Feminism / Lit / Staff Picks

Why We Have To Be Our Own VIDA

Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other–outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit. – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the HarderNeko Case


(DISCLAIMER: I swore I would never write an open letter, but this is an open letter to female independent writers, poets, editors, publishers and their allies. In fact, it’s a rallying cry. I hope it’s heard. And Garrett Strickland, Jimmy Chen, Blake Butler, HTMLGIANT and others responsible for this dehumanizing bullshit: the only way off this shit list is by way of a sincere apology. NOT an apology with buts. Not a mansplainapology. Also, required is a pledge to if not keep your bastions of free speech free of hate speech, that you pledge to at least speak to it when you see it there. I am not holding my breath, of course, but there you have it.)

December 14, 2013

Dear female independent writers, poets, editors, publishers and their allies,

We need to be our own VIDA.

On December 13, 2013 did the corner of the Internet belonging to independent literature explode over the misogyny inherent to one of its leading structures, and it’s about time.

Poet and novelist Leigh Stein published an open letter to HTMLGIANT, on HTMLGIANT. It was titled “An Open Letter to HTMLGIANT: the Sexism Stops Here.” You can read it here. It is to that website’s credit that it published the criticism to begin with, but credit to the website as a whole ends there. I hope Stein’s  letter turns this influential publication, which serves as something of a clearing center for independent literature, on its ass and makes it into a place where blatant isms are not sent forth in suits of patriarchal armor and 4Chan style comment orgies. There are some horribly abusive comments tolerated there, despite a stated policy that serial abusive commenters will be banned. I hate to see the kind of shit the banned have spewed, because much of what remains is beyond the pale by civilized standards. It is, of course, of note that Stein’s letter was met with a 4Chan style comment orgy. A few regular HTMLGIANT contributors including Mark Cugini and Christopher Higgs, spoke up to the issue at hand, and signed in solidarity with Stein’s letter. Not enough did. It’s of note that the last time I checked the editor himself, Blake Butler, had not. He should. This is ultimately his problem.

Not everything at HTMLGIANT is horrifying in terms of misogynistic content, but so much is that I am shocked it’s taken this long for solid waste to hit the rotary blades. I’m ashamed at myself for not throwing it back before, and when my book was deemed worthy to have a review published there, I was also surprised. It is a positive review and I was grateful for it, but I am no longer a regular reader. The prevailing misogynist boy’s club overtones of HTMLGIANT  chased me away from being a regular reader. It’s not worth looking for Melissa Broder’s funny posts anymore. Roxane Gay seems to have moved on, and Alissa Nutting hasn’t posted there since 2012 as far as I know, and frankly, the majority of the remaining posters seem to be primarily made by men writing about other men who write at HTMLGIANT. Most of them are white.

They are welcome to it, I suppose, but it’s not for me. In a world of institutionalized race and gender literary disparity, I don’t need to regularly dial up an institution of literary disparity on any regular basis in order to get my fill.

(DISCLAIMER: Here’s the obligatory I love men but statement: I love men. I love white men. Not all white men are assholes. This isn’t about you. I love you. Are you okay? I love you. What I don’t love is the fact that so many publications feature just about no one but. It’s just boring. It’s like a box of broken crayons where nearly every crayon is the same color, each being used to draw a picture of a box of broken crayons in all the same color. Sometimes, even worse, they are used to scribble out hate speech and personal attacks. I don’t love that. My “but” ends there.)

In fairness, HTMLGIANT is not alone in perpetuating the male dominant paradigm. It’s pretty common in literature, at independent and more established venues alike. Enter the existence of VIDA, but I will get to that later.

From time to time  do I visit the HTMLGIANT, when I see tweets and Facebook links to articles attempting to include women in the conversation, such as many of the posts Roxane Gay used to make, and this post by Mike Megennis about the David Gilmour issue. However, the comments drive me back away. Witness, in the Gilmour post’s instance, Jimmy Chen’s junior high humor, in which he makes a weak joke about Pink Floyd and menstruation. Once can assume he made this joke because he thought it funny and somehow relevant, and not to detract from an important discussion. On secondhand , one should probably actually assume the opposite. He is the man who condescendingly called Zelda Fitzgerald’s back fat cute in a now deleted post at HTMLGIANT, also brought forth as an issue in Stein’s letter. I like period jokes as much as the next woman, but only funny ones that have anything to do with the conversation at hand. And no. I am not having mine, nor about to have mine, but thanks in advance for the concern.

Stein’s open letter, while a  reaction to an overall culture of bad period jokes and boy’s club bullshit, was written most noticeably to a horrifyingly hateful and violent recent post by Garett Strickland about writer Kate Zambreno. Stein’s letter was bold and to the point: the HTMLGIANTs of the world are on watch.

Naturally, talk has started. HTMLGIANT did this as a publicity stunt, and discussing it is playing into the hands of the publisher, some have said. I’ve heard that Strickland clearly wants attention, and like a bad toddler, giving him such will only reinforce his behaviors. To that I say, I don’t care why HTMLGIANT posted it, and I am not Strickland’s preschool teacher and I am not his editor. It is not my job to ensure he receives a positive reinforcement behavior plan. I don’t care about literary conspiracy theories. I care about Leigh Stein and Kate Zambreno and the issue so rampant as to call for the letter itself.

The facts that led up to Stein’s letter,  if what amounts to an attack on a woman stemming from hurt feelings can be boiled down to facts, are as follows: Strickland took a  personal Facebook-based incident and used incomplete sentences, a lot of question marks, pseudo-intellectual language and poorly mixed metaphor to publicize Zambreno’s rejection of his online friendship in a post at HTMLGiant.  He called it the Zambreno Doll. I saw it and immediately began conjuring a response, but decided shortly thereafter it was not worth drawing attention to. I was wrong. Speaking up is always worth it. Leigh Stein did the right thing.

I  have not been so disenchanted by the words of a male writer since I read of Franzen tossing coins at old German women to punish them because he didn’t get laid. And this! This got to me. Gossip. Strickland was gossiping, probably assuring himself as he did that great literary cultures develop in part due to members of those cultures discussing private correspondence  publicly.

Yawn. What a load of horseshit. To be honest, I have never read a word of Strickland’s except for what’s on HTMLGIANT. He has failed to lure me in. I’ve heard he lives in Portland. I live near to Portland and am an active member of its independent literary community. Still, despite my involvement in my community, I have no recollection of meeting Strickland. I’d heard his name before but until today I did not put two and two together and realize the Portland Strickland and the HTMLGIANT Strickland were the same. Further, I don’t know Stein and I don’t know Zambreno. This is not remotely a personal issue. It’s an issue of anger over the negative treatment of women by him and men like him. 

In honor of Zambreno, a writer whose work I admire, and who has been quoted as saying that leaving the self out of an essay is a form of repression, I insert myself here. I’m pissed. My heart is racing over this issue. I’m furious. My body is here. It has shaking hands. It has a headache. It is mad at me for thinking about this all day long. It wants some champagne and to listen to Beyonce. It wishes I had taken it out tonight. It is over it. It is telling me to go watch Netflix instead of going out on a limb on Luna Luna Magazine. I’m ignoring it right now.

I’m thinking of Stein’s open letter again.

The worst part is that Strickland’s hate speech was based, rather predictably, on perceived rejection and an assumption as to why he was unfriended. It’s gossip, plain and simple. It’s akin to the Salem witch trials: public speculation based almost entirely on being butt hurt. This is a behavior your typical misogynist claims to be something women are prone to do, but I call shenanigans right here and now. I find people who publicize private communication, perceived rejection and personal information  in attempt to be noticed to be desperate and boring as all hell. “Go watch TMZ and get the hell out of my hair,” is my normal reaction to gossipy internet posts and shit talk in general. I’m more interested in what people do than in what people know.

There is always an exception to a rule, though and even personal rules are made to be broken, so I am getting out my tiny little hammer to drive a point home. Thank Goddess for the Internet, which makes itself into a large plank perfect for driving nails. The last time I did this was over the Marie Calloway/Adrien Brody scandal. However, I spoke out against what I viewed as a cascade of slut shaming in response to her rise to fame for naming names, and only in comment fields.

This is different. No one is slut-shaming Strickland. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. He and the website where he published his sexist diatribe are being called out, because sadly, it’s nothing new. Go read the site yourself. For example, what is this? I don’t know. Is it satire? I don’t get it. I found it by googling VIDA and HTMLGIANT together. It strikes me as infantilization of women, and I am not sure, but is re re short for retard? That’s what Urban Dictionary says. If so, how… elegant. I guess one way to showcase your superior intellect is to engage in hateful language. I’m all for free speech, of course, but hate speech is pathetic, and juvenile hate speech is worse. Further, I am fairly sure that Miley Ray Cyrus is not intellectually disabled.

In his post, Strickland took a personal issue and publicly turned a woman (Zambreno) into an object, comparing her to a doll. He pulls the string on her back. He notes that she bears a stamp: MADE BY MEN. He notes that this isn’t his fault, because women “make” men. How Freudian. He took her refusal to include him in a private conversation or respond to his mansplanations about an issue regarding James Franco and Kathy Acker and turned it into a violation of his own human rights to engage in dialogue. In his comments to the post, he made himself into a victim of women. (Note to Strickland: Zambreno’s Facebook page is not a democracy, and you don’t get a vote. This does not make you a victim. It makes you one of the masses.Welcome to the club and privacy settings.) He claims in his post that admiration for Zambreno as a writer is akin to fetishism and idolatry, essentially taking one of the more influential writers of our day and dismissing her readers along with any respect she has gained though her work.  Finally, he intimated that Zambreno needs to get fucked by a real misogynist, to quote the Strickland Dildo, another critical and more satirical response HTMLGIANT posted, again to its credit.

All this because Zambreno allegedly deleted Strickland from her friends list on Facebook and ignored his mansplanation of a response to that fact. She, you know, emasculated him. I guess.

Is that all it takes?

* * *

This is the part where I stop talking about Garrett Strickland and Jimmy Chen and their ilk, and probably the part where, if they are reading this at all, they will stop reading. I doubt these men, so coddled by their followers and their positions as people with posting privileges at a tastemaker like HTMLGIANT, will give a shit about what I think we should do to fix the indie lit (alt lit? Whatever you want to call the literature and the literary discussion that occurs outside the mainstream and will probably never be made into a movie or awarded a major prize or sold at Target) problem of misogyny and sexism.

(DISCLAIMER:  I do realize there are some female contributors at HTMLGIANT and mean no disrespect to them. In fact, I commend them for working in that kind of environment. I think you all need to post there a lot more, to be honest. I imagine writing for HTMLGIANT must be like the indie lit version of Sterling Cooper. You know, women there, working and even being promoted, but no one really speaking up to misogyny. If we refused to work in discriminatory environments as writers, most of us would be silent. I myself  have worked with sexist publishers and editors. Like Stein, I have been told people only read my poetry because I am “cute.” That bullshit will NOT stop me from being heard. Sometimes you have to fight from the inside out. Please note, I realize I also do not speak for all women. There are as many opinions as there are people, and this is mine. I own it. No one else does. I realize that.)

Back to business now. Let’s talk about VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, an organization working in large part to bring to light the vivid gender bias present in literary publishing. Very few established venues fare well when VIDA takes its counts. Only TIN HOUSE and  POETRY really stand among the leading established literary publications as  a good example of fair representation of gender. POETRY is 45% female. As VIDA says, “Look to the poets.” VIDA-logo

Responses to VIDA have varied. Some places it’s called out seem to ignore its existence. Some editors and publishers mansplain to VIDA. Some attempt to fix the gap by publishing all-women issues, which is in itself a special form of segregation not a valid long-term solution. Some seem interested in fixing the gap by publishing more work by women and more reviews of books written by women, and VIDA names those names in its count report. Some even seem interested in the concept of having more women write reviews and commentary. That’s encouraging.

However, VIDA can only do so much. It’s already doing a lot, and the women in VIDA are very busy counting. Have you ever taken a look at the VIDA count? If you are doubting me that there is evidence of gender bias in publishing, please look HERE. I don’t expect it to make you care, but you can’t deny it, and you cannot make it about you or mansplain it away.

One thing it can’t do as of yet is monitor the numerous less established literary publications, including websites like HTMLGIANT. It’s a small volunteer organization, not the United Nations of Misogynist Oversight. At first, VIDA’s eye, trained as it is on the elite and the top rung, bothered me. I felt left out somehow. Don’t they know what it’s like in the trenches? After a fashion, I got over my ego and my sense of entitlement.

Of course they know. VIDA is composed of women, and is currently focused on the top of the heap, and on publishing leaders, because those attitudes  clearly trickle on down and right back up. Resources are limited. People have to start somewhere. Vida starts somewhere.

WE START HERE. We must be our own Vida.

And this is where I suggest we start: at independent publications. Who runs them? Who is published in them? Is it primarily men, or are there female and trans writers too? Are all genders equally represented? What about race? What about sexual orientation? What is their content? Is there nonfiction geared at degrading women? Real women? Women we know? Is there hate speech? If so, we must speak up: on our blogs, on our websites, in our zines and further, spread the word. If we don’t, tell me, who will? Leigh Stein can’t do it all the time. VIDA can’t be everywhere. It’s up to us. OVARIES OUT, AND FORWARD, OBJECTIVELY.

Yesterday on Facebook, in a post about LEIGH STEIN vs HTMLGIANT, Mark Cugini, writer, editor and publisher at Big Lucks, and sometime contributor to HTMLGIANT, expressed to me his desire to start a VIDA type count at independent literary magazines. He expressed solidarity with women on this issue.

I suggest you, reader, volunteer to help him make that count happen. If you are interested and don’t know Mark, I am happy to make an introduction. Let me know in the comments. We can be our own VIDA. We can let our allies help us. We can speak out to indie lit, alt lit, sci-fi, romance, children’s publishing and any other genre we want. We can speak out online, in print, at the microphone and elsewhere. We can get soap boxes.

We do not need to wait for it to be done for us. VIDA didn’t. WE HAVE TO BE OUR OWN VIDA.

We have to be. The water cooler where your moms and grandmas got their asses patted at work in the 1960s is still in the hallway of the office. The men who did the ass-petting have sons and grandsons who missed the memo that sexism is over. I don’t know how this happened. Maybe the men threw it away. Maybe a woman did. I have no idea what happened to the memo. Maybe it got tossed out with the Equal Rights Amendment. I guess we need to send out another. And another. And another. And misogynists need to know the memo is not about them.

It’s about us.

We are their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, friends, cousins, aunts and daughters. We, as women who fail to support other women, might be them. We are their employees and their bosses. We are quite possibly one half of their readership. We might not yet have equal rights, but we have voices and are poised to use them.  We are emboldened. We might even humor, allow, ignore or otherwise engage in misogynistic practices ourselves from time to time, but it’s high time we become sick of the bullshit.  It’s high time we cut the crap. It’s of no real benefit to anyone in the long run. We do not need to be afraid.

Who am I to talk? I’m nobody. This is a world of nobodies, really, and it is time we use our nobody not-special-snowflake voices to bring on a blizzard and say enough is enough. We are a whole bunch of nobodies who might entirely stop reading your publications unless changes are made. That’s up to you. I’m not attempting to censor, but I am stating a fact. The fact is this: you are officially on watch. Three cheers to Leigh Stein for going first. I suggest we show her she is not alone. Start counting. Start speaking up. If you are an ally, or a female positive female, show your hand right now.

Enough of this. I’ve had enough. I’m going to drink some cheap champagne and revel in the new Beyonce. Pretty Hurts is a damn good song, isn’t it? MISS THIRD WARD. I might also indulge in my new obsession, Mad Men. It’s Saturday night. I missed a literary event, Bad Blood, curated by men and featuring several female writers, to write this. I’m done, but I am watching, and I hope you are too. Thank you Leigh Stein, and thank you VIDA, and thank you all who have done and are doing the right thing.

If you are interested in being your own VIDA and in doing the right thing, please consider signing your name in the comment field in a show of solidarity. Let’s identify each other and get busy. We have some serious work to do. It’s obvious at this point that no one can do it for us, isn’t it? Or do you need more evidence?

Ovaries out, and yours in the interest of equality, a benefit to us all,

Dena Rash Guzman
Oregon, USA

41 thoughts on “Why We Have To Be Our Own VIDA

  1. Pingback: [LIT] In Conversation With Writer Sarah Gerard |

  2. Versal’s kept tabs on its count since the first issue in 2003. We’re happy to post these on our new site (due in January). Would VIDA be up for supplying template formulas/graphs to editors interested? That would make eventual collection of everything easier I think?

    • I am going to hit this head first after the new year. I will absolutely need your help and I love the idea of asking VIDA for insight. Thank you so much, everyone who has replied. I will be in touch.

  3. Pingback: Resignation | HTMLGIANT

  4. Respect, Dena. This and the posts you link to make me think about times in my own writing where I’ve semiconsciously tried to sound “less female” so readers would take it more seriously. Gross.

  5. Pingback: Free Speech or ? | About that Writing thing.

  6. This – all of you. Thank you for reading and agreeing. I will come back and find a way to contact you all individually when I have more information to share about doing a count. I will write about it. I think we need to give it through the holidays and begin the new year in some kind of official unity. However, if anyone has any ideas as to how to start now (it seems like some of you do) please fine me on Facebook or Twitter and give me your email. Though the response to this has been almost entirely constructive, I am afraid to post my email address here. Please find a way to get in touch with me, or if you are not afraid, leave yours here and I will write to you.

    Tomorrow after work I will go dive into the comments about this post at HTMLGIANT. I hope they are following Blake’s instructions to behave like people.



  7. As a poet, founder of the grassroots writers collective Submission Bombers, and founding editor of an indie lit mag, I fully support a VIDA-like count of indie lit publications. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the past few years. Please let me know how I can get involved.

  8. We were talking about doing something similar earlier this summer at Revolution House, the magazine where I work as Managing Editor for Poetry. I think this is a wonderful idea and one I’d like to be involved in. – Staci R. Schoenfeld, poet and editor

  9. We were talking about doing something similar earlier this summer at Revolution House, the magazine where I work as Managing Editor for Poetry. I think this is a wonderful idea and one I’d like to be involved in. – Staci R. Schoenfeld, poet and editor

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  11. Thank you all for your support of Leigh, Kate and this issue. It’s about people, and those people are women and as a person & woman I appreciate your solidarity here. Thank you so much.

  12. Dena,

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece. And thank you for recognizing that Mark and I spoke out in solidarity with Leigh’s post. I know other male HTMLGIANT contributors who are also (if quietly) in solidarity with the cause of ending sexism on the site.

    It would be great if we could change giant’s atmosphere by foregrounding women writers and issues in a positive light. To that end, I would be interested in hosting a series of posts at giant which confront these issues. I’m only now formulating what such a series might look like, but I’d like to invite writers who might be interested in participating in such a discussion to contact me (higgs.chris at gmail). There is no need to allow such a pivotal spot as HTMLGIANT to succumb to sexism. We can change it. I’d like to be a part of that.


    PS – It’s a little thing, but my last name is Higgs not Higgins. You’ve confused me with the great contemporary poet Eric Higgins, which is an honor nonetheless.

  13. just to clarify: htmlgiant did not publish garett’s post, garett did; htmlgiant did not publish leigh’s letter, i did; garett and i are both contributors to htmlgiant; and we strongly disagree on this issue, as i feel i’ve made clear in my own comments; i can’t speak to blake’s editorial policy – you’d have to ask him about that – but i want you to know this wasn’t done as a ‘publicity stunt’ by htmlgiant, although garett might have meant it to be exactly that

    for the record, i consider myself an anti-racist feminist and i published the letter because i care

    • Reynard, thank you for posting her letter & caring. Technically, the publisher IS htmlgiant, and that is why I directed my post to it. Blake Butler left me a very expansive message on Facebook. I will write more to that later, after I have had the chance to email him.

    • From my understanding, the regular posters there are chosen by Blake and the other leaders of the blog, so HTMLGIANT is ultimately responsible for supporting and publishing this guy’s stuff. They seem to realize that and I’m pleased that someone finally did the right thing and blocked him from the site. Shame on everyone who supports this Garret fool.

      As an aside, everyone should buy Kate Zambreno and Leigh Stein’s books in solidarity, and also because they are just amazing and important books. Likewise we should absolutely ignore this Garret fool and all other writers who have ever been misogynist and hateful on that website. It’s not censorship– it’s just people responding to misogynists’ free speech with our own free speech– our own right to respond and boycott. Amazing to me that people feel they are entitled to their own free speech while also being entitled to not having anyone respond with our own free speech.

      Thank you Leigh and others who have spoken up. It is my hope those men who already haven’t will prove themselves and step up and stand in solidarity with those they consider their female writer friends.

  14. just to clarify: htmlgiant did not publish garett’s post, garett did; htmlgiant did not publish leigh’s letter, i did; garett and i are both contributors to htmlgiant; and we strongly disagree on this issue, as i feel i’ve made clear in my own comments; i can’t speak to blake’s editorial policy – you’d have to ask him about that – but i want you to know this wasn’t done as a ‘publicity stunt’ by htmlgiant, although garett might have meant it to be exactly that

    for the record, i consider myself an anti-racist feminist and i published the letter because i care

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