Like every other writer I know, I read Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” last week. It inspired long conversations with my friends and my partner. Who* do you write for? Who do you read? Whose view of the world are you pandering to?
There are a lot of great passages in the article, but this is the part that hit close to home for me:
As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember…nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.
This part really struck me because I was, at the time, writing an essay on romance. By romance I mean the baggage of love. The cultural weight of it. All the ideology that comes with loving someone…especially when you are young.
For a long time all of my romantic ideology was connected to a particularly fairy-tale-ish passivity. I waited, I watched. When I was a teenager I showed boys that I was likable by watching their crappy band rehearse or listening to long guitar solos on the phone late at night or going to their ballgames. I waited for those boys to like me back. It never occurred to me that I could be likable because of my own interests, not in spite of them.
I spent much of my last long-term relationship watching my partner do things. I took up his hobbies out of a fear that he would come to love rock climbing or skiing or photography more than he loved me. The only thing I pursued just for me was writing. This has, for the most part, worked out well, as it turned out that I genuinely like climbing and skiing. I still do both of those things, but it took a couple years to determine whether I did them because I wanted to or because I wanted to be the kind of person he respected—even after we’d broken up.
He didn’t watch me do much. He didn’t take up any of my hobbies. He wasn’t into poetry readings, and of course my interest in them wasn’t threatening to him. But he’s not a pleaser. That’s my thing.
A couple years ago I joined CWILA and VIDA. I started thinking more about the kinds of books I wanted to see in the world, the kind of reader I wanted to be. I began to value diversity more than critical acclaim or literary chicness—especially when it came to choosing course materials. I don’t read as many books by men these days. And the ones I do read are not typically part of the canon.
Sometimes I think back to the student I had in a British Literature class one year—the one who did not believe a woman could effectively write a male protagonist. “Why?” I’d asked, hoping to lead him to a better way of thinking by helping him find the holes in his own logic. But now I would just tell him: that’s ridiculous and sexist. I’d send him to Solnit, and to Gay. I’d show him these charts.
But I wanted my students to like me. If I am honest, I still do. My teaching persona is not fierce, it’s nurturing and patient. But lately I’ve been thinking of Watkins and Solnit (who, in a response to Esquire’s “80 Books Every Man Should Read” writes: “Also, I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.” I get so much pleasure out of the fierceness of this sentence!) and I’ve been summoning my own fierceness and fearlessness. In my essay I wrote to understand why I’ve tried to love people by pleasing them. I put all my newfound fierceness into writing without trying to please anyone at all. It was thrilling.
Then this morning this exchange happened:
And I see my total failure of fierceness. I don’t need @piton3853 to point out that other people have written about love before me. I don’t at any point claim to have done something wholly original. And I’m confident I know a lot more about the subject of love than @piton3853 does. And yet, I chose to point out my knowledge in a way that would please him.
I only realized this failure when I read his response. I have pleased an anonymous mansplainer on the internet! I am not fierce. I am exactly the lady he wants me to be: smart and humble.
The other night I said to my partner: “I just want you to be happy.” It was late and we were falling asleep and I felt overcome with love for him that manifest itself in a strong desire for his happiness. He seemed so pleased by this declaration, probably because, as I pointed out in my last post, I keep going out of my way to say that I don’t believe his happiness is my responsibility. But it’s also good to let him know that his happiness matters to me. It matters a lot.
So this is the struggle: how do you love someone without trying to please him? How do you value his happiness without taking on the burden of supplying it?
And how do you write or teach with integrity when your first impulse is to be liked?
And then there’s this other problem I’m struggling with—it’s tied to these conversations about waiting and watching and pleasing and pandering. I haven’t sorted it all out in my head yet, so bear with me.
A few days after Watkins’ article came out, this response began to circulate. In it, Nichole Perkins points out that white women like Watkins are also pandered to:
When I read Watkins’ confession, I realized her essay wasn’t written for me, a black woman who largely reads other women, especially those of color, trying to get published. […] Watkins’ call to shake up the system is directed at the people already there — the agents, publishers and marketers.
Like I said, over the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets a voice. But this thinking is complicated by the fact that I now have a voice. I’m in the system. I have an agent and editors who totally get and support my project. They think the book I want to write—as I want to write it—is worth publishing. They have shown this with their time and their attention and their money. And it feels like a miracle. So here I am, another white woman in mainstream publishing. I understand that my demographics have helped get me here.
And then I read this on who gets to believe in love poetry:
There are a lot of reasons I have felt excluded from Capital-P Poetry in my life, and its seeming attachment to a particular brand of flowery, milk-skin, gushing love is one of them. […] Maybe this love, this Shakespearean, Kate Hudson love, was not for me. Was not for black girls. Maybe love was another Nancy Meyers ideal, another privilege. Something for people who didn’t have other things to worry about.
Last weekend I went to a party hosted by my partner’s creative writing program. Whenever I go to these events with him I want to shout to everyone as I walk in the door: Hi! I’m a writer, too. I belong to your club. I want to please them by being like them. Someone asked about my book and as I was explaining it she said, “Are you including homosexual love stories?” I fumbled through the answer, which was basically “no”, and after she walked away I felt that keen, uncomfortable awareness of my privilege. I thought of all the things I meant to say but didn’t–but even they sounded like bad excuses: I’m writing about my own experiences so the point of view is heterosexual by default. Or The book critiques love stories for being too narrow in their presentation of love–I don’t talk about homosexual love stories because hetero stories are the real problem here. Or I’m actually making an argument in favor of more diverse stories in terms of sexual orientation and preference.
This pandering business works in so many different ways. Maybe my impulse to please does me some good sometimes—especially when it points out my own limited field of vision.
So what do you do when you believe we need more diverse voices in the publishing world and you have been given a voice in part because the stories you want to tell are familiar and interesting to those literary gatekeepers? Is it okay to be a white, heterosexual, monogamous woman telling her love story while also arguing that our love stories lack diversity?
I’ve resolved to look at more non-traditional love stories. What I mean by this is anything that deviates very far from the Cinderella standard: girl watches boy do cool stuff, waits for him to love her back. If I want to make an argument for more diverse versions of what love can look like, I need some better reference points. I need more non-white, non-hetero, non-monogamous love stories. I’ve got a few in mind, but I’d love your suggestions if you have them.
*like many others, I’m considering abandoning “whom” for casual writing. But I’m still an English teacher, so I have to defensively note this choice.