Punching What?

Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.
—Claire Vaye Watkins

As one of the major theses of Claire Vaye Watkins’s celebrated manifesto, “On Pandering,” is that the subject-position I represent should not be acknowledged as a legitimate authority on the essay’s quality or cogency, I will not address myself to its argument.

I would, however, like to enter into evidence the gendered aspect of my own experience in the literary world, supported by numbers, even at the risk of alienating my so-far rather small audience or even future publishers or employers. Many other critics have criticized Watkins’s exclusions, but I have not seen anyone observe the material reality of literary publishing and literary education, which is to say the exact constitution of the “motherfucking system” Watkins claims to want to “burn…to the ground.” Some realities of the literary field that go unacknowledged in “On Pandering,” then, both anecdote and data:

Data-wise, consider that 73% of Ph.D.s in English literature are awarded to women, women outstrip men by large majorities at every stage of creative writing study in academia*, and somewhere around 70% of English majors are women. Consider, too, that publishing is overwhelmingly, and ever-increasingly, staffed by women and that women appear to account for 80% of the entire fiction market in the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Watkins calls for her readers, or those of her readers who are not male, to “punch up.” It is hard to say what that could mean, considering these numbers.

In almost a decade of teaching English classes at a large research university, I can tell you that there is usually something like gender parity in introductory courses, but by the time one reaches higher-level courses intended for majors, the ratio is 3:1 or 4:1 female. Have you ever tried to get a literary agent? They are mostly—I would guess, based on my experience, 3/4 or more—women, and this is truer when you account for age  (i.e., male agents, when they retire, are replaced by female agents).

I spend almost the entirety of my literary life as both teacher and writer—not “pandering to,” a phrase that would demean both parties—but addressing women. Middle-class or upper-middle-class white women, to be more precise. Maybe that is a problem and maybe it isn’t; maybe it is even a long-overdue redress of injustice. But it is reality: the numbers don’t lie.

A question, in conclusion: Watkins’s manifesto, delivered as a speech, received enthusiastic applause; published online, it received breathless plaudits, even in spite of its rather cavalier use of a violent rhetoric that would get some people reported to the police. It has crowned her literary success; it has burnished her fame. Yet I have been staring at the draft version of this post, which contains little but facts and certainly no call to action, for hours, worrying about what might befall me professionally if I hit “publish.” What could this mean about the respective directions in which Watkins and I are punching?

*This article only takes poetry into account. I was not able to find numbers for fiction programs, but I imagine the results would not differ by much or would be even more tilted toward women, given women’s traditional prevalence in fiction-writing.