Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” Describes a Specific Experience of Writing and Gender, But Has the Power to Start a Broader Conversation

If you follow more than a handful of professional wordsmiths — writers, editors, poets, novelists, journalists — on the Internet, especially female ones, you’ve probably seen some discussion of Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering.”

Watkins, a fiction writer, originally delivered “On Pandering” as a speech to the summer 2015 session of the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. (The introduction to the version on Tin House‘s blog notes that it was “met with enthusiastic applause.”) She then adapted the address for the literary magazine’s Winter 2015 issue; Tin House posted the full text online yesterday morning. To say that it’s gotten an enthusiastic response from the literary community, which is to say its small but vocal target audience, would be an understatement.

The piece touches on several topics that have received plenty of attention, yet could always use more: the bad behavior of male writers; the orientation of literary culture, being a subsection of just plain culture, toward a white and male perspective; the difficulty of navigating said culture as a female writer (in Watkins’ case, a white one). Where Watkins’ piece distinguishes itself is on that last point, which she approaches both externally — recounting her dismissal, and even gaslighting, by male readers and peers — and internally.

It’s Watkins’ introspection that gives the essay its title, leading her to realize she’s been “pandering” to an imagined audience of white men throughout her career. Not only is the abstracted “literary world” oriented towards the male perspective — as a part of it, Watkins is, too:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff…

I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.

Specifically, she tracks the thought process behind her well-received short story collection Battleborn, published in 2013 (Watkins also wrote Gold Fame Citrusa novel released earlier this year):

I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

The essay concludes with a call to action — “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better” — that doubles as an eminently tweet-able thesis statement. From there, of course, the discussion migrated to social media.

Given that, like so much else this year, Watkins’ speech-turned-essay was fundamentally about identity, it’s not surprising that much of the reaction centered on identities that weren’t necessarily addressed by or reflected in Watkins’ essay. “On Pandering” grapples with its author’s whiteness in a section called “On Invisibility” (“I want to unsee [my whitness], make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege. Others don’t”), though writer Durga Chew-Bose found it “unconvincing… and maybe even nearing tone-deafness.”

Many responses, however, didn’t so much take issue with Watkins herself as note that white female writers like her are often the objects of pandering themselves:

Others pointed out that pandering often takes a different form for writers of color:

And some noted how other identities affect the dynamics of “pandering” — between a writer and her perceived influences, or between a writer and her imagined audience:

There’s a great deal more responding and processing to be done, of course; Watkins’ piece is considered and complex enough to provoke an extended conversation, and more immediate responses have already given rise to longer ones. “On Pandering” itself is, after all, part of a much longer debate about expression in an unequal world and the terms on which one does it,  a debate that’ll keep going as long as inequality does — which is to say, forever.

“On Pandering” faces the paradox of all personal writing: It’s inherently limited to Watkins’ experiences, even as it has the potential to describe others’. So it’s little surprise that Watkins was unable to represent the experiences of all writers working in the margins, nor was she attempting to — and neither were those critically considering the concept of “pandering” expecting her to.

What Watkins has done, however, is introduced a new vocabulary for something that previously went unnamed, and consequently unrecognized even by those it affects most. And as writers know, vocabulary is a starting point, one to be expanded and applied in new contexts. It’s true that queer women and women of color experience pandering differently; even those who share Watkins’ identity, like Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, may not relate to the complex she describes.

Instead, “On Pandering” is the hopeful starting point of a conversation that will expand outward from Watkins. It’s neither her job nor her probable desire to speak for all writers outside the establishment. But by striking a nerve, she’s accomplished something remarkable.