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Don't Let Men Attack Pumpkin Spice Literature

Marlon James's recent comments on white women as literary gatekeepers are misguided.

WPA Pool/Getty

In the literary world, men get taken more seriously—as authors, even as characters. This is admittedly not among the world’s two greatest problems, but it’s irritating all the same. And it’s tough to address in a way that doesn’t devolve into either demands for not just author diversity but empowering messages, or, conversely, insistence not just that art can defy politics but that there’s something courageous and artistically innovative about a man channeling a variant of women-are-like-so into fiction.

At Electric Literature, the journalist and novelist Sigal Samuel made a compelling argument for pragmatic reading of sexist literature. “You can read an author, judge him sexist, and still learn something valuable about the human condition from his book,” she wrote, adding, “It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works.” Samuel’s approach to the question of how (feminist) female readers and writers should approach such authors: enjoy what’s enjoyable, and use the rest as a primary source on the sexist mind. 

I read Samuel’s essay and thought, finally. Finally, someone is pointing out that problematic works shouldn’t just be boycotted. While I wished she had drawn a distinction between appreciating sexist-dude works from other eras and promoting living sexist male writers—who benefit from book sales, and who live in an era with plenty of female-writer alternatives—I’m not sure how much of her excellent argument would have changed if she had.

I was mostly with her, until I reread her after reading a piece that had appeared on the Tin House website the previous day. Fiction writer Claire Vaye Watkins’s lecture-turned essay, “On Pandering,” casts doubt on the feasibility of a pragmatic approach to literary sexism. Is it really true, as Samuel suggests, that “most women” have  “no trouble taking the wheat and leaving the chaff”?

As Watkins describes it, male dominance of the literary sphere pervades women’s own writing. She confesses that for years, she’s been writing to impress the white male writers who, in the literary world at large, seem to count. Watkins points out that there’s nothing natural about a woman enjoying a book with sexist origins, and “that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives.” 

Along with the enthusiastic nodding, Watkins’s piece has gotten some pushback, most notably from 2015 Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James. In a public Facebook post, and then at an event last Friday hosted by and reported on in the Guardian, James argued that Watkins had gotten it wrong—white women, not white men, are the literary gatekeepers of our age. “[W]hile [Watkins] recognizes how much she was pandering to the white man, we writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman,” he wrote in his initial post. At the Guardian event, Sian Cain reports, “James said he wasn’t talking about a particular woman, but ‘an archetype that exists in the fiction, in the criticism.’” In the post, James had described the “cultural tone set by white women” alternately as “[a]stringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui” and “bored suburban white woman in the middle of ennui, experiences keenly observed epiphany.” 

James’s opinion isn’t necessarily in contradiction with Watkins, because what they’re talking about are really two different forms of approval: commercial and literary. As the Guardian piece notes, women buy far more fiction than men do, and as James correctly points out, there’s racism in the publishing industry. And James also might have mentioned that however much presumed-white-lady readers influence what sells, female authors are hardly dominating the literary landscape: There’s no rush to publish—and here I’m quoting James, as quoted in the Guardian—the “older mother or wife [who] sits down and thinks about her horrible life [.]”

But what Watkins was talking about wasn’t so much literary sexism’s impact on the publishing market as its impact on the construction of literary excellence. She wasn’t saying that chick-lit doesn’t sell, but that for lit to get rounded up to literature, it needs a male writer’s seal of approval. Paraphrasing her favorable reviews, Watkins offers the following: “She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.”

If anything, James’s post half-contributes to, and half simply reports on, literary sexism: he’s saying that the literary market is biased towards white people and towards what white people want/are imagined to want—which, yes, true, is worth pointing out, and is not sexist in the least! (Watkins also acknowledges this repeatedly in her essay.) It’s also important to note that not everyone shares Watkins’s what-will-white-men-think plight. Freelance writer Nichole Perkins responded to “On Pandering” in the L.A. Times, mentioning that she doesn’t share Watkins’s anxieties, and pointing out the myriad obstacles faced by black writers and by those who are still trying to break through in the industry. For anyone who came away from Watkins’s essay thinking the main obstacle for all female writers is the theoretical approval of Philip Roth, this was key.

No, the problem comes from James’s overestimation of female literary dominance and, perhaps more importantly, from his readiness to describe, in such condescending terms, what the ladies go for. The distinction James draws, between courageous writing that has the potential to épater not so much the bourgeoisie as the bourgeoise, and… some sort of literary equivalent of a pumpkin spice latte, is effectively the same as the one Watkins is protesting. The only difference is that James sees men and women of color, as well as queer white women, as capable of producing the real art, whereas Watkins sees white men as the only ones permitted this in the current literary environment. James misses that his interpretation places straight white female writers right back into a category where the assumption is that they’ll produce drivel. Marketable drivel, perhaps, but still. Nothing in James’s approach suggests that white men are excluded from the possibility of artistic greatness. If you’re Whole Foods Parking Lot Lady, however, good luck.

If I read Perkins’s response much more sympathetically than James’s, it’s because there’s something of value in learning that she couldn’t really relate to Watkins’s take on how it goes for women writers. Because she is also, you know, a woman writer. Whereas James… I mean, the essay was never claiming, not even indirectly, to speak for him. The (partially) negative response James received in a Metafilter thread isn’t exactly, as Jess Zimmerman summed it up, “A bunch of white people respond[ing] to ‘white people need everything to be about them’ with ‘what about ME.’” While that’s perhaps a fair criticism of some of the entries, it seems relevant that all of this began with a male author responding to ‘male writers are taken more seriously’ by suggesting not merely that some male writers have it worse than some female writers, but that a female cabal controls literature.

The intersectionality corrective to so-called White Feminism (if that’s where we’re to place Watkins’s manifesto) really needs to come from non-white women. (As it does, to be clear, all the time.) There’s something inherently derailing in a corrective that involves a man—any man—announcing, apropos of a feminist call to action, that he’s the true victim (and the victim of women, at that), and that the real issue is that his art hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated.