But What About the Nipples? A Nice Conversation (Pt. 1)

Posted by @ 1:30 pm on May 3rd, 2010

Blake Butler, Kate Zambreno, Amy King and I recently had an interesting and lengthy conversation about gender, publishing and so much more, prompted by lots of things including the recent, and largely excellent discussion in Blake’s “Language Over Body” post about the second issue of We Are Champion. Over the next three days, I’m going to post that conversation and we all hope you guys join in on our conversation and share your thoughts.

Amy:  I don’t know if you’ll be pleased to know that conjured your name today, Kate, over at Roxane’s gig, HTMLGIANT.  A post pimping the second issue of a new mag, “We Are Champion,” doesn’t note that it’s an all-male issue or that the first one included the work of only three women.   Just one tiny example of a recurring indicator that women writers still aren’t taken seriously, actively sought out, promoted, etc.

Kate: I actually thought the great majority of the conversation that went around this issue on HTML Giant seemed considered and thoughtful, both the idea of “counting” as seeming problematic, and shouldn’t it just be about the writing, and the other side problematizing how when such an inequity occurs it’s just dismissed as “this is just the best writing out there,” etc.  I think it’s a worthwhile issue to explore, if there is still such an inequity in terms of numbers of women published in literary journals (or anyone not straight, white, men). I’m thinking of Juliana Spahr/Stephanie Young’s Number Trouble piece that was published in Chicago Review. I agree with Roxane that this We Are Champion that didn’t feature any women writers is  a symptom of a gender inequity that might be still there in terms of innovative writing, but is not the disease itself. And that zeroing in on this one issue is not really getting at the larger context (although perhaps opening the discussion?)

Roxane: I’m a Libra so I often have many and conflicting opinions about things. I do think the all-male issue of We Are Champion is problematic but I also know that there are many factors involved in how a given issue of a magazine is assembled. While there are many, many problems with how women writers are treated, regarded, and promoted within the publishing community, I am not convinced that the second issue of a small online magazine is an indicator of a problem that is systemic, pervasive, and ongoing.

Amy:  I don’t think pointing out the disparity is by any means an answer.  It’s the beginning of a conversation, a query as in:  ‘Why is this an all-male issue?’  Especially when it’s not promoted as such.  Because the answer is so often the dismissive “It just happened that way,” which also usually means, “I don’t want to examine why.

Women are at least half the writing population and an editor doesn’t get that being an editor carries certain responsibilities, which include scouring the lay of the poetic land?   What are an editor’s responsibilities when it comes to whose voices get heard?

Roxane: Different editors are going to have different opinions about what their responsibilities are. I believe it is my responsibility to be as inclusive as possible. While it is “the work that matters most,” as so many editors are fond of saying, I also think it’s more than just the work that matters. I don’t think we, as editors, can ignore considerations about the people who send us that work. I also think that we need to support and promote not only women writers but also look at the entire range of diverse writing and create a publishing culture that embraces difference without exploiting it. Believe me, that does happen, and the exploitation of difference is just as bad as the exclusion of difference.

Kate: Yes, tokenism is in a way more insidious and doesn’t get at the real issue (I like how Lily Hoang spoke to this in the comment stream, and Roxane I really like what you say about embracing not exploiting difference). Any sort of counting like that seems “corrective,” a sort of strange and cleansing term. Blake just guest-edited an online journal that I was in and that seems to be an equal distribution (gah! that sounds so fascist!) of women and men, but in keeping with what Blake likes, Blake seems to be very well read in terms of experimental women writers, I’m thinking his list at the end of the year of what he’s read, and it’s one of the reasons I still go to the HTML Giant site. It’s possible Blake asked me to contribute because I’m a woman but I think probably not. Although Blake did email me and ask me if I had anything worthwhile to submit – should more editors do that? as opposed to relying just on what comes in over the transom? Absolutely.

Blake: But I didn’t ask you, Kate, because you are a woman, or because you are white, or because of a sexual preference or other determining factor that is yes, defining of a perspective, as is gender, but for me, in the end, the least interesting thing about a piece of work. I was really fat as a child, and in my mind I still am, and to me that definition is as important to the body ID as gender is, and yet it’s irrelevant, I feel, in determining the perspective of a publication. To tend toward those elements over the work itself, what is in it of the author there, is I think not only backwards, but kind of sad. How sad if I were to have asked you for work, Kate, because you have specific sex parts, and not because I read your book and admired the hell out of what you are doing. Yes, gender is part of your ID, but so is so much else, and often those elements are totally ignored in publication profiling, and yet no one seems to raise a hand.

What if we started counting issues of how many non-white writers were in a magazine? How many homosexuals? How many raised in the South? How many who have mothers with cancer? These are perspective influencers that hold just as thick a prowess over a person’s mind as having a certain organ does. How can we catalyze all of these elements into a truly “equal” ground. We can’t. And even if we could, should every one? Is it every person’s responsibility to place the same emphasis on social determinism? If you are into that, go for it. But to me, again, I care about the work. And I don’t think having a penis means I am male gendered. In most of my relationships, I have as many female characteristics as I do male, if not more toward the former.

So what are we coming down to then? The direct presence of a penis or a vagina? That’s why I put it in that crude way in the post, which was only partially spurred by We Are Champion. This kind of shouting for emphasis on elements outside the work has always gotten under my skin. I want language, ideas, words, image, and that, for me, comes from all over, and the body is the last most important influence. This isn’t fashion or sports, where it’s all body and prowess of flex. It’s mind, light, spirit, blood.

Amy:  It’s interesting, Blake, that you reduce gender perspective to the ownership of a vagina or penis, as though biological matter was the only thing that “influences perspectives,” as you put it.  And yet, we live in a world where people don’t need to have those body parts to identify as male or female – I know this feels old hat by now, a la Judith Butler’s performing gender, but don’t you think that, across cultures, people have some very large and immediate ways of dividing up and the very first obvious one, within every culture, is by gender, which entails all sorts of behaviors, modes of speaking, ways of “expressing” and requirements of silence, etc?  *And* one gender has historically been prioritized as the “better” or more favored one – without fail, that is almost always the male.  I feel like I’m explaining something so obvious that I’m missing something.   Do you really think this issue is reducible to simply having a penis or vagina?   People write, behave, and speak in gender-coded ways, whether it is natural or learned or simply demanded.  And certainly, other factors such as race, weight, class, etc come into play when “influencing perspectives” – no one has denied that, so why is it either/or?  Don’t talk about gender differences, expectations and especially gender disparity, which is factual, because, what?  It just can’t be true?  Is that what you’re saying?

Sorry if I sound defensive; I just cannot believe you keep reducing this discussion to the very belittling argument of ‘penis’ or ‘vagina.’  Such reduction feels very dismissive, like an attempt to stop the discussion rather than interrogate how we are gendered in our communications, our writing, in what’s expected of us, and so many more ways.  As members of that “fringe” crowd, it seems we’d want to be discussing how our writing can confound and conflate and upset the assumptions about gender as well as connect and understand such practice to the historical fact that male writers and their very gender-specific subject matters and styles have most certainly been favored (see Retallack quotes below for the general characterization of such ‘male style’).  The two things, what we write and the gendered nature of our identities, are without a doubt connected.

Kate: I don’t think gender is the only way to define one’s identity. But there used to be a big inequity between male and female writers, there is still I think in the mainstream, in terms of what writers are considered “great” as opposed to marginal. I would not have wanted to be asked for work because I have specific sex parts. I do think great writing should be androgynous in a way, that’s Woolf too. I do believe gender is fluid, sexuality is fluid, all those things you’re saying Blake. I do totally get where you’re coming from. And that this conversation might be depressing, might take away from the texts, the words. But the truth is, most people still aren’t as aware of avant-garde or experimental women writers, and there has been a tremendous ideological project to marginalize women writers, to not remember them, write about them, not make them part of the canon. How many people love Jane Bowles? (well I’m sure many more readers on HTML Giant than many other places!) Versus Paul Bowles? Ann Quin versus BJ Johnson? And I think there can be something dangerous and insidious about dismissing gender as not a defining way in which people structure and divide lives, society and literature. Yes there are other things that make up our experience (like moms with cancer, like childhood trauma) that form us as writers. But a woman or a person of color is often reduced to the body, to being objects. It’s like when Sartre was talking about existentialism and how beings can transcend themselves and Simone de B and Frantz Fanon interjected that the truth of the body, the truth of experience, are different for those who are Othered in society, especially Othered physically, reduced to stereotypes because of their tits or color of their skin. I wish we lived in an ideal society. But we cannot say the conversation is not necessary where even in a literary forum like HTML Giant someone profiles a woman writer and it becomes about how fuckable or not fuckable she is, or an Ivy League women professor is reduced to  her nipples.

Blake: It’s not that I’m saying that what any of you are saying isn’t true: surely, in your experience, and in many, many others’, it is not only true but intensely important, more so than those others things I mentioned and etc. I don’t unvalue that in your work or in many other contexts: however, I do think it is important to not make that gender state the centerpiece of everything, or even to insist on it having value in all spheres. It matters to you, but does that mean it has to for others? Why should that issue be at the center of all things? After all, what we’re talking about here isn’t a question of respect (outside the totally intentionally obnoxious troll behavior at HTMLGIANT, which is sort of for me beside the point, like dust at a baseball game): being more concerned with the aesthetic over the body doesn’t mean I don’t respect anybody for what they are. So, then, if your most central focus (or one of your foci) is that, great, that is yours. There are no laws. For me, it’s spheres, and politics is shit compared to opening other doors.

But what about the nipples? Can we have no sense of humor? Are these bodies so sacred that there is no poking around? Certainly in the case of Jimmy Chen, who posted the nipples post, has poked at just about everything imaginable, including me, and even if he hadn’t I don’t see why nipples can’t be examined, even if it is admittedly puerile. Lord knows Burroughs is puerile at times, Acker is, Artaud is, etc. Nothing is so sacred that it should not be played with in certain lights.

Amy:  Blake, who says one cannot be concerned with gender disparities, and other political matters, as well as being interested in other writerly-issues such as aesthetics?  Why do you characterize such a conversation, which is actually quite rare, as “the centerpiece of everything”?  Aren’t we large-thinking humans, capable of all sorts of considerations?  Why must one consideration obliterate any others for you?  Isn’t this even saying that thinking can only be hierarchical (i.e. one concern or the other, not both or more)?  We cannot think about writing as well as who gets published?  I can only speculate that the need to trivialize these concerns to “body” and body parts, among other re-framings, is a privileged position:  “I don’t have to think about these things, so why do you want me to?”  As for being solicited because one has specific sex parts, I also feel such a corrective is no corrective at all and is reductive; I’m asking how are these things connected, why is that identifiably male writers are historically prioritized, published, canonical, and discussed?  What is it, beyond their names and penises, about their work that is masculine?  Why is that celebrated?  What “feminine” aspects of a text aren’t touted in the majority?  Why are writers of the feminine considered fringe or experimental?   What qualities of their/our work aren’t celebrated and why?

Kate: Ahhh, the nipples post. Contrary to what he might believe, I don’t bear Jimmy Chen any ill will. It does seem to be a couple of his posts that I  have personally taken issue with, so perhaps I have some issue with his sense of humor or lack thereof. I have found  some of his posts witty or smart, especially his designed posts. Because that’s kind of a thing. I didn’t find at least those two posts, terribly funny. The one about the professor and the nipples just totally annoyed me, and I know others were even more offended by it. It seemed to be a laddish joke merely designed to reduce an intellectual woman to a body. People who take issue with offensive characterizations are often told to get a sense of humor – yes but what if we don’t find the characterization funny? My issue with some of the troll comments as well – for fuck’s sake be funny. If you are these things if you make me giggle even in discomfort I’d forgive you a lot. I honestly did not find the nipples post or the Zelda post funny, and you can hardly compare these posts to the transgression of Burroughs, Acker or Artaud.  By why make silliness at the expense of a woman’s body, therefore alienating so many of your readers? And even if it is ha-ha, can’t we be critical about it? I’m not saying one has to be politically correct, to cleanse or whitewash humor, to never make jokes about tits (or am I? I might be saying that, and in a way I know that’s not what I mean). But to say the tits jokes aren’t nervously in some way about discomfort with the feminine or in this case with a woman in power—I think that’s again just sweeping things under the rug.

And Blake, I do respect your position. I don’t think gender should be at the center of everything. I don’t think it should always be the way we discuss literature. But it is a position of privilege. It is privileged to say that gender should be ignored or shouldn’t matter or that it’s an experience that hasn’t deeply impacted you. And an aesthetic I value is about writing the body.

Blake: All I write about is the body, and houses, which are another kind of body. I’m not devaluing the body as a commodity in the make, but saying that this social commodification of what who when what where all occurs outside the temple. In the end, what matters is what is made, not who made it.

Amy:  In my estimation, experience does play some part in shaping how we learn to be, whether we successfully unlearn it or not.  The temple is shaped and conditioned, growing up, by forces beyond the flesh.  This isn’t essentialist; this is about being able to identify the pervasive constructs we inhabit and then figuring out how to reject them, how to be and see outside of those expectations.  Writing can work for that purpose too.  What the temple produces certainly may escape such societal conditioning with concerted and clever effort, but those outside forces still like to say, ‘Silence that temple, don’t publish it because it’s not doing what’s prescribed.’  Perhaps that’s where the venue for fringe or avant-garde publishing enters.  And the internet, which offers loads of opportunities now thanks to low-economic risks.  I’m hoping so, because our indebtedness to big publishing houses seems to mean that we’re asked to write with a push towards what ‘they’ want.  I hope that’s changing too.

Back to the notion that “3 out of 18 were published, it just happened that way.” Such response makes me wonder even if editing and publishing a journal is a nepotistic venture, doesn’t that editor commune with any worthwhile female writers?  It’s really not hard in the field of poetry today to locate female poets who are writing dynamic, thrilling work and position them side-by-side with similarly exciting male writers.  Why segregate and publish an all-male issue now?

Roxane: These are questions that can probably only be answered by the editor of We Are Champion. You are absolutely correct that it is not hard to find female poets and writers who are doing fantastic work but as an editor of a magazine that has a reputation for being open to work from women and diverse populations, we still only receive about 30% of our submissions from women and we’ve received fewer than 20 submissions from writers of color, ever. This issue of gender equality and encouraging diversity is far more complex than knowing that these fantastic women writers or writers of color or queer writers are out there. The real problem is finding ways to connect with diverse writing communities and that’s something I’ve personally struggled with. We cannot publish that which is not submitted.

I don’t know that it is fair to say that the issue of We Are Champion we’re discussing was deliberately an all-male issue. In the comments section of the “Language Over Body” HTMLGIANT post, the editor explained how the issue came to pass and the great thing about the wide range of literary magazines out there is that editors get to choose what they prioritize and publish. As I understand it, the editor of We Are Champion chose to prioritize his aesthetic and a deadline he had imposed. I am troubled by that choice but it is his magazine and his choice. He will have to deal with the consequences, if there are any. As an editor, creating balance is really important to me, not only in terms of aesthetic but also in terms of publishing diverse writers. You have to make diversity a priority. Even though it is the writing that matters, at some point, you have to stop holding on so desperately to the idea that it’s all about the writing or nothing will ever change.

Blake: Is the only way to have diversity through flesh and organs? What about diversity in the word? When Lily Hoang and I were talking about this, she mentioned that maybe she was being naïve, but she didn’t see it as an issue for women getting published now. Like, everyone in this conversation is well published, and has been around. Even if Gene had set out to publish an all male issue, which I know he didn’t, would that be so bad? If that is what he wanted? I see humans as human. Anyone can say a word. And yet, I love all female issues also, the all female issue of New York Tyrant one of their best publications. Is framing necessary? Is fetishizing sacred? I don’t know, I just don’t see the battle here. Are people not reading females? That would seem insane, to me, to be a claim. Aren’t there bigger issues at stake than who’s in line and whose turn it is? We are all making words. What are we fighting for? Why so many labels? Where is the cake?

Kate: I think it’s still  difficult for experimental women writers to be published in the mainstream. I think there has been for a while a counterculture in small presses that do publish experimental women writers and people of color. I agree with you and Lily in that. But I do think a lot more people read and valorize and fetishize more experimental or innovative male writers than women writers, at least in terms of who makes the transition to a wider audience (maybe I’m speaking to prose more than poetry). I think you’re more of an adventurous reader Blake than most.

Roxane: Wanting women writers to have equal access in publishing (and far beyond) is not about fetish. I understand where you’re coming from, Blake and I appreciate many of the points you make, but I think it’s hugely reductive to think this is just about who’s turn it is, and so on. The concerns being raised here are more about an overall pattern, a culture that is comfortable with excluding women and lots of other kinds of people. But yes, you bring up an important issue. There are all kinds of diversity and a diversity in word is also important, vital even.

And as you note, we’re all published but, that said, most of us are published with small, independent publishers. With one exception, (as far as I know), none of us have a book deal with a major publisher or an agent. There are all sorts of reasons for that and I don’t feel like my gender has kept me from being successful as a writer but what we’re discussing here is not just about being published, but also about where women (and particularly experimental women writers) are published and the access they have to the real power centers of publishing. (This is not to say you are chilling like Tom Clancy, believe me, I know that.)  That’s why, as I note later, for me, the WAC issue is not the crisis point. I see it as as a symptom. I can look at myself and say, I am just as successful as this male writer or that white writer but I know I am an exception, particularly as a black woman, a double minority. I do not think of myself in this way but when I’m at an academic conference, for example, and I am the only one in the room who looks like me, I do think that framing matters. It could not be less about fetish.