I cannot speak about Andrew Smith’s books, simply because I have not read them. I cannot speak to his character because I haven’t met him. What I can do is talk about the words he shares in his interviews, particularly a now infamous one with Vice that contained a display of sexism that honestly left me shocked.
Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. 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.
Putting aside the faultiness of his claim (does his wife/partner not count in that equation?), we must focus on the confession of his own ignorance. This is an astounding claim to make and one that exacerbates a lot of pernicious misogynistic attitudes, in the publishing industry and society at large. The clear implication here is that Smith’s work is devoid of women because they are so wildly different from men that Smith cannot conceive of them being something tangible. They cannot be researched, understood or seen as even being human. This is not a new thing. Sadly, one of the oldest tricks in the book of patriarchy is to ‘other’ women; to position them as the opposite of men, as something unreal or unhuman. This tool is also used against LGBTQ people, people of coloured, people with disabilities, people from developing nations, and so on. To Smith, women are so mysterious that it’s better for him to just not write them. Imagining or researching them is too hard.
But writing giant grasshoppers is easy.
Smith is a Printz Honour winning writer of young adult fiction. He is one with the kind of critical acclaim most writers can only dream of. Clearly, he is accomplished at imagining strange new worlds and the people who populate him, and has been rewarded thusly for his efforts. Yet despite all his talent and awards, he sees women as the other. They are the last great frontier he dare not tackle.
Even if this comment was made in a joking manner, there’s something deeply wrong with it being an acceptable answer to give without a second thought. This attitude is so standard in creative fields that we can barely respond with a defeated shrug at times. It’s not a harmless slip-up and it’s not a display of self-awareness that can act as a shield: It’s a pervasive and damaging attitude that leads to the systematic exclusion of people and stories from reaching wider audiences. The cishet middle class able bodied man remains the supposed ‘default mode’ for the creator, crafting universal stories that appeal to everyone yet by and large only feature protagonists exactly like them. Anything deviating from that perceived norm is ‘niche’ or only for ‘specialist audiences’ because according to the stock line trotted out by publishers, executives and the suits in charge, those stories only appeal to the people exactly like them. No boy could possibly relate to Katniss Everdeen. No white child could ever want to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Straight kids would never want to read about a gay couple. We have this conversation so regularly I feel like I’ve memorised it, and yet it’s met with the same hostility and same claims of bullying.
We cannot continue this conversation and discussion of the wider implications without tackling the responses a number of us have received after voicing anger and concern over Smith’s interview. Some bloggers were called bullies, their very real passion dismissed as ‘fauxtrage’, and their discussions over Smith’s sexism positioned as equivalent to or even worse than the sexism itself. Let me make this abundantly clear – there is no comparison to be made here. Talking about sexism, no matter how angrily or supposedly rudely it’s done, is not the same as being sexist. It’s certainly not worse than being sexist. If you want to have a ‘real’ conversation about this subject then the best thing you can do is listen to others and not police their anger.
If you see the anger of those women as a bigger affront than Smith’s comments then you’re the one with the problem. Allyship is not conditional on the perceived politeness of the oppressed. You don’t just relinquish your support of marginalised groups because you felt like they’d been a bit mean to you. If you want cookies then go to a bakery. The increasing toxicity of online discourse, particularly pertaining to issues of misogyny, has made it a veritable minefield to navigate. Many decide not to write about such things at all because they know they’ll be attacked viciously for it (we probably will too). A lot of women will probably be ‘punished’ more for this than Smith will be for making the sexist comments in the first place. It doesn’t take much to earn the ire of misogynists. Existing is all it takes to set them off.
I hope Smith sees the many eloquent thoughts being shared on this subject. I hope he learns from the experiences of others and takes it upon himself to make the necessary changes. If this conversation helps lead to wider attitude changes in the industry regarding sexism and the othering of marginalised groups then we can take some solace in that. In the meantime, a lot of us brace ourselves for the inevitable pushback that comes with having opinions on misogyny on the internet. When that’s seen as a bigger crime than misogyny itself, you know something’s gone terribly wrong somewhere down the line.