Dear (Male, White) Writer,
I recently read your article in The Atlantic titled “Letter to a (Male, White) Writer,” which you felt necessary to pen after perusing Electric Literature’s advice column on White Privilege and Poetry. The column, written by, since you forgot to mention it in your piece, Elisa Gabbert, was a very candid and well thought out response to a difficult question posed by an anonymous writer: “How can I reconcile [writing what I know as a male, white writer and thus risk overshadowing other non-white/male writers] with [writing what I don’t know and thus colonizing/appropriating other narratives]?”
I’m writing this because you, a (Male, White) writer, seem to have taken it upon yourself to answer this question without having read or bothered to understand Gabbert’s response. You have quite literally colonized Gabbert’s piece, and turned it into an article on The Atlantic; a bad article, I might add, that ends with a somewhat incoherent tangent about anthropology and black rappers and an admission you don’t know diddly about poetry anyway (lol). You are such an evocative example of (Male, White) writer privilege that I at first hoped you were simply a poorly constructed parody. I mean, why else would a (Male, White) writer write an advice column on a question they weren’t even asked, in a journal where the question doesn’t even appear?
Alas, I’m afraid you’re not a parody.
Gabbert’s answers were (and I’m only quoting the highlights here, please go (re)read the column) to:
- Make sure, as a white male writer, your own perspective is not getting more exposure than it deserves – that you’re not taking up more than your fair share of space (speaking of—your Atlantic piece is 1,936 words; Gabbert’s Electric is 907!)
- Read more books by women, POC, and LGBTQ writers
- Don’t be a problem submitter (submit sloppily, over-submit, etc.; see point a)
Your answers, dear (Male, White) writer, were:
- “The self-flagellating writer is… a perversion of Privilege Theory… that at best helps others and at worst mires the writer in useless self-abnegation”
- It’s good to be sad about how people different than you have been historically oppressed
- But, seriously, if you’re terrible at writing, please stop
- Also, “every human has a unique perspective,” for serious
- White people have perspectives on identity, and they “will certainly use unique language to convey [their] perspective”
- Also, white men still have things to say about fatherhood that Asians might value
- “The project of inclusion should not require… [white men’s] self-immolation.”
- And just in case you were wondering, “many subjects are separable from both race and gender”
- [Something about David Foster Wallace]
- There is a magical “realm of written poetry by living authors” somewhere
- People don’t read much
- A white, male poet who writes what he knows won’t “deny voices whose stories are more urgent” because facts
- People don’t read poetry because Netflix has all 8 Harry Potter movies
- People with illiterate parents who went to bad schools in violent neighborhoods and work two minimum wage jobs and/or have been discriminated against probably don’t write anyway
- But look, “every racial group [faces] resource constraints, and some groups are indeed disadvantaged disproportionately”
- (60% into this column) “How best to remedy such ills is a contested question”
- “But I’d argue that there is a civic obligation to study the matter and to contribute to improvement in the way you think best.”
- If you get published in a lit mag you should go help out an open mic
- If you work in a lit mag seek out writers who “didn’t grow up among the elite” (I think you mean white people?)
- People who are discriminated against benefit more from people who help them than people who are sad
- White people may dominate the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but black people rap
- “Write as best you can with a conscience totally unburdened from guilt… you are not responsible for the status or behavior of dead people who shared your skin color or chromosomal makeup. Stop obsessing over your race and gender, be as good as you can to other humans, and if you believe verse has any value beyond employing poets, create the best poetry you can for as many people of every race and gender as want to read it.”
One of the things missing from your piece, dear (Male, White) writer, is the attacks Gabbert has received from writing her piece, and I would bet you haven’t thought much about it. (I mean, you can’t even bother to type her name, why would you think about her life?)
On Twitter and in the Electric article comments, people, many of them (Male, White) writers, have gone after her simply for telling someone (WHO ASKED) to just be aware of their privilege and to diversify their reading. In particular, her idea to be more considerate when submitting to journals and other pubs was met with overwhelming, frothy rage on Twitter—the kind of bizarre how dare you tell me to submit less psychobabble that, like your article, misses the point entirely. Funny how, when one mentions the ways in which those with privilege wield it, they always find themselves the target of said privilege.
It is privilege that spurred you to write this bloated, ambling column. It is privilege that lead you to hijack a question from another journal and to answer it in your own safe, defined space. It is privilege that lets you justify saturating this piece with turgid pomp and platitudes—to mansplain away the world of poetry while admitting you don’t know shit about the world of poetry. It is privilege that lets you believe holding up POC who rap as an example that there is representation in the writing world. It is privilege that in your response to a question about privilege you never use the word once, just in your intro and your “privilege theory” conceit. And it is privilege that you feel fine being contrarian while not having to worry about a violent social media response—that you think you can start a debate about it while being uniquely and topically uninformed.
I am a (Male, White) writer, and have found the best way to negotiate the world of unequal opportunity is to do what has been asked of me: to listen, to ask if I don’t understand, to be fine if that question goes unanswered, and then to go back to listening. I do believe writers should write—if the thrust of their need to write remains an imperative. And I believe that writers should write about whatever the hell they want to write. But writers must be able to evaluate their own writing, to see whether or not if it is good, or bad, or why, and I remain doubtful of writers who cannot think critically about their privilege—if they cannot see themselves and how they interact with the world, how then, can they see the flaws and strengths of their work?