Why I’m Canceling My Subscription: An Open Letter to ‘Harper’s’ from a Loyal Reader

Dear Harper’s,

It is with great sadness that I write this letter. I have subscribed to your publication since I was an undergraduate in college, and now, nearly 30 years later, I think that except for brief lapses, I have been a loyal subscriber all that time.

When Lewis Lapham was editor, I always read his opening essay first. I didn’t always agree with everything he had to say, but he spoke for me as often as not, and there were moments — as when he referred to Newt Gingrich as “nasty, brutish, and short,” that I thought that I had found my intellectual home. But I knew, even then, that Mr. Lapham was of a mind that still treasured the male voice above the female voice, and that as long as he was editor, the magazine would feature more male writers than female.

I didn’t notice much change under Roger Hodge, but then when Ellen Rosenbush became editor, I thought that things would change. Surely, a female editor would seek out new female voices to feature in the magazine? Alas, each month that I opened the magazine, I saw fewer and fewer female bylines, but I doubted my own eyes. I figured that I was just looking during especially imbalanced months, and that if I were to keep track over the course of a year, surely those numbers would be more in line with the numbers of male and female writers that are out there.

But let me start over.

In many ways, my intellectual development has been supplemented by the reading that I have done in Harper’s. You have called my attention to issues as far-ranging as the lack of respect that women writers get in the literary world, to astute analyses of the presidencies of all the men who have been president since 1984, to issues in Asia and Africa that I could not find anywhere else. You felt like my intellectual home, and as I became more aware of the world, there was more in Harper’s for me to resonate with. By the time I got to graduate school, I felt as if I were in sync with you.

You introduced me to Earl Shorris, who changed my life. When he wrote about poverty and the classics, he interrupted my own narrative of the poor and uneducated. He showed me how his program could change lives, could bring the poor into mainstream culture through the reading of the classics. It was one of the great pleasures of my life that I was able to bring Earl to the university where I teach so that he might talk to a whole new generation of undergraduates about how the classics have so much to teach us as human beings, how that knowledge allows us to function in a world that assaults us with that which distracts and confuses us, and often leads us down the wrong path. I spent the evening after the event drinking wine with Earl and talking late into the night about these things, and his death last year diminished all of us.

Francine Prose’s “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink” has stuck with me through the years, as I have examined the ways in which women’s writing is received in this culture. The brouhaha that arises on a regular basis about the way women’s writing is ghettoized as “chick lit” while male writers are “literary,” was first brought to my attention by Prose, and I still recommend the article to anyone seeking to understand those labels’ perniciousness. It led to my own discovery that when young male writers burst upon the literary scene, they are often called “genius.” The epithet, however, never applies to women, and I can count on one finger the number of times in my life that I have seen a woman referred to as a genius in our culture.

I have had moments of great disagreement with you, as you have several times declared the culture wars over in the past decade. Instead, questions about civil rights, what it means to be a citizen, women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, science versus religion, what books we read — all that — your writers have argued through the years, are over. How surprising you must find it that these issues have grown in importance in our culture, to the point where we are now, where we risk fracturing as a nation over issues you claimed were settled at least a decade ago.

It was telling, I thought, that even in September of 2011, Thomas Frank, who has replaced Lewis Lapham at the front of your book, could write a dismissal of the culture wars when he wrote,

And now let us check in on the culture wars.

Yes, I know: stock markets have been seesawing wildly, U.S. Treasury notes have been downgraded, unemployment is soaring, and the entire government was recently held hostage. But for some people, that particular end-of-times scenario isn’t satisfying enough: for them, the real crisis is still the massacre of the unborn and the horror of stem-cell research, and they regard the economic disasters of recent years as an annoying distraction. You and I may fret over the Dow, but they are out there still, fighting tooth and nail against the “culture of death.”

While the article mocked the right-wing culture warriors, the implication was clear. The “you and I” that he referred to didn’t bother with such things. Our views were far superior, and we knew the real problems were economic. But as part of the “you” who happened to be a woman, I felt excluded. For those of us on the receiving end of the culture wars — namely women, persons of color, the LGBTQ community — those wars are real. But to Frank, as it was with Lapham, the culture wars are merely a distraction. Perhaps, I remembered thinking when reading the article, if it were your body on the line, you might see these issues as more important. Hadn’t there been a woman editor on your staff who might have pointed out to Mr. Frank that he was seeing the world through white, male, heterosexual, middle-class eyes? But I let it go.

I continued to think that it was me — that I must be imagining the disparity between male and female writers in your pages. I accused myself of being an oversensitive feminist; after all, you had so much to offer me, your failure to publish women must be an oversight, a hangover from the old days of Lapham, when your stable of writers was mostly male. Maybe now, I thought, as younger writers were rising in prominence, the new generation of women writers would find a voice in your magazine. That’s not the case. And now I have the proof I need that it’s not me, it’s you. You are doing this; you are silencing women’s voices and I do not know why.