A friend recently posted an article from Electric Literature’s “Blunt Instrument” Q&A column for writers, where Eisa Gabbert tackles questions about writing. This was my first foray into Gabbert’s column, and it had the click-baity headline “Should White Men Stop Writing? The Blunt Instrument on Publishing and Privilege.” In it, Gabbert answers a question posed by a white male poet who poses the conundrum: “Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story. I genuinely am troubled by this. I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another. How can I reconcile the two?”
After a few paragraphs of careful thought on the state of writing, publishing, and the interaction between race and gender and publication, Gabbert offers two concrete suggestions on how this writer might navigate this admittedly complicated question (and my hat goes off to Gabbert for tackling such a difficult question): 1) read more books by diverse writers and 2) don’t be a problem submitter.
Both of these are excellent suggestions. The first one is great because it acknowledges two truths: first, that the more voices we hear and are exposed to, the richer our writing becomes. The second is that publishing is an industry, and if we create a demand for more diverse authors, the publishers will rise to meet it—not because they’re good people, but because they want to make money. Somehow in this age of materialism (and books are materials, you better believe it) we’ve forgotten that in capitalism we vote with our dollars. And reading widely is not always easy, especially when, as Roxane Gay recently noted, what’s served up to us most readily often leans away from diversity.
Suggestion 2) is good because it falls under the “don’t be an asshole” philosophy of life. Gabbert asserts that when she edited a magazine, “men were far more likely to submit work that was sloppy and/or inappropriate for the magazine; they were also far more likely to submit more work immediately after being rejected.” Submitting work that is inappropriate to the magazine or that is sloppily put together is just a dick move—one that anyone is capable of. On the other hand, in the day and age when magazines are starting to charge reading fees, it seems to me that there’s less room for magazines that do collect these fees to complain about getting too many submissions. I don’t doubt that the overflow of submissions are clogging the works, but this strikes me as an operational problem for the magazine, not something that they can reasonably expect the unorganized group of submitters to self-police on. Why shouldn’t you submit sloppy/inappropriate work to a lit mag? Because it’ll get rejected. Making sure that your work is the best it can possibly be before you submit it is just good common sense.
But before she gives these two suggestions, in one of her earlier paragraphs, Gabbert makes another suggestion, even though it doesn’t get called out in its own paragraph, addressing the problem that editors claim they have submission pools with more men than women:
“…people inevitably respond by telling women to write more, submit more, and pitch more. I think this is exactly the wrong response: Instead we should tell men to submit less. Pitch less. Especially white men. You are already over-represented.”
This suggestion struck me as the most disingenuous and ungenerous advice one could ever give a writer. First of all, because it is extremely impractical. What constitutes “less”? Should this poet only send out every other poem he writes? Should he look at how many poems he submitted last year and reduce that submission output by a certain percentage? Thirty percent? Eighty percent?
But second of all, it's bad advice because writing is already really hard, and the only way to meaningfully do the work of being a writer is to do it with the gas pedal pressed to the floor. Cheryl Strayed’s now iconic “Write like a motherfucker” should be a mantra for all writers, because otherwise you will never get it done. There are a million things that will stop you from writing, and the only thing that will keep you writing is your own dedication, perseverance, and sitzfleisch. If as a working writer you’re not giving it everything, you might as well not be giving it anything. As far as I can tell, even though Gabbert says “I don’t think the answer is [for you] to stop writing,” in telling this guy to submit less, she’s subtly (perhaps unintentionally) suggesting that he might want to consider not writing.
And that is the harshest thing a writer can wish upon another writer. Not because everyone is a special snowflake (though they are), and not because every writer deserves to be published (even if they might), but because every writer at some point in their career has needed someone else to say “keep going.” Every writer I know has contemplated defeat, giving up their creative endeavors for something more practical, more remunerative. The world has plenty of systems in place to talk people out of writing—I’d hope that a column on a respected web site that aspires to be a resource for writers would not want to be one of those obstacles.
My answer to the white male poet is this: you have gotten to the heart of one of the central dilemmas in literature and publishing in our day and age, and there are no easy solutions. But cutting yourself off (or even cutting yourself back) from writing and submitting is not the answer (and asking any writer—regardless of identity—to hold themselves back from writing is an irresponsible request). You can’t control who your parents are or the identity you were born into. And if your drive to be a writer is like mine, then trying to deny it or control it is futile (if your drive to be a writer is not urgent, then you have a different issue to wrestle with). Sitting at home and not submitting while you feel bad isn’t going to do anything for anyone. So enter the world of writing with passion for your work, and with an openness to the writing of those around you. Take an honest look at your reading list and ask yourself if you are engaging fully in the diverse world of literature, and take steps to ameliorate it if you aren’t. Take what you learn from all the work you read and use it to analyze your own work. Become the world’s best reader, and help turn other people on to the amazing women, POC and LGBTQ writers that you read. Become an active member of your literary community with your awareness of the imbalance and take what positive steps you can to try and shift it. You can’t change a conversation by staying silent.
Again, I’m glad Gabbert has taken on this question and wrestled with it, and I think much of her thoughts on the topic were spot-on. However, in the community of writers, this specialized village of people who know what it’s like to look at a blank page and start with nothing and end with something, I believe we should all aspire to have each other’s backs when facing doubt. Let the rest of the world be responsible for talking us out of writing.