Author Claire Vaye Watkins says shes lived a life of pandering to old white dudes.
Author Claire Vaye Watkins says she's lived a life of pandering to old white dudes. Heike Steinweg

The editors over at Tin House's generally excellent blog, Open Bar, have published a compelling, long-ish braided essay by Claire Vaye Watkins on her experience of being a woman in the writing industry. Watkins wrote the critically praised book of stories Battleborn. Her novel, Gold Fame Citrus, came out last month.

The piece was going around the literary internet all day yesterday, and it's looking like it might go viral. In case the words "compelling, long-ish braided essay" and "viral" turn you off, here's a précis:

• Watkins feels as if she's lived a life of pandering to old white dudes.

• Her thesis is this: "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."

• Men treating women as lesser beings is the rule, not the exception in the writing world. She substantiates this claim by detailing her experiences with a writer who asked if he could sleep in her bed when he visited a university she was attending and then wrote about it afterward.

• She spent her life watching boys do stuff: playing football, music, video games. (Maybe you did, too?) She's thinking this habit subtly directed her tendency to write about certain subjects: the actions of boys are worthy subjects for writing; the actions of women are not.

• Moreover on that last point: While she was in graduate school, she wrote her creative stuff so that her professors would like it.

• She concedes that she has white privilege and thinks that this also affects the way she writes.

• She calls on writers to "punch up," to name racist and sexist phenomena when we see it, and to "burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better."

I don't have a lot of time for a full analysis, but Watkins makes brilliant, associative leaps from point to point, which lend the piece energy and allow room for personal reflection. This sort of writing shows how seemingly disparate things are connected (e.g., the architecture of college towns and knowingly or unknowingly writing in the service of oppressive power structures) both in the writer's mind and in our own lives.

I do have a few quibbles. She says she wrote "unflinching narratives" that involve "the West" and old men getting boners partially because she knew it would impress her old white professors who liked those sorts of things. She then says she hasn't written much since she had her baby because the writing part of her doesn't see the struggles of motherhood as a subject worthy for print. She knows, of course, that's bullshit.

However, she's in danger of re-inscribing the sexism she seeks to decry by relegating "unflinching narratives" that involve "the West" and old men getting boners to the domain of the masculine and stories about the struggles of motherhood to the feminine. Even if she is writing hard, Western stuff to impress her profs, her underlying assumption relies on the essentialist notion that there's women's subjects and there's men's subjects. If a woman writes about babies and lavender fields and applying make-up, that doesn't mean she's writing for women. Things that people call "feminine" aren't inherently for women, etc. etc. you've heard this before.

Another thing: Her repetitions of the phrase "Let us" in the last section read like an incantation. Formally, her language reflects the rhetoric of prayer, suggesting that some divine hand will descend, smack us in the face, and help us realize that we all have to work hard to fight sexism. What with poor God dead, that's not going to happen, and suggesting via rhetoric that there's anything divine or holy about fighting sexism and racism obscures the dailiness of the work, which is what she's driving at in the content of that section anyway. Be aware that white supremacist patriarchy courses through us all, and that it manifests itself in tiny and large ways. Best you can do is constantly check yourself on that shit, and then apologize when you do fuck up.

Meanwhile, Electric Literature is running an article by Sigal Samuel called "What Women Can Learn from Reading Sexist Male Writers." Feels like bad timing.