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Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community

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Zoe Whittall's recent viral poem, "Unequal to Me", exposes the prevalence of sexism in literary book reviews by performing a simple, clever trick. In this found poem, Whittall takes lines from book reviews of women authors and switches the pronouns to male. In doing so, she reveals the absurd ways that women are addressed, commodified, and fetishized in a "literary" context.

It's a great poem, a powerful comedic moment, and a text of bliss. It provides us with a heightened understanding of how language is never truly neutral and how language, often in subtle ways, is capable of performing the tasks of sexism and misogyny even in the so-called enlightened world of contemporary literature. But what happens, in the world of literature, when we encounter blatant, vile hateful speech? What happens when someone with an established literary reputation is guilty of overt sexism or even misogyny?

A few years ago, I implemented a new policy regarding people with hateful values. For the most part I have adhered to it. I simply ignore them. I carry on about my business as though they do not exist. This has its advantages. My life is filled with queer-positive, feminist, activism-friendly, progressive people. I have enjoyed a more positive outlook on life and I spend most of my time focused on how to make the best art I can make and live a life according to my values without being distracted by unpleasant business. But I am beginning to realize I need to revise this policy. I am in a position of privilege. I am a white male who teaches in a major university writing program and has established a career as a literary editor and writer. It's too easy for me to tell myself that everything is fine when I know for a fact that it's not. And, after all, how can I live a life according to my values if I never take the time to stand up for them?

This week, a poem by Zachariah Wells called "Citric Bitch's Thinking Is Shit" was unearthed/rediscovered on Twitter. It was originally published on his blog in 2009. For those who may not know him, Wells has become somewhat notorious for his bombastic and often dismissive book reviews and has also established himself as a writer and editor of note in the Canadian literary community. I believe his poem is an example of hateful speech directed at a woman, Sina Queyras, who is one of Canada's most accomplished poets and critics. (Full disclosure: I consider Queryas a valued colleague and friend.)

"Citric Bitch" is a direct reference to "Lemon Hound", Queyras's book/website/twitter handle and persona, and it is written as a univocal lipogram in order to parody Christian Bok's Eunoia (Christian is a friend and colleague of Queyras's). I have linked to the poem and I do not wish to spend much time performing a close reading of the misogyny and hatred. It's blatant and vile. See for yourself. But in case you would rather not look, I will quickly summarize. (I am open to other possible interpretations, but given the very public debate that Wells and Queyras were engaged in online in 2009 and the obviousness of the title, I would likely find alternate interpretations hard to believe.) My reading of the poem is the following: it is a personal attack on Queyras on various levels: her aesthetics, her sexual orientation, her perceived "careerism." It depicts Queyras as "dripping in gism" and it concludes with the following imperative: "Drink piss, dimwit citric bitch, / Kiss this critic's nightstick!"

From my point of view, the language in this missive is as disgusting as the language of young male gamers who recently verbally attacked and threatened feminist activists such as Stephanie Guthrie and Anita Sarkeesian (who heroically continue to do vital work). It's as monstrous as John Belushi's strategic sabotaging of the work of women writers on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s.

But in order to be ethical about this, I need to make this important point -- I do not want to make the assumption that the Zachariah Wells of 2009 is the Zachariah Wells of 2013. It is possible that the continued existence of this poem on his blog is an oversight. Perhaps he meant to take it down but it has been forgotten and archived. Perhaps he will be embarrassed to discover it is still online and accessible. If this is the case, then I hope he will consider this article as an opportunity to remove the text and apologize for directing what seems to be an abusive attack toward a fellow writer.

Now I am forced to think about myself in 2009. And I wonder why it is that I never spoke out about this four years ago when I first saw it. And I wonder why many of the men and women of the literary community did not speak out about it in 2009. (Some of my colleagues didn't see it, but some of them did.) I have potential answers but obviously I don't have all of them. I searched my email history back to 2009 and found a two-hour-long chat transcript I had with a fellow poet. I was outraged about the piece. She said that it was horrible and we should do something about it. But we never did.

I have had brief encounters with Wells over the years, mostly cordial, and some awkward. The awkwardness was expected. There is an ancient ocean between our poetics. But I wonder if the cordiality of some of our encounters made it easier for me to conveniently forget. I have been cautioned by editors, poets, publishers, critics, and lovers of contemporary literature to stay out of such things -- that literary feuds are pointless and a waste of time and effort. Indeed, the last time I engaged in any real negative discussion about one of my peers, it was in 2005. And while I'm aware that this very youthful, early effort of mine was appreciated by some people, I regret the inelegance of my argument and I am also aware I lost friends over it.

There are so many reasons a literary community remains silent when faced with the unpleasant business of sexism or misogyny: many writers fear the repercussions of speaking out because many of the people who get away with both blatant and subtle forms of hate are also in positions of relative power in the literary community. Some of them hold editorships; some of them write an astonishing number of book reviews. A fear many people have is that calling someone out will result in poor press and negative reviews. Literary culture is exceptionally clique-oriented. The advice I'm most frequently given on the matter is: pretend they don't exist. And, as I've stated, this has mostly been my policy.

The problem with this policy is now obvious to me: they DO exist. And they often get away with it because we, as a literary community, are too busy pretending they don't. I think it's time we took some cues from the gaming community and the culture of progressive comedy and start calling out bullies on their abusive behaviour. When an act of hatefulness occurs in our community, we owe it to ourselves and our values to name it as such and demand better, more critical and indeed more literary thinking. This is why the recent establishment of the organization known as CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is so important. It's important, too, that poems like Whittall's "Unequal to Me" continue to be written and published. Poems like these open up truths and ask important questions. I would like to thank Zoe Whittall for writing it and thank Sina Queyras for publishing it. It was the spark that led me to engage in this conversation. I am truly sorry that I am four years late.

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