have failed to learn.

At both Wild Dove and Jane’s Stories, we deliberately set out to publish women of color, and we have done so consistently. It has not been hard. In my box today, is also a letter from Marisa Siegel, the somewhat new editor of The Daily Rumpus, a journal begun by Stephen Elliott, a man whose sexist assumptions are called out with bravado by Watkins in the essay that prompted this posting. Siegel notes of the subject of Watkins’ essay, “We should always be thinking about it. Because it’s not just the white men in the literary community. It’s also the white women. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent worrying and wondering how I can open The Rumpus up further to diverse voices. (If you have thoughts, please share them with me.)”

I have thoughts, Marisa, and I offer them here:

Include people of color, members of the physically-challenged community, people of various sexual orientations and identifications, and any other diverse voices on your board. Keep a list of those whose work catches your eye in other publications, and ask them personally to submit work to you. Most of all, listen. Listen. Read publications from, to those communities. Send them your calls for submissions.

Recently, I had the experience of being asked personally to submit work to Drunken Boat, an online publication I’ve long admired, by the special edition editor, Tiffany De Vos. I was most impressed that she had done her research and found the handful of Romani-American writers working today, and asked each personally to submit. The result was the first-ever literary collection of Romani voices in the U.S. That, Marisa, is how you do it.

Affirmative action in any field is not hard. However, having been an academic administrator serving on search committees and an editor on both women-only and wide open publications, I can tell you that it is a process that is easily subverted by those who resent giving up their privileges. It is a process that must be guarded fiercely and defended loudly. It must become the mission of all.

Watkins urges us to tell the truth. So here goes, Claire. For all the years I have been trying to promote women’s voices in literature, I have been dismissed repeatedly by OWM (Rick Campbell, are you listening?) but I have also been dismissed, overlooked, snubbed, turned down with disdain, and otherwise dissed repeatedly by female lit professors and MFA students. One professor whom I published and promoted in a reading did not even bother to come over to the Other Words conference table where I was promoting my recently published novel to say hello. Nor did she come to the session where I spoke. I certainly doubt that she bought or read my novel. Instead, she stuck with her academic crowd and read to applause by the OWM. Two others whom I also published did not bother to write blurbs for my book, one excusing herself by saying it must be “somewhere” in the stack of books on her table. (Many others did, and I am most grateful to them.)

So, this warning, Claire: You’re asking for women to stick together and promote each other. You’re asking for women to call out violations of the affirmative action process. You’re asking women to call out men who may determine their tenure, their acceptance, the review of their own next book. You’re asking for the feminist presses and journals to become obsolete in order to help create One Fair System for all.

My novel was published by a quietly fierce feminist at Twisted Road Publications, Joan Leggitt, who is interested in voices that have been marginalized, male or female. I can’t foresee a time when there will be no need for editors with vision who seek out those on the fringe who have plenty to say and can say it well. No matter how fair the system, there will be voices from the outskirts calling for the boundaries to be extended.

You are asking for folks in academia to stop patrolling the boundaries and to start listening all the way to the edge of the Known Universe. Wow, what a world that would be. Count me in. I have spent years listening for you from the outpost.

8 responses to “Pandering? Yes, I’m Aware. No, I do not give a Damn What the Old White Men Think, and I Never Have. Welcome to the Outpost. ”

  1. Kathy McConnell Avatar
    Kathy McConnell

    Great post, Glenda. You put into words inchoate thoughts and instincts I had about the essay. Some parts I thought self-serving, others I wondered if she did not know how and when to stand up for herself. Some I cheered. At the end, I felt dissatisfied and unsure why. I hoped you might have something to say and bravo! You did. Very well. Thank you. I just want to add that it’s well past the time OWM had much say in anything. They are of the generation between our parents and us (I’m at the tail end of boomers but I made it:) and, honestly, I can’t think of a damn thing they accomplished. I’m sure they did something (Ted Kennedy comes to mind) and I would have to identify and explore who were in that generation, but I seem to recall that there is usually a “silent” generation between war fighters and peace promoters (my word choices). There is a book titled “Generations” I believe I read probably 20 years ago and I would like to read again that speaks to this…..oh I don’t know, I’m just rambling. Not a good brain day. I love your voice, dear cousin, and what you have to say.


    1. Glenda Bailey-Mershon Avatar

      Thank you, Kathy. I know a few OWM who’ve been helpful and obviously Claire knows more who have helped her personally. But we need to do meta-analysis rather than relying on personal observations. This morning I plan to delve deeper in comments on Claire’s article to see what the female academics might be saying, or if they’re as silent as ones I’ve tagged here:


  2. Susanna J. Sturgis Avatar

    Once upon a time feminists developed an amazing network of feminist bookstores, presses, newspapers, magazines, production companies, etc., etc. It was a resource for feminists in all sorts of fields, from politics to education to libraries. It published and distributed work by writers whose voices might not have been heard otherwise. It showed the mainstream publishers that there was a market for lesbian fiction and feminist books of all kins. Along with indy bookstores in general, it was gutted by chain bookstores, the mega-publishers who colluded with them, and — not least at all, though we didn’t recognize its importance at the time — Reaganomics. A parallel feminist movement grew up in the f/sf (fantasy and science fiction) world: it, I’m happy to report, is still thriving — but now, as then, f/sf is marginalized not only by the mainstream literati but by feminist readers.

    In theory, the digital age should make it easier to develop feminist publishing and distribution networks, but I don’t see it happening. There are some hopeful signs, though, like Twisted Road. Shade Mountain Press, committed to publishing literature by women, just released its third and fourth titles, and they’re every bit as good as its first two. But we need more more more — like resources for feminist self-publishers to develop and distribute their work to all the readers who are as hungry for feminist work as we were in the 1970s and ’80s but don’t know where to find it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glenda Bailey-Mershon Avatar

      Well said, Susanna! And maybe we need to look at the state of Women’s Studies while we’re at it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Susanna J. Sturgis Avatar

    IMO this turn to “gender studies” is bad news for feminists and feminism, but that’s a whole other story. :-/ Something I took for granted in my bookselling days was the back-and-forthing between feminist academics and feminist grassroots activists and theorists. Sometimes they were the same people, but even when they weren’t, the thinking and agitating going on in women’s studies departments (and elsewhere in academia) was connected, often closely connected, to what was happening “on the ground.” At first feminist theory grew out of the feminist movement, not out of women’s studies departments — mainly because there hardly were any.

    We were speaking more or less the same language — which isn’t to say that class, classism, and privilege didn’t interfere, because they did, a lot. But if the academic writers and theorizers started getting too esoteric, they’d get called on it.

    There were big advantages to the reciprocal grassroots-academic relationship, like access to free meeting space, sometimes funds to pay speakers, that kind of thing. The Women in Print network was shoestring city, but we did a lot with what we had. Lots of “sweat equity” in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Glenda Bailey-Mershon Avatar

    I miss the Women in Print and all the great presses and bookstores we’ve lost. And, you’re right, Suzanne, the dialogue between academics and activists was electric and transformative. I am still pondering how the essay author could have been a Women’s Studies minor and not have understood that graduate school and after meant “tap dancing for the daddies” to use Sally Field’s excellent phrase. Perhaps something real has been lost in terms of consciousness raising. Several years ago, I met a recent MFA graduate who expressed how happy she was to be finished with her studies. When I asked her what she liked to write, a look of wonderment passed over her face. She had no idea, she said; no one had ever asked her that question before; she only knew how to write what her professors wanted. I imagine she and Professor Watkins could have an extensive conversation.


  5. Susanna J. Sturgis Avatar

    I came into my own as a writer in the Women in Print movement. Writing for off our backs, getting poems and essays published in the likes of Sinister Wisdom and Women: A Journal of Liberation and Lesbian Contradiction. I got the idea that I had a contribution to make and there were places that would publish what I wrote. I was right! Then that whole world pretty much disappeared, but I’ve still got the idea that I have a contribution to make, and that I shouldn’t have to tap-dance for the daddies to get it out there. (I never learned how to tap-dance for the daddies. My bad.)

    My brand-new review assignment from the Women’s Review of Books (maybe the last vestige of academic/grassroots collaboration) is titled The Feminist Bookstore Movement. The author is a former feminist bookseller; the publisher is a university press. I haven’t dared open it yet, but I will. I was recently contacted by a woman who’s writing a book about the women’s music movement/scene of the 1970s and ’80s. OMG, somebody else remembers what I remember! It really was real!


  6. Glenda Bailey-Mershon Avatar

    That’s a much needed book–I’ll wait for your review. The thing is, I think we all want “the mainstream” to move our way, and in many ways it has, but if women are still tap-dancing, there’s more to do.


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