Knowing that advice columnists occasionally pen their own queries, I maintain hope that an anonymous letter written to “The Blunt Instrument,” “a monthly advice column for writers” at the site Electric Literature, was penned by the “advice”-giver, poet and self-described “militant feminist” Elisa Gabbert. That would at least restrict the lunacy of both question and answer to one hypersensitive mind.
I am a white, male poet — a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals in and out of the writing community — but despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male.
After accepting the burden of his Original Sin, our despairing poet offers a disquisition on his guilt and his desire to “empathize with the so-called ‘other.’” But, ah! How? After all:
It feels like a Catch-22. Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story.
Truly Meno’s Paradox. It’s also disappointing that our poet would invoke the premier work of so typical a midcentury American novelist as Joseph Heller, a soldier in the oppressive American armed forces, a beneficiary of heterosexual privilege, a product of the exclusive Ivy League, a Jew.
Dilemma adumbrated, cue Gabbert: “Dear Anonymous . . .”
I have thought a lot about your letter.
I don’t think the answer is to stop writing.
Generous, that. So what is the solution? Self-censorship, natch:
In Western culture, the white male experience has been overexposed, at the expense of other experiences, for centuries. . . . You should do what you can to make sure your own perspective is not getting more exposure than it deserves — that you’re not taking up more than your fair share of space.
How can you be such a socially conscious aspiring literary star? Presuming you’re already being careful not to exploit the stories of minorities for your own benefit:
Submit less. Pitch less. Especially white men. You are already over-represented. . . . When I edited a magazine, we got far more submissions from men, and men were far more likely to submit work that was sloppy and/or inappropriate for the magazine; they were also far more likely to submit more work immediately after being rejected. . . . [It] starts to look like boredom and entitlement.
One could go on in this vein — Gabbert certainly does — but even mockery has a mercy rule. And a serious point is in order.
Having done a fair amount of editorial work myself, I am entirely sympathetic to Gabbert’s encouragement to not send out junk. But you should refrain from submitting junk because it’s junk, not because you’re a white male. If you’re the second coming of Fitzgerald, go nuts.
But Gabbert’s advice would do much to crack down on the number of Fitzgeralds or Faulkners or Cormac McCarthys. After all, her conclusion — “The best approach is likely to work toward good writing regardless of your subject matter” (the emphasis is hers) — is made largely impossible by the strictures and exhortations to self-bowdlerization that she has encouraged throughout the rest of the letter.
How does one arrive at such an incoherent policy? In this case, by entirely misunderstanding the core issue: art. The purpose of a great novel or poem or song or painting is to deepen our experience of reality; at its richest it re-enchants the everyday world. It does that not because of who the author is, but because the author has managed to make the world come alive on the page. Which is a product, ultimately, of imagination. Successful literature is made possible by the ability of individual persons, writers and readers alike, to imaginatively enter into worlds not their own.
But Gabbert has effectively done away with imagination. She has reduced art to dressed-up autobiography. That’s why “colonization” is an omnipresent danger. Since all art is predicated on personal history, a white male in Minneapolis should not write about an Afro-Cuban lesbian in Havana; doing so steals from Afro-Cuban, Havanan lesbians their stories.
But the whole point of imagination is that it is borderless. No one “owns” the Afro-Cuban lesbian experience. If imaginatively portraying that experience from a Starbucks in the Twin Cities is what your art demands, you can do that. That’s the magic of imagination.
Gabbert’s view of art destroys art’s universality — what Aristotle called “general truths,” which are the stuff of the poet, as opposed to the “particular facts” in which the historian traffics. For this reason, said Aristotle, poetry is more philosophical than history. Put another way: It’s worth far more to the soul to sail the seas with Odysseus than to know what evidence exists to support the idea of a historical Homer. But emphasizing the importance of the artist, rather than the success of the art, inverts the priority of historian and poet. Gabbert and her ilk must insist that Odysseus is not representative of “man” but of western Greek islanders early in the first millennium B.C. — or, more likely, of how a blind poet from Ionia in the middle of the first millennium B.C. imagined western Greek islanders early in the first millennium B.C. If art, at its best, does not offer general truths accessible to all who engage it, then it is just one more historical account. And to avoid being limited to any particular historical account, we need more artists from more backgrounds contributing to the overall store. Put another way: Gabbert does not want artists doing landscape paintings; she wants them uploading photos to Google Earth.
Now, all of this said, perhaps great art from minority communities is not reaching the public eye. Perhaps there is, as Gabbert implies, structural racism poisoning the editorial boards of America’s literary journals. But I seriously doubt that a “default” affection for white, male authors is quashing the ascendance of a revolutionary new literary culture. If there is any disease afflicting America’s literary gatekeepers it is assuredly a predilection for the sort of pretentious, confessional literature that Gabbert is implicitly recommending — art that is less concerned with re-enchanting the world than in promoting a “much-needed,” “corrective” perspective to a supposedly monolithic literary culture.
“There is already more writing produced every day than anyone could ever be expected to read,” Gabbert notes. She ought to add that there is much writing produced every day that never should be read. As Flannery O’Connor quipped, when asked if universities “stifle” writers: “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
No doubt over the next several years book clubs across America will pore over many a bestseller fitted to Gabbert’s advice, in the process sacrificing better authors — e.g., Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton.
But no loss. Just some overexposed, white, male poets.