Political RevisioningHow Men Police Women’s Anger in Writing Workshops

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Women’s anger has fueled every political movement in the United States, from suffrage to Civil Rights to #MeToo. Women’s anger is a powerful, unshakeable force that sends people from marginalized communities into the streets, the courtrooms, the classrooms, and beyond to fight for the more just world that our ancestors fought for and our descendants will fight for long after we’re gone.

“The Future is Furious” is a weeklong series about women’s anger—and, more specifically, about how that anger is policed, dismissed, and overlooked because its potent, transformative social and political power terrifies people. We get to decide how we wield our anger, and this series is a mere entry point for a canon of work about women’s rage. It is our hope that by the end of it, you’re revved up and ready to rage in a time when it’s more important than ever to put women’s anger to work.

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3  |   Part 4 |   Part 5 |   Part 6 |   Part 7  |   Part 8  |  Part 9

Andrew slouched in his desk, his long legs jutting into the middle of the workshop circle. With his pen clenched between two fingers like a cigarette, he tapped the tip against my essay. “I just didn’t really believe it,” he explained to me and the class. “All the men in your essay seem like caricatures. They aren’t well-rounded.” I nodded thoughtfully and wrote a note for my revisions: Ignore Andrew’s critique. “It was more like a rant than an essay,” Andrew continued. He cocked his head and looked at my piece like it was something gross stuck to his desk. “The writing is too angry, and it made me lose sympathy for you. You should pull it back so as to not alienate your reader.” I underlined my revision note with two bold strokes.

That essay, published in The Rumpus, explores the ways in which men absolve themselves from examining the feelings and desires of women, particularly in a sexual context. The tone is indeed very angry, and points the finger at past romantic partners who consistently and unapologetically prioritized their desires over my pleasure, comfort, and safety. The irony of Andrew advising me to be less vocal, less assertive in my essay about feminine bodily autonomy was not lost on me. As I collected marked-up manuscripts from my peers at the end of class and tucked them into my backpack, I was visibly angry, my face red and warm as an ember.

At first, I wondered if I was being too sensitive. I’ve never been overly delicate about being critiqued, but I instinctually questioned my perception of Andrew’s criticism. But, really, I wasn’t upset about Andrew’s critique of my essay because he had not critiqued it at all; he had critiqued me, my anger, and the way I processed and responded to aggression from men. It was, to Andrew, not a good look for me. 

There remains an assumption that anger is an immature emotion and a transient one, that if you punch a pillow or sleep on it, the feeling will dissipate and you’ll be back to “normal.” The idea is that anger is an unproductive or an unimportant emotion that prevents us from achieving the things we would otherwise if our vision wasn’t clouded. When I express anger, however, it’s not a fleeting emotion; I am not responding to a flash of rage after being cut off in traffic or losing a video game. The anger stems from living in a society that sanctions sexism. Women of color experience even greater resistance to their expression of anger, from men and white women alike. Trans women, queer women, and disabled women find their anger dismissed. Our bodies and the way we are visibly coded determines if our anger can be “justified” in the eyes of the viewer.

I look back at Andrew’s reception of my essay and speculate if, had I been a man writing about men’s issues, he would’ve accepted, and even related to, my angry tone. All emotional expression is political, exponentially more so if the emotion is anger and the expresser is a woman. This phenomenon has been widely studied: When I Google “women” and “anger,” I find dozens of books, articles, and essays covering everything from the double standards surrounding Serena Williams’s anger to which books women writers read when they’re angry to Valerie Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto,” written a year before she shot Andy Warhol. Feminine rage has been examined in every aspect of Western culture. Stassa Edwards offers a brief history of feminine fury and stereotypes that are “ubiquitous: the shrill wife, the crazy ex-girlfriend, feminazis, and the angry Black woman.” Laurie Penny talks about young women approaching her at events and asking for permission to express their anger. Myisha Cherry writes about the emotional dismissal of Hillary Clinton in politics. Roxane Gay asks in The New York Times, “Who gets to be angry?” and addresses the unspoken expectation for women, people of color, and members of other marginalized populations to remain polite and welcoming in the face of unfairness.

In a climate in which it has become commonplace for bitter and entitled men to express their frustrations by opening gunfire on crowds of people, it seems silly that our society seems more focused on subduing loud women, but the problem is not that women are angry but that we demonstrate we are angry. As I navigate the world, I unconsciously lessen the severity of my emotions: I rarely use the word angry and instead say that I’m upset. I reflexively smile when men tell me to, and I walk with my shoulders hunched and head down at work so my coworkers won’t think I’m arrogant. In a workshop setting, where the goal is supposedly open artistic expression, I was nonetheless criticized for participating in a way that my male peer deemed unacceptable.

As a woman, I am allowed to talk or, in the case of workshops, write about the injustices done to me, but only if I write about those experiences passively: An act was committed against me. To actively point a finger at the men who have harmed me is somehow crossing the line. While pursuing my Master’s of Arts in creative writing, nearly all workshops were undergraduate-level since there weren’t enough students for graduate-only workshops. Despite being older than the other students, my fiction was often met with more disbelief than the work of my undergraduate male classmates. Nobody seemed to notice or care about the difference in how my work was critiqued versus Daniel’s trite vampire murder mystery.

While Daniel received concrete suggestions about how he might better his piece, my stories were lambasted for the smallest of details being unbelievable, particularly when the primary characters were women—the main character wouldn’t do that; I don’t believe her motivation; why is she so cold and unemotional when x, y, and z happen? These types of questions are what Randy Susan Meyers calls “the scrim factor” or judging a piece of writing based on the workshopper’s belief system rather than the story’s context.

I think back to a workshop where I submitted a short story about a woman who attends a gallery opening for her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Instead of offering suggestions that were specific to the world of the story, most of my male classmates asked me to explain and justify the actions of my female character: Why is Jane dating Thomas if he’s such a jerk? Would a person really go and meet their partner’s ex? Why would Jane flirt with the ex-girlfriend if she’s dating a guy?

Instead of reading my piece critically and providing valuable feedback, my male workshop peers overwhelmingly insisted that the issue was not their lazy reading but my unbelievable writing. When a man expresses disbelief that a female character could be attracted to her boyfriend and a woman at the same time, this is less reflective of my story’s plausibility and more indicative that the man doesn’t understand bisexuality. According to Meyers, this scrim factor is most obvious when a workshopper speaks in generalities as opposed to the specifics of the characters. “Beware workshops that become arbiters of morality and comfort levels,” writes Meyers in a 2013 story for HuffPost. “One wants a workshop that scrawls MEGO (my eyes glaze over) on the page, not one that says, ‘women don’t usually change the oil in the car.’” Do workshops more often devolve into unhelpful discussions about believability when the writer is a woman?

When I Google “sexism” and “writing workshop” together, most of what I find is how to conduct workshops about sexism. There’s little on how we read and respond to women’s writing versus how we respond to men’s in workshops. However, any female-identified writer who has taken a handful of workshops has interacted with That One Guy who picks apart her manuscript and speckles it with suggestions about how he would have written it. This workshop mansplaining only increases as my writing becomes even more angry.

In most writing workshops, writers are asked to remain silent while their peers critique their work, and at the end of the peer-review process, they’re allowed to ask questions or request clarification for specific notes. Each comment from a peer is treated as if it holds equal weight, which is meant to encourage honest dialogue, but, to me, reads more like stilted politeness. I think back to the rage I felt as I sat wordlessly receiving Andrew’s criticism, watching his pointless commentary whittle away the precious time allotted for my workshop, and I question the way that workshops are facilitated in general. Why do we give equal time to comments that are critiquing the writer much more than the writing itself, and whose responsibility is it to point out these incidents? What benefit is there to gain from readers who have so clearly missed the point, and why isn’t the writer allowed to say, “Your critique is not helpful to me?”

Much of the Western world caters to white men, and perhaps reading stories where women are angry and men are definitively bad is something that makes some male readers uncomfortable. According to reports from VIDA, a nonprofit organization that examines the lack of marginalized voices in literature, men are disproportionately represented in most literary magazines, vastly limiting the avenues women writers have for creative expression. In 2017, VIDA looked at 15 major literary publications, and noted that only two, Granta and Poetry, had more than 50 percent of its content penned by women in the last year.

Meg Wolitzer notes that more reviewers are men, and more books being reviewed are written by men. Nicola Griffith aggregated data and created a graph displaying the percentage of major prize-winning novels with male versus female primary characters. Although the genders of Pulitzer Prize winners between 2000 and 2015 were split almost half and half, not one of those books was exclusively from a feminine perspective; the vast majority of the pie were books written about men and boys. It appears as if women can write great literature, but only if we ensure that our narratives are relatable to male readers. And if my workshop experiences are any indication, those relatable narratives do not include feminist issues, feminine anger, or short stories with women as protagonists.

Creative workshops need to pay explicit attention to the biases and prejudices of writers, and be cognizant of how they shape the feedback we give fellow writers. In workshop settings, we should be expected to hold ourselves and each other accountable for how our perceptions of the writer’s identity influences our interpretation of their piece. The whole literary ecosystem would look so much different if we were all more knowledgeable of how we ingest and respond to others’ work. Had my instructor or a classmate or prodded Andrew for more details in his feedback, he might’ve gained insight into his own belief system. So much of the writing workshop focuses on making us better writers, but there’s a considerable gain in becoming better, more critical readers.

I wonder if Andrew will read this essay. I like to think about him sitting cross-legged on the floor, his laptop open in front of him, reading slowly and silently, ingesting my words, my angry, irate, bitter words. I imagine him, upon reaching the end, finding he has nothing really that important to say after all.

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by Jen Corrigan
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Jen Corrigan writes fiction, nonfiction, and humor. Her work has been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.