Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

This is how they lose us

with one comment

“If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule,” Junot Díaz once said. “You’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst woman writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum.” Díaz was speaking at an event at the Word Up Community Bookshop in New York on June 7, 2012, and his remarks, which he delivered in response to a question from the audience, have been widely quoted, passed around, and admired. He continued:

Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And it’s hard to read this now without thinking of the recent essay by the writer Alisa Valdes, who says—along with so much else—of her painful relationship with Díaz: “Once, Díaz even asked me to clean his disgusting kitchen before I left back to Boston, telling me his severe depression made it hard for him to pick up after himself…When I asked him about this, he laughed and called out from his futon on the floor in his bedroom: ‘Sweetie, you can take the man out of the D.R., but you can’t take the Dominican out of the man.’”

But in light of the allegations against Díaz, it’s important to revisit his words from six years ago, because they speak to a difficult point that is only going to get harder. I wish I could quote the entire thing—which starts here around the 36:15 mark—but I’ll content myself with one more excerpt:

Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliché lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited. Their sexist shorthand—they think that is observation. And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.”

When I read this, the first thing that hits me, apart from the intensity, is how beautifully Díaz manages to say all the right things. It reminds me now of what the librarian Allie Jane Bruce said of an interview with Daniel Handler and Sherman Alexie, who are currently being scrutinized themselves. These are men who “speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism perfectly and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.”

I haven’t read much of Díaz, so I’m not qualified to discuss his work in detail, but I can testify to what he meant to many different groups of writers and readers, including science fiction fans. And his case speaks to the next stage of the reckoning that confronts us, which will involve talking about the behavior of men who we thought were different, and who amount to native speakers of the language of third-wave feminism. I often think of a quote that is widely attributed to Joss Whedon, allegedly in response to an interviewer who asked why he wrote strong female characters: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” In fact, this wasn’t an interview, but an acceptance speech for the Equality Now award, in which he asked himself that question six times and came up with appropriately cutting responses. I don’t doubt that he was asked about it a lot—but it’s also noteworthy that his most quotable response came in reply to a straw man that he had set up expressly to knock down. And these days, his remarks have a more sinister ring. Whedon opened with the words: “I’m surrounded tonight by people of extraordinary courage.” According to his former wife Kai Cole, however, Whedon once felt that he was surrounded by something rather different:

He wrote me: “When I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” But he did touch it.

And the hardest realization of all might be that these two sides of Whedon weren’t mutually exclusive. They existed at the same time.

In fact, we’re reaching the point where a man’s overly insistent assertion of his feminism might even come off as a warning sign. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote a few months ago on The Ringer: “There’s also something vaguely unsettling right now about male producers who make a point of their good relationships working with creative women…Quietly existing as a male ally is one thing; building a public brand off Not Being That Creep is another.” And there’s nothing easy about the conversations that still have yet to come. (I can’t help comparing Díaz’s situation to that of Eric T. Schneiderman, another prominent public advocate of women who resigned just hours after the publication of an article in The New Yorker about his abusive behavior in his private life. The New Yorker also has a long history with Díaz, including a recent personal essay that was widely seen as an attempt to get ahead of the allegations. But the magazine hasn’t said anything about him yet. And this isn’t a matter of indifference, but a reflection of how hard it can be to acknowledge the behavior of those we know and admire.) But perhaps the first step is to listen to our doubts, even if they seem unlikely to be heeded. As Virginia Vitzthum writes in Elle:

Díaz is an outspoken leftist, decrying economic and other inequalities from his position as fiction editor of the Boston Review. He calls sexism, along with racism and genocide, one of his major concerns as an activist and a writer…He refers to his writing as a “feminist-aligned project” achieved by “mapping male subjectivities.” I do not doubt that he is sensitive to the ways women are marginalized; it seems appropriate to ask him about the sexism in [This is How You Lose Her].

When she raises her concerns about his “constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties,” Díaz gets “all professorial” on her, but Vitzthum is having none of it. She writes in her conclusion: “About my failure to engage productively with your maps of male subjectivity? It’s not me, it’s you.” She’s right. And she was right when she wrote it six years ago.

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2018 at 8:41 am

One Response

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  1. This isn’t only about men and feminism. It seems to be fundamental to our society, in how we manipulate others through rhetoric and often fool ourselves in the process. We live in a society where we are trained in rhetoric from a young age, even more now in our media-drenched era.

    All the time I see pundits, politicians, and partisans who say all the right things. Yet you can tell from what and who they support that either they don’t understand what they say or don’t care. I might add that this phenomenon isn’t limited to just a few people but all of us to varying degrees.

    It goes back to the early Greek fear of sophistry, at a time when rhetoric was first becoming a force. To begin understanding this, I’d highly recommend reading Harry G. Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”. I’ve discussed his essay in detail:

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