I am on an airplane, wearing jeans and a leatherette biker jacket. To my mind the look is Joan Jett tough; likely it’s more “chemistry student trying to look Joan Jett tough.” I’ve fallen asleep, neck cricked at an awkward angle. We are about to land when a flight attendant taps me on the shoulder to wake me. She calls me Sir. Repeatedly. At first it stings. Then it doesn’t. In the cab home, I wonder what makes me Sir. The short hair? The broad shoulders? Is it the toughness I thought I’d put on like a costume? Is it possible to occupy a space of tough and cool in this way and not be gendered? What am I doing that isn’t female? Do I care to stop doing it?
This body is my mind’s ship, and that’s all it need be. I have never spent much time thinking about my gender, save for when it’s being legislated against, when I need to protect myself and others. Of late, politics and publishing have changed that. I find myself wanting to erase my identity, while also aggressively performing it. I’ve become unmoored.
Publishing has been gendered since inception. The current incarnation relies on notions of gender that make me want to burn my clothing, live in a tent, and change my name to Jess, or Flynn. Though the industry is beginning to grapple with intersectional feminism, it remains white—very white—and very female. With little effort it’s possible to write, sell, edit, and publish a novel without encountering a man. When there are nonbinary people, they’re often difficult to find through the crowds of women. Those women are white. I’ve got that tag. It’s impossible to avoid my whiteness. I should fit right in.
I don’t, but I can play the role.
I’m oddly but fortunately positioned, straddling the literary and commercial markets. Were I solidly literary, I might be able to be more gender neutral; in dancing with a commercial market, I’m courting women in a heavily gendered mainstream. The Pink Aisle, where feminism is diluted to the concept of girl power. When you walk in this world you get a dress. You might not mean to get a dress, but it comes with the package. It’s patterned, and appears to have been plucked from a rack at the perfect thrift shop in Brooklyn; it’s part of connecting with a traditional idea of women who buy books. Then you get a few more dresses, because it’s important to not be caught wearing the same one in every photo. You can’t look like you have just one outfit.
Male writers are often seen wearing the same shirt in multiple photos. Kazuo Ishiguro’s is black, Steven King’s grey shirt has made the rounds, and Andy Weir favors a broken-in black button down. It’s popular to note geniuses who extoll the virtues of wearing the same thing every day. Steve Jobs comes to mind. What also comes to mind is that women are rarely included in this category. We are expected to be more. It’s difficult not to note that male power seems to require fewer decisions, expends less energy, and is subject to less judgment. I have my comfort black shirts; I do some of my best writing in them. But I must be more than that. My extra effort is both required and necessary.
Wardrobe functions as a distancing technique. In an age where writers are encouraged to be constantly accessible via social media, wardrobe becomes a crucial barrier between public and private selves. Just as women must gird themselves against harassment online, we must also gird our bodies against invasion of privacy when in public. Clothing becomes a persona to take on and off; my dresses, shoes and makeup are a costume that allows readers to meet the author, while very clearly not meeting me. When a person is highly made up, pressed, painted, and sprayed within an inch of their lives, they gain an aura of untouchability. For fear of smudging. For fear of breaking that veneer. To dress well, to costume extravagantly, is a warning not to touch. The me who writes, who is at home, is a messier, ragged person who is sometimes Sir, mostly wears sweats, and is very private. She is too touchable. Perhaps this is why men wear those same shirts, that comfort clothing. They don’t have to be apprehensive of touch in the ways women must.
I am on book tour. I squeeze into shapewear, though I am already a shape. Then patterned hose to show my personality, then a brightly patterned dress. I blow out my hair, hiding the thinning as much as I can. Then I apply primer, concealer, foundation, eyeshadow, liner, mascara, setting powder, lipliner, lipstick, and setting spray. When I finish, I am smooth like venetian plaster, without hint of the skin condition that was supposed to fade in childhood yet still resides on my face. I slide into brilliant silver shoes and throw on a necklace with a giant plastic ray gun. Because I’m fun. I’m approachable, but not touchable. I’m an idea of a woman who wrote a book. I’m your friend.
When I’ve been the only woman writer on a panel, the easiest way for me to claim space is by being aggressively female. If one of these things is not like the others, I will be so other that looking away is impossible. Bright red lipstick, sculptural shoes, a dress that stands out in a sea of t-shirts. In an industry that is so starkly female, if I’m the only woman, it should be commented upon. Because there is no excuse. If my presence on a panel is meant as a check on excessive masculinity, I plan to have a mouth like a giant stop sign. When I start talking, you’re going to stop.
It is less startling, though just as disappointing, when a panel is all white. It reflects much of the industry. There is still no excuse.
A number of my early breaks came from men of color, none of whom asked me to write more likeable women, add romance, or soften anything. Perhaps it’s because as men, they’d never been asked to do these things. Perhaps they’d never been asked to cater to an audience of nice white women. Perhaps it’s assumed they’d be ignored because of their race. Perhaps because they’re male it’s assumed they’d be read. When I try to parse the intersections, all I come up with is that they do not intersect with me. In this industry, this space that clings to white women, I must bend my words and appearance in ways that men do not.
I’m increasingly uncomfortable with my role as a white woman and the ideas of gender and race that surround it. The unease lies in how we treat the mainstream commercial reader—infantilizing, pandering, continuing stereotypes, and generally not asking very much. The commercial market relies on the white female gaze. When it’s said that women buy books, it’s rooted in the idea of a single reader: a cis, heterosexual, white female. Headless girls in dresses, Asian women’s necks posed with flowers, pastels and flowery typefaces, lone trees on planes—these visuals are meant to court white women commercial readers and their ideas of the world. Which, based on cover art alone, are simple, childish, sometimes racist, and reinforced by these images. The jacket copy is worse. Profound themes of love and redemption. Family, always family. As though there can be no female self apart from family. Or sisterhood, be it with friends or siblings. Worst of all is tragedy porn, poverty porn. We aren’t asking much of white women, except that they buy books—books and authors that are packaged to cater to their simplest gut touchstones.
Much like our bodies, women’s books have been girded.
Lucky writers with publicity teams get write-ups in glossy magazines, often the same magazines that help fuel eating disorders. It’s a demoralizing triumph. The cognitive dissonance that arises from feminist books being peddled alongside diets and pictures of nineteen-year-olds selling anti-wrinkle cream should be loud enough to shatter glass ceilings. But it does not, because it is still a prime way to reach the target market: white women who are being told to be smaller, younger, prettier. Sometimes a book may be packaged with a spa candle, or bath fizz, which means someone is working hard on that book and author’s behalf. That’s creative energy towards a target market: white women and the escapism of bath time. Difficult ideas contained within these books are capable of being overlooked with a long soak and a glass of pinot grigio.
There should be more. There must be more.
I am at a reading. My dress itches. A white woman asks if a character’s hair is “silky” or “nappy.” She needs to know exactly what mix a mixed person might be, as though it affects her empathy. Yet she can’t bring herself to ask about race. She talks around it, assumes it’s acceptable to ask in this way because I, as a nice white woman, will understand what she means. I am a safe person.
White women need to have books and people that ask more of them. They need difficult stories, psychological studies, meditations on war, messy deconstructions. Books for the mainstream commercial market that aren’t by nice white women. Presentation can do much to change this. Covers and jacket copy not only dictate who picks up a book, but often how it is read. Sugarcoating hard concepts with flowers and dresses does no one favors, and can keep ideas from being accessed by people who need them most. Genre fiction ably provides all the necessary escapism; let mainstream commercial fiction be hard, and sell it that way. It will help, and help is needed. Because so many white women are locked in, strangled by the patriarchal concept of nice.
I’ve met them. Sometimes I pretend to be them.
White women are pitched to as though they’re fragile flowers, exploiting an entrenched worldview rooted in patriarchy. That all we should be interested in is family, relationships, and love. Arguably, all novels are about families, relationships, and love, which means the difference lies in what we’re avoiding talking about: all the ugly parts of being human. When we sell books to white women and say they are about preconceived safe ideas of what women like, we continue societal brainwashing, and we help create more nice white women.
Nice white women hold book clubs. We get to giggle together, often about how men never let us speak. But we are speaking. We’re most of publishing—in part because men won’t work for such low pay. But most nice white women aren’t listening to what they say.
An awful lot of nice white feminist women approach reading like a cleanse—reading only women who write only women… who also happen to be white. I’ve been forgiven for writing a male protagonist, forgiven by these nice white feminists.
Nice white women have been polite when emailing me about how nice women don’t swear, my mother would be ashamed, and how racy bits aren’t necessary. My language is too base. These are white women doing misogyny’s work. When I imagine a woman who’d take time out of her day to shame an author for swearing, she is inevitably white. Who else would have the time? How narrow is a world in which these things bother her? How narrow are the books that she has been offered? What has she been told those books are about?
By the end of book tour, my eyelids develop eczema. The red patches on my cheeks are acting up again. Dermatologists say that stress aggravates both conditions. Changes in temperature, humidity, makeup, alcohol. Everything I’ve done to myself over the course of three months. The fact that I’ve toured these three months is a blessing many writers will never see. I’m grateful. I’m also in pain.
I’ve taken flack for writing a prickly woman. When I ask what makes unlikeable female characters troubling, it’s difficult for nice women to articulate. It comes down to this: white women are conditioned to be nice. Nice is a system of rules for what women can and cannot do. It keeps the patriarchy in power, and it’s difficult to buck. It looks like politeness, and it looks like narrow, safe reading packaged for the white eye.
Named after my grandfather, I’ve been carrying a man since birth. When I began writing, I was told that men would never pick up my books, because men—when they do buy books—won’t read women. I don’t use my initials and write under my own name. Why bother hiding your gender to please people who don’t buy books? But I never imagined how exclusionary wooing a largely female audience would feel, or that “women buy books” might also mean “selling books to white women.” It’s a stale idea of a book buyer. It’s also writing for men who are not in the room, generations of men who dictated how nice white women should behave, and what women are supposed to like: spa candles, domestic fiction, family, soft romance, people who don’t swear and have good heterosexual sex—off the page, where it belongs, or within the genre confines of erotic romance.
53 percent of nice white women voted for Donald Trump. Prior to the general election, I worked on a campaign handwriting letters that urged women to get out and vote. I was deeply worried and felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I suspected all would go wrong. Weeks after, once the fog cleared and the antidepressants kicked in, I knew.
I’ve met those women. They’ve emailed me. The nice white woman is a broken concept we must retire. There is no nice white woman, just a woman who has been taught to behave.
I am standing in a crowd so tight I can barely move. I am in leggings, a skirt, sweater, and my winter coat. I am wearing my mother’s running shoes, because I kept them after she died, and I’m a stickler for symbolism. I am also wearing an incontinence pad, because when you are among 500,000 women, bathrooms are a concern, and I do not know how long I will be standing here in a sea of knit pink hats. I don’t have one. I don’t want one, but I need to be here. There are things that white women don’t often do; one of them is showing up with their bodies. Bodies that are sometimes called Sir, that sometimes have the skin peeling from them because they are desperately trying to present as She. The march disintegrates into a mob of people because there are too many of us. We are moving, but going nowhere.
Authors of color, queer authors, disabled authors, and authors who claim these intersections are producing work like mad. Finally, agents are seeking them out, creating hashtags for them to pitch under. There is a push for Own Voices. The face of literary fiction is beginning to match the face of America. Commercial fiction, less so. It’s still a land of headless white bodies, Asian necks, and enough flowers for a funeral. If, as these voices make their way into traditional publishing, they’re packaged only by straight white female agents, straight white female editors, straight white female sales and marketing teams, with a nice white woman reader in mind, authenticity, specificity of voice, and ultimately meaning will be lost. We must change our concept of who a commercial reader is. If the readers of America mirror the writers of America in any way, this is the age to write, market, and sell books with women of color in mind. A commercial reader is the public, which has never been just straight white women.
If at their best, books are meant to teach empathy, we are failing white women by coddling them, keeping them from thoughtful reading in the name of profit, and kicking the patriarchy can down the road. We do it to ourselves, and it holds us all back—writers of color, non-binary people, LGBTQIA people.
I want to separate myself from nice white women who are unknowingly part of a system that produces and protects them. At the same time, I am grateful for them having welcomed me. They’ve kept me afloat, which means living in an awkward juncture of gratitude and shame. If I erase my identity, that white woman thing, what am I? Worse, if I perform it, what am I?
I also want to be the most woman I’ve ever been. To be unavoidable, to make you stare at words from my stop sign mouth.
I want us to do better. We need to be better. This means books without headless women on the covers. It means jacket copy that is representative of story, particularly when that story is exploring uncomfortable social issues. It means less marketing books as vehicles for escape, and more marketing books as vehicles for understanding. It means the color, gender, sexuality, and able-bodied makeup of the industry must change, from agents to editors to sales teams. The writers are there, but seeing them can be difficult when the only pair of glasses belongs to a straight white woman.
I’m worried. About working on things that can’t easily be pitched as being about family, romance, or relationships. About working on things involving race that don’t involve white people searching for yet another pat way of understanding the horror of American racism—those books that make you feel bad in a good way.
I’m worried about that 53 percent of white women voters—those nice women who aren’t deeply reading books, who are reading with a certain lens, because they’ve never been asked to read otherwise. I’m worried about all the ways I may have helped reinforce that narrow vision. I think a lot about being in that mob of women, bodies pressed against bodies, shouting, rebelling, yet static. A safe kind of angry.
Erika Swyler lives and writes in Long Island, NY. Her debut novel, The Book of Speculation, was one of BuzzFeed’s 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. She is at work on her second novel. Follow her on twitter at @erikaswyler.