A Different Kind of Privileged Literature

When the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry was jointly awarded to Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong, poet Grace Chia was “silenced into shock”. Chia, the founder of the Junoesq Literary Journal, posted the following on the Journal’s Facebook wall: “The fact that the prize has been given to two co-winners who are both male poets is deeply informing of choice, taste and affirmation. A prize so coveted that it has been apportioned to two male narratives of poetic discourse, instead of one outstanding poet – reeks of an engendered privilege that continues to plague this nation’s literary community.” The post was taken down on Thursday afternoon, but it lives on in The Straits Times.

These allegations are amusing. Literature is literature is literature. It knows no preferences, respects no borders, and has no sex. Literature is one of the fundamental human arts, an art in which anybody of any creed from anywhere and any time can produce. One does not need to possess a specific religion, skin colour or set of genitalia to produce good literature. One simply needs to possess mastery of the craft. That is the only standard by which literature and writers are, and have to be, judged by. That women have topped other prize categories — Amanda Lee Koe for English fiction, Josephine Chia in English non-fiction, and Krishnamurthi Mathangi with the sole consolation prize in Tamil poetry — demonstrates that the Singapore Literature Prize isn’t solely a men’s domain.

Chia’s work, Cordelia, was shortlisted for the English poetry category. Junoesq Literary Journal was also slated to be launched during the Singapore Writers Festival. The timing is so fortuitous that Chia and the Journal would have benefited regardless of the results.

If Chia had won the prize, she could use her newfound publicity to further promote the Journal and affirm the need to create a women-only space for writing. As Chia lost the prize, it would be politically acceptable in certain circles for her to toss around allegations of bias and privilege, affirming the need for a women-only space for writing — like the Journal.

Either way, she cannot lose.

Going beyond the person, let’s examine the notion of privilege in writing. According to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, privilege is:

: a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others

: a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud

: the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society

We’ll work with the assumption that ‘privilege’ uses the first and third meanings and look at the state of writing.

When a female poet makes allegations of gender bias against women about a literature prize, a large broadsheet reported her claims. It is politically correct for a woman to do this, and feminists and Social Justice Warriors will cheer her on and lend her support. Male authors who allege biases against writers who do not possess a specific political point of view are relentlessly swarmed by the same pseudo-thought police, as seen in the kerfuffle leading up to the Hugo Awards.

When a literary journal is set up only for women, either nobody comments or else the event is celebrated. A Google search for women’s-only literary journals will return pagefuls of results, linking to many female writing spaces. Conversely, a search for male-exclusive literature journals returns pages comparing the presence of male and female writers in writing, or perhaps men’s lifestyle magazines, but not male literary journals.

A search for female writers returns pagefuls of writer and story recommendations, and more pages expressing untarnished support for female writers. A search for male writers return a few recommendations, followed by page after page of sites analysing male writer tropes, pitting male writers against females, and dismissing of male writers. Therefore, newspapers, magazines and individuals are much more likely to celebrate female writers and put together lists of noteworthy female writers, but not necessarily do the same for men.

Throughout the year, speculative fiction magazines and editors will issue open calls for fiction submissions. I’ve seen many publishers issue diversity statements. Statements like, “We are especially interested in submissions from women, persons of colour, non-Westerners and other minorities” or variations thereof. Conversely, I’ve seen only one publisher explicitly state that they do not care about an author’s background, only about the story. I’ve also seen calls solely for women writers, disabled writers, writers of colour, writers of non-heterosexual orientations, and other minority identities. I have not seen explicit calls for male writers.

The five most popular writing genres are romance and erotica, mysteries and crime thrillers, religious and inspirational, science fiction and fantasy, and horror. Romance and erotica is dominated by female writers. Women also dominate the fantasy markets — especially paranormal romance, urban fantasy and Young Adult fantasy. A quick search of ‘female writers’ in the other genres will lead to many recommendations, interviews and essays supporting female writers in the genre. Searching for male writers in those genres will lead to generic lists of recommended writers — or recommendations of female writers.

There is privilege in literature. But it’s a different kind of privilege. It’s a privilege earned by yelling privilege again and again, influencing the creation of content to stand up against that privilege, and setting up privileged spaces to stand against a different kind of ‘privileged’ literature.

Me, I don’t care about privilege. Writing is writing is writing. As an independent writer I choose not to participate in the politics of privilege. I think it’s trivial nonsense, and I have the tools to step around this politicking. The publishing revolution means that anybody can publish — which means there are no gatekeepers to prevent someone from being published, and therefore no external discrimination.

Sure, self-published works are not likely to win literature prizes anytime soon. They do not have the prestige (and therefore the privilege) of stories published the traditional way. That is fine by me. I don’t define success by the number of prizes I win. For writers that do want the recognition, there are a large number of awards they can try for.

The age of privilege in writing is fading. There is little point in screaming privilege and gender bias and the like when anybody can be published and there are plenty of prizes to go around. Writers write, readers read and the market decides whose works are the best. That is the surefire way to choose the best writers of the age — and eliminate privilege in literature of all kinds.

One thought on “A Different Kind of Privileged Literature

  1. In the male-dominated society, women need to protected by certain reservation, maybe, only at the entry level. But the final verdict should be entirely on the basis of objective evaluation, which is easier said than done. If the evaluation is objective and transparent, there is no point venting out anger, if only men or only women get rewarded or selected.

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