Sunday, April 1, 2018


We’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen

Around this time last year, I pitched a YA novel to my agent, Tina Dubois. I described the novel the way I normally describe my projects: “This is the most batshit thing I’ve ever done, lol.” I’ve used such language to describe my writing for years—it’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s totally banana-pants, the kind of language that echoes criticisms I got from teachers and fellow workshoppers over and over again. “What’s with all the cats and bears and ghosts, Laura?” or “Why don’t you write in order, Laura?” or “Nobody’s going to care about this, Laura.” The work that I thought was my best and most honest others said wasn’t realistic, wasn’t universal, was too weird or too hostile. (“Why do you hate men so much, Laura? Did this actually happen to you, Laura?”) As hard as I try to fight it now, I’m still carrying these criticisms around with me, they have affected me, infected me. I’ve let my insecurities dictate how I discuss my writing. So much so that I’ve regularly sabotaged myself with my own agent, a woman I consider a friend, and a trusted part of my community.     

An interesting essay in VQR has been making the rounds: In this essay, writer Lili Loofbourow talks about the ways in which we, as a culture, approach male vs. female work, a way that we instantly sum up the work of women rather than deeply engaging with it. She calls this approach “the male glance, the narrative corollary to the male gaze. We all have it, and it’s ruining our ability to see good art. The male glance is how comedies about women become chick flicks. It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of “strong female characters.” It’s how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy or… saccharine love…”

She goes on to write that, “When we look at a girl story, most of us go a tiny bit stupid. We fail to see beyond the limits of our own generic expectations…Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself.”

I have realized only recently that when I pitch my own work, I go more than a tiny bit wonky. My work is “imperfectly controlled,” i.e., “banana-pants.” Accidentally batshit and unrealistic and non-linear, but hopefully resonant in spite of itself, or rather, in spite of the woman who thought so long about it and worked so hard to write it.  

I’m a lifelong feminist. I have been one since I learned that the word “girl” was an insult. To say that I’m utterly horrified by the way I’ve been talking about stories that mean so much to me would be an understatement.

Even worse, the male glance not only hampers our ability to evaluate good art, it also hampers our ability to make good art. My agent just saved me from myself when I handed in a middle-grade novel draft a few weeks ago. She pointed out that in my zeal to critique women who gleefully participate in the subjugation of less powerful women, I sometimes resorted to insulting their bad dye-jobs, their appearance, rather than interrogating their alignment with a powerful system that requires them to throw other women under the bus.

Well, shit.

So, the male glance limits everyone’s perception and production of art, including our own. The white gaze does the same thing—limiting art, twisting it, crushing it to fit well-worn, limiting, even damaging tropes about people of color. Toni Morrison wrote about this in her brilliant book Playing in the Dark. But, in the same way the male glance also affects men and their work in ways men can’t always see, the white glance/gaze also limits the white imagination in a way that many white people can’t see in their own work or the work of others. This is what led white audiences to express shock and dismay over the fact that The Hunger Games’s Rue was Blackwhite Academy members to dismiss the genius of Ava Duvernay’s Selma and Jordan Peele’s Get Outwhite reviewers to be confuzzled about the complex lives of people of color in books, especially those written by women of color, and white writers to become tearful and defensive when critiqued about representation (points to, uh, the entire Internet).

While it’s important to see the effects of the white gaze in other’s work, it’s also important to turn a critical eye on our own work. My (white) myopia led me to make the mistake of including a racial slur often levied against Mexican immigrants in my very first middle-grade novel, Lily’s Ghosts. Despite the fact that this language was clearly considered wrong in the world of my novel, despite the fact that I thought I was telling the “truth” about a particular interaction, I didn’t think about how hurtful it might be to young readers, or why I thought it was necessary (it wasn’t). After receiving a heartfelt letter from a boy who told me he loved the story but wanted to know why I’d included this slur, and after conversations with friends and colleagues, I removed the language for the electronic edition. I still cringe when I think about it. Yet this isn’t the only mistake I’ve made, and won’t be the last.
Someone once said that people become storytellers because at some point in their lives, they weren’t heard. I, myself, have spent most of my life feeling like the mythical Cassandra, always telling the truth, but never believed. But you can get stuck there, shrieking at the world, HEAR ME, SEE ME, when you actually have been heard and centered at least part of the time, when the systems in place have benefitted you and your work over the work of other people. Trying to dismantle such systems is unbelievably difficult. As Lili Loofbourow writes, “Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say. We imagine them as small and careful, or petty and domestic, or vain, or sassy, or confessional.”

I don’t believe my work is small or vain, sassy or confessional, but I’m so used to calling it “weird” that I’m not sure what else it is. I have to find new language for it, a new way to talk about it: “If it’s not “batshit,” what is it, Laura?”  Lately, I’ve been asking myself a lot more questions. Where have I been complicit in denigrating my own writing or even myself? How many times have I referred to my own successes as sheer luck? How do I pitch my work to others? How do I gauge my own worth financially and otherwise? Where have limited/limiting ideas about girls and women bled into my writing?

I also have to ask myself other questions, questions that might be more difficult to ask and require much more effort to answer: Whose voices haven’t I heard? Where have limited/limiting ideas about people different from me infected my work? How can I express gratitude for all the things that kidlit/teenlit has given me while acknowledging that others have not gotten the same opportunities? When should I step aside and give someone else a chance to speak, and listen as best as I can? Whose voices could I lift up and support? How can I take responsibility for things I say, do or write with openness and thanks instead of defensiveness and handwringing?

One of the cultural scripts that all Americans have been fed is one of rugged individualism, a script that says a real (white) man can save a real (powerless, pretty white) girl, the world and himself with no help from anyone else. But when I think about the community I’m grateful to be a part of, when I think about the ways in which so many thoughtful and engaged women and non-binary folks support one another, even save one anotherI know that script is totally batshit.  

It will take all of us, together, to rewrite it.