I began to write this post yesterday, in the heat of the Andrew Smith social media “debate”, but I decided to spend last night and this morning looking at others’ opinions by reading posts on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and blogs (personal and professional). I try to take a measured approach to any involvement in these heated conversations, or I stay completely out of them. In this instance, however, I find I must try to craft my own response.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, a brief overview:
In a recent interview by Vice, author Andrew Smith was asked a rather poorly-phrased and logically unsound question: “It sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?”
Now, the reader in me (I have read all of Smith’s books except one) was flummoxed. Clearly, this interviewer has not read Andrew Smith’s work. There are interesting female characters in at least three of his books, including Ghost Medicine, Stick, and 100 Sideways Miles. I was also bothered by the fact that this interviewer assumes women aren’t reading and enjoying Smith. In what evidence, may I ask, is this assertion grounded? Even a cursory glance at Goodreads will demonstrate the absurdity of this statement. In addition to this, the person behind some of Smith’s biggest and most successful blog tours is a brilliant, socially-aware, die-hard Smith fan: a woman named Amy.
The English teacher in me was hoping to see Andrew respond with a rejection of the interviewer’s premise. If Smith had said something like, “Oh, well, I don’t accept your assertion that women cannot find their way into my books, or see characters representative of themselves therein,” he would have done himself a favor (and would have remained truthful). Instead, he gave an honest, two-part response:
I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.
A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.
A debate was sparked on Twitter and Tumblr, primarily, about this response being sexist because it others women and reflects a personal or cultural lack in recognizing women as human, as present, as important.
The initial problem with the early responses to this question is that they did not include the second paragraph when positing their argument. Furthermore, when it was brought to some of their attention, common responses were: “Oh, that was just an afterthought on Smith’s part” or “Well, it doesn’t nullify his first response.” In the first instance, I have to wonder: how and when do we decide to separate parts of a single response into what is or is not immediate? What allows a reader to decide something was an afterthought, when there are no indicators of such? In the second instance, fair enough. A part of an answer does not necessarily negate another part, but, on the other hand, certainly an answer deserves to be taken in total.
Now, there have been responses supporting Andrew Smith, and responses blasting him. There have also been some that are fairly balanced.
I would add, in addition, that most who instigated the early abuse and/or who jumped on the bandwagon simply do not know the author. Many will say, “Well, that doesn’t matter.” Of course it does. If we dismiss the person, we’re doing the same disservice, the same “erasing,” as is being posited in regards to his own answer. Andrew Smith, in a thorough and much more competently conducted, I must say, article, gives much more information about his own background. He opened up, for example, about suffering great physical abuse as a child. He was beaten by his father and his mother, the only female figure in his life at the time. Is it so surprising, then, that it may have taken him longer to deal with those demons and to figure out how to approach women in his writing? He is rather hard on fathers in some of his novels, too, but you’d have to read them to know it. He has also spoken out publicly and passionately in defense of women in the past:
Regarding Meghan Cox Gurdon’s being attacked following her article, “Darkness too Visible“:
The thing that bothered me just as much was the reaction on social media from other people, from writers and stuff, that was just mean . . . they were using obscenities, they were calling her terrible, terrible names, and, again: We need to elevate our discourse sometimes, especially if we want to have an actual academic discussion about something that probably is deserving a good, open discussion.
In a similar vein, during this debate, as during the debate regarding Patricia Arquette’s comments on feminism at this year’s Academy Awards, I’ve been told, quite directly that, as a man, I should sit quietly outside the debate. So, which is it? As a man, should I not say anything about feminism/women’s equality, because I can’t possibly understand it? Or, as a man, if I admit that I don’t know enough about it, will I be persecuted for my ignorance and willingness to express that fact? Hence, the tragic irony of Andrew Smith’s situation.
Context, reality, background, these thing are important. We live in a world of instant information, instant gratification, and hyper-angst. Many of us see a sound bite, a brief note, and without taking the time to better understand the person or situation involved, we make our judgments. I’m guilty of this, too, and this situation has reminded me of that fact and reaffirmed my intent to do better, too.
I will admit that, upon first reading the interview, I was not bothered by Andrew Smith’s answer, I was more offended by the fallacious questioning. Then I began to see buzz about the sexism inherent in his reply, posted by users on Twitter and Tumblr. So, I went back and looked again. Taken by itself, maybe there is some cause for concern. Had Smith really been segregated from women all his life? If so, why? Voluntarily?
The sheer outrage this response has caused, however, and the personal attacks on him that have arisen (people “concerned” about his relationship with his wife and his daughter, because of this statement) had me baffled. He said he doesn’t understand women, but he’s trying to do better. Well, as a gay man, I can tell you I really don’t understand straight men sometimes – I mean, what they do, how they act, seems totally bizarre to me at times. I also don’t really understand religious people, or people who eat animals (yuck!). But, I love people. Just people. Who cares about any of these other things? I may never fully understand them, but I’ll continue to try, sometimes failing, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Is it better to pretend to understand what we don’t? Is it better to ignore lifestyles, genders, cultures that we’re unfamiliar with, or to say: Hey – I understand this is a criticism about me, about my work, and I’m working on it.
Another major issue is that a few members of a particular organization, who tend to act in concert on social issues, began to “initiate debate,” as they call it. With this particular group, “debate” has begun to mean that a group of them will posit one-sided opinions and let their community run with them. I call this the Fox News approach: posing a rhetorical question loaded with indignant pathos, and then stepping back to let others “advance” the “discussion”. The benefit to this approach, of course, is that when the initial posts get lost in the overall debate, or even mysteriously disappear hours later, they can claim they were “simply encouraging a conversation” and certainly “not attacking anyone personally.”
The problem is, quite a few of those initial posts were attacks on Smith’s character, including personal judgments about his relationship with his wife and his daughter. They were also uninformed, as most of the instigators readily admitted they were not familiar with Smith the person, nor have they read any of his books. Question: when we’re arguing the benefits of feminism, social progressiveness, and equality, aren’t we trying to combat ignorance and to argue from an informed perspective?
Is it okay to question and disagree with authors’ statements or personal actions? Of course it is. I’ve had to do the same with some of my own favorite writers, like Orson Scott Card, who have turned out to be bigoted, prejudiced people in real life but who continue to write great stories. It’s a tough pill to swallow; in my case, I decided long ago not to purchase works by writers with whom I take personal issue and instead borrow their work from the library or get the works second-hand. Still, this is my informed choice.
It pains me to observe these tendencies from this group, as a number of them have been, for many years, what I would consider close friends and allies in the book blogging community. I have loved and admired them for a long time. They are brilliant people, hard-working and extraordinarily talented. And, in fact, we usually agree in theory. It is in practice that we part ways. It is disappointing and frustrating to see such incredible talent and intelligence mired in such negativity. Unfortunately, as time goes on and these sorts of issues arise, their responses have continued to be tactless, abrasive, condescending and arrogant. I have had to reevaluate my relationship with this group, just as I have had to reevaluate my reading-relationship with certain authors, such as OSC, or those who have stalked and hounded fellow bloggers because of negative reviews, etc. This is a difficult part of being an adult, I think. Stepping back from a situation, acknowledging our own biases in friendship, politics, and social agendas, and simply trying to do the right thing.
There have been, however, a number of reasonable, objective arguments about how and why Smith’s response might reflect an unconscious sexism, and the same issues have been raised about the initial line of questioning by the interviewer, too. These are significant questions that should not be dismissed; it is an important debate to keep alive. We do need to be aware of all of our potential prejudgment, prejudices, ideologies, and social blind-sides. The people conducting themselves in this fashion are not bullies, nor is their line of inquiry. They simply want to discuss the problem, and while I disagree with their interpretation of Smith’s answer, I respect their opinion and appreciate their compassionate and civil discourse.
With that being said, I would like to make a not-so-simple request to anyone who reads this post. Please take a few minutes to evaluate your own privileges, and leave in the comments if you feel comfortable doing so (all comments are moderated & abuse will not be tolerated).
I have thought a lot about this, about what advantages I have, simply by being me, as well as the disadvantages. Some of the folks I allude to above have perfectly valid reasons for calling out sexism, racism, and other prejudices (as, I would hope, most of us would – but of course we don’t or we wouldn’t have to have these conversations). Still, they also have certain privileges and advantages that many don’t. These might be economic, social, or institutional. There’s also a privilege, and a responsibility, in having a massive audience–taking care to encourage reasoned and meaningful discussions about sensitive topics, rather than incendiary and abrasive ones.
I, for one, know that, as a white American male, I am privileged in at least three obvious (to me) ways. I got lucky in those respects, and I make a conscious effort to recognize this and to reflect on how my choices and opportunities are in some ways resultant of those completely random and ultimately meaningless realities.
But I also know that I am disadvantaged in some ways, too. As a short man, for example. Many people (probably the lucky members of “average or higher” height) don’t stop to think about what life is like for a short man. It is, in fact, something that comes up in my life on a regular basis: simple jokes about the weather or needing step-ladders or living in hobbit holes; being mistaken for someone much younger (as I get older this is both a blessing and a curse); bias in public spheres where, yes, privilege is given to taller speakers. Is this a particularly difficult disadvantage for me? No, and especially not in comparison to what many people who have certain skin tones, who practice certain religions, who have physical or mental challenges, or who were born a certain sex have to deal with. Nevertheless, it is still a problem that I deal with, and if it’s something you’ve never thought about or are ready, even now, to dismiss as insignificant: that is your privilege.
A more pressing prejudice I deal with is my sexuality. As a gay man, this is the most difficult, most prominent, most consistent issue that I face. It is also, perhaps, something that encourages and motivates me to understand other peoples’ perspectives, experiences, and points of view. But if you’ve never been asked, “how that works” in regards to your intimate relationships; if you’ve never been told you can’t see your loved one in the hospital because you’re not legally married; if you’ve never been told “no matter how good a person you are, you’re still going to hell;” if you’ve never been asked, “but aren’t you worried your kids will turn out wrong?”: that is your privilege.
My point is, we all have certain privileges, and most of us have some disadvantages, too. To take a simple, honest statement from someone you do not know personally, from someone whose works you have never read (as many of these people have admitted) and turn it into a public shaming, is not just illogical, it is counterproductive. Andrew Smith has been a strong supporter and ally of women, children, gays, and minorities for many years, and this is indeed reflected in his writing. In addition, despite his success and probable ability to retire, he maintains his day job, teaching, because he cares about kids and their futures. This is a writer, a person, who deserves a more reasoned, thoughtful response than was afforded him.
Objective discussions about these issues can be powerful and important. But when we vilify someone without first trying to see the actual person, that’s our privilege. And it’s wrong.
Please Share: What’s your privilege?
Related on the Web:
What a Nerd Girl Says: Let’s Talk about Andrew Smith & Sexism
Anne Tibbets: In Defense of Andrew Smith
Terrible Minds: What I think about Andrew Smith and what He Said
Tommy Wallach: On My Friend Andrew Smith
Bookish Antics: Andrew Smith, Sexism and Personal Attacks
To the Lamp Post: On Sexism and Lady Characters and Andrew Smith