On kindness

A few days ago, the critically and commercially successful young adult author Andrew Smith remarked in an interview with Vice Magazine, in response to a question pointing out the dearth of female characters in his work, that he "absolutely did not know anything about girls at all"; referring to his seventeen-year-old daughter, he added, "When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though."

Like many women, I have heard some variation of this insinuation that I and all other woman-identified and female-bodied people hail, quite literally, from some other planet for most of my life; though it is no longer my habit to respond directly to comments in this vein, even I occasionally get tired. I wrote a series of satirical tweets, forgot the matter, and went to bed.

I was extremely startled to realize the next day that my tweets had gone modestly viral, that a much larger conversation had exploded around the interview, and that Smith's numerous, and passionate, defenders--many of them, like him, well-connected, well-reviewed, and commercially successful white young adult authors--more or less unanimously insisted that his remarks deserved meaningful critical engagement, that the "community" itself had ought to be more "kind", and that "we" had, yet again, "turned on one of our own." (As is so often the case, who was to be included in this “we” was not clearly defined.) While a great many people, most but not all of them women, have used this conversation as a springboard for thoughtful and excellent analysis of power and privilege in the publishing industry, Smith's comments do not seem to me personally to be worthy of any kind of critical engagement whatsoever, or even--as is so often demanded of women, particularly women of color, when their humanity is called into question--the "benefit of the doubt," and I have nothing else to say about them.

What does interest me, however, and has interested me for a long time, is the larger framework within which this particular internet dustup is taking place. The rhetorics of community and of kindness are frequently invoked in these situations: the conversation surrounding Smith's comments to be sure, but also in other flare-ups around privilege, power, gender, and race that occur online with depressingly metronomic regularity and which result in little or no effect in terms of lasting and meaningful change within the publishing industry (or anywhere else, for that matter). These demands--for community, for "kindness"--operate as though that ostensible community is a location whose impermeable boundaries serve to isolate it from the workings of the outside world, as if any human community in history has ever managed to exist outside the hierarchies of the culture that produced it.

"Kindness," likewise, is posited as an easily defined commodity of exchange that somehow circulates independently of power relations within the community wherein it is traded: but whose kindness, exactly, are we talking about here? Who is afforded the benefit of this kindness, and for whom is “kindness” an unattainable luxury? If “we”--in this case, presumably authors, readers, reviewers, laborers within a particular economy--are indeed members of a community, who establishes its unwritten laws? Who is the beneficiary of its largesse, and who are its elite? If “our” young adult community is to be formed around the locus of the publishing industry and literature published and marketed as young adult, what does it say about this community that the publishing industry itself is nearly entirely white, that the texts that are purported to unite us are overwhelmingly written by white authors, that the books which receive significant critical attention are far more likely to be written by men, and that the capital entering the publishing industry circulates primarily among a few (again: largely white) writers? In the best of all possible worlds, the production of art is an act divorced from institutionalized racisms and sexisms; but the best of all possible worlds is not a world we have access to, and so we are obliged to contend with the world in which we actually live. And for those of us who are entreated--both in this particular instance and in others like it--to respond with "kindness" to persons with access to significantly more institutional power than we are allowed, it is difficult not to read these exhortations as a thinly veiled insistence that we defer to, or comply with, structures of institutionalized racisms and sexisms that inherently privilege certain kinds of stories and certain kinds of speech. As Jennifer Pan recently, and aptly, noted, “kindness” and “empathy” do very little to redress actual injustices. It is easy to be generous when your place at the table is already assured, and it is certainly more comfortable to assume that everyone waiting for entrance to the banquet hall is outside for reasons beyond your control.

As we move upward within communities of unspoken privilege, we become ever more complicit with their hierarchies and invested in the benefits they offer to those of us who are able to access them. The “we” I am invoking now is as nebulous as the “we” that purportedly “eats its own”: while the “we” who are offered admittance is nearly always white, able-bodied, heterosexual, and privileged, this is not always the case. But the seeming arbitrariness of this particular “we” should not be read as proof it is a “we” based on merit. And I say "we" here because I mean to fully implicate myself in this possessive investment as well; while at this point in my career it would be something of a stretch to describe my books as commercially successful, they are commercially published. I write books about characters of color in an industry where writers of color are routinely told their own stories are “not marketable” and “not relatable.” It is likely that I will be able to continue writing and publishing books, and while no small amount of my own labor has gone into the position I now occupy, I am not so delusional as to assume the entirety of my success is due to my incandescent talent.

I do not have easy answers, but I categorically refuse any suggestion that my “community” might be better served by my not asking questions. I want the women--of color, queer, trans--whose work I admire to have the same options I do, and I want all of us to have the same options as writers like Smith. I want my own affective community--women whose work challenges, creates beauty, offers windows into other worlds--to be given the critical attention, the economic support, and the cultural prestige it deserves. What I want for this particular “us” is not “kindness,” but equality. I’m not holding my breath.