Confidence Women


Because I read the internet and because I have a stake in the question, I suppose, like everyone else I’ve been thinking about women and writing. There are new byline statistics to share, this time mostly from online sites. (Though not The Rumpus, clearly a devastating oversight.) Click at your own risk; they aren’t all pretty.

I’m sure you are tired of reading opinion-mongering on this and on some level so am I. I thought Elissa Bassist made some great suggestions here yesterday. That does not, however, prevent me from offering my two cents, for reasons that are about to become clear.

Of the many Sugar columns that struck a chord with me, the one that reverberated the longest is the one about envy. At the outset of her answer, Sugar defines her terms:

We are not talking about books. We’re talking about book deals. You know they are not the same thing, right? One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation.

Now, book deals are not the same thing as magazine bylines, which are not the same thing as litmag story placements, which are not the same thing as book reviews. But all this talk about the place where women and publishing and success meet? Is still talk about the latter question.

This is why in most cases it is no answer for editors to shrug and say, “I choose what to publish based on merit alone.” It’s not that they are being disingenuous. It’s just that for most publications – maybe not the litmags, but for anyone with the vaguest of aspirations to “general” appeal – their considerations of merit naturally look at what the “market” will think of something.

Perhaps someone out there still believes that the Invisible Hand separates the wheat from the chaff, but I think that’s a particularly hard idea for artists to swallow. Without pointing any fingers, we all know there’s a lot of bad art in the world. Much of it is made by corporations, who charge you admission to watch or read. The idea is to thereby sell you a whole other pile of things you don’t need, which should teach us that this whole marketplace concept is a real rabbit hole when it comes to What Matters. But somehow we miss that.

Among the many things the marketplace currently rewards, unjustifiably in my view, is overconfidence. The squeaky wheel always gets the you-know-what, and in some sense it doesn’t matter whether the squeaker in question identifies as male or female. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in this essay you must read if you have not already, “the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.”

Like Solnit I’ve known a lot of great men who don’t possess excess and unsupported confidence. But I’ve also known a lot who have. And I’ve also known them to get extremely upset when I point it out. Often, of late, I don’t bother. I’d rather spend the time and energy on my work, and make another cup of tea.

That makes me part of the problem, though.

I am all for women supporting each other, for networking. I am all for retweeting and crossposting and praising everyone’s good work to the skies.

But I am also for being more honest about what’s being overvalued at the level of the editor, because I think some overvaluation exists. I am for figuring out a better way to have this conversation, because it’s a conversation we need to have. We need to open up some air and sad though it is, that will involve a little shoving. Let’s make the shoving as gentle as possible. But shoving it must be, nonetheless.

This has been your Rumpus Saturday. I’ll see you guys next week. I mean, provided I don’t get fired for today’s efforts.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →