Two White Writers Discuss VIDA, With Alcohol

Alison: Being an angry feminist on staff, I’ve been itching to talk about The Count from VIDA, the annual reporting of the gender breakdown of writers in major publications. The numbers are both what you would expect and depressing; ever our expectations never fail to let us down. Yet, I did not want to speak in a vacuum, so I’ve enlisted the help of my friend Paul Arrand Rodgers who, unlike me, is an expert of all things male. Hi, Paul.

Paul: Hello, Alison. It’s an honor to be called to this forum as your expert on the male condition, as that, invariably, seems to be the annual takeaway from The Count: that there is such a thing as the male condition, and having it, in this industry, can only help.

Alison: What do you think the male condition is in the publishing industry? Is it as simple as saying that men have all the room and space to fluff their wings, or are we saying men alone when we mean to say, the white man, in all his Rudyard Kipling glory?

Paul: A little of column A and a lot of column B. VIDA makes no distinctions for race, limiting the issue to one of MAN VS. WOMAN. The so-called “slice of blueberry pie” is depressing enough as it is, illuminating what many of us already know: if you’re a man, your chances of landing a piece or a review within the pages of a major literary journal are significantly higher than women in the field. If you extrapolate further, as Roxane Gay did in 2012 with the 742 books reviewed by The New York Times, then it becomes exceedingly clear that the balance of power lies with the white male. 65% of the books Gay and her graduate assistant surveyed that year were written by Caucasian authors. 217 were written by women. A staggering 437 were by men. That means that close to sixty percent of all books reviewed by one of the global authorities on literature were by white men. We don’t have all the space, but we have the majority of it.

Alison: I’m curious what that breakdown would look like if we took class into account – those works written by middle class writers or even those charmed affluent folk, versus those written by members of the working class. But even still, what these graphs are not showing us and what they cannot explain, but what I think we all have a duty to consider, is not why white males make up the majority of the pie, but what systems of oppression are in place that allows this breakdown. If publishing reflected population, then yes, minority writers of race would be publishing less because whites, in America, are the majority. But women are the majority in population, and their numbers are much lower.

Paul: It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think we’re ever going to see a project of The Count’s size and scope preformed on the issue of class. VIDA itself can only cover so much ground, and Roxane Gay’s study of the book reviews in the New York Times required painstaking research that, regardless, is hard to verify. If race is a grey area, then I don’t envy the trailblazer who uncovers the class distinctions of published authors. I will say, however, that in my limited experience working with a literary magazine, authors who made note of their financial circumstances or their life story were sometimes treated like rare, exotic birds. The work of those who weren’t white, middle class, or both that made it up from slush was routinely good and sometimes made the magazine, but when the subject of the author’s situation made it to the floor, the conversation often became cringe-worthy. The author was marked for their talent, sure, but also for being different, and when we aren’t shamed by the way we or our ancestors have exploited those socio-economic differences, we exhibit a naive curiosity about them.

Alison: This naive curiosity; because I have noticed it as well (especially with work we receive from prisons, another ignored class of writers) what do you make of it? From where does this stem? Is it simply gazing curiously at the other? Perhaps that simplifies it too much while remaining curiously abstract.

Paul: For one, our society thrives on labels. We constantly want to be assured that we’re normal (or, as in the case of many self-diagnosed celiacs, extra-normal), so we invent ways—class, race, gender—of marking people as different. Sometimes its benign. One of my favorite poems published in Mid-American Review during my tenure as Assistant Poetry Editor was by an incarcerated man. His poetry was good, and nobody who discussed that poem patronizingly said that it was good “for a prisoner.” Put that man on the same side of the street as a few well-meaning literary magazine editors, however, and what once was naive curiosity will become an urge to flee.

Alison: Ah yes, they’re safe as long as they remain in their place, or their space. I think I remember that poem, wasn’t it about making a potato chip sandwich?**

Paul: Yes, it was. The poem had nothing to do with incarceration, but was every bit about working class struggle. Some romanticize it while eating instant ramen and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on a graduate instructor’s salary, and others live it and go to jail.

Alison: Milwaukee’s Best, Paul. Milwaukee’s Best. Maybe that would make for a more interesting Count, as it were. Not merely who the writers are, but what they are choosing to write about. Are white writers writing about race-minority struggles? Is the middle-class writing about the working class? Are men writing about women in a way that does not leave them helpless on the page? And if they are, is there a risk of insult, because that is not the life of the writer? But if the privileged aren’t writing about the underclass, and they aren’t allowing them to be published, then that’s a whole range of voices that so many people simply don’t think exist.

Paul: A survey like that would be great, but again, we’re talking about dramatically increasing the size and scope of a project that’s already tilting at windmills. And even if the results of it could be described as interesting, I have a feeling that they’d be just as dispiriting as The Count. I’m simplifying, but for every Michael Chabon novel about struggling African American business owners or John Irving book about a bisexual man and the wreckage of the AIDS crisis, there are hundreds more where the author doesn’t step too far beyond their experience.

I don’t think writers are afraid of insulting somebody, or that we are so sensitive that we’d temper our work to deflect such criticism before it happens. We go through much of our early development as writers being told to write what we know, and I suspect we’ve heard it so often that, by the time we consciously shed that particular maxim, it has buried itself so deep in the subconscious that any attempt to escape our experiences is met with crushing self-doubt, if not derision from outside factors, like a reader or the workshop. There’s a balance between self-policing and self-tyranny, and I’m sure how close the community is to achieving that, yet. It’s impossible to monitor.

Alison: I don’t really know if we need a sample size – too much of a costly endeavor, for one – and sometimes I think we can assume the results. This is one of those cases where assumptions are all right. And yes, I really, really hate that advice. I think it allows the writing to become too complacent if you’re not willing to push yourself, nor does anyone follow it to a T. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a young boy, for example, but I’ve written from that p.o.v. before. When I teach workshops and my students write about a particular topic – being on a boat, perhaps – it’s not that they need to have actually set foot on one to know how to write about it, but it’s damn well important that they research the subject. Or speak to someone who has lived that experience. It’s fine if you want to write what you know, but if all you know is you, how is that going to grow beyond your own experience and matter to a reader?

Paul: I think research is valuable—I sustained a concussion during research for a novel once—but again, it’s a matter of balance. If the process of writing a poem or a story hews too close to a research project, that really comes across on the page. In a similar vein, I’m particularly concerned that the stories white men write about those outside their status has stagnated. I haven’t read “Q & A,” the novel it was based upon, but Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is an example of that, this Dickensian model where the underprivileged rise up to monied status by fabulous turns of circumstance and, often, forced assimilation via the death of their unsavory hangers-on. That movie even ended with a Bollywood-inspired dance number, because beyond poverty and call centers (both of which are featured in the narrative), that’s what the typical audience member knows of India.

One way, I think, to grow beyond your experience—the easiest, in fact—is to read. Even though we’re talking about a dearth of publishing opportunities for disadvantaged classes, they have been writing as well, as vitally, as any canonized white male. The problem, I think, is that a few assorted authors here and there, women and persons of color, have managed to break through and become sainted. “Oh,” we’re able to say, “Austen,  Dumas, Wilde—the minorities are represented, after all.” It’s not enough, especially considering that literature has, amazingly, progressed since the 1800s.

Alison: Exactly that. But then it becomes an issue of audience, doesn’t it? Who reads and, if people are not reading for pleasure, what are they being forced to read in schools? You can look at the GRE subject test in literature to see what the canon values, and it’s a myopic landscape. Mine had one question about Toni Morrison, and about eighteen million on Beowulf. And if we dig in further and consider who creates the curriculum, who creates the tests, who says what is valuable for research – we’ll probably see a very similar group of people, and their ideas were inherited down. But let’s talk, before we have to probably shut up and get back to Bioshock: Infinite, about small lit journals and who they are publishing. One thing that irks me about the VIDA numbers is the response of a lot of journals to lay out just how many women vs. men they have been publishing, and if the number comes out even or in favor of women, that they are doing something right, they feel better for the day, and can forget about it.

Paul: I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. VIDA presents The count without a big, long thinkpiece about its meaning. They allow the numbers to speak for themselves. The commentary that follows is thus invaluable, but too often ends up visualizing The Count as a horserace. When I see a Twitter post or a Facebook status where somebody says that they’re subscribing to Tin House because they had better numbers than Harper’s, I cringe a little bit, you know? Not that there’s anything wrong with supporting Tin House’s editorial direction, but if you’re gambling on a particular horse in the race on moral grounds, you’re still gambling on horses. In a lot of ways, sentiment like this is guided by guilt and regret. Both of these are valuable tools, but an outward show of solidarity and actual progress are two very different things. Claiming to subscribe to a magazine because of their Count numbers or pledging to read and review more books by woman authors strikes me as a gilding of the cage, not its disassembly. How do we raise the profile of minority writers without also raising them to the status of Angel in the House?

Alison: Yeah, I agree. But therein lies the problem: if we don’t visualize it as a race where we can throw our money as the morally superior horse, we’re forced to sit back and consider what structures are in place beyond lit mags and beyond ourselves that keep minority writers out. And that’s a difficult position to choose to be in, especially since it necessitates that we consider our own complacency and the benefits we receive if the system stays in place exactly as it is.

Paul: But if you visualize it as a horserace, you have to realize that what you’re gambling against has more money, more power, and more prestige. Every year the VIDA Count comes out, and, every year, the editors of The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and so on refuse to comment. Here’s the thing: they don’t have to, because they will outlive us all. The response to VIDA, I think, should not be shame. The institutions we’re up against are too large to shame effectively, or there would have been sweeping change in the wake of the first Count. To change the numbers, we’re going to have to change the culture. The next wave of people who will be vital to what gets published and how are in school right now. Swap out “The Catcher in the Rye” with “The Bell Jar.” Put away e.e. cummings and put “The Dream of a Common Language” into somebody’s hands. Assign your students a literary magazine and have them write about the authors that are published within and what they wrote about. These people will soon ascend the corridors of power. Our responsibilities are two-fold: make them aware of the world as it stands, and equip them with the tools necessary to challenge that status quo.

Alison: Wonderfully said, Paul. Thanks so much for drinking awful beer and having this conversation with me.

Paul: Boom.

** The poem is “Potato Chip Sandwich” by Ace Boggess

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com

Alison A. Balaskovits works on staff at the Missouri Review. She does not understand twitter.

Working Writers Series: Paul Arrand Rodgers

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.

Today’s Interview is with Paul Arrand Rodgers

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Tell us a little about yourself, Paul.

I’m a writer, blogger, and professional wrestling play-by-play announcer living in Metro Detroit. I received an MFA in poetry in 2012 and have been writing in one way or another for most of my life, though I didn’t know it was something you could get a degree in until my senior year of college. While the MFA is often looked at as a kind of formalization process—academically minded authors writing high-minded literature for a similarly educated audience—I was encouraged by my mentors and peers to go in a different direction, so the vast majority of my work is about film or wrestling, which, considering my undergraduate love affair with Virginia Woolf, is a world of difference to my formal training. I’ve been living my childhood dream of being involved in wrestling through a company in Cleveland called Absolute Intense Wrestling for over a year now, and have been writing film criticism on a number of blogs for the past five. I’ve recently had poetry accepted or published by Heavy Feather Review, JMWW and 491 Magazine, fiction in Monkeybicycle, and my criticism recognized by Roger Ebert. It’s been a fun start to the year.

Poetry and wrestling seem so very far distanced from one another, but I’ve been noticing a string of poetry and fiction and non-fiction about the art form lately. What’s your take on it?

Fans of wrestling, and this isn’t just fans of wrestling who also happen to write literature, have recently taken up the argument that wrestling is an elaborate form of performance art. It’s an instance where fans of a perceived low culture (video games and comic books, for example) have started fighting for the wider recognition of something they’re passionate about. And why not? One of the most popular podcasts in the world is pro-wrestler Colt Cabana’s “The Art of Wrestling,” Japanese and British wrestling has an undeniable artistry to it that’s more accessible than ever thanks to YouTube, and it’s been part of the American cultural lexicon longer than television or film. Regarding wrestling as art isn’t anything new—Barthes wrote an essay about its symbols, and 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Mick Foley is a gifted and bestselling author—but I think it’s becoming a larger presence in literature now because writers who were fans of it growing up have matured and seen the art shed a lot of its hick theater nature. Its theatrics are broad, but wrestling is one of the most popular forms of collaborative art in the world, the sort of spectacle that draws a talented pen or two.

Do you think blogging operates the same way, that is, a low-culture form of performance art, but that has the potential, if not has reached the potential, of being a poetic form?

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of blogging as an art form before. I’m sure that has a lot to do with how quickly that culture has grown. Ten years ago, nobody knew what a blog was. Now a popular one, like the Huffington Post, can be sold to AOL for millions of dollars. To me, blogging is a buzzword that became real through sheer force of will. I don’t think just having a blog makes you an artist, but there are so many genres within this vast, relatively new realm that the possibilities of art are endless. The blog has enabled and encouraged new voices in journalism, memoir, cartooning, and criticism—Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant! came from the internet, and Roger Ebert’s recent memoir has its roots in the often profound meditations on life and illness that he posts on his blog. I think the “low culture” rap comes from an odd place. Anybody can have one, so when a blog is profound, it often goes ignored. The amount of content is overwhelming, but things are changing rather quickly, to the point that old media is rushing to awkwardly embrace blog culture, pinning its arms to its sides in case the new, dangerous looking kid in town is bearing a knife.

You write manage and write a large amount of the content for your own pop-culture blog, Fear of a Ghost Planet. How does your writing differ between doing traditional creative work and the reviews and analysis you write for the blog?

Honestly, I’m not sure that it’s all that different. There’s a difference in personae, depending on what I’m writing for Fear of a Ghost Planet and what I’m writing about for traditional creative outlets, but the walls that stood between criticism and art were largely imaginary. I don’t think you’ll find Quentin Tarantino starting a film blog any time soon, but Roger Ebert wrote screenplays for Russ Meyer early in his career, and there are an endless number of writers who also functioned as critics. You adopt a more authoritarian tone of voice when examining somebody else’s work, but even that has been tempered by the likes of Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs, whose reviews had a level of artistry to them that often rose above their subject. In both instances—traditional creative writing and the work I produce on Fear of a Ghost Planet—I am offering up a conscious self-reflection for public scrutiny. It’s the stakes that are different. If you leave a comment on my blog to tell me that I’m an idiot for liking Prometheus, I won’t care: my only connection to the movie is that I saw it, and you’re the idiot for not agreeing with me. If you read a poem that I write and send me an e-mail telling me that I’m a sad man for experiencing genuine human connection in a barber’s chair, then you’ve cut a little deeper. Even if the poem or the short story is a mask, the connection is deeper because it’s something I’ve created—you’re attacking me, not my opinion.

(Interviewers Note: Prometheus was not a good movie).

How did you get into announcing for wrestling shows?

Well, the first thing you need to know about wrestling is that, unless you know somebody who can help get your foot in the door, it’s a scam. My try out was a $75 Kickstarter reward, and the promoters were nice enough to let me pick which match I wanted to call. Being an idiot, I chose the main event of a show called Girls Night Out 5, because one of my favorite wrestlers—Sara Del Rey, who is now a WWE trainer—was involved. They had a third announcer waiting in the wings in case I screwed up or went silent, but unlike practically 100% of fans who get a shot at announcing, I did my research and had things to talk about. They invited me back as their resident expert on women’s wrestling, and I quickly developed good chemistry with Aaron Bauer, my regular partner at the booth. Every show you’re asked to prove yourself again—wrestlers and announcers alike are one particularly bad review away from not being booked again—but that’s nothing new after two years of teaching basic composition to a room full of freshmen who sometimes openly question the purpose of the classes they’re enrolled in.

Since graduating the MFA, how has your output for creative work changed? What are challenges you’re facing once you’re out of the academy?

I’ve been out of the MFA for six months now, and I spent four of them mostly unemployed. Though you’d think the surplus of time would’ve been a boon to my post-graduate writing momentum, all you can think about when you don’t have any money is work. I was so desperate for cash that I almost became a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, blind to the realities of my hoax interview and my hoax interviewer’s taste in Affliction sportcoats because he promised me a paycheck over the phone. So I didn’t write much beyond what I wrote for the blog, which often felt more like something I did out of obligation and not passion. So depression was my biggest challenge. With a job, obviously, I’m committing a lot of my time to something I’d rather not be doing, but that commitment is only an issue if I let it be one. The worst thing about my job is that I come home after ten hours of staring at a computer screen wanting nothing to do with my word processing program, but there are ways around that, too. Practically everything I write anymore starts out on a pad of paper, and I’m slowly rediscovering the Palmer method of cursive handwriting. The process has slowed, but that’s fine.

Where do you see yourself going, creatively, professionally, etc? What do you want to pursue?

Coming out of the MFA, my immediate thought was to keep going to school, to get a PhD and start teaching. In retrospect, that wasn’t a completely realistic career arc, and the six months I’ve been away from school have been incredibly valuable. I was in school from ages four to twenty-four, and, until this year, my only experience of a workplace not typically associated with student jobs were the times I visited to my mother’s factory. I lived an incredibly sheltered life, especially for somebody of working class origins, and working in Detroit has really put that into perspective. My ambitions are the same as they were this time last year: I want to be published, I want to teach, I want to be in school, I want a PhD. The work I put in at the office is ultimately secondary to those goals, but it has made me value the time I was given as an MFA to write, as well as the time that I find now. For her birthday, I took my sister to Nick Offerman’s American Ham stand-up show, which he presented as a series of tips on how to engage in a meaningful, happy life. One of his tips was to keep a hobby, by which he meant to practice a craft. Nick Offerman, being a man’s man, is something of a master woodcarver. Though I have a degree stating otherwise, I’m not a master of anything, and have, perhaps foolishly, chosen something that’s impossible to master as my craft. It is my hope that I will continue to grow and mature from this point forward. That will take patience and dedication. Our society tends not to value those two things, but I sit in front of a computer for ten hours a day, so at least I have time.

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com