Should White Men Stop Writing? A Q&A With Elisa Gabbert

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Let the work flow Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images

If you want to get a distilled version of the present moment in American politics, its not a bad idea to listen to what poets are saying, believe it or not. Right now, of course, a lot of the arguments are about identity. Elisa Gabbert is a poet and essayist who lives in Colorado and is the author of The French Exit and The Self Unstable. Last week, in an advice column for Electric Literature, she answered a note from a white male poet worried that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isnt there anymore. The column ran under the provocative headline Should White Men Stop Writing? and caused a storm on social media. The letter summed up a conversation about writing and gender and race and identity that's been going on for a long time but building momentum again since the poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's paper about gender balance in experimental poetry journals and anthologies, "Numbers Trouble," was published in 2007. And then with the annual VIDA counts that break down contributions to literary magazines by gender, and more recently ethnicity. I was on a airplane when the storm over Gabberts column hit, but wed corresponded in the past, so I asked her about it.

The letter was so perfect, I wondered at first if it was fictional. Do you think there are a lot of writers having the feelings the letter writer has?

First of all, I am 100 percent certain the letter was sincere, because I know the person who asked the question. I've also had similar conversations privately, among friends, and a number of white men have written me to say they have those concerns and anxieties; so even if the letter were fake (which it wasn't), it wouldn't be a bullshit strawman. I think there are lots of white male liberals who are sensitive to gender and race issues and are trying to figure out how to contribute to or at least support this kind of groundswell of activism going on in the literary world without inadvertently making things worse or just looking like an attention-seeking asshole. I don't really have to worry about speaking out as a feminist because I am a woman, but on the race front, hey — I'm white! I don't want to claim that I speak for POC. White liberals should be questioning our own motives, and being careful not to dominate the conversation, and taking criticism seriously. Unfortunately, any serious criticism my advice might have generated was completely drowned out by people who think the real issue is "reverse racism," i.e. prejudice against, or stereotyping of, white men.

Poor us, white dudes. I was offline, possibly in an airplane, when your column caused a Twitter storm, so I wasn't able to witness it. How would you describe the reaction, and what was your reaction to the reaction?

A lot of the reaction happened on Facebook (I wasn't privy to this, because I'm not on Facebook) and on Reddit (I consciously avoided the thread, because Reddit can be really toxically sexist). Also, as of now, there are more than 100 comments on the piece. I actually got a ton of positive feedback, both on Twitter and privately, but the majority of comments on the column express extreme disagreement, e.g. "You are what is wrong with Feminism and the first world right now," and "If I had to choose between the Nazis and the Cultural Marxists like yourselves, I would pick the Nazis." (Those are exact quotes.) A lot of people commenting seemed not to have read the piece. I think they just saw the headline ("Should white men stop writing?") and assumed the answer was "yes." That's not what I said at all. Others felt that I was giving the guy bad career advice, but he wasn't asking, "How do I get published as much as possible at any cost?" I was trying to help him find a way to keep writing without feeling overwhelmed by cultural guilt.

As for my reaction to the reaction, I can't say I'm surprised by the backlash, but I am surprised by the amount of it. And it's very tiresome to have to confront so many people who truly believe that there's no such thing as white privilege.  

The world of poetry, and to a lesser extent literature, seems to me more political, at least in pockets, than the world at large. A corollary to this is that it's easier to effect a revolution in poetry than in, say, government or the financial system. Do you think this is a good thing?

The literature world in general feels highly politicized to me right now, but I'm not sure if it's a true trend or just true of the groups I self-select into. I lean toward "real trend" — it feels like a response or at least something that's moving in tandem with national conversations outside literature, like police violence and abortion rights. I think overall it has to be good for literature. More inclusiveness and less denial is better. That's not to say that a lot of the debates aren't unproductive, or that bad art doesn't come out of it. I think some of the recent stunts in conceptual poetry were attempts to engage with race issues, but they were bad attempts and bad art.

Youre probably referring to things like the poet Kenneth Goldsmith appropriating the text of the autopsy of Michael Brown or Vanessa Place tweeting racist passages from Gone With the Wind. It seemed to me that some of those "stunts" had an intended meaning directed to their political right (i.e. directing attention to racism) but had a practically opposite resonance on their left (i.e. performing racism or appropriating victims' identities). These writers have been accused, among other things, of self-promotion. Does any act of non-anonymous publication constitute self-promotion of a sort?

Well, yes. Publication is self-promotion, but to me that's not entirely what's at issue here. What I object to in these cases (specifically, Kenneth Goldsmith's and Vanessa Place's recent high-profile appropriations) is not the intended meaning but the way protests seemed to fall on deaf ears. If Goldsmith and Place really wanted to bring attention to racism, why aren't they receptive to complaints that their own work is racist? That unwillingness to self-examine — like they are somehow outside the system they're critiquing — makes it all look like a bad-faith effort at exposing racism, especially when they're telling people of color "you just don't get my project."

Two writers who keep coming to mind, in part because we seem never to stop hearing about them, are Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There's been a lot written about the fact that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym, that the public doesn't know whom she really is, as well as theories that she might be a man. Why do we care? It all reminds me, to bring it back to a white guy, of the Shakespeare authorship question. Why do some wish that an unknown apparently female genius were really a man, or that a commoner, as they say in England, of great talent were really an aristocrat?

My husband feels really strongly about the Shakespeare thing — he says people just can't accept that an uneducated nobody could be a literary genius. Which reminds me of a funny story. The trans writer Jan Morris used to be James Morris. I heard a story about someone who was a fan of James Morris's books, and when the Pax Britannica series was completed by a Jan Morris, this person assumed that James had died and the series was taken over by his wife.

I haven't read either Ferrante or Knausgaard, though I find the discourse around them fascinating.

In the My Struggle books, the narrative persona is ever and always that of Karl Ove. (Granted, he previously wrote from the perspective of angels.) It struck me that if your letter writer's trepidation about taking on other personas spread, we'd have on our hands an epic of mass Knausgaardization. For all I know this may already be happening in the nation's MFA programs. I know it's not what you're advocating, but I'm wondering, who do you think tends to generate worse art, the narcissists or the misbegotten identity appropriators? And do you think that as a corollary to their "overexposure" white males have created more bad art, historically, than anybody else?

I guess white men, historically, have had the most free time (speaking just of the Western world), so just statistically speaking they probably have. On the other hand I often enjoy art/books that other people describe as narcissist. I guess as a reader I'll take interesting narcissism over boring selflessness.

There was something about your column that I disagreed with, and I'm not sure if you were saying it in jest: the idea that white male writers should submit less of their work to lit mags. My problems with the idea are A) it'll never happen, and B) it wouldn't solve the problem. The problems you're talking about, I think, are to do with structures much larger than writers, and it's editors who need to work toward fixing them. Something that always surprises me in these debates is that the conversation always goes back to patterns of submission. Why are editors so passive, waiting for talent to come their way? Surely, not to sound too male, it's something you have to hunt for?

Here's what I see as wrong with the standard-issue line that women and POC should submit more to even out the numbers: A) It's honoring the status-quo, racist, sexist system that got us here in the first place, and asking underrepresented people to conform to that system and play by its rules, rather than dismantle the system. It's just like telling women the reason they get paid less for the same jobs is because they don't ask for raises and promotions, and they're not aggressive enough. I, for one, don't want to work in an environment where everyone is as aggressive as the most aggressive guy in the room, and aggressive behavior isn't rewarded in women the same way it is in men. Also there are many jobs where being aggressive doesn't make you more effective. It's like giving out promotions based on height. B) It wouldn't solve the problem. It wouldn't solve the problem because editors don't read blind, and they make judgments based on the perceived gender and race of the author, whether they're aware of it or not. As to whether it'll "ever happen," I don't expect my advice to single-handedly solve racism or sexism. (Did anyone ask me to?) One person's vegetarianism doesn't solve world hunger or animal cruelty. One person biking to work doesn't solve climate change. You don't do it to solve the problem on your own, you do it so you can feel like an ethical person and go to sleep at night and maybe effect some small change around you.

That said, I agree that editors should be more active. I think magazines that show a commitment to publishing women and POC writers naturally get more submissions from other women and POC writers.

What do you think of the CancelOvid hashtag and debate? In college I was a classicist, and an Ovid fanatic, and I confess I don't see what's to be gained by losing him.

I'm basically in favor of radical suggestions like scorched-earthing the canon. As you would say, it'll never happen. And I don't think it's really desirable. But let's talk about it! What if? What if we changed things or at least considered changing things? See my (white! male!) friend Justin Daugherty's suggestion: all-female reboot of United States government.

Bigger picture. Is it me, or are the biographical fallacy and the death of the author inherently conservative ideas? That is, if it doesn't matter who the author is or if the author is dead, then it follows that it doesn't matter that all the authors happen to be (dead) white dudes?

I don't think they are inherently conservative, but in practice, yes, they're conservative. It's like people who say "we don't need quotas or affirmative action because all that matters is how good the writing is or how good you are at the job." The problem there is that the people making the judgments on what is "good" are often white men, and even when they're not, they've been shown all their lives that what rich white men do is what's good. So our system of judging "quality" has bias built in. It's not like "quality" can be objectively measured by scientific instruments. It's something that's determined inside culture.

Do you think that in the literary world things are getting better?

God, I don't know. I'm only 35. Maybe they're getting better, but it could be a local maximum.

And do you think that progress in book reviews could lead to progress for the nation?

I do, yes. The more that kids see people like them in positions of power (getting reviewed, getting elected, whatever) the more they internalize that they can do that too.

My question for you is, what responsibility do you feel, as a white male, if any, to address race and gender issues? What's your strategy?

I can speak in the roles of book critic and magazine/newspaper editor, the two jobs Ive done more or less for about the last 15 years. There are lots of responsibilities, to writers and to other editors (aka bosses), but the principal one is to readers: You have to bring their attention to the most worthy writing, and the most worthy writing from the broadest spectrum. That means you have to be aware of the limits of your own taste, and if your taste is running to writers who happen to sound (and look) like you, youve got to push against that, and if youre not, youre blinkered. As an editor, the way I figure it, if youre ignoring women writers and writers of color, your competition is finding better writers than you are, and if you do the same as a critic or a reader, somebody else is reading better writers than you are and getting smarter. As for a strategy, one counts, one makes lists, one tries to read everything. The other option is inertia.