Recently, following the publication of a troubling poem about violence against women, a social media backlash began, along with a conversation about misogynist content, editorial responsibility, and censorship. Below is a continuation of that conversation.
VIDA: How much responsibility do editors bear for making their literary journals a safe space for women? Given the “confidence gap” in women’s submissions in general, do you think women are also less likely to submit to a publication that allows for troublesome, even violent, voices? What do you think of the argument that, by not publishing male violence (or other troublesome, possibly dangerous language, or people who have a history of dangerous behaviors outside of literature), a journal is exercising censorship rather than mere editorial discretion?
SONYA: I think there’s a sort of fundamental misunderstanding that happens when we talk about wanting a space in literature, where this dichotomy gets set up between a sanitized literary scene with trigger warnings everywhere and a Wild West that continues publishing the rogue voice of male violence. Both of these options are bad, and contextualize the solution within our already-problematic society instead of trying to look beyond it.
A “safe” space isn’t a “conflict-less” space, but a space where the male narrative is not given priority and is not assumed to be default or neutral. And, most importantly, a “safe” space is a space where the male narrative is not presumed to be, inherently, “art.” And I think that’s where we run into a problem, because we’ve got these centuries of canon that treat the rape and brutalization of women as art — so many of the classical paintings, for example, are actually rape scenes that get recentered as “The Siege of So-and-so” when discussed in art history— and now women are getting vocal and saying, “well, actually, no. What you are doing is not art. Your aestheticization of my body, my life, my death, my murder… your commodification of my lived experience… it’s not art. And it’s not yours.” And I don’t think the art world is liking that very much.
JOCELYN: No one is asking literary magazines to censor their editorial vision or individual male writers. We (women and survivors of male violence) are asking the literary world to raise its consciousness. The canon has systematically erased women’s voices since forever. It continues to ask women, as Sonya puts it, to see the art and beauty in our own rape and brutalization. Just as men are writing what they know (entitlement, domination), women are writing what they know. They’re writing about their own policed bodies, their trauma, their subjectivity in a world that would strip them of it. In 2014 we saw Sophia Katz and Sarah Certa, among others, confront not only the dominant culture, but also real-life male violence in a literary community that habitually celebrates detached masculinity. The juxtaposition of these male and female narratives might as well ask, “Are women human? Are they a collection of paper dolls: Manic Pixie, Suicide Girl, Wicked Stepmother?” How can women submit poetry with confidence in such a climate?
It is not fair to say that a poem written in the voice of male violence, the voice of male privilege, is politically neutral, that this subjectivity is worthy of as much ink as any other poem, or that this is just one more voice in the beautiful and diverse chorus of modern poetry. We are asking readers, writers, and publications to contextualize their view of art in the history, breadth, and depth of male violence and colonization. We are asking you to believe that art is powerful, that art can change the world. If you want the world changed, publish things that don’t reflect and endorse the shitty state of it as it is.
D: I agree with Sonya’s terming, the “fundamental misunderstanding” that, by our critiquing or not supporting unethical works, we are advocating for “sanitized” spaces: that is not the case. Criticism is in no way equitable to “censorship,” and I resent the fallacy that leads it to be so often invoked. I mean, “censorship” to me, beyond its legal definition, means silencing: who has, realistically, been silenced over the course of literary history, and who is silenced now? It sure as hell isn’t cis/het/white men, as the legacy of the canonical voice, which both Sonya and Jocelyn point out, is theirs.
The silencing implicit in these responses to our criticism is very real. The silencing implicit in publishing poetry consistent with canon — that is to say, consistent with oppression — is very real. I also resent the fact that editors who are complicit in this have attempted to use their own experiences of trauma or feminist track records to justify their decisions: having been oppressed or traumatized does not preclude your being complicit or inflicting, your ability to participate in dominant culture. But why play into it instead of seeking to change it? Why publish the centuries-old “male violence” narrative? Why contribute to the alienation of marginalized people on micro- and macro-levels? It’s getting to the point for me where I don’t trust journals who don’t take these things into consideration: the “art” is not separable from the “artist.”
SONYA: Yes, and I think that’s an important discussion to have, too. Why we insist, culturally, on the importance of separating “art” from “artist” but only actually do so in cases where it allows us to keep appreciating the work of wealthy white men? I think of the whole art/artist separation as being kind of a remnant of the old canon, where you have works that are classics because they’re what was being elevated at the time, and now we have to figure out how to navigate a literary history that we now know is not objective, is not neutral, is not a fair and unbiased depiction of human progression. How do we properly teach what’s already been written and how do we boost appropriate modern work? It’s a huge thing to tackle, and I get that, but it more often than not feels like it’s not being tackled at all.
A brilliant writer friend, Sarah Boyle, is currently working on an essay that examines the surface level “diversity” we’ve established in school textbooks, and tells how a straight, cis white male will still write all of the poetry samples provided therein, but the poems will receive different author names so that it appears to students that multiple poets from different ethnic backgrounds were responsible for writing the sections. I feel like this is the kind of depth we’re achieving with our current editorial climate, and we need to do better. We have publications— with good intention! — looking for visceral, gut-wrenching, interesting work, that are open to poetic work critiquing and deconstructing the misogynistic, patriarchal climate in which we are all operating. That’s so great, but it matters who is writing the poem; it matters who is doing the critiquing and deconstructing. I realize this causes problems for editors who want to read anonymously, but maybe we need to take a really hard look at what is actually happening when we read without context and see whether that’s working for us as a society that’s trying to move forward. I’m not sure it is.
JOCELYN: Institutional education has never been a safe space for any marginalized voices and it is locking pinkies with a capitalist lit/art market to reproduce the canon as-is. Identity is commodified in our neoliberal education system, it’s a marketing tool, stripping it of any power to disrupt the status quo. Online lit mags, twine games, craft chapbook presses, all promise some disruption (though that promise is often broken). Most of these poets and publishers are not getting paid for their work, but they are getting the Monopoly money of the new millenium: “exposure.”
An alternative to the anonymous read are these calls for submission for people of color, LGBTQ people, women. Rather than commodifying identity, this is an opportunity for affirmative action. I don’t hear men and their defenders complaining about their affirmative action, aka, as Catherine MacKinnon put it, the affirmation of the very “structure and values of American society.” In the digital age, there is no reason to be afraid of scarcity — the bytes available for poetry are boundless, but that exposure and visibility, that’s where we need to make men be more competitive, rather than being the shoo-ins of a fixed race.
I’m really glad Sonya pointed out that as a culture we separate art from the artist except when it comes to women, and this is probably because women’s audience is largely other women. We are holding ourselves to some high standards, because for us, especially survivors of male violence, being heard is life or death. So, as we are creating more visibility for marginalized voices, we need to be flexible and recognize that art is temporal and not the sum total of an artist’s capability. In a classic baby/bathwater situation, if a woman reveals herself to have shitty or unpopular politics in her life or in her work, she’s thrown out. Women have been told to shut up for so long, now they’ve started using their voices, they’re bound to articulate a degree of mental colonization in favor of white male supremacy. Criticism helps us negotiate to what extent, and by whom, those transgressions are still allowed to be called art.
D: My basis for refusing to separate “art” from “artist” is, as Sonya points out, the context of said “separation”: it, realistically, tends to only apply to the cultural consideration of cis/het/white men. It is an interesting form of erasure implicit in canon — the erasure of context, of who constructed the narratives we uphold, and the implications of that; it begets a more obvious form of erasure through this, in the silencing, sublimation, and dehumanization of marginalized identities. I similarly do not advocate for the idea that art can or should be “de-politicized,” because, really, everything is “political,” and the work of marginalized artists is politicized inherently, whether or not that is their intention. The “apolitical” identity is a privilege wrapped up in the trappings of artistry and narrative control.
Canon is constructed as a false necessity. So often, as Jocelyn points out, promises of “disruption” lead to the recapitulation of the same. Editors who aim to “read anonymously” do not do anything to eschew this, in my opinion — are we not “reading anonymously” via that erasure already, attempting to look away from the very real legacy of literature? It’s not progressive to be unaware or perform undisclosure to the existence of marginalization; we need to actively see and prioritize those narratives and those writers, who have been so violently disenfranchised and forgotten. And patriarchy is not only misogynistic, but white supremacist, cissexist, heteronormative, classist: in short, it works to sublimate a lot more people than it favors. The climate of literature and publishing is an extension of that, and we are, at best, complicit (and, at worst, enactors) if we are not active in its deconstruction.
SONYA: Yes, yes, so true about the work of marginalized artists being politicized inherently. I might be going off on a tangent here, but for me this all ties in with narrative control and how we need to encourage and promote that in our literary communities — anyway, you have these cis/het/white male artists, these canon artists, who have their “art” politically separated from their social life and their lived experience and all of that, and then you have the rest of us, who are frequently being called things like “careerists” for basically writing about our abuse, or about other things that happened to us. I keep seeing accusations of attention-seeking, of manipulation, being thrown at people who are trying to articulate their abuse, which reminds me of that article Ijeoma Oluo did recently:
Woman: What about rape? One in five women are sexually assaulted.
Dude: Ehh, pretty sure they’re just saying that for the money.
Dude: That sweet rape money
It’s just absurd. We have this huge divide between how narratives are treated, depending on who is telling them, and it is really problematic and needs to change. People who live the dominant narrative can draw from their own lives all they want — it’s expected. But if you attempt to articulate a different narrative, you’re so frequently painted as “navel-gazing” or “careerist.” We’ve literally managed to turn it into an insult to use your own experiences, as a writer, to further your career — if you belong to any marginalized group.
JOCELYN: Sonya, that is not a tangent; that is a vital point. Women are challenged and questioned about their authenticity; it’s another way we refuse to separate the art from the artist (again, except when it comes to men). We expect women to “bare it all” in all spheres, and then when they do, we say “ew, too much.”
If you want to be an ally, a first step would be to collaborate with people speaking in whatever voice you’re not hearing enough from. Put someone on staff or ask them to read for you. This will influence editorial outcomes (or if you’re a writer, help you explore challenging themes without getting it too wrong). But it will also invite more marginalized voices to submit. Anonymous submissions and open reading periods are a minor way people get their work out; it’s through online networking and meeting people at readings or AWP, etc., that we find out about new markets and network writers and editors we think we’d jive with, including those we identify with based on shared oppression.
Expect your readership to interrogate your editorial vision. Knowing that, it would be good to solicit feedback about your project. The literary world is so small, and the webs of connected writers and publishers are sticky and broad. Not only because all of us are real live human beings behind our Twitter profiles, but also because we are entering a new Civil Rights era, we need to be receptive to conversations about challenging topics, we need to expect both backlash and growth. In addition to acknowledging and opening conversation on social media, it’s thrilling to be able to dive in deeper, as in this roundtable. I think we should do that whenever we can, and doing so will encourage more submissions and more participation, since people can be pretty forgiving, pretty inspired, if you’re willing to come to the table and sit in discomfort and confrontation.
D: Right, the dominant narrative is cis, het, white, and male: it’s taken for granted, it’s normalized. I actually remember having a conversation with Stephen Tully Dierks around the time I wrote my Luna Luna piece on “sad girl misogyny,” right before Dierks himself was called out by Tiffany Wines and Sophia Katz, wherein he told me I should “stop politicizing everything” — how do these men not realize their own privilege? How do they not realize how entitled it is to be able to falsely separate your writing — and, in a grander sense, your identity, your narrative, yourself — from politics and context?
The literary world was constructed by this and always finds ways to support and reify. Hence the illusion, in my opinion, of literary “eras”— characterized by differences in semantics and style, but barely variant in canon. I mean, this is what spirited our discussion: the publication of a poetry and authors explicitly aligned with canon; the fallacious invocation of “censorship” to dismiss marginalized criticism; the fact that a white man can still write and publish essentially anything he wants while so many of us have to fight for deserved space. What is more “careerist” or “navel-gazing” than upholding that?
SONYA: Exactly. The thing is that, if you’re in possession of the dominant narrative, your “navel-gazing” is just introspection, or some kind of charming intellectual sensibility. It’s a positive attribute. And that distinction impacts how we write our work, and how we market our work, and how the things we say in the public sphere are treated when they are not 100% related to our work — so the answer, really, is a serious call for mindfulness from all elements of the literary community. Actually, I just thought of a positive example of mindfulness — publisher Big Lucks had a chapbook contest a few months ago, where they added a note to the contest submission page after submissions had started rolling in:
That means 95 of the submissions (a whopping 61%) are from males. According to FB “insights,” 63% of the people who engaged with yesterday’s post//ad were women. This number does not take “impressions” (appearances of a person’s feed) into account, but still a kinda interesting disparity that makes me feel no bueno & I wanna be more welcoming to women//non-binary people.
What they ended up doing, after seeing this discrepancy between who was engaging with their social posts about submitting and who was actually submitting, was deciding to choose two winners if the first winner picked was cis male — the cis male winner, and a female/non-binary winner. If the first winner picked was female/non-binary, they’d just go with that one winner. I don’t know if this is the most ideal solution we can find, but it is a damn good one, and it’s damn good to see people identifying the problem, making it public that it’s a problem, and publicly trying to change the status-quo. What we need, ultimately, is more of this.
We need editors looking at the submissions they’re getting and challenging their demographic. We need readers looking at a journal’s published pieces and, as Jocelyn says, interrogating their editorial vision. We need poets and essayists and other writers thinking about the art they make and working towards making it non-oppressive. Do not make oppressive art. Do not publish oppressive art. Do not support journals and contribute to journals that publish oppressive art. I know it’s a lot to ask, given how things are currently running — it’s a big change — but it needs to be done. We absolutely cannot prioritize maintaining our own comfort over actually ending oppression. If you say you want to end oppression but won’t do any of the actual work required, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to be “on the side of” ending oppression; this isn’t something where you give yourself an Ethical Person label once and you’re set for life. It’s a practice, a daily practice, for all of us. And if we care about art, and we say we do, then it is what needs to be done.
JOCELYN: I think so often when I read work by men, whether it’s about women, or about something “apolitical,” that they believe that every thought deserves utterance and every utterance deserves an audience. D is spot on in saying it is false to separate your writing from politics and context. Writing apolitically or asking others to stop naming and acknowledging political dynamics (“politicizing” is such a bogus word in this case) is itself a politics of entitlement and domination. It lacks class consciousness, historicity, or the acknowledgment that other people’s lived reality is different from your own. So another way for writers to be allies is to let other people name their experience. Acknowledge that everything is political, even an attempt to be apolitical or universal.
D: I am honestly not sure what more can be proffered in terms of a solution beyond Sonya’s statement: “Do not make oppressive art. Do not publish oppressive art. Do not support journals and contribute to journals that publish oppressive art.” I worry about what this looks like, to some extent, because it more or less requires the overhaul of a system (simply put: patriarchy). I am as skeptical of politically “forward” journals as I am of regressive ones, because there is so much posturing. As I previously mentioned, there are editors who invoke their “progressive” pasts to posture themselves beyond critique; there are editors who are marginalized in some ways but unsympathetic to others; there are editors who attempt to read anonymously. So much of that is wrapped up in respectability politics and capitalism, in my opinion: the former in that more “radical”-seeming publications/figures have a harder time garnering widespread appeal, and the latter in that capitalism is an assimilative model, allowing some of the airs of progress to have become profitable (pop feminism is a great example).
I think Jocelyn’s idea of “interrogating the editorial vision” and its context — as an ongoing and tireless process — is, in fact, one of the few modes by which change can be incited. Sonya’s statement can apply to both individual artists and those in positions of relative power; thinking about it in terms of journals and publications, I would add: be material about these things. Know your quotas, who you publish and why. Stop turning rejecting context — stop reinscribing centuries-old oppressions in new ways and calling it the future. Allow yourselves to be critical and criticized. It is our right and our responsibility, to interrogate, participate, and progress.
Jocelyn Macdonald is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and activist. She is the founder of Cat Lady Lit, a multi-media publishing project that amplifies the voices of women writing about feminism and issues of class, race, and sexuality. She curates Allergic to Cats, a reading series that brings together activists and artists to foment revolution. You can find her writing in XOJane, The Stranger, and She’s With Me Seattle. Her interests are: materially improving women’s lives through public policy while the revolution cooks up and her 19-pound Norwegian Forest Cat. In her spare time, she organizes rallies and lobbies her congressmen. Find her at jocelynteal.tumblr.com and get in touch @jocelynteal.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in No Tokens Journal, The Hairpin, Delirious Hem, Entropy Magazine, Empath Lit, Noble/Gas, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, The Riveter Review, Weird Sister, and elsewhere. Find her online at sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com and @coolniceghost.