There we are, sitting in the middle of a crowd of people in the back of a bookshop. Could be BookCourt, McNally, powerHouse, Housing Works: you know, the good ones. Maybe we’re even at a university. The author has spoken. The moderator has asked his own special questions. Silence has fallen. Now, the gazes of the dudes onstage swing towards us assembled fans like the headlamps on two old Volvos going round a corner. Up go the hands! The moderator chooses a select few, seemingly at random.
“Now, I haven’t read your book, but I very much look forward to doing so. Your conversation prompted me to recall…”
“What you seem to say in your book—I haven’t read it yet, but based on this evening’s talk—egregiously overlooks the contribution of…”
“This isn’t so much a question as a comment. The way you describe your process reminds me of the book I myself wrote in the early 1980s…”
I look at the friend beside me, then the one on the other side of me. My arm is getting tired. Neither of them meet my aghast eye; they do not bother to be surprised. I keep the arm up. Don’t you see me? I want to yell. Don’t you know a woman my age would never ask a question without having read the fucking book? But no, the moderator doesn’t seem to know! My face goes all hot.
There’s a procession of question-askers: professors, grad students, writers, editors, self-appointed smart guys. Well-intentioned, each one. The vast majority are straight. Some are even married—their wives are sitting right there, listening. They’re not bad people, especially not taken one by one. It just so happens that choosing a literary line of work means engaging with them en masse with such regularity that their features as a group start to become clear.
To be more specific, I’m talking about the literary events my colleagues in the New York books’n’mags universe and I attend basically every week (to support our friends, out of interest, or both) and the people who get called upon by the moderators of these events to ask questions, post-reading.
My qualm is neither a nitpick nor a call for revolution. But it exists. And it needs to be addressed. Too many literary readings are being both whitewashed and dick-washed by absurdly biased conversations. And the fault lies with the people in charge of these events, the moderators and authors conducting what should be thoughtful (and promotional) gatherings for their projects.
The Q&A session after a reading isn’t a contest. The act of putting your hand up is undeservedly maligned, anyway, and I don’t wish to stigmatize it further. The kid who raises their hand all the time in class, or so the stereotype goes, is desperate: to be heard, to be admired, to curry the teacher’s favor. So as not to be thought the stereotypical handraiser—not to be thought the person thinking me! me! pick me!—too many students just keep them in their laps.
This self-censoring behavior, once learned at school, seems to stay with young women and other groups outside the white-dude enclave well into adulthood. So, you just don’t see the young woman put her hand up when she’s got something to say. What if people were to think her dumb, or that she liked the sound of her own voice? What if unspecified humiliation were to take place? What if, indeed.
As a result of this trained self-censorship, at least in my experience, people in charge of literary events are used only to hearing the voices of men, so they simply don’t bother to make sure there is parity in the discussion. I don’t mean to suggest that it is women’s fault that they don’t wave their arms hard enough. The fault is in an absence, an absence of attention: the moderators just don’t notice that we are there.
They just don’t notice that the only people they’ve asked to speak are white-haired, white-skinned turtlenecks who haven’t been to class in thirty years. It all leads me to wonder: what is the point of these events? To talk about books, sure. To inject a little lifeblood into the twitching corpse of real, live literary culture, perhaps. To get a productive conversation going? I should coco!
As far as I can tell, the only point of a big public launch for a high-brow book is shifting units. Which is totally OK! These can be simply commercial occasions. If it’s just a party, fine—but admit it. If publishers, writers, and editors want to hold themselves in higher regard than that, want to believe that they are creating and fostering culture rather than just wafting the breezes of public relations and their attendant dollars about the place, then they must recognize that book events are professional as well as commercial spaces.
Your colleagues are there, other writers are there. This is, if you take yourself seriously, a semi-professional environment. Bias in discussion at literary events is thus a professional problem, but one (very like sexual harassment, in fact) constantly written off as the cost of working with brilliant but badly socialized men.
The best model I have for fostering a productive group conversation is my experience as a teaching assistant at NYU. The difference between a literary reading and a classroom is that, in a classroom, the teacher (even a minimally trained teaching assistant like me) knows who’s bullshitting. Anybody who has taught will back me up on this: the faces and cadences of the kid who has done his homework and the one who hasn’t are unmistakably different. What makes a literary reading and a classroom the same, I think, is the fact that any contribution from a person who has done the required reading will improve the tenor of the conversation, no matter how unconfident the speaker.
Why, then, do people (men) behave at readings in a way that would cause them to get kicked out of my class? Why are grown adults (men) so keen to speak, when they have not in fact done their homework? Why do these greying men put up their hands, and why do they always get called on, when nine times out of ten they can be relied upon not to have read the book or even admit that there’s anything they don’t already know about? Finally—and most outrageously— why are neither they nor the moderators who default to them the slightest bit embarrassed that this is happening?
This, then, must be the real demand of those who moderate readings: fire the moderators. Stop asking famous men to host your book launch on the vague assumption that they’ll draw a crowd. They’re just going to distract from your work, talk about themselves, and then mess up your Q&A. Resist the institutional inertia that heaves you in this direction! Instead, ask somebody who has managed a group of people directly within recent memory. Hire a teaching assistant, a kindergarten teacher, an aerobics instructor, a bus driver. Anyone but a semi-famous male author.
If I knew what to suggest I would do something cleverer than heap pity and scorn on the culprits in bars with my friends. Who am I not noticing not being noticed? Who do I fail to hear as I put my grad-schooled, lily-white hand in the air?
One day, perhaps, we all shall be on that slightly raised stage in front of some fixed mics, and frail old men will clamor for our attention and for hardbacked copies of our works. “Hear me now, fuckers?” we’ll shriek at them, feedback ringing through the bookstore aisles. “Do you hear me now?”
Josephine Livingstone is an academic and writer in New York.
[Photo via Flickr]