1. What is gender and how did you know? How did you find out?
2. If you identify yourself as a woman, what would it mean to you if your friends, or if strangers, believed your work were written by a man?
3. If you identify yourself as a man, what would it mean to you if your friends, or if strangers, believed your work were written by a man?
4. If you collected answers to the last two questions (beginning “If you identify”) from 200 cisgender writers, half women, half men, how do you think the two sets of answers would differ?
5. What about if some of those 100, and some of the other 100, identified as trans women, or trans men?
6. If you identify yourself as a transgender or genderqueer writer, how and how much and when do you want your readers to see you as a trans writer, to apply that frame to your work? How often do you wish you could turn that frame off, and turn it back on?
7. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has a gender (perhaps an unusual gender, or maybe two gender or three genders, but at least one)?
8. How do you think the answer to that question (beginning “Is it even possible”) would differ in a language, such as Persian, where neither pronouns, nor noun case-endings, differed by gender?
9. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?
10. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that it has an author?
11. What about cookbooks, hard-news journalism, government documents, furniture-store instructions, math? Must we imagine authors for all those?
12. Should critics try to disregard, or bracket, or work against, our own backgrounds and subject positions—however impossible that project might turn out to be—when we try to evaluate new work?
13. Should we ask ourselves, for example, “How would I feel about this, how much would I like it, and what would I think, if I were a man, or if I were a woman, or if I were cisgendered, or if I were not from Florida, or if I were not white?”
14. If we do not go out of our way to ask ourselves such questions when we read, are we being narrow, reinforcing whatever privilege we possess, seeking only the (fine) experience Elizabeth Bishop categorized (favorably) as “I recognize the place, I know it!” and liking just what we already know?
15. If we do go out of our way to ask ourselves such questions as question 13, are we giving bonus points to authors and work for sounding exotic, for addressing wide audiences, or for doing something we can’t understand?
16. Are such questions as question 13 ultimately distractions, taking place at such a high level of generality that they prevent us from attending to literary language?
17. Are such questions the only possible starting point for anybody who sets up as a critic, that is (if you trust etymology), as a judge?
18. How often are readers from “marked,” or subordinated, or “minority” subject positions, asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were cisgendered, or male, or “middle American,” or well-off, or white?
19. How often are readers from “unmarked” or majority or until-recently-the-majority subject positions asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were Filipino, or Icelandic, or black?
20. Are the “asks” (or demands) in questions 18 and 19 demands of the same kind?
21. How often are readers unfamiliar with carpentry, or particle physics, or runway fashion, or haute cuisine, or Latin, asked to read as if we already recognized references to those fields?
22. Are the “asks” (or demands) in question 21 demands of the same kind as those in questions 18 and 19?
23. Where did you get your standards of beauty? Did you get them all from the same place?
24. How much have your standards of beauty changed in the course of your adult life? If they have changed, what changed them?
25. To what extent does W. H. Auden’s ringing pentameter, “We cannot choose what we are free to love,” which Adrienne Rich took (quite correctly) as a slogan for GLB and—later– TQ liberation, apply not only to eros and agape, but also to what we find in literary works?
26. A critic cannot prove anything about literary merit (admitted Randall Jarrell long ago); a critic “can only persuade—but persuasion covers everything from a sneer to statistics.” Is that a question?
27. Granted that editors who commission, solicit, assign and then accept or reject ought to look to demography, to make journals and book lists look (as Bill Clinton once said) “more like America”: what does that imperative mean, if anything, for individual critics? How far should I go, and what should I do, in order to make my own reviewing look more like a just world?
Part of the answer to that one seems obvious—I should be reading more work by people who are not like me, especially if they belong to the marked or disadvantaged and I to the unmarked, or the advantaged, class.
But how do I know when I’ve done enough? What if I don’t like any of the poetry published so far by people who are (name your category)? How hard should I try? And what about my obligation (if I have any) to support imperfect or flawed writing by well-intentioned people who are like me (who have, for example, complicated genders), so that we can “get our stories told”? How far does that obligation extend, for me and for people like me? What happens when I start to meet some of those writers in person, writers who are like me and unlike me, whose work I have already set myself to support?
28. Trans women who live as women are women, and trans girls are girls: some say, and some do not say, that they used to be boys. Trans men, similarly, are men, and cisgender men are also men, and people who identify themselves in ways that eschew gendered pronouns, preferring “they” or “ze” (like S. Bear Bergman, whom you should go read), or no pronoun at all, should be addressed, and categorized, only by the pronouns that they prefer.
But what about me? I am Stephen in print and I continue to present as male for most of my life, because I’ve decided that I do not need to “go full-time”: it’s better for everybody, and it’s enough for me, if I present myself happily as Stephanie some of the time, and go by “she” then. I do not feel (as many trans women do) that I have always already been a woman inside; I do often feel that I have the wrong body, and have often wished that I were a girl. Many cross-dressers in the recent past have lived in similar ways– the best-known are in the performing arts; many of the rest of us have chosen to conceal those parts of ourselves. Some of my poetry (half my next book, if it continues along these lines) reflects that set of identities, that set of choices.
I think I must count as male for VIDA purposes, and I am certain that I count as queer, and as transgender. I am a man in some ways and a trans girl in others. But how should editors, when should readers, know? When does it matter whether they know?
29. When did you first realize that power, and hence that disempowerment, is relative: that you can be empowered, permitted, encouraged, rewarded for doing one thing, for making one kind of statement, for asking one question, in one place, and punished, shunned, ostracized, looked at sideways, or frowned upon for saying or doing the exact same thing in another place, another classroom, another magazine?
30. Is it better to be attacked or to be ignored?
31. Auditions for many elite orchestras have for years made the players anonymous, behind thick curtains, where their names and genders cannot be known; orchestras that instituted this procedure found that the percentage of women hired improved dramatically, because unconscious or conscious bias towards men on the part of conductors and other members of hiring committees could no longer come into play.
Certain foods—the outstanding example is usually Marmite– seem to taste good only to people who grew up eating them; certain accents in certain languages—Southern American accents in English, for example– strike some speakers as familiar and comforting, other speakers of the “same” language as old-fashioned, or alienating, or backward, or even partly incomprehensible. Your taste and your reaction in these cases is very hard to change, if you are an adult, and it depends on what you are already used to, on (literally) where you are coming from: you cannot eliminate the irrational preference that results from that early experience without eliminating the whole field of taste.
Which of these two analogies is a better fit for literary criticism, for aesthetic judgment, in a classroom, on a reviews page, in academia, in conversation? State your reasons. Remember to keep your audience in mind.
I’m sorry I couldn’t send any new writing to VIDA, an organization whose work I admire very much. I simply have too many paid assignments with deadlines, and editors waiting for them, already: I need to satisfy those contracts first.
I’m sorry I couldn’t send any new writing to VIDA, whose work I admire very much: I simply have too many students who need my attention right now, and as my primary means of employment is teaching, those students have to come first.
I’m sorry I couldn’t send any new prose to VIDA, which has been doing such important work: I see myself primarily as a poet, and need to hoard all the free time I can get (the time when I am not teaching, or writing for money, or doing household labor) in order to begin, and to finish, my poems.
I’ m sorry I couldn’t send any new work to VIDA: I started something, but my life has been so emotionally complicated right now that I just don’t have the energy to finish something that I’d want you to print.
I’m so sorry that I couldn’t send work to VIDA: I had something started, but then my older son got sick and I had to stay home with him, and he couldn’t go back to school until today.
I’m very sorry that I can’t send you work: I had something started but my younger daughter has done so well in fencing that she’s going to regional finals, and I have to leave town with her—otherwise her team won’t have a chaperone, and she won’t be able to compete.
I regret not being able to send you new work: I promised to watch The Lego Movie again with both of my kids on the only day when I could have finished your piece in time. I hope you will agree that family comes first.
I’m sorry I couldn’t get my piece to you in time: I haven’t yet figure out how to do the cooking and then the cleaning and then the getting-ready-for-bed that I do every night for my kids—it’s just too much for me to contemplate these problems in the sliver of time I have for myself after that.
I’m sorry I can’t seem to finish your piece. Here’s why: my partner does almost all the cooking and more than half of getting our kids ready for bed, and she has cut back her other commitments to do it, so that I can focus more on my own writing; that might be good for my creative ambitions, but it makes me feel so guilty about my position of privilege, my relative power, both within the household and outside it, that there’s really nothing I can bring myself to say about writing and gender—I would be speaking from a false position, concealing the privilege that insulates me from these problems, if I were to say anything on that topic right now.
I’m sorry I couldn’t get my piece to you: I’m happy to try to explicate other writers’ complex and valuable ideas of gender, but when I try to say what I myself believe, beyond the painfully obvious matters of equity, I want to close my computer, put down my pen, and sweep the kitchen, or pour myself a glass of wine, or play Mecca Normal albums at deafening volume on earphones, or weep.
I’m sorry I can’t get my piece done: I can’t seem to figure out how to say who I am, except in relation to a specific real person or a specific work of imaginative literature, and that uncertainty, or instability, makes it too hard for me to articulate a stance (other than “VIDA good, sexism bad”) on many of the matters you rightly bring up.
I truly regret that I can’t seem to finish my piece for you: my problem, I think, is that since I am a man who is sometimes a woman, a trans person who has decided not to transition, and a self-identified queer person who is biologically male, married to a cisgender woman, and attached to (literally) old-school loci of power, by the time I have identified my subject position sufficiently to make clear “where I am coming from,” my readers will be distracted, annoyed and bored, and they will wonder why space like yours, meant to rectify injustice, has been given to somebody like me, who is definitely queer, often feels like a girl inside, but has almost always had lots of options, and has often felt that a thumb has been placed, in my favor, on all sorts of public scales.
I regret that I cannot send you any new work: I admire what VIDA has done for the literary arts, and hope we can stay in touch in the future. All best, Stephanie Louise
Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor with eight published books, including two critical books on poetry and three poetry collections, including Belmont, his most recent. His essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Burt grew up around Washington, DC, and received an A.B. from Harvard in 1994 and a Ph.D. in English from Yale in 2000. He taught at Macalester College for several years before becoming a professor of English at Harvard University.