Last weekend, I went to my friend Jenn Marie Nunes’ book release party. Feminist press Switchback Books had awarded her poetry manuscript, And/Or, its inaugural Queer Voices prize. Jenn read her funny, weird, enigmatic poems at the event, which was hosted by a community print shop. Plates of cheese and cookies and a cash bar were wedged between printing presses with greasy black teeth. A lot of awesome people I hadn’t seen in a long time were there, as well as some whose names I’d heard before but whose acquaintances I’d never made.
One was an English professor. A friend introduced me to her as editor of a monthly fashion section.
“Oh, I read that from time to time,” she said. “It’s my guilty pleasure.”
She smiled brightly. I didn’t detect any malice in her words. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said.
I’m truly flattered when anyone reads my writing. But I wondered — would she describe Jenn’s book of poetry as a guilty pleasure? I kind of doubt it. Hovering over a platter of deviled eggs, I thought, What makes Jenn’s literary mode of production valid and mine not? I’m defining valid here as acceptable public reading material for an academic. I’ve been holding the professor’s words up to the light, examining them, and though there are plenty of things to unpack from her statement, I’m not sure compliment is among them.
To back up a little: I work at an alt-weekly covering primarily fashion, beauty and interior decor — in other words, women’s sections. My beat falls under what the OpEd Project defines as “pink topics.”
‘Pink’ topics are the topical spheres that compose what some media critics refer to as the ‘pink ghetto’ because women have historically been confined within them. We’ve defined a Pink Topic as: 1.) anything that falls into what was once known as “the four F’s”: food, family, furniture, and fashion, 2.) women-focused subject matter, e.g. woman-specific health or culture, 3.) gender / women’s issues, or 4.) a profile of a woman or her work in which her gender is a significant issue of the piece.
The OpEd Project goes on to clarify, “We don’t consider ‘pink’ topics any less important than general topics.” And as much as I want to agree with that statement, deep down inside, I’m not sure I do. I don’t cover political scandals or civil wars in distant countries. I sometimes describe my work to others, self-deprecatingly, as “fluff.” I feel, you could say, “guilty,” for working in the pink ghetto, devoting so much time to tracking bridal gown trends and sunless tanning methods. It’s similar to the breed of guilt that makes me want to hide my astrology and self-help books behind the literary theory books I haven’t cracked open since my graduate proseminar.
When I dropped out of LSU’s comparative literature program in 2008, I did so because I wanted my words to be read by as many people as possible. (Typical writers’ hubris.) I didn’t see that happening in academia. I saw myself spending years to write a dissertation that would probably only be read by my committee and a few really good friends. Then I’d pen scholarly articles that would be locked behind JSTOR’s paywall. So I changed course. Now I write about fashion, and I write dark fantasy novels for teenage girls. And I guess both of those things could be considered guilty pleasures. Why? Because they are commercial endeavors aimed at mass audiences? Because they are feminine pleasures? Men don’t consider sports or hunting guilty pleasures. These traditionally masculine pursuits are simply pleasures.
I can’t help but think these “guilty pleasures” are linked toward shame of being a woman, or shame of belonging to a social class with less emphasis on/access to higher education. And neither of those are bad things. Everyone at that book launch would most likely denounce the sexist and classist rhetoric that says otherwise.
So I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a surprise to confront shame’s greasy specter adrift in a room of women writers celebrating a feminist poetry collection. Almost as much as a surprise as it was to find I harbor it myself.