Notes on a Fuck-Up

If you, like me, have nothing better to do than get angry about gems of authorial nongenius on the Internet, the last few weeks have been a good run. The Internet mind has released its rage about sport/pop culture site Grantland‘s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” and women’s site xoJane‘s “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in my Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.” Both of these articles are mostly notable for the backlash they generated, not for the quality of the writing, so click on them at your own risk. If you want a rundown, Caleb Hannan’s “Dr. V” is about a person who invented a weird looking putter, and made up her professional credentials and was also a transsexual, and Jen Polachek’s “Black People in my Yoga Classes” is about a white woman who had a weird reaction to a black woman. Folks are angry because Hannan should have known not to randomly out his subjects to and possibly contribute to their suicide, and Polachek should have known not to project her musings about her own ass onto a complete stranger of a different race. 

Anyway, crappy possible trollbait is not the reason I’m here. I’m here to dissect the apologies for that crappy possible trollbait. Both articles elicited editorial mea culpas, one from Grantland editor Bill Simmons and one from xoJane managing editor Rebecca Carroll. On the surface, these apologies have similar themes–we fucked up in letting these articles run, the right people weren’t allowed to see them before they ran, we’re super sorry, you guys! However, a closer look at these apologies reveals more than just shame and sadness. The way that the respective editors refer to their erring writers gives you a good idea of the very different roles male and female writers are supposed to play.

What pops out at me about the Grantland apology is that Simmons constantly refers to Hannan in professional terms.

Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” […] For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.

According to Simmons, Bartholemew is a craftsman. He can improve his skills and progress in his career. Maybe one day he’ll be an established journalist and look back on his time working with Simmons as the start of something big. Wouldn’t that be cool? But it may not happen now, because as a fellow professional, Simmons failed Hannan. As his superior, he had a responsibility to him.

It’s our responsibility to motivate our writers, put them in a position to succeed, improve their pieces as much as we possibly can, and most of all protect them from coming off badly. We didn’t do that here.

OK, so what image of a writer do we have here? He should strive to improve. Other people in his professional structure should mentor him and help him refine his talents so in the future, he can write about other people and events in a objectively better way. If he puts in the time, he may be rewarded with further assignments and recognition.

Let’s move on to Carroll’s apology on xoJane‘s behalf. How does Carroll refer to her writer?

I was impressed by her candor in telling me, a black woman she doesn’t even know all that well. I told her to write about the experience. This is the result. I didn’t edit or change much. This is her first person experience, which I think is very likely the experience (admittedly seeped in white privilege) of a lot of folks. For that reason, I felt it was a narrative that should be heard.

(Note: This isn’t from Carroll’s official apology, but rather from a Facebook post that Carroll made as a sort of pre-response.)

Carroll singles out Polachek for her openness in personally revealing what Carroll suspects is a common emotional experience. However, the universal experience doesn’t matter that much—what’s more important is that it’s a first-person experience. xoJane didn’t publish Polachek because of her ability to communicate an experience, she was published because she was willing to communicate her experience. Polachek isn’t impressive because she’s a good writer, per se; she’s impressive because she’s candid.

I SHOULD have asked Jen to do more work and questioning before writing about her experience. Instead, I read it too quickly before running it by only one other editor at xoJane, and published it without giving a thorough enough consideration to the response of the xoJane community, and readers at large.

Unlike Hannan, Polachek isn’t somebody with a possible future in writing for pay or with skills that could be improved with practice. The problem with publishing an author’s work unedited is that it can offend the reader, full stop. That it can blight a writer’s career isn’t even an issue here. Carroll is upset that “Jen” got hurt, but there’s no indication that Jen can be hurt professionally or financially. She exists purely as a creature of emotions. Nobody is ever going to ask Jen Polachek where she got her big break, and it has nothing to do with the not-so-sterling quality of her thoughts about black ass vs. white ass. It’s just assumed that women are there to share, not to get paid and get recognition. Writing is like baking cookies, you’re supposed to do it to make other people smile.

So, to sum up: Caleb Hannan is a reporter of other people’s stories, and if he fucks up the telling then he’s failed at his craft and needs to try harder next time, with maybe some protection in the form of support from his elders and writing lessons. Jen Polachek is a conduit for her own experiences, and if she fucks up the telling then she’s failed as a person and needs to be protected from herself by not writing (because otherwise she’s going to receive death threats). Men work, women feel. Men do, women are.

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