Whom Do You Write For? 'Pandering' Essay Sparks A Conversation Novelist Claire Vaye Watkins recently published an essay called "On Pandering," about realizing she was writing to appeal to white men. She and author Marlon James discuss responses to the piece.
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Whom Do You Write For? 'Pandering' Essay Sparks A Conversation

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Whom Do You Write For? 'Pandering' Essay Sparks A Conversation

Whom Do You Write For? 'Pandering' Essay Sparks A Conversation

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's join an argument in progress. Claire Vaye Watkins started it. She's an acclaimed novelist who wrote an essay recently. She wrote that for all of her success she felt that as a woman she was faking it, trying to write like a man. Pandering is the word that she used. Her essay was much noticed and much responded to, including by a man who said that writers of color feel like they have to write for white women. This literary discussion suggests something about the way that many of us modulate what we write or what we say. So let's talk about it some more, starting with Claire Vaye Watkins. Welcome back to the program.

CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Hi, thanks for having me again.

INSKEEP: So what did you mean by pandering?

WATKINS: Well, for me, what it looked like was sort of internalizing the sexism that I'd encountered in the writing world and in the world beyond and adjusting what I wrote accordingly so that it would be more well-received. So I was writing things that I had semi-consciously decided were more serious or more important and would be well-received by the people I wanted to impress, which was a white male voice that I had in my mind. You know, the person speaking to me as I was writing had an Adam's apple.

INSKEEP: So in the same way that a psychology textbook might talk about the way that someone grows up and they've always got their mother in her head telling them something, you had a little male editor in your head some place telling you where to go?

WATKINS: Well, I think it was maybe a combination of an imagined male editor, but then also in my reading life, you know? I read some women, but I didn't read them the way I read male writers - people like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner or Salinger or David Foster Wallace or Jeffrey Eugenides. I thought of those as the standard bearers and the types of writing that I had to aspire to to be accepted whereas when I read someone like Toni Morrison, who I think, you know, is actually a better writer than perhaps all of those writers I mentioned, I wasn't giving her voice the same authority and gravitas that I was giving to the white men.

INSKEEP: So you wrote this as a beautiful long essay. It got a lot of attention, got a lot of people talking. And one of the people who weighed in was Marlon James - another acclaimed author who received the Man Booker Prize for "A Brief History Of Seven Killings." And so let's bring him into the conversation. Marlon James, welcome to the program.

MARLON JAMES: Thanks for having.

INSKEEP: So what did you think when you read that essay?

JAMES: You know, I thought it was - I thought it was a game changer and also something that I knew was going to spark discussion. And I thought that was the point. But one of the discussions that it sparked - and funny enough I didn't spark it either, I was just following trails on Twitter - were a lot of women of color were saying - but this is interesting and it's not a putdown, but I find myself writing to impress white women. What these responses and my response bring to the conversation is the commercial aspect of publishing. You know, I still remember the first publisher to see my second novel, which is a novel about women, about black women slaves. And she basically asked me if I would turn it into a Jane Austen novel.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Because there's a market for Jane Austen.

JAMES: Because there's a market.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Well, just because it's radio, let me clarify. Claire Vaye Watkins, you're white. Marlon James, you're black, of Caribbean heritage.

JAMES: (Laughter) Oh, really?

WATKINS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Just pointing out for people.

JAMES: All right.

WATKINS: Hey, Marlon.

JAMES: Yeah.

WATKINS: It seems like there's a kind of sexism towards that mythical white lady reader where we really underestimate her, right? We say, oh, she needs this white character. She needs it palpable. She only likes Jane Austen, right? Do you think there's something to that?

JAMES: I think there is something to that. What I was saying when all of you think I was actually attacking the white reader, or the white women reader, I said, no, I'm attacking the expectations that are put upon her. There are too many books, including my own, that prove that argument ridiculous. And I'm not sure why it's still - it still holds, but we do have that. There is this sort of white woman reader who wants a sugar coating on all her pills.

INSKEEP: It's an online argument, which we have so many of. Did you learn something?

WATKINS: Well, I actually don't think it's that much of an argument. I mean, it doesn't seem like these positions are actually opposed to one another. I think that they're parallel. What do you think, Marlon?

JAMES: Yeah, I agree totally. I thought that these arguments aren't in opposition to each other. They're extending the argument. They're turning it around. And I think that it is the type of argument that also opens up to - you know, I would actually like to hear the white male view on it.

WATKINS: Right, yeah, absolutely.

INSKEEP: If only there were a white male in this conversation.

JAMES: I wonder.

INSKEEP: Oh, there is one.

JAMES: They're so invisible, these white men.

INSKEEP: Well, you know something, I was thinking actually about my own work as a journalist. Other people can say if I do it well, but if I do it well I think my job is to reach out, think about and understand people who are different from me. And I feel that if I do connect with someone who is different from me I might have found something universal. So that does lead to a question. Is it actually good if you feel compelled to write for, about or in the direction of someone who is different from yourself?

JAMES: I mean, that could be...

WATKINS: That's a really cool question, yeah.

JAMES: Yeah.

WATKINS: I would say that the directions matter, right? The fact is it's really different for a person who is in power whose voice is treated as authoritative and the given and the so-called universal. And then traveling the other way, my friends who are writers of color, their work is received with this burden that my work isn't received with, which is that you have to represent your people.

JAMES: Right. When writers of color kind of do an actual othering, we must be witness - or must be direct witness or victim of the thing we're writing about. Otherwise by what authority are we writing about?

INSKEEP: You're not authentic otherwise.

JAMES: Right, but by what authority and I think, oh, you mean by talent and imagination and some research. But to come back to the thing about sort of the white man writing about the other - then that becomes perilous because then I have my friends who are white male writers who feel so skittish about, but I really want to write about Haiti. And, you know, I'll say, listen, there are a million ways to fail and most people have. But do it anyway. By the way, every person before you has failed.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

JAMES: But do it anyway because - no - because I think it's a worthy discussion. There are examples of people pulling it off as far back as Othello. You know, do it.

INSKEEP: Well, Marlon James, author of "A Brief History Of Seven Killings," thanks very much.

JAMES: Thanks for having us.

INSKEEP: And Claire Vaye Watkins, whose novels include "Golf Fame Citrus," thanks to you.

WATKINS: Thanks.

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