Battle of the Sexists (aka Let The Self-Promotion Roll, Ladies)

So…I almost talked myself out of making this post, but then, hey, I said I was going to start blogging again and these are the kinds of things I'm interesting in blogging about. Even though it is a little scary, for reasons the post will make clear. The thing is, publishing books is–even though our books are not ourselves–extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear.

It's probably one of the reasons I've talked less in depth about anything except writing and interesting bits and bobs I find on the Internet here, since Blackwood came out. The other is that it takes time, time away from writing fiction and doing other work and living, which is time and mental space I don't have much of. I like watching TV too much. So, there will probably be a lot more nattering type "this is what's going on" posts. Pet pictures and the like. But I'm not happy with confining all discussions of other things to twitter or facebook, and so here we are. And I come to you with a ranty ramble.

What prompted this post is a stew of things that happened to appear in concert this week, and some of which I've been stewing about ever since.

The first was the Jennifer Weiner profile in the New Yorker. I only just got time to read the whole thing last night. It's a fair, thoughtful piece, and definitely worth your time. 

I saw a few tweets flying around, which notified me of its existence, but the actual first direct impression I got of it was a secondary one. My friend Erin posted a link to a Slate reaction piece to it, one which had rightly piqued her ire. Reader, this piece makes my blood boil. The headline: "Jennifer Weiner Critiques Sexism in Publishing, Promotes Self." But, you know, writers aren't always in charge of the headline, and they often seem written to troll for outrage clicks, so I was prepared for the actual piece to be a little more balanced. It honestly isn't, and then there's this:

All of this means that Jennifer Weiner is an imperfect vessel for confronting sexism in the publishing industry. What it doesn’t mean is that Weiner is unique in her strategy of leveraging critical analysis to self-promote.

Just take in the wording for a second…see if anything jumps out at you in the wording, like, oh, I don't know: IMPERFECT VESSEL.

Look, I know, I know, there's a larger point being made, etc., et al., but as a writer, I believe words matter. The choice of words reveals so much here; it is the crux, the entire red effing wheelbarrow of the matter, as far as I'm concerned.

Don't be an imperfect vessel, kids. Which seems to mean, among other things, don't self-promote, don't believe your own work is worth promoting, and for eff's sake, don't imply that it's worthy of critical consideration OR that which books get attention really does often come down to initial perceptions of the people who make those decisions… Perceptions which are undeniably colored by impressions created by the track record/history of the author and the packaging (and I'd include marketing push there). And if you believe that women's and men's work are packaged the same, or that women authors whose works are or are perceived to be primarily about and/or for girls or women are on equal ground in this equation, then I have some lovely beachfront property I'd love to sell you with a library full of Franzen the Grouch novels. Just send me a cashier's check.

Ditto if you believe that women aren't perceived and treated differently when they  self-promote.

Some people are rubbed the wrong way by Jennifer Weiner, some are some of the time (I agree with her way more often than I don't and find her frequently hilarious), but what KILLS me about some of the reactions is just how much they are about her. Again, look, I get it, it's a reaction to a profile piece, also about her. But it is also absolutely typical and predictable to sidestep the points she's making. It's far easier to criticize her for self-promoting or talk about her shortcomings–whether perceived or real–than it is to address the substance of her arguments. Her arguments which are not only about the books of Jennifer Weiner.

Who, by the way, is an actual human being and author, not a vessel, perfect or imperfect or otherwise. The very phrasing in that sentence may have been what caused my blood to boil. (By the way, I have enjoyed some other pieces by the writer of the Slate one. Just decidedly not this one.)

Like Weiner, I would love to see more attention devoted to the work of women and especially that perceived to be aimed primarily at women and girls. I read category romance (I LOVE category romance) right beside mainstream literary fiction right beside mystery right beside YA right beside SF and I do my best to judge the books based on their merits. I try not to do that pre-slotting of things into Worthwhile and Not Worthwhile, but make that decision based on the book in question. I know my own likes and dislikes, which means not assuming that because something isn't my cup of book, it shouldn't exist or be talked about. This is also not to say that everything is equally "literary," but there are other measures of worth that are, um, worth discussing, too, and can we just admit that the term itself is pretty squishy and seems to stick to most of the things it's applied to, as long as the right person is doing the applying?

There are certain kinds of books the word is far less likely to be applied to. Sometimes, that may be because of the quality of the books. Sometimes, it may be for other reasons–lots of them. (I have seen people claim, for instance, that literary YA doesn't exist. Which is crazypants.)

What I wish as a reader is that I could find more smart writing about all those types of books I mentioned above easily, instead of the typical uninformed scarlet-rage inflammatory or blush-rosy nostalgic pieces about YA, or the terrible pieces implying women who read romance aren't feminists and all romances are identical, or calling out the one or two SF books this year that stand above the trash heap…. I could go on with examples, but this is getting long and I doubt I need to. This is why I believe blogs are still so important, and why I read so many, and oh romance and YA blogosphere in particular you are THE BEST. You write such smart pieces, about so many different kinds of books, taking them seriously. You talk the things I'm talking about here. But oh how I wish there were more opportunities for you to write about it for professional outlets and be paid.

(Aside: This is one of the main reasons I regretted leaving my regular reviewing gig at Locus. I want to see more women writing about books, period–also why I try to read every word about books people like Laura Miller, Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz, Sarah Weinman, Roxane Gay, and Carolyn Kellogg produce, to name a handful, in addition to the blogs I follow.)

But, I digress. I wanted to talk a little bit about this idea that self-promotion is somehow inherently shameful or deserving of a call-out, especially when women are engaging in it.

Because at the same time the profile conversation was going on, this week there's been a bunch of talk in the SFF field about whether people should mention awards-eligible work and the associated discussions about self-promotion that engenders (not an accidental word choice). (Read those links.)

Not too long ago, two fabulous YA authors I consider friends wrote essays about the experience of being a woman writer and self-promoting, about the reactions that they get and see, and how those might be different toward women than men. Here's Sarah Rees Brennan's and here's Malinda Lo's.

I watched for reactions to these pieces with interest at the time, and I meant to post at length about them, but see above, avoiding rants. While most of the reactions I saw were quite positive, recognizing their valid points, I did also see a few really clueless mansplaining and nasty ones. I won't point to them, because…reasons, but ugh. Reactions like the one to Weiner in Slate tell the story just fine.

And before it comes up, I am not at all saying that men don't feel weird about self-promotion too, that they all feel completely comfortable and natural doing it. We're all humans here. Of course, it feels awkward. It feels awkward when I do it.

I'm also not saying there shouldn't be a balance, and that it's not possible to overdo it. It is, of course it is. In my experience, if you're someone who worries about that, you're probably not anywhere close to the line.

And yet.

Like most writers I know, I often experience doubts and bouts of imposter syndrome. But at the same time I am proud of my work, and it's work I, in fact, work really hard on. I want to be able to keep doing it. I also believe that women absolutely should not think twice about self-promotion. All the data suggests it's harder for the work of women, especially in certain genres, to get attention. That makes self-promoting part of the job for most of us, whether we like it or lump it. So if I catch myself hesitating on a RT or about posting some news related to my own books or trying to get an invite somewhere, I usually go on and do it, because I want to contribute to an online and offline culture where women don't hesitate and then decide not to speak up about their own work. Speaking up hopefully encourages speaking up. In case it doesn't: speak up.

Generosity of spirit is where it's at. Let's give each other the benefit of the doubt, and stash the judging on this point. I've always tried to help draw attention to other people's work I feel deserves it, but I pledge to do more of that, too.

Mostly, though, let's all try to call b.s. like this when we see it, by which I mean the attitudes about self-promotion and other things that help preserve the percentages in the VIDA count, that stoke the inequity in certain bestseller lists, and that make women not feel okay about trying to get attention for their work. Let our self-promotion truly be shameless.

End ranty rambling.

Speaking of promo, I'm determined to get a newsletter out something like quarterly this year. The first one will be sometime in the next week or so, and sign up if you want it.

7 Responses to “Battle of the Sexists (aka Let The Self-Promotion Roll, Ladies)”

  1. Stephanie Burgis

    I really, really love and agree with this blog entry. THANK YOU!

  2. Kristen Pham

    It’s nuts to me that self-published writers are constantly encouraged to leverage their social networks to get the word out, and that Weiner gets criticized for doing just that. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Gwenda Bond

    Thanks for reading!

  4. :paula

    “Imperfect vessel” to me also has verrry specific connotations when applied to a woman (and I can’t think of an instance it’s been applied to a man: “Tiger Woods is an imperfect vessel for promoting honesty to young athletes” – nobody would write that) I mean, ugh! She is intrinsically empty until filled, she is of value as a conveyance only? It just implies “womb” to me.
    Granted it’s just two words in a medium-long piece, but I think you are right in spotlighting the phrase. She’s an “imperfect vessel” because she has a stake in the argument. As if all critical commentary has to come from a place of pristine objectivity. My blood is boiling at the same temperature yours is, Gwenda. Thanks for this post!

  5. Gwenda Bond

    Absolutely! Well said. A woman–a person–is *not* a container, and then not just that, but an IMPERFECT one. *rolls eyes forever*
    Thanks for reading!

  6. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

    Hats off to you, dear Gwenda. That was a kickass piece.

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