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Smart Women and Publishing

(This is an account of remarks I made at AWP in Chicago February 14th, 2009 (Valentine's Day) on the panel on Smart Women and publishing. As is so often the case, I did not actually deliver the talk I had prepared to deliver at AWP—though I drew from that talk in my remarks. I had to cut it by half and reorganize it when time ran short, so some of what I did will be lost forever, but some of it is reflected in these notes.)

All of us—Patricia Foster, Sue Silverman, Karen McElmurray, and Rosellen Brown— had been trading notes for months on the issues related to ambition and how twisted around the desire to do good work and get attention for it is confounded by the publishing and promotion process-and personal issues like health and where we are in our lives—along with the complicated internal work of fully committing to the narrative and the persona of the narration yet keeping enough distance to make the work strong without losing ourselves in the process. 

This should be simple but it is not.  We talked about whether it is different for men than for women writers, and I think it very much is—though we each had different notions of how that works out.

The week before Chicago and AWP I was off in the snowy wilds of upper New York State and trapped in various airport waiting rooms there and back. I was also going over my notes and thinking about shame and ambition, and how my own work gets stalled by my per sonal sense of inadequacy and my outrageous ambitions. I genuinely want the work to be worth the cost—the full cost of embarrassing people I love, exalting what I value and mining my own nervous system in the pursuit of making something on the page that burns into the reader and stays with them. THAT ambition is enormous and somehow shameful—feels over-reaching to me, but I do not believe that most of the male readers I know even question that reach as an ambition. They take it as a given while many women writers worry it like a dog on a bone—or a nun prostrate on a marble floor.

What is that phrase? Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or something close to that? I take it to mean that in writing  we go about recreating all we know in order to know what we know—or something like that. Clearly that has been going on for all of us women writers.

The problem is that too often I have lost faith repeatedly in the writing process itself—which I take to be clue to how complicated it is to want so much and have no certainty of making any of ones desire real on the page.  Smart women question themselves constantly. Hell, probably not-smart women do as well, while many of the men I know and work with do not question themselves in the same way. They have a conditional acceptance about the meaning and purpose of their work that I seem to have to constantly recreate—and I wanted to discuss how that shapes what we do as women writers.

It is embarrassing to admit that for all the work I have published and the teaching I have done, and the confidence I so often project, I still have to recite to myself a litany of sloganish concepts just to get working, or believe in the work long enough to get something done. And part of me is always dreaming of running away from the whole enterprise-to go live among the other smart women in the woods reciting sentences to the branches overhead, and not worrying about whether it all makes sense or has enough of a plot for a marketing dept to use.

So I planned to come to the issues of capitalism and corporate publishing which meshes with this uncertainty and hesitation in appalling ways—particularly for women. I should also say particularly for women who have some sense of one down—which is the phrase I use for women of color, queer women, poor or working class women, women identified with regional writing, or subset publishing—which has come to mean everything from feminist to experimental to,these days, literary novels. But  I am not sure that it is capitalism that constructs the difficulties we face in our ambitious pursuit of the best work we can do. I think the difficulties are much more deep than the marketing of our work or how we are pushed to see the work as an object we make that must attract enough attention to sell.

I also think that sense of uncertainty about the use of the work and our personal relationship to the creation of narrative is also part of what makes our work so extraordinary—that we question everything at the core, and fight our way back to the purpose and meaning of what we do. That is when we actually do fight our way back and finish the work. All too often all too many smart women do not manage that struggle. They disappear and their work with them. (Out among the trees perhaps or serving eggs in a diner in Ohio.) You can see some of the impact of that despair in an article my editor, Carole DeSanti, wrote for the Women's Review of Books—though that is only a fraction of what she and I have discussed for years now. It is a big subject—the haunted rooms we inhabit, the ghosts we become, the loud clamor outside those rooms—that push us away from the quiet in which we attempt to make powerful story.

That is roughly what I planned to speak about—how we get in our own way and are encouraged to do so by the system through which our work finds its audience.  I do not limit this dynamic to the mainstream publishing since I found it equally or relatively so in the small press publishing world.  I think it is the place where what we take as something inherently spiritual—story making, language, and inspiration—becomes commoditized and has a value assigned to it that relates only tangentially to the value we set upon it—and more terribly where we are encouraged to think that to get attention for our work we must dismiss the work of other writers, particularly those who we are seem in some fashion to be competing with for a readers attention.

That that theory of competition does not actually apply seems hard for many people in competitive industries to recognize.  But I do not think readers chose one book INSTEAD of another.  Readers chose books that resonate and catch their attention, and one book on a subject is never enough. If you care deeply about something you want to read widely about it—the book that Dorothy wrote alongside the book that Patricia wrote, not one or the other.  As a reader and a woman I am greedy and curious and manic sometimes to read all those stories. Every book I love leads me to another. Every great woman writer I discover makes me want to read more women writers—not silence all those so that my favorite can reign over the bookshelves.

I think about my favorite poems and the joy of reading them out loud, and the notebooks i make of favorite poems by many poets and how  need that compilation to offset waiting in line in airports or comfort me in the dark of night when I wake up scared of what is to come with the morning. I need a lot of poems and poets to survive. Not even Muriel Rukeyser is sufficient. She needs to be alongside Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich and Nikki Finney, and well you understand what I am saying...all of us.

And then I have to acknowledge the enormous, almost orgasmic, charge I get when something I am writing catches fire and the language rises above the mundane to the burning intensity of revelation.  What does that have to do with ambition?  I want that charge, i want more of it. There are times when I am working when I can not stay in my chair - when I jump up and swing my arms and shake my head. "She said, she said, she said" and the psalms come tumbling out of me remade into letters glossy with what seems my own blood.

What I think about all the time is that intensity we find in the shared work—that in reading the work of other women, I am taken past my fear and hesitation, and my small strengths are magnified and reflected back to me.  Every novel, story, memoir, poem and narrative that another woman risks herself to create and share enlarges what I can do.  THAT disdains the null-set theory of competition and despair.  If Karen writes about shame n a naked and compelling way, I can write more nakedly about what I know about it. It Sue Silverman or Patricia Foster recount the most tender moments of helplessness, illness, and endurance, I am more able to survive my own-and to write about it in a frank and loving way that makes possible more of a sense of the possibility of change and transformation. When Rosellen Brown raises the most basic ethical questions of how we participate in the creation and distribution of our own work, I am more able to resist the sad blandishments to discount the work of other women or lesbians to enlarge my own reputation.

Finally I believe that none of us enlarges our reputation or the value of our work by disdaining or dismissing the work of others engaged in the same struggle we face.

Yes, god help us, we are ambitious and competitive and want people to read our books and stories and think well of us. And sometimes we lose track of what we are doing and engage in momentary and painfully expensive little slighting remarks about other women writers —when we should know better. It always comes back on us. There are always people willing to dismiss us because they are persuaded that they will by that dismissal improve their own chances for appreciation or attention or a marketing budget.

But as you know, much of what I am talking about has so very little to do with the price of hardback novels, or publicity campaigns, or contracts that specify rights and payment schedules. We are all of us trying to make a living, pay our rent, and provide for our families, so we are in the world of corporate capitalism transferring this thing we sometimes can do and love with our whole souls over to the world of across the counter—exchanges of cash for what sometimes seems life's blood.

Me, I seem to be always re-inventing a way to manage this—and sometimes failing to do so—which is why I seem to be the slowest writer I know, so late with a novel I think I am one of the primary inspirations for my poor editor 's haunted reveries.

Still I also know where I take strength—and that is in finding the book I need at the absolute right moment—some other woman's creation—and yes sometimes some other man's work-the book, or story or poem or even paragraph which makes sense out of what to that moment has seemed beyond my understanding. Then I feel myself part of my tribe, my nation, my family—the landscape that might be the back brain or the soul—but is essentially the country of those willing to risk everything to achieve a shared vision—a dream in which we are all in this together making the world we know real enough to pass on to those who have never had to articulate what it is they know.

So much of what I know, I know because someone told me a story in which I could hear echoed back to me a truth I could understand. The great ambition it seems to me is the desire to echo the story on to yet others who need to know what they know and do not know. To ask the questions or raise the nagging uncertainties that fills out and peoples the world of imagination-by which we mean that encyclopedia of what is or was or might be.

In that world fiction has the weight of detail and does not lie but makes large what some might think small, language becomes as powerful as magic might be imagined to be, and a story told well enough and deeply enough might actually change all our lives for the better. 

It could happen...

9 Comment count
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Thank you

You have done it again--that is, you have said what my heart knows, just as you do in your poetry & fiction. Thanks. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

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Gender support?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. As a writer of a memoir, I worried that my gender would bias the reader from the outset--especially the male reader. What I've found, however, was the opposite. Women reviewers added disparaging comments to their otherwise good reviews, and men have been my most enthusiastic reviewers. 

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Yes . . .

I read this as fast as I could as I need to leave for work and with each paragraph I saw myself. I have a first novel that has not done well but when people read it they love it, but the nagging questions you mention haunt me about it and my other work. We women are self-critical and the process you described of having to fight back for the space, physically and emotionally to write, resonated deeply within me.

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So well said, Dorothy.
Susan Wiggs

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The shame of ambition

A colleague at my job, one who has told me more than once that he's never read my novel, (set in the South during the civil rights movement) asked me: "What made you think you could write an historical novel?"

I answered, "My heritage, having lived through the times, my degree in history, minor in political science, my research." Even as I answered, the gall burned deep.

He would never have asked a male colleague to list his qualifications to write fiction, that is, a made up story about a specific era. knowing he would never read the book, ever, knowing he could not understand how driven I was to write the struggle of two women to come together and to be independent in a time when it was difficult for women to do so, knowing he would never get that, did very little to relieve the sense of outrage and slight humilitaion I felt.

Do I have to justify what I do?

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This is a terrific essay, right on target!

I will spread this one around among the many smart women writers I know and those young ones I teach--

Thank you! Hope our paths will cross one day soon.

Marilyn Kallet

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Great essay. I face self

Great essay. I face self doubt and confusion about what I'm doing on a daily basis, and I take heart that from what you write and the comments above, I am not alone.



Jessica Barksdale Inclan

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What struck me as most true in your article was your statement that, ". . . we go about recreating all we know in order to know what we know." For me writing has always been the process through which I discover not only what I know, but what is true. A fictional exploration of a situation allows me to see from many sides - from the perspective of each character - as well as from the perspective of my imagined readers. Looking at an issue from that many perspectives results in a fuller understanding of truth, and the truth is always what I'm after when I write.

For some reason, I don't suffer from the idea that my work won't be taken seriously by men. I know that people are very particular about what they like and don't like and I have not really noticed any difference between men and women, although from what I hear there are many more female readers than male, especially of fiction. What I do find disturbing is the new focus on the bottom line in the publishing world. That seems like the biggest problem that writers must overcome. It is an insidious form of censorship.

Zoe Murdock

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Well done!

Thanks for this piece, Dorothy. I think there are those of us for whom the combination of ambition (ours) and caveat (others') created a labyrinth of conflicting emotions we had to work through, and in the next room, younger women for whom the way has been slightly easier, if only because there are now quite a lot of women writing and publishing. As Zoe Murdock says, the younger ones are fighting an uphill battle with a publishing industry headed downhill. But many of us are still having to navigate psychologically while also battling the kings of the bottom line. In the end, of course, there's not much to do except plunge headfirst into the future, but yes, it is exhausting and sometimes debilitating--until we read a piece as passionate and true as yours.

Kelly Cherry