We invited editors and writers to participate in a series on issues and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in independent publishing. We asked them how these issues affected them as editors interested in publishing underrepresented communities, or writers who want to challenge dominant notions of identity.
The idea for a series on race, class, gender, and sexuality evolved organically from reading literary magazines, blogs, sites, small and large press catalogs, reviews, best of lists, and the like. Discussions about these issues are robust within the academy, and I wanted to respond to how they surface in literary communities. There were two watershed moments this past year that provided an opportunity to engage in this dialogue. In August 2009, Roxane Gay, assistant editor for PANK, posted “Awkward Stuff: Race, Women, Writers, Editors,” decrying the scarcity of writers of color and women writers in independent publishing. While many voices echoed Gay’s concerns and conveyed their own similar experiences, others bitterly and aggressively dismissed her claims outright. In November, Publishers Weekly published their Best Books of 2009, which did not include any women writers. Again, the responses ran the gamut between outrage at the pervasive sexism within the publishing industry, and hostility towards those who claimed that the omission of women was anything but merit-based. Our intention is to explore how exclusionary practices dominate the publishing landscape and how writers and editors respond to such practices. To begin our series Roxane Gay addressed the numerous comments on her post in “I Don’t Know How to Write About Race.”
In our second installment, below, we talk with Jarrett Haley, editor of BULL: Fiction for Thinking Men about masculinity, violence, gendered divisions of labor, and PW’s list.
Marcelle Heath: As a literary magazine devoted to “Men’s Fiction,” you’ve published some fine stories by writers who address dominant notions of masculinity in their work. For example, in Sean Sullivan’s “My Father’s .45” the specter of violence in masculinity is portrayed through the narrator’s cleaning his father’s gun. In “The Winner” by G.C. Perry, the narrator is the silent and repressed father who refuses to help his wife. What are your thoughts on how masculinity functions in these stories?
Jarrett Haley: That I am not a sociologist or gender-studier by trade I should make clear to begin with. This should be obvious given that masculinity—as I see and feel it—I can best describe as some kind of nebulous something at work inside men, a thing of pride and comfort and at times anxiety, no doubt a big influence but ultimately something quiet, unexamined, generally unspoken of or at least spoken around, which I don’t think is altogether a bad thing. I find it kind of interesting in its vagueness, in the way these stories you mention, like others in BULL, make no grand statement about masculinity but just glance at a certain aspect or consideration.
Fathers have a lot to do with it of course, much more than I dare to dive into, but “My Father’s .45” is a prime example. And yeah, there’s violence in that story, but I consider that somewhat case-specific; I think a more universal notion is that of the permanently looming father—the physical loom in one’s youth becoming psychological later in life. The pressure to fulfill—whether put upon or self-originating—I think is widely relatable as opposed to the violence. In my own case I can’t think of a kinder guy than my old man, but as I sit idly at this computer screen and think of him at my age and his worldwide exploits in the Navy, it’s like the story goes—“I know that he’s behind me and always will be.”
As for “The Winner,” I think it’s charitable to call the narrator “silent and repressed,” as I see that guy as an outright jerk. I suppose he could stand to represent a bastardized form of masculinity, an exaggerated (or not) example of the old guard. But in a story so short I take it that everything is amplified, and I see him essentially as a caricature of that prehistoric mindset, drawn to effect the irony at the end—that what he’s “won” is only a household full of anguish.
Heath: Many of the male protagonists have a conflicted relationship to the domestic sphere. For instance, In Alan Stewart Carl’s “What Our Fathers Knew,” the narrator is a member of a new era of men who are not like their fathers, who help around the house and take care of their kids, but it’s an uneasy alliance. “We can change diapers and snuggle on couches, but we never learned how to stand on the porch, drinking beer, unfazed by each other’s struggles, knowing what we share can’t be taken away by fortune, good or bad.” In the aforementioned “The Winner,” the narrator refuses to participate in the domestic sphere. In Christopher Siciliano’s “Home Furnishing,” domesticity is perilous terrain when the narrator’s wife trades in her sexuality for a couch while cockroaches carry him off. What do you make of how the ways in which women and men negotiate the division of labor in the home are reflected in contemporary men’s fiction?
Haley: Rather than speak for Alan I asked him directly about his blurb, and I’ll try to do him justice in paraphrasing his answer: that unlike some of the fathers of us 70s babies, today
many men are happy to split the power/chores evenly, but they are certainly aware that such equality is pretty new to our culture and, for some men, there’s a sense that something has been lost. I think that ‘something’ is the product of mythical remembrances, but it’s nevertheless a weight or at least a rough texture that they feel as they move through their lives.
I especially like Alan’s expression “at least a rough texture,” which I think captures the nuances at work in the story.
I think the keystone of “Home Furnishing” is found in the line disclosing that the narrator’s wife hides the bills from him, “knowing how it stings [his] ego that [he’s] not a competent provider.” This is a circumstance that’s become relevant now more than ever, and one that’s unique to contemporary life now that a double income has become more or less obligatory. How this affects his household, and how the narrator deals with it and these cockroaches, I find really crafty and fresh. If Alan is dealing with the slight degrees of difference between the modern age for men and the age of our fathers, “Home Furnishing” is a full-blown 180º from that time and explores the impact of living in it. The overall significance of the story I leave to readers to interpret how they will.
Heath: As you discussed in your interview with Roxane Gay at PANK, women have been underrepresented in your submission pool. In BULL’s submission guidelines, you state: “BULL is intended as a resource and repository for Men’s Fiction, and though we showcase Men’s Fiction exclusively we have no intent to shut out or alienate any manner of reader or author. We invite submissions from any and every writer who believes their work squares with our purpose and aspiration.” What has been the response to BULL? Have you had more success in receiving and publishing submissions by women?
Haley: Since then we’ve had about the same slim success in receiving submissions by women, which doesn’t bode well for much success in publishing submissions by women. Out of the few we get something clicks every now and then and I’m happy when it does, because I think BULL is all the better for it as far as perspective. But saying “success” here feels a bit squirmy to me, as if it’s something we’re actively trying to do. All we try to do at BULL is put out the best of what writing we receive, regardless of who or where that writing comes from. To do anything otherwise would be corrupt.
The response so far? People are liking us, at least there are those who tell us so, and I’m very grateful that they do. And the majority of people who tell us that are guys, which I think is only to be expected.
Heath: In Laura Miller’s Salon article on the exclusion of women in Publishers Weekly’s 10 Best List, she discusses how women and men have pointed out that although women make up the majority of consumers who purchase books, they make up “about half of the authors on any given New York Times Bestseller list,” and that canonical works by men are still privileged over works by women because male readers perceive these works as not as serious than those by men. Miller writes, “What’s at issue isn’t sales or even access to readers; this is an argument about prestige and critical recognition.” What are your thoughts about PW, male readership, and questions of literary merit in works by women?
Haley: I never really knew how pervasive these Best-lists were until I started paying attention to the Internet at year’s end, but I guess that’s just the nature of the beast. It seems to me that anyone making these lists is bound to get in hot water with someone for some reason or another, probably because it’s taking a matter of taste and imbuing it with some kind of qualitative legitimacy. And I guess the further up you go—from your average blog all the way to Publishers Weekly—the deeper and hotter that water gets. But of course hot water isn’t necessarily a bad place to be on the net, where a buzz of any kind is often the goal.
And I suppose I could throw my hat into the PW discussion here, but I have to admit that when I see the amount of comments on those articles and much of it is exchanges of snide, snarky, shot-from-the-hip vituperation it turns my stomach and I think, Why even bother?
So I’ll just say this:
Anybody who would question the literary merit in works by women because they’re by women is either insane, a bigot, or hopelessly ill informed. Whether someone consciously or unconsciously gravitates to works by women or men, it’s ultimately an issue of personal preference—if not for the works themselves then for the author or some other factor that meets their taste. The same goes for those who hold a neutral orbit.
I used to work in an ice cream shop. Some people got chocolate, others got vanilla, some got tutti-frutti. It was their choice and they liked it.
As to whether women get their due share of critical recognition and prestige, well, I just don’t have a dog in that fight. Far be it from me to try and guess the reasoning and motives behind what Ms. Miller calls the “literary and critical establishment.” Given that choice of words I assume they’re as crooked as any other establishment.
But as far as canonical works by men having any privilege, there may very well be such a privilege but I don’t see how it benefits anybody but those dead men rotting away in the ground. I can’t see much use for prestige once you’re dead, or really old for that matter, which is about the time any canonization might possibly occur, and hopefully about the time one would have grown out of valuing highly the attendant trappings. I recall seeing Grace Paley read about two or three weeks before she died, and she didn’t seem to care at all about prestige, for her reading or her books even. And when asked something along the lines of what she wanted most in life, she said she wanted to have a cup of tea with a particular friend of hers, which I thought sounded like a very nice thing for someone to want at any age.
Heath: If BULL is for “Thinking Men,” who is the unthinking man and how would you go about educating him, besides having him read BULL?
Haley: I should say first that I cringe at the word educate—BULL makes no pretense of educating anybody. To do so would be arrogance in the extreme. We make no claim to altruism, and if any occurs it’s accidental and limited to maybe stirring our readers to think, which I believe is something innate and existing prior to education. So think about what? Life, I guess, one’s own and that of others, as it applies to male sensibilities, to the extent that we can interpret them. I suppose this might be a mild form of arrogance as well—the interpretation and picking and choosing of what applies—but more so I think it’s our contributors who dictate those sensibilities in what they send us, and from this I just determine what should represent BULL as a magazine.
So in regards to all this I suppose the unthinking man would be one who lives his life without ever considering why he and others do what they do or feel how they feel, but is just a slave to his reactions. What we hope to offer in most our stories is alternative to this, a starting point for rumination, just like any other art form.
But this isn’t to say BULL doesn’t have its fun or is anti-entertainment. A good read is just as, if not more, important.
Heath: What does the future hold for BULL?
Haley: It’s getting to the point where BULL should sustain itself, or at least try to, which shouldn’t be hard because its means are modest, but which means we’ll have to start selling something. We’ve got our fair share of bigger aspirations; someday I’d like us to put out books, or whatever the going form is, but I’d like to be able to effectively deliver longer stories, novels and such should we find them, if only because I hear a lot is being passed up due to a rumored lack of market. But more immediately I suppose there will be a contest somewhere in the cards, an anthology at some point down the line. For now I’m just happy to have found a means of meeting writers, working with them and promoting their work. It can be a burden at times and is often overly consuming, but to never be without something to read or someone to correspond with—it’s a large part of why BULL exists at all.