There was a writerly online discussion this past week about pandering that I’d like to explore here for just a bit, but first let’s get some definitions down. According to my computer’s newly upgraded dictionary:
verb [ no obj. ] (pander to)
gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire, need, or habit or a person with such a desire, etc.): newspapers are pandering to people’s baser instincts.
• archaic a person who assists the baser urges or evil designs of others: the lowest panders of a venal press.
I also like this one, from merriam-webster.com:
pander: to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable
The essay (“On Pandering,” subtitled “How to Write Like a Man”, Nov 23 2015) that started the discussion was by Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the short story collection Battleborn and more recently, 1st novel Gold Fame Citrus. I’ve read the novel (my review, here) and not the story collection, although I did hear Watkins read from the collection at a Literary Death Match in Minneapolis last spring. My impression of the story Watkins read was that it was brutal, in language and style. Masculine, in a (my sexist-analysis) way. Although I respected her for these choices, I decided to pass on the collection and pre-ordered Gold Fame Citrus. It wasn’t my favorite book but it was well written and in fact, seems to me to have abandoned some of the in-your-face “masculinity” (for lack of a better word) of the story I heard her read.
Another reader the night of the Literary Death Match was Ben Percy, to whom (perhaps to his unending dismay) I attached myself early on in my own writing career because I liked the masculinity of his writing, and saw in it some things I could learn. I read much of Wells Tower’s work for the same reason (for the record, I just now entered “short story about tainted moose meat” to help me remember Mr. Towers’ name, the name of the story, “Retreat,” and the name of the collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.)
Watkins’ essay was long and it meandered a bit but it was brave (she called out a well-known middle-aged male writer who blatantly disrespected her professionally and sexually harassed [my words] her a few years back, when she was an MFA student) and it broached this topic of who it is we pander to when we write. She wrote she was unhappy to realize she had pandered to a lot of male writers in her short and very successful career to date.
Responses to the post were almost as engaging as the post itself. A female African American writer (whose name I cannot find in the thread, and I apologize) commented that she might have written “Watching white women do stuff” where Watkins wrote “Watching boys do stuff,” and Marlon James, 2015 Man Booker prize winner for A History of Seven Killings, also weighed in at a Guardian event a few nights later.
The 2015 Man Booker prize winner Marlon James has slammed the publishing world, saying authors of colour too often “pander to white women” to sell books, and that he could have been published more often if he had written “middle-style prose and private ennui”.
At a sold-out Guardian event on Friday night, James said publishers too often sought fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”
As an older white woman writer, I say “ouch,” and a few other things, too.
- It’s hard for writers to publish stories and books. I imagine most of us have pandered to something, at some time, in order to raise a profile. I changed the cause of a male protagonist’s head injury from a car accident to an IED explosion in Iraq; the story was accepted after the change. I moved the setting of my second novel manuscript to my home state, thinking I might attract more local publishing interest.
- When I studied the writing of male writers like Percy and Wells I suppose it could have been called pandering but it’s also called learning. New writers try stuff out. I knew my writing needed something, and I think it has improved with the action-orientation and thrill of Percy’s work as opposed to my previous tendency to internal monologue or, God help me, “that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”
- I found Watkins’ Battleborn story and James’ A History of Seven Killings brutal. I don’t have to like brutal. But well written material, brutal (IMO) or not deserves a chance to be published. There are a lot of publishing-industry biases being called out in the aftermath of Watkins’ essay. A Twitter and Facebook friend of mine, Tracie Powell, has introduced me to the clear need for diversity of writers in journalistic publishing and there are many other voices out there speaking to the same need in literary representation agencies and major publishing houses. Let’s try to give all well written work a chance by having it read by a more diverse population in these gate-keeping positions.
- Last thought for now: publishing is an industry. In a capitalist economy, it has to make money. But you don’t have to look far (and certainly not far in our fair city of Minneapolis) for small publishers who care less about the almighty dollar and more about extending themselves to traditionally under-represented voices: Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press.
I can guarantee you, Mr. James, that the orientation of Graywolf Press is NOT toward the “middle-style prose and private ennui” of suburban white-woman writers. I ought to know. They’ve turned down my stuff many times.
And I can also guarantee anyone who asks that I’ll be damned if I’ll let that stop me.