The brilliant fiction writer Claire Vaye Watkins has written an essay called “On Pandering,” a call to action against the stultifying effects of a literary system calibrated to the outsize, vulnerable egos of white men:

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The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing.

Originally given as a speech at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and then published in the upcoming issue and on the literary magazine’s site, “On Pandering” is unusually honest. It’s fiery; it connects the indoctrination of adolescent girls into the purely stupid practice of “watching boys do stuff” to

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  • the general, often sexualized infantilization that grown women will later receive in the professional sphere, to
  • the specific brand of puerile, sexist bullshit that men in literary fields are allowed to maintain indefinitely while gaining success, to
  • the fact that literary production and reception still positions white men at the unnamed center and everyone else as “special interest,” to
  • the fact that all of those “special interest” people tend to develop the ocular generosity to receive the bulk of FUBU (if the “us” is “white men”) culture as “for them” when it is not, to
  • the fact the favor is rarely granted in return, i.e. people feel generous and proud of themselves when reading non-white-men
  • the need that Watkins puts plainly in her closing line: to “burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”

As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Men Explain Things To Me, sexism exists on a continuum from casual silencing to actual violence. Watkins picks up that thread explicitly to say that this continuum—governed as it is by straight white men—includes literary production and reception, too. And, like Men Explain Things and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists and the David Foster Wallace speech at Kenyon, “On Pandering” is fodder for the mini-book-at-the-counter treatment; it will be talked about for quite some time.

Watkins continues, from the Franzen line:

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More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.

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.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for 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!

Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.

She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.

That last sentence, emphasis mine, got me. Like a dog hearing that dog-whistle, you can always tell when someone approves of you because they disapprove of most people who look like you. That sentence also got me because I, working in women’s media, feel very in touch with a world in which women are centered—if also, dizzyingly, contained within a sphere that is still controlled by men. (To slightly alter my first paragraph and shift Watkins’s point, writers here at Jezebel are often caught in the stultifying effects of a system calibrated to the outsize, vulnerable egos of mostly white women.) In other words, I can quite easily imagine the “they” of my inbox and audience saying, “She can write like Claire Vaye Watkins,” when what they mean is, “She can write.”

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I have mostly taken that to be a good thing, and it is.

But that sentence brings me to the only point I have to make about Watkins’s tremendous and hopefully canonical piece, which is that there is not only one audience to whom a writer might pander these days. It’s difficult to introduce an essay about authorship, popular/critical reception and the idea of writing “towards” in 2015, via a medium (the internet) that has complicated authorship and popular/critical reception and “towards” immensely. What’s positioned as a continuum to me seems more like a large plane, governed capriciously. Let’s say writing “towards” any given audience is a vector: there are a dozen vectors that add up into it, a series of positions that determine the point you start from as well as your voice’s angle, its force, its reach. In less abstract terms, despite being socially, intellectually and artistically trained by a long and terrific series of either white people or rich men, it has never even occurred to me to feasibly try and please them with my writing: I lack certain things—one of which being Watkins’s enormously agile talent—that would allow me to try.

Who do you write for? Both to my gain and my detriment, my only answer is myself, because I’m overwhelmed by exactly what Watkins lays out here—as well as the fact that so many of the words are swappable and that doesn’t make it better, the fact that there is already a considerable system in place that pins white women as the audience and standard of choice, and the fact that the dimensions and contours of this dilemma change beyond easy recognition depending on the shifting factors of who you are and who you’d like to be.

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I’ve been thinking about this steadily since I had my Elena Ferrante epiphany in the summer of 2014, which was heightened by reading a New York Times interview in which Ferrante urged something similar to what Watkins urges at the end of “On Pandering”—for women to not lower our guards, out of love or weariness. What this made me think of was not that I needed to write for different people but that I needed to write for almost no one at all. I said it last year and I mean it successively more every day now: in life and in writing, it’s immensely seductive to feel personally responsible to an audience. But in life we’re responsible only to the people who love us—and in writing, to the people we choose to be responsible to, which is one way to figure out who we love.


Image of Northrop Frye (lol) from Shutterstock

Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.