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Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community

Posted: 05/01/2013 12:24 pm

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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  • Gone Girl

    <b>Author</b>: Gillian Flynn <b>Listed</b>: #1 on Amazon.ca, #12 on Indigo, currently at 28 weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list <b>The description</b>: "This thriller about a marriage gone toxic was the book that everyone you know took to the beach this summer—and this best-seller lives up to the hype." - <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/11/best_books_of_2012_gone_girl_beautiful_forevers_bring_up_the_bodies_wild.html">The Slate Book Review</a>

  • Sutton

    <b>Author</b>: J.R. Moehringer <b>Listed</b>: #1 on Indigo, #13 on Amazon.ca <b>The description</b>: "[Moehringer] brings a raconteur's grace and rhythm to his first novel, Sutton, a stirring portrait of Willie ''The Actor'' Sutton, the notorious American bank robber who never fired his gun." - <a href="http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20631429,00.html">Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly</a>

  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry

    <b>Author</b>: Rachel Joyce <b>Listed</b>: #2 on Indigo, #11 on GoodReads' Choice Awards, longlisted for The Man Booker Prize <b>The description</b>: "While the novel isn't necessarily interested in organized religion, it is most definitely concerned with the results of faith and compassion. “It was not a life, if lived without love,” a character realizes. As a mission statement, one could do so much worse." - <a href="http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2012/0906/3-outstanding-2012-novels/The-Unlikely-Pilgrimage-of-Harold-Fry-by-Rachel-Joyce">Yvonne Zip, The Christian Science Monitor</a>

  • Behind The Beautiful Forevers

    <b>Author</b>: Katherine Boo <b>Listed</b>: #15 on Indigo, #7 on Amazon.ca, one of the year's best from New York Times Book Review, winner of 2012 Nationa Book Award for non-fiction <b>The description</b>: "[Katherine Boo] focuses on a small group of Annawadi residents. They are very poor, very desperate, and very human, similar to the slum dwellers you'd find in the gin alleys of 18th-century London. The book is less about India and more about how the struggle to stay alive affects the heart and the soul." - <a href="http://books.usatoday.com/book/katherine-boo-behind-the-beautiful-forevers/r621700">Deidre Donahue, USA Today</a>

  • Bring Up The Bodies

    <b>Author</b>: Hilary Mantel <b>Listed</b>: #19 on Amazon.ca, top of the Daily Beast's 2012 list, winner of the Man Booker Prize <b>The description</b>: "[Hilary Mantel] has set an impossibly high standard when it comes to evoking the murky world of Henry VIII’s court and the dark, equivocal figure of Thomas Cromwell ... Her choice of present tense and curious use of pronouns to position her reader in Cromwell’s mind give a vividness and urgency to the text that makes the past sing." - <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booker-prize/9611969/Booker-Prize-2012-Mantels-tale-drips-with-the-often-putrid-scents-of-theTudor-age.html">Suzannah Lipscomb, The Telegraph</a>

  • The Headmaster's Wager

    <b>Author</b>: Vincent Lam <b>Listed</b>: #10 on Indigo, #16 on Amazon.ca, shortlisted for the Governor General Literary Award <b>The description</b>: "Inspired by Lam's own family history, The Headmaster's Wager tells the story of Chen Pie Sou, a man who can exercise the power of privilege but who also indulges recklessly in privilege's vices. When the hostilities of the Vietnam War threaten members of his family, Chen Pie Sou learns that the limits of his power are dictated not by the size of his fortune, but by the strength of his self-mastery." - <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/the-headmasters-wager-by-vincent-lam/article4107021/">Sonnet L'Abbé, The Globe and Mail</a>

  • The End Of Your Life Book Club

    <b>Author</b>: Will Schwalbe <b>Listed</b>: #4 on Indigo, #5 on Amazon.ca, <b>The description</b>: "On the surface, this is the story of the two-person book club Schwalbe started with his mother, Mary Anne, after she was given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Not curable, as her doctors told her, but treatable ... But Schwalbe gives us so much more than a portrait of a dying woman who had a remarkable life. It is as much a love letter to his mother as it is to reading." - <a href="http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Review+Will+Schwalbe+Your+Life+Book+Club/7600313/story.html#ixzz2GII7qkkL">Patricia Crowe, Montreal Gazette</a>

  • 419

    <b>Author</b>: Will Ferguson <b>Listed</b>: #6 on Amazon.ca, winner of the Giller Prize <b>The description</b>: "Perhaps feeling constrained by even the comic novel’s limitations, Ferguson has entered the ranks of literary novelists with 419, a story that follows a Canadian editor from her comfortable life in Calgary to neo-liberalism’s lawless frontiers in the oil- and blood-drenched streets and backwaters of Nigeria." - <a href="http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=7599">James Grainger, Quill & Quire</a>

  • Above All Things

    <b>Author</b>: Tanis Rideout <b>Listed</b>: #2 on Amazon.ca, listed on the Globe and Mail top Canadian fiction of the year <b>The description</b>: "In 1924, at a Tibetan monastery called Rongbuk, a Tibetan Sherpa is anxious to dissuade the Englishman George Mallory from making a last desperate effort to reach the summit of Mount Everest. There are demons that inhabit these heights, and the goddess of the mountain, the Sherpa warns, is against them. With due respect to the goddess, she may not be the worst obstacle the Englishman and his party face in their quest to scale the mountain." - <a href="http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/06/22/open-book-above-all-things-by-tanis-rideout/">Philip Marchand, National Post</a>

  • The Casual Vacancy

    <b>Author</b>: J.K. Rowling <b>Listed</b>: #6 on Indigo.ca, #1 on GoodReads' Choice Awards <b>The description</b>: "In something like the offstage deaths of Harry’s parents, “The Casual Vacancy” begins with a death of a beloved figure: parish councilman Barry Fairbrother, who leaves behind a village divided in an ongoing struggle to fill the vacancy — hence the book’s title — with someone who will either support or oppose the rezoning of the Fields, as the housing project is known." - Kevin Nance, <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/15546526-421/review-the-casual-vacancy-by-jk-rowling.html">Chicago Sun-Times</a>

  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

    <b>Author</b>: Ben Fountain <b>Listed</b>: #11 on Amazon.ca, #19 on Indigo, 2012 National Book Award Finalist <b>The description</b>: "A bracing, fearless and uproarious satire of how contemporary war is waged and sold to the American public, Fountain's novel gives us one Denisovichian day in the life of Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier who's on a "Victory Tour" of America during the time of the Iraq war." - <a href="http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Billy-Lynn-s-Long-Halftime-Walk-review-3552846.php#ixzz2GI3sLBbH">Adam Langer, San Francisco Chronicle</a>

  • Bobcat And Other Stories

    <b>Author</b>: Rebecca Lee <b>Listed</b>: #9 on Indigo <b>The description</b>: "High schoolers should be encouraged to read Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories, particularly if they plan to go to university. Amorous collisions between professors and students and intellectual scrapping among academic colleagues can be as psychologically ferocious as an attack by a bobcat. Understand that and you’ll do brilliantly at any post-secondary institution." - <a href="http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/article/1251002--bobcat-and-other-stories-and-the-book-of-marvels-column">Jennifer Hunter, Toronto Star</a>

  • Let's Pretend This Never Happened

    <b>Author</b>: Jenny Lawson <b>Listed</b>: #3 on Indigo, winner for Best Humor in GoodReads' Choice Awards <b>The description</b>: "Lawson relishes revealing plenty about her life, except perhaps just how much she may exaggerate about it. Fall into her writing, though, and she proves that a memoir need not be exact to be enjoyable. She removes the onus of perfectly reported recollections and leads her readers down the rabbit hole of her memories." - <a href="http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-06-01/opinions/35462068_1_zombie-apocalypse-book-review-thebloggess-com">Melissa Bell, Washington Post</a>

  • Carnival

    <b>Author</b>: Rawi Hage <b>Listed</b>: #8 on Amazon.ca, winner of Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction <b>The description</b>: "The narrator, who calls himself Fly, lays the world out for the reader in extreme and contradicting proportions that feel heartbreaking. Fly, in fact, made me fall in love with books all over again. And why not? A book fanatic raised in a traveling circus, Fly is one strand of a web of cabdrivers in a city that loosely resembles Montreal. He separates cab drivers as “spiders” and “flies.” Spiders wait around for prey to find them. Flies wander and roam the city. By name alone, you know where Fly lands." - <a href="http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2012/12/carnival-by-rawi-hage.html">Caitlin Stall-Paquet, Paste</a>

  • Dear Life

    <b>Author</b>: Alice Munro <b>Listed</b>: #14 on Amazon.ca, #1 on Kirkus Reveiws' Best Fiction of 2012 <b>The description</b>: "None of these stories needs to be a novel, however, and that’s because Alice Munro confects her characters and shapes their backgrounds so deftly that the stories have all the rich lusciousness of novels without their tendency to put on more weight than they should. Most of them are set in the 1940s and ‘50s or, if not, their characters look back to those decades. In a sense, then, these stories are historical, often recalling the rationing and responsibilities of World War II." - <a href="http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/25/book-review-dear-life-stories/#ixzz2GI88VyuF">Claire Hopley, Washington Times</a>

  • The Yellow Birds

    <b>Author</b>: Kevin Powers <b>Listed</b>: #4 on Amazon.ca, National Book Award finalist, New York Times Best Books of 2012 list <b>The description</b>: "John Bartle, age 21, is a soldier in the middle of combat in Iraq and his one job is to stay alive, and he’s made a promise to the mother of a fellow soldier, Murphy, 18, that he would keep him alive, too. It’s the honoring of this promise that propels the book backward and forward in time and across landscapes in Iraq and the U.S." - <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/11/the-yellow-birds-by-kevin-powers-the-novel-of-the-iraq-war.html">Doug Stanton, The Daily Beast</a>

  • Doppler

    <b>Author</b>: Erlend Loe <b>Listed</b>: #13 on Indigo <b>The description</b>: "[Loe's] satirical point of view is the starting point for this strange and humorous book – and although some of the author's targets are less à propos in 2011 (the book has taken eight years to reach English readers, in a translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw), there are still some cogent points made here. If, that is, you can accept the whimsy of a man conversing with a baby moose." - <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/doppler-by-erlend-loe-translated-by-don-bartlett-and-don-shaw-8386365.html">Barry Forshaw, The Independent</a>

  • Escape From Camp 14

    <b>Author</b>: Blaine Harden <b>Listed</b>: #8 on Indigo, one of Financial Times' best books of the year <b>The description</b>: "As many as one million North Koreans are believed to have perished [in the North Korean gulag]. Only three people are known to have escaped. One is Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man who defied the odds and managed to flee, first from the gulag and then from North Korea itself. He made it to China and eventually reached safety in South Korea in 2006. His remarkable story is told by Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, in "Escape From Camp 14." It is a searing account of one man's incarceration and personal awakening in North Korea's highest-security prison." - <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303816504577308034026789136.html">Melanie Kirkpatrict, Wall Street Journal</a>

  • The Fault In Our Stars

    <b>Author</b>: John Green <b>Listed</b>: #15 on Amazon.ca, #23 on Indigo, Grantland's Overlooked Books Of 2012 <b>The description</b>: "The real tragedy of cancer may be that it affects people of all ages, and children suffering from the disease are often hit hardest. Robbed of any semblance of a normal life, "cancer kids," as Green's narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, calls them, mark their time in days and weeks." - <a href="http://www.npr.org/2012/01/17/145343351/the-fault-in-our-stars-love-in-a-time-of-cancer">Rachel Syme, NPR</a>

  • A Hologram For The King

    <b>Author</b>: Dave Eggers <b>Listed</b>: #12 on Amazon.ca, #17 on Indigo, 2012 National Book Award Finalist <b>The description</b>: "A Hologram For the King” is a tale of emptiness, where the losses are of the more everyday kind — debts to pay, ex-wives to regret — even if the setting is exotic. In fact, if you describe the plot of this book — a salesman goes to Saudia Arabia, armed with a hologram, to pitch IT service to a king — it’ll probably provoke the kind of empathy shut-down that existed towards bankers . . . well, even now." - John Freeman, Boston Globe

  • In The Orchard, The Swallows

    <b>Author</b>: Peter Hobbs <b>Listed</b>: #5 on Indigo <b>The description</b>: "We are introduced to the narrator as he is rescued from certain death by the kind, scholarly Abbas, who discovers him lying unconscious by the roadside. He has just been set free after 15 years in a subhuman prison; Hobbs's descriptions of the dungeon are chilling, and present a sharp contrast to the idyllic countryside." - <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/13/in-orchard-swallows-peter-hobbs-review">Mirza Waheed, The Guardian</a>

  • The Round House

    <b>Author</b>: Louise Erdrich <b>Listed</b>: #3 on Amazon.ca, winner of National Book Award for Fiction <b>The description</b>: "In the novel, Joe, a sheltered 13-year-old, must come to terms with crime, justice and adult sexuality after his mother is brutally raped. She is so traumatized that she initially will not speak of the incident or name her attacker, and Joe decides to find the culprit. He quizzes his father, eavesdrops on conversations and bikes around the reservation with his three closest friends, investigating." - Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

  • The Chaperone

    <b>Author</b>: Laura Moriarty <b>Listed</b>: #7 on Indigo, Oprah's best Beach Reads <b>The description</b>: "The Chaperone is the story of Cora Carlisle of Wichita, Kansas, a 36-year-old woman wife and mother hired to accompany Louise Brooks, 15, to New York City in the summer of 1922 where Brooks is attending dance school. While it’s a fictional account Moriarty uses Brooks, an actual silent screen star, as a prop upon which to reveal Cora’s awakening on a number of levels." - <a href="http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/article/1248409--the-chaperone-by-laura-moriarty-review"> Georgie Binks, Toronto Star</a>

  • The Beautiful Mystery

    <b>Author</b>: Louise Penny <b>Listed</b>: #9 on Amazon.ca <b>The description</b>: "The “beautiful mystery” of Penny’s eighth Gamache mystery refers to Gregorian chant, plainsong, and its mysterious allure and spiritual appeal even to the lay listener. Playing off the international sensation surrounding the 1994 release of recordings of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, The Beautiful Mystery finds Gamache and his loyal lieutenant, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, being called to a monastery to investigate the murder of a monk." - <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/louise-pennys-mystery-series-moves-from-strength-to-strength/article4526997/">Robert Wiersema, The Globe and Mail</a>

  • Mortality

    <b>Author</b>: Christopher Hitchens <b>Listed</b>: #17 on Amazon.ca, eight weeks on the NPR Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List <b>The description</b>: "Christopher Hitchens's own pieces are shaped like a fugue; the theme is death, his own death, and the voice in each piece changes slightly as death comes closer. He begins simply with the theme: "I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse." - Colm Tóibín, The Guardian


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