Ernest Hemingway (REX)

BOOKS

Writers: we need to stop pandering to the white, male status quo

Ernest Hemingway (REX)

The desire to write like, about and for white male literary establishment figures is widespread, says Marie Phillips. And that needs to change

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By Marie Phillips on

There’s an app called the Hemingway editor – hemingwayapp.com – that you can apply to your writing to make it more like Hemingway. When it was released, I thought it was a joke, but no. There are people willing to put their own writing through a computer programme to make themselves sound more like an alcoholic, wife-beating, dead white male.

A few days ago, the Tin House website published the text of a speech made by writer Claire Vaye Watkins entitled ‘On Pandering’ – about her own, internal Hemingway app. “I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write,” she told the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. “I wrote [short story collection] Battleborn for white men, toward them… The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!”

The desire to write like, about and for white male literary establishment figures is widespread. How many books have I read about old white men getting boners? Many. Too many. And how many about old black women having orgasms? Fewer. Significantly fewer.

The domination of the literary world by white men has been well documented. A survey by Spread the Word, published in April, revealed that 84pc of publishers and 97pc of agents believe that publishing is ‘only a little diverse’ or ‘not diverse at all’. Study after study shows that, overwhelmingly, white men are hired by newspapers and journals as critics, they review books by other white men, and they award prizes to other white men. Even where prizes are awarded to women, they are for books about men. This week, every single one of the fifteen books chosen for World Book Night 2016 were written by white authors. What ‘world’ is that?

In the war on pandering, let’s not cede any territory. White men do not have the monopoly on writing literary fiction or on writing about other white men

Where Watkins’s speech raises the stakes is in asking whether and to what extent this attitude has been internalised by writers themselves. A flurry of responses from writers on social media and in comment pieces demonstrated that it had. Author Roxane Gay argued that the pressure to pander was still stronger for writers of colour or other minorities. These writers, she wrote, feel that they must write “more ethnically, or in a queerer way or in a more gendered way, to meet editor / imagined audience expectations.” 

An easy solution to the problem is to tell writers to simply stop pandering – stop trying to impress this imagined arbiter of what is ‘good’ writing. But writers who don’t pander get punished for it. Jennifer Weiner recently documented the phenomenon of ‘Goldfinching’, in which any literary novel written in a feminine style is inevitably destined for an epic takedown in the books pages for not being sufficiently macho. “As [the books] ascend toward peak popularity, perhaps even winning a prize or two, some highbrow critic will announce that they are not literature at all but, in fact, sentimental trash, unworthy of a single honor or accolade, written by bad people and read by awful – or, at least, silly and stupid – fans.” I was Goldfinched myself, by the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote that even though my book was “more fun than it has any right to be”, I was a “cautionary tale for budding novelists everywhere” because I blogged about Strictly Come Dancing and real writers “didn’t talk about things like that.” I guess Norman Mailer was too busy stabbing his wife to watch reality TV. Attacked when we write in the wrong style about the wrong subjects, no wonder so many authors are tempted to pander. But writers should be able to write our own stories our own way, without feeling the need to impose mono-cultural standards on ourselves.

However, in the war on pandering, let’s not cede any territory. White men do not have the monopoly on writing literary fiction or on writing about other white men. One of the greatest literary novels about a dead white male ever written is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. What’s needed is change from the top. The more diverse publishing and criticism get, the broader the category of ‘good writing’ will get, and maybe rather than everyone trying to write about and for white men, white men will start trying to write about and for the rest of us.

PS I put this piece through the Hemingway app, and apparently my voice is too passive, half my sentences need to be simplified and at least three of my adverbs have to go. Sorry, Ernest.

@mpphillips

Photo: Ernest Hemingway (REX)

Ernest Hemingway (REX)
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