Sunday, August 4, 2019

WITMonth Day 4 | How do (and should) we argue about WITMonth's validity? | Thoughts

It's happened a few times in recent days: Someone will respond - snarkily, at times even cruelly - to a passionate, excited post that talks about why women in translation is important. The man (for it is, almost inevitably, a man) will proceed to declare the project useless. Perhaps the project is sexist? Or perhaps it is, simply, an annoying insistence on being PC. An obsession with feminism. An obsession with gender.

To be perfectly honest, it had been years since I'd last gotten snarky, trolling remarks. It's actually rather surprising, since there were quite a few in the early days of the women in translation movement. In those early days, I frequently found myself at the receiving end of angry denunciations by (again, inevitably) men who insisted that literature must be judged by pure merit alone and that a project such as mine would ruin literature forever. Or something. The claims have now become a little more complex, with the suggestion that I am somehow "demeaning to [...] women" (yes, that's a direct quote) by virtue of hosting WITMonth, or the man who snottily commented that he was tired of the "obsession with gender" and "nobody is trying to claim that women don't know how to write".

Here's what I find so fascinating about these two comments in particular:

1. Both attempt to reframe their criticism in a "feminist" light. One did so explicitly, suggesting that women in translation is, at its core, sexist and demeaning to women. (Again, those were... literally the words used.) We are supposed to sympathize, ultimately, with the person fighting for women's rights, and against those who would demean women, isolate them, or sequester them. It's a valid argument in a certain light, assuming you ignore all of history, our current cultural context, oh and also the literal facts by which women writers are still woefully underrepresented in translation. But you know. Feminism!

In the second example, the criticism assumes that the entire argument in favor of women writers (at all, ever!) is void. Nobody has ever, ever in the history of literature claimed that women aren't good writers! (I wrote this sentence intending to pull up all the quotes from, like, just Nobel winners alone, but the idea frankly exhausted me so I've decided not to include it. If anyone is reading this and doubts the veracity of my sarcasm, just Google it, I'm done doing all your work for you.) Here, I am effectively making up an issue. J. K. Rowling, he continues, is one of the best-selling writers of all time! Nobody doubts her. (Except... her publishers, who had her publish using initials rather than her full, clearly feminine name. Also, she herself, when the time came to write a second series under a fully masculine pen name.) "If the book is good," he writes, "we read it. What does it matter if a man or a woman wrote it?" Once again, the suggestion is that I - or other feminists - are creating a gendered divide where there originally was none. Thus: He is the true feminist!

It's an odd and interesting shift from the blunt "maybe women just don't write as well as men" arguments I got in 2014. (Wait, I thought nobody had ever made those arguments...?) It's something worth thinking about...

2. Neither men were willing to engage in calm discourse. In the first case, the man who called my work "demeaning to women" was, in fact, explicitly tagging me in a post I otherwise would not have had any reason to notice. He deliberately called my attention to his remark. And this could have been fine, if not for the fact that just one week earlier, this same person tweeted at me that my work was useless and I should turn my efforts to... unpublished books. (No, I still don't understand what he wanted from me, since I'm not sure how I'm supposed to assess the status of works that... haven't... been... published...) At the time, I responded (politely, if a bit curtly) that I did not find my work useless, would not be able to do whatever it was he was suggesting, and would be happy to explain why I felt that my work is useful. If he was interested.

There was no response, until the aforementioned tag a week later.

In the second case, I also bit my tongue. The post on which he was commenting was a link to an interview I had given, in which I had explicitly answered the "why do we need this" question in great detail. He had, quite obviously, not clicked the link and not read the interview. More than that, the quote in question was literally in the post itself, as the person who shared it had decided to use that as a hook for readers. I again - politely - explained why we deal with this (refusing to use his "obsessive" phrasing), linked to some of my statistics, and offered to answer any more questions if he had them.

There was no response.

And here's where I get to the point of this long, rambling blog post. Relatively speaking, I have been blessed with fairly few interactions with trolls, sexist or otherwise. But when someone does come along with these sorts of critiques, my first instinct is always to respond. I responded plenty in WITMonth's early, more troll-filled days and I found that some readers truly changed and grew. Some simply decided that this wasn't for them... and that's fine! If you don't want to take part in WITMonth, literally nobody is forcing you to. This is the thing that surprises me most: Today, they no longer respond back. People comment sharply, angrily at times, often rudely... and that's it. They've said their part. It doesn't matter if I carefully craft my response, defending my work or suggesting that we have a deeper conversation. They're out. Oh, yes, they might tag me again a week later to say how terrible I am, but there's no room for a discussion.

That is a problem.

So here we are, after all this preamble. How do we fix the fact that there are those who simply aren't interested in having this discussion? I don't just mean random men on the internet, either. (Sorry, menfolk, for how poorly this blog post paints you! I know you're not all bad.) I also mean publishers. How does one have an open discussion with a publishing house that consistently publishes abysmal rates of women in translation, but then refuse to respond to messages, emails, or tweets that address this? How do we engage in calm discourse with those who repeatedly insist that our work is useless, sexist, or harmful? And more importantly - do we need to have that discussion with those who have made it abundantly clear that they don't want to? Why force it?

I'll be perfectly honest: I loathe the modern-internet thing of one-directional insults. I won't pretend that I haven't on occasion also taken part in it, but it's something I quite regret doing and have tried to reign in. I firmly believe that humanity needs to be able to have these discussions, to learn from each other and to understand the others' view. With each of these critiques, there are grains of truth that I don't necessarily disagree with. It shouldn't matter what an author's gender is, man woman or otherwise! We shouldn't have to define "women in translation" and single them out for WITMonth! But we unfortunately do not yet live in a world where I feel we can make those claims, and I believe I am capable of convincingly explaining that, if I were given the chance.

I want to be able to have those conversations, but I also feel that there is little point in chasing after those who have no desire to actually discuss. Then again, I also feel that we must have these conversations - if some of the most prominent publishers of literature in translation are still at ~20% rates of women in translation, isn't it about time we sat down and had a talk? What other option do we have?

What do you think?

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