Bully for You

Women with power have the capacity to silence women with less — and they wield it. Why can’t they see that?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  14 minutes (3,476 words)

A few years ago I wrote an essay about my best friend having a baby and my inability to handle it. I wrote about the almost familial closeness of our friendship, about my difficulty parsing what we actually were (friends? more than friends?), and ultimately about the impossibility of accepting someone else getting in the way. I’m not going to relitigate the piece, that’s not what this is about, but I continue to stand by any writer who is sorting themself out in their work and who is self-aware enough to acknowledge their part in their mess. No one else did; I got about 600 comments, pretty much all of them negative: “Want to feel creeped out? Read this. So many issues in one person.” What I remember most, though, were the writers, more famous than me — one of them very famous — dismissing me — not my work, me. What the fuck was I even talking about? Who does that? Fuck no, they don’t want to read that. (Like I was some ancient untouchable, like I was contagious.) Almost all of them were women; all of them known for writing, among other things, about the intricacies of their lives; all of them claiming to make daily work out of forging a space for marginalized voices. But this, a woman wrestling with her feelings about another woman, seemed to be where they drew the line. I wasn’t a murderer, I wasn’t a psychopath, I wasn’t a white nationalist, I wasn’t a criminal, I wasn’t even a cheater, for God’s sake, and yet one of them was offended enough to actually block me on Twitter: “Wow, this is such selfish bullshit.”

Women may be encouraged to bleed out onto the page — there’s a reason the personal essay boom was predominantly populated by them — but it also opens them up to deeper cuts. Not only are they dissected in a way men are not, but the response to this writing, by people of all genders, skews more emotional as well. The motif is so well established by now that it’s almost a rule; at the very least it should be anticipated. And yet, the recent unprecedented pile-on of women writers hectoring a former university student who dared to critique a popular young adult novelist had one of these women telling me, “It never crossed my mind that people would look her up or harass her. That is … bizarre and wildly inappropriate.” 

In 2015, I didn’t expect most people to engage with the mechanics and anatomy of my writing, but I did expect the writers to. I was surprised when they didn’t. I was surprised that it all came down to a headline: This woman abandoned another woman. That I had spent months dissecting 14 years of emotions — that I had distilled them into 2,323 words — was beside the point. The point was that those writers were Good People, and Good People don’t abandon friends, much less friends who are mothers. I was not a Good Person, so there was nothing to consider beyond that. This is where being a writer, any artist really, can be at odds with being a human. Ideally, you meet the artist, the work, the ideas with no judgment. In reality, you meet them with yourself and all the limits of you. In this instance, that also entailed the particulars of being a female writer, which are very different from those of a male writer. Women not only have to withstand all the obstacles faced by every artist in a world that does not value art, but, within that, in a world that also devalues them as women, and therefore their — our — stories. They can’t just write, they have to fight to do it. And as subjugated populations have throughout history, they group together for strength, in order not only to defend themselves, but also other women who can’t — other women they choose, with whom they have a moral affinity, who are deemed worthy of representing their gender. 

This is the powerful woman’s fundamental hypocrisy. Not every powerful woman, but a healthy number. As aggressively as she clears a space for women she approves of is as aggressively as she rejects women she doesn’t. This isn’t so much about who she dislikes, though there’s that. It’s more about women she believes are espousing views that conflict with The Cause of Women™, which is what she and her circle are determined to protect. It’s understandable, yes, but it’s not excusable. A slew of apologies followed the YA mess, with all of the writers making the right sounds, but that was unsurprising. They think, they analyze, they write a good game, the best game, but their actions don’t track with their words. They say they are defending young women’s interests as they attack a young woman. They say they want women to be unlikable, but spurn them for that very same thing. “I am not a politician or a priest or a rabbi,” Roxane Gay, one of the YA supporters, wrote to me. “I’m allowed to make mistakes.” Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but who gets punished?

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I imagine Brooke Nelson felt fairly comfortable this month talking to a local South Dakota newspaper covering the 10th anniversary of her former university’s Common Read, a program in which a committee chooses one book each year for the entire campus to read. Northern State University picks have ranged from historical nonfiction to sci-fi, but all of them have wider sociocultural implications, like the young adult novels Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, which weaves a fictional narrative around a real World War II ship sinking, and The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, about a black girl who watches a cop kill her best friend. As an NSU junior, Nelson joined the committee after having campaigned not to read Sarah Dessen, a popular YA novelist who has written dozens of intimate stories about adolescent relationships, whose most recent book was number two on The New York Times’ YA bestseller list, and who has three other books optioned by Netflix. “She’s fine for teen girls,” Nelson, who graduated in 2017, told Aberdeen News. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.” Instead, they chose Just Mercy by black activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson, a memoir about his struggle to exonerate a falsely accused African American man.

First of all, I have no idea how Dessen found this article. It would be small potatoes even for a writer like me, who is the definition of a small potato. I can’t imagine it’s a Google alert that pops out for someone of her celebrity. I do imagine that Dessen, as prominent as she is, is no longer used to being maligned, particularly by someone of her own gender (particularly by her adolescent audience, as Nelson recently was) or by the sort of institution that presumably often pays her a lot to appear. However it happened, the author, who is in her 40s, found the Aberdeen News Common Read anniversary piece, screencapped Nelson’s quote with her name redacted, and sent it out in a since-deleted tweet to her 268,000-plus followers. “Authors are real people,” she wrote. “We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”

I see tweets like this all the time, they’re just usually a lot more ambiguous. The writers tend to be about the same level as me, or, in any case, not the level of Dessen, so they don’t usually quote tweet or make their critics in any way identifiable because of the professional implications — they can’t risk the precarious position they are in, so they don’t. As a result, even if they want to, their friends can’t do much for them beyond shooting a stream of heart emojis. And even if the writer does name names — this piece is coming to mind — the likelihood that they will get much support from writers in the same spot is slim. Dessen was able to do what she did because her career is set and her target’s is not. And, on some level, she had to be conscious that Google exists and that it would take no time for her friends, or anyone else, to find Redacted (Jennifer Weiner even posted a since-deleted comment at the bottom of the article). Maybe she didn’t expect other famous writers to do what they did, but she must have known it was a calculated risk. And if she didn’t, it is a worrying prospect that a significant number of powerful women like her could be oblivious to how much force they wield and the effect that can have — particularly how their cliques on the social media sites they so prolifically employ can amplify attacks.

Dessen’s allies were able to search and destroy because they have similar prominence. This is a group of women who have conquered the book industry, who have somehow overcome every one of the innumerable barriers that block the way and made it. They are the rare female insiders, the ones who have been unofficially elected to represent womankind (and who, by virtue of that privilege, ironically, can’t). Thus they appointed themselves the spokespeople for what they deemed a disenfranchised group of young people who do not have their own platform, and, in the process, smothered a young person speaking for herself. This wasn’t an everyday pissy text to a friend or a regular “catty” — per Weiner’s description of Nelson’s words — DM exchange. The implication was clear: Because of their position, they had the moral high ground. They not only had the right to decide who they could speak for, but who had no right to speak at all. And they pulled rank to punch down, a bully’s move, but one that makes sense — punching up at the industry itself would mean destabilizing their own place within it. 

Quick note: Because all of these writers have since had a collective attack of tweeters’ remorse, I have to rely on other publications to immortalize their cumulative ire, but here we go. Weiner, number one “chick lit” advocate, tweeted, “when we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less — or not at all — there are real-world consequences” (this was topped off by a #MeToo hashtag and a link to an article about the Larry Nassar gymnastics scandal, implying that a young woman’s comment on YA was analogous to a pedophile gagging his victims, which, I mean, where do I start). Jodi Picoult echoed Weiner’s stance, threw in the word “sinister” and claimed this was a missed chance to “fight the patriarchy.” Gay sent her apologies to Dessen, adding, “People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.” Thomas called the whole thing “appalling” and asked that her books be removed from further Common Read consideration “since my demographic is beneath you.” Siobhan Vivian swooped in with the tried and true, “Fuck that fucking bitch” (Dessen sent her love), and, my hands down favorite, Dhonielle Clayton dropped the mic with, “Fuck that RAGGEDY ASS fucking bitch.” In the authors’ aggregate misreading, Nelson was sacrificing girls in favor of grown-ups, her internalized sexism perpetuating a patriarchal climate where marginalized youth continue to be ignored. 

My boyfriend asked why we never see this sort of behavior among male authors. Deep breath … let’s start small. Let’s start with the fact that women writers are expected to do more ancillary labor around their work, and social media is part of that (men of Weiner’s stature, for instance, don’t tend to be so active on Twitter). Let’s move on to the fact that women writers are expected to exploit their own vulnerabilities, to rip out their hearts and lay them at the foot of the literary community in order to be granted admission (though not into the canon, that’s for Serious Writing). Let’s add that female authors are further forced into forming communities because of how alienating the industry can be to their gender (not to mention that women are also generally more widely socialized to pursue support and consensus), which is a habit that continues into their success — they may have arrived, but they are still women. Their relative inferiority within a larger hierarchy appears to convince them that they aren’t superior anywhere, that every threat is equal, that confronting the women below them is the same as confronting the men above. But privilege is not static and it adjusts to different contexts; this is the other side of the intersectional conversation. As much as various aspects of one’s existence — race, class, gender, age, sexuality, money, fame — can, in different circumstances and in different configurations, disempower, they can also do the opposite. Nelson may have white privilege, for instance, but when it comes to celebrity, Thomas, Clayton, and Gay have her beat by a mile. 

Men, meanwhile, are free to be individual monoliths. They are liberated from conflict with their peers because we don’t pit them against one another (Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal notwithstanding). Of course they get shirty about criticism — Martin Amis, Caleb Carr, Richard Ford, and Dave Eggers have all torn apart their critics — but they don’t tend to summon a collective defense from their peers, regardless of who their detractors are. Men do not have to band together to empower themselves because they have never needed to, they have all the power already — they set the canon, they form the universities that uphold it, they are the literary industry. Everything they do requires less fight. Even then, when they do fight, it’s not violence, it’s passion.

The university ultimately apologized to Dessen. The tweet explained that Nelson’s views did “not reflect the views of the university or Common Read committee.” The author of the Aberdeen News story also expressed regret. “I definitely didn’t mean to be cruel by including this quote,” Katherine Grandstrand tweeted. In the midst of the deluge, Nelson deactivated her Twitter and Facebook accounts and, when asked for comment by various publications, would only email (she did not respond to Longreads). As a linguistics graduate student, she told Slate she worried the incident would “torpedo” her career. And there it is. Each time this sort of scene plays out — a powerful woman slams a much less powerful woman in the name of all women — a sort of trade happens. One marginalized person is sacrificed for another marginalized person, which, if we’re being generous, is a lateral move if anything. On its face, it may always look like celebrities such as Dessen and her entourage are fighting the patriarchy — how else do you define women, some of them women of color, uniting to support the vulnerable? — but they are actually maintaining another kind of inequity, a particular pecking order in which they are the beneficiaries. They are doing it with the same traditions that have always kept their gender down — naming, shaming, hounding. And even though contrition is nice, it is not absolution. It does not equate to correcting the impulse to storm dissent, nor does it negate the mark the onslaught leaves.

In the wake of the bad press and even worse tweets from other writers, the retractions and apologies from Dessen and her fellow authors came hard and fast. “With a platform and a following, I have a responsibility to be aware of what I put out there,” Dessen tweeted. “I know this apology doesn’t change what happened, but I am truly sorry.” Weiner also conceded her position and tweeted that she had contacted Nelson. “I reacted from an emotional place and ignored a real power inequity,” she wrote. “I’ll be more mindful of my position and my power and more careful with my words in the future.” Vivian made a statement acknowledging that she should have just DM’d like the rest of us do. “I was hurt because my friend was hurt and now I’ve hurt someone else,” she said. “I’m truly sorry for my part.” Gay admitted that she had only looked at the screenshot, not the article. In her email to me, she said it was a mistake not to do her due diligence. “I don’t know Dessen or even follow her but when I saw her tweet come across my timeline I absolutely related to the pain of that brand of criticism which is, yes, absolutely part of the job but stings nonetheless,” she wrote. “Power does not inure you to pain.” Gay apologized personally to Nelson and made a donation of $2,500 to two organizations of Nelson’s choice, including the Northern State University Common Read program. But, as far as I can tell, Nelson is still off social media. And she still hasn’t responded to my email. 

* * *

Three years ago, a writer interviewed me for a mainstream publication about my first (my only) book. The piece ultimately cast aside my work as redundant and disposable in favor of a meditation on the author’s own experience. Like Dessen, I thought it was mean. But I said nothing. I didn’t ask if it made the writer feel good, I didn’t accuse them of silencing women, of being part of the patriarchy. I didn’t call them a raggedy-ass fucking bitch. Of course, I wanted to do all of those things. And maybe I would have had I felt more powerful, at the very least momentarily more powerful than the writer. And maybe that’s the point: You can only abuse your position when you have one. Even I failed to mention that Gay was one of the people in the first paragraph of this piece who tweeted about me all those years ago. As a writer friend recently DM’d me after revealing they did not love a beloved author, “it feels like career suicide to say so.” But stronger than that feeling, for me — and I acknowledge that having a column makes this feasible, in addition to being old enough to know that conformity does not guarantee success — is the certainty that no one person should have so much power that criticizing them poses a professional risk. This is where I confess that this column had three times the editorial oversight that my columns normally do, that one editor even suggested dropping it entirely. I mention this because, regardless of the intentions of all these writers, regardless of whether or not they think they are bullies — I wouldn’t call them that, but I understand the impulse — they can’t negate the fear that they incite in those around them. To deny that they have that power is abdication.  

Devoting an entire column to what could be deemed by outsiders as a minor book quarrel might seem excessive, but I had a hard time finding any incidents analogous to Dessen’s — there isn’t much precedent. There was Practical Magic author Alice Hoffman tweeting out a reviewer’s phone number in 2009 — “Tell her what u think of snarky critics” (they couldn’t, wrong number) — and paranormal romance writer Deborah MacGillivray encouraging her peers to “vote down this bitch” after getting a three-star Amazon review in 2007. Then, in 2014, the same year Kathleen Hale descended on what she thought was the home of her number one Goodreads critic, one of the most popular authors in the world, Anne Rice, signed a petition for Amazon to do away with anonymous reviews to combat the “anti-author gangsters” who critiqued multimillionaires like her. Five years on, the dynamics remain the same. Dessen and her supporters are a microcosm of virtually every other power imbalance in existence, where there’s plenty of room for abuse and very little for oversight. The systemic hierarchies that we are collectively hoping to take down for good, that the women writers involved in this controversy ostensibly hope to take down as well, are perpetuated by them instead: The voices at the top are limited and self-reinforcing even if they’re wrong, because dissent is discouraged, which bars new voices from entry, which bars diverse ideas and opinions, which, ultimately, arrests growth. It’s telling that the most pertinent comment in this whole fracas was made by Nelson, an outsider with the smallest voice of all: “If anything comes out of this larger conversation, I hope it is that others will make it a point to read books … that push them beyond their usual perspective and challenge their assumptions of society.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.