Back in the 1980s, when I was first hired to teach a class in creative writing, I was thrilled. I skimmed through my library of books to find one with useful information and some catchy phrases about the art of writing. I chose a paperback, Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate.*
It’s a series of interviews with a dozen or so of the best-known African-American women writers of the time. (Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker are a few.) I loved that book, and still do. I also reread The Complete Works of W.E.B. Dubois (an African-American who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in the early twentieth century, against the odds) and found it surprisingly undated and inspiring.
Note that I did not go out of my way to find non-fiction by black folk (to use Dubois’ term) or by “marginalized,” “minority,” or “grass-roots” writers so that I could claim to be Politically Correct. (I look white and I sound like an English teacher.) Reading and discussing these books was not like eating spinach for the good of my health. It was more like discovering a perfectly-spiced dish I didn’t know I would love until I tried it.
I brought up these books for a reason. Please bear with me.
Recently, I’ve reread my files of old articles from feminist journals and the mainstream press about some major conflicts of the 1980s, the era of the Feminist Sex Wars. (Several battles could have been called the Feminist Race Wars.) I did this for a reason: the director of the local university press has asked me to write about conflicts over censorship in the 1980s, with a focus on my personal involvement. He wants me to write a book. I’ve written an outline, but it’s too objective. Director wants my personal slant. This is hard to write, partly because I was a witness to several loud, damaging conflicts among people (mostly women) who once claimed to be united against injustice in all forms.
In my experience, it started with opposition to “porn.” When other young women in small feminist groups complained about the way men generally wrote about sex, I agreed with them. I had run across some sex fantasies by male writers who identified themselves as “sex radicals,” who defined “sexual freedom” as the God-given right of all heterosexual men to get laid on their own terms. They were tired of women who said no. They were especially tired of women who tried Lysistrata’s strategy of withholding sex until the men agreed to stop waging war of various kinds. Some “radical” men (such as my boyfriend in high school) used “tits and ass” as a synonym for any female person.
If “porn” was the expression of sexualized woman-hatred (as writer Andrea Dworkin and lawyer Catherine McKinnon proclaimed), then surely it was as harmful as any addictive substance. Since much dope was illegal because of its harmfulness, porn should be illegal for the same reason. This was the argument, and it seemed logical right up to the point at which model anti-porn ordinances were passed in the cities of Minneapolis and Indianapolis. The ordinances were eventually found to be unconstitutional and hard (or impossible) to enforce. What, exactly, is “porn,” and how can the harm it supposedly causes be measured? Where are the addicts who have overdosed on “porn?”
Eventually, I found a strict anti-porn position to be impossible to maintain on a personal level. I sometimes felt horny, and even attracted to particular men. Apparently there was no healthy way for a woman to express authentic lust, because lust was related to “porn,” which was bad. Even lesbian lust was untrustworthy because it involved “objectifying” women as sex objects.
I came to realize that the anti-porn, pro-censorship position was a strictly negative reaction to material that supported what is now called “rape culture.” Being anti-porn, like being celibate, was a negative state. Neither of these conditions, in itself, led to joy or to enlightenment. Being anti-porn wouldn’t resolve anything, and if all the sexual imagery in the world suddenly disappeared, its absence wouldn’t make the world a better place.
Then there was the bitter conflict over “appropriation of culture,” or as some phrased it, “appropriation of voice.” When this issue was first identified within the Women’s Press collective in Toronto, it referred to the practice of white women writers writing first-person fiction from the viewpoint of “people of colour.” As the accusations increased in scope and volume, “appropriation” came to mean any white woman writing about anyone or anything outside her own ethnicity (e.g. references to pizza or spaghetti might be considered insensitive if the author did not have at least one Italian grandmother). Of course, a white woman writer who never mentioned any “people of colour” could be accused of killing off whole communities in her imagination by leaving them out of her fictional universe.
White women righteously confronted other white women. A few “women of colour” publicly demanded that white women writers “move over” to give them space. It was never clear to me what this actually meant. Women writers had gained an amazing amount of “space” (published books) since 1970 by launching their own small presses and publishing books by women. As far as I could see, male writers and publishers had never “moved over” for women. When the men who ran traditional presses noticed that books by women were actually selling, they made a business decision to publish more of them. Women’s bookstores sprang up to sell women’s books, and a few gay/lesbian bookstores sprang up to sell books and other merchandise to an emerging gay/lesbian community. No one silenced themselves to enable this to happen.
I knew about some very impressive writing by “people of colour” (mostly written in standard English, or clearly enough that I, who had never lived in “the ghetto,” could understand it) which sometimes went out of print. If racial discrimination in literature or in the book biz was really the issue, why not start publishing good work by writers “of colour” which had been rejected by the publishing mainstream on grounds that no one wanted to read it? A few small “women of colour” presses seemed like a step in the right direction, but they didn’t seem to be the focus of flaming arguments about how best to be “anti-racist.”
In 1988, the Women’s Press issued extensive guidelines on how white women writers were supposed to write about “people of colour” – and how they should search their souls before doing any such thing. As far as I know, these guidelines didn’t increase the number of books that featured “people of colour” as central characters, and they certainly didn’t make life easier for women “of colour” who would have liked to earn a living as writers, editors, publishers, journalists, or academics.
Telling white women to shut up or face consequences (mostly from other white women) was a non-solution for a real problem. As far as I could see, this tactic produced nothing but hostility. Thus was wasted a golden (or rainbow-hued) opportunity to increase the visibility of many under-exposed writers in a time before the invention of ebooks.
A few weeks ago, I ran across an on-line article by feminist educator Melissa A. Fabello. In “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement,” she makes the sensible point that on-line acronyms and shortened words (such as “thru” and “LOL”) are not a big problem in emails, as long as the message is clear. She then makes the big leap to a claim that “grammar snobbery” (an insistence on grammatical “correctness”) is a sign of patriarchal white privilege. She points out that every language is evolving, and this is why most English-speaking people no longer understand Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon, spoken before about 1100 AD). Therefore, presumably, there is no such thing as “correct” grammar.
I’ve often heard variations of this argument, usually from concerned bystanders who don’t think I have the right to fail any student, or pan any book, for any reason, even though evaluating other people’s writing is part of my job as a teacher and a reviewer. My usual response is that if I need to stop being a “grammar snob,” I need a new set of criteria by which to evaluate what I read. If “working-class English” is perfectly valid, how can it be identified, and who wrote the handbook for it? If everyone can easily understand what everyone else has to say in English, why haven’t we already achieved world peace?
Self-proclaimed peasant warriors against “grammar snobbery” are clear about what they oppose. They’re not clear about what they want to install in its place. Of course, the rules of grammar (like most laws) were established by educated white men in a time when they were almost exclusively in charge of everything. This doesn’t necessarily mean that men invented language by themselves. If there were a women’s dialect in English (as there is in some other languages), I wouldn’t blame women for using it. If “people of colour” always wrote in their own dialects of English (as distinct from other languages, as many do), I would probably want to find some useful vocabulary lists, or dictionaries. (I don’t think using the occasional word in another language turns English speech into a “dialect” per se. Nu?)
Actually, when W.E.B. Dubois was earning his Ph.D., “Negro dialect poetry,” mostly written by white writers such as Joel Chandler Harris (author of the “Uncle Remus” stories, set in the time of slavery) was fashionable in the U.S. Reading this stuff and then reading Dubois is startling. The “dialect” preserved in the “poetry” probably isn’t spoken at all any more (remember Abello’s argument about changing language?), but Dubois’ version of standard English has stood the test of time.
Today someone posted this joke on Facebook:
“I take for granite people’s poor grammar. More pacifically, how there always thinking ‘for all intensive purposes’ is supposedly correct.”
This example of grammatical incorrectness illustrates why I am not willing to stop being a “grammar snob” – to become what? To bring this rant full-circle to the issue of sex-writing, I think it’s especially important to describe desire, attraction, and sexual activity as accurately as possible with the words available to us. Hot, creative descriptions of sex between or among complex human beings did more than anything else to convince me that trying to ban “porn” was a bad strategy. I’m no longer willing to jump on an “anti” bandwagon unless I can see a better alternative.