Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Little Read Writing Hood.

Who knew there were so many wolves in children's literature?

A lot of people, apparently.

I brushed up against one wolf when he interviewed me for a teaching job at the university where I was a student. I left my one hour conversation with Mr. Wolf feeling nearly certain he'd offer me a part time teaching gig. Minutes after the interview he emailed to ask me out to dinner. I burst into tears when I read that email, then gathered my wits and politely declined, claiming I was busy.

He didn't offer me that job after all.

Later that week I ran into him and he said, "You didn't think I was..." The sentence fragment dangled in the air between us. He raised his eyebrows, and I swear I saw sweat on his brow. He'd emailed me proof, after all.

"Oh what? Sexually harassing me?! Yeah. That occurred to me," is what I should have said.

But he was an administrator at the university where I had a job and was earning a degree. I wasn't in a position to go to war with him. Besides, I'd heard things about his boss. They had sharp teeth, and I was a little girl in the woods.

I'm not naming names, or the university, (I have more than one degree in several fields, before you go digging,) because I haven't heard complaints from anyone else about this particular person, and it happened a long time ago. But if someone else comes forward who has a more recent story to tell, I will certainly back her up. Until then, I will grant Mr. Wolf the benefit of the doubt because I have some uncertainty about his motives, and because I'm not willing to publicly humiliate someone if his misstep with me was an isolated incident.

After reading this article and the alarming comment section: https://www.slj.com/2018/01/industry-news/childrens-publishing-reckons-sexual-harassment-ranks/, I realize how very common my experience actually is. These revelations have provided a new lens through which I view the past.

I've always felt uncomfortable at professional conferences around large groups of writers drinking and socializing. These settings make me feel anxious, which always struck me as strange. I love writers, and I love talking to them. Meeting a writer I admire and talking about our industry is always illuminating and energizing. But the big conferences have never been fun for me, and so I don't attend many. I used to think this was a stupid thing to do because according to conventional wisdom, I should be networking. Now, after reading the article posted above and the comment section, I feel avoiding those wine fueled conversations with other professionals was perhaps wise. My intuition was whispering to me that something wasn't right.

The few conferences I have attended felt skewed toward male writers. More than once I've felt dismayed at how males seemed to be praised more, appreciated more, offered more. Don't misunderstand. Most men that are celebrated in young adult literature deserve their success because they write excellent books. But the VAST majority of writers for young people are women, and many of them are writing excellent books too. So why does it feel like the men are somehow more visible?

Do we laude male writers more? Does all that admiration make predators feel safe in professional settings? Is that partly why they test the boundaries of acceptable behavior?

At one writers' gathering, early in my career, I met an older, famous male writer who seemed very happy to meet me. He gave me advice that I appreciated. I knew he was attracted to me at the time, and subtly hitting on me, but I wasn't interested and I moved on to other conversations thinking nothing of it. Years later I had a couple more books to my name and saw him at a large conference. I approached him when he was talking to someone else, waited for the other person to walk away, and told him how what he'd said years before had really helped me. He was openly hostile, completely different from years before. Was he hostile because I came up to him when he was hitting on a young woman, and she took the opportunity to walk away? Or did he remember me as a young writer who hadn't responded to his advance? I don't really know, which is, again, why I'm not naming names.

This uncertainty protects the wolves, and the wolves know that. Some of the wolves are women. Some of them are gay. This problem doesn't just belong to straight men.

These thoughts have been with me a long time, but I've been silent because I was afraid to seem like I was speaking out of jealousy, or sour grapes, or hubris. And so I hid.

Its time to drop the cape, pick up an axe, and be my own huntsman. I don't know what that means yet. But I'll probably be going to more conferences. I have a feeling I'll enjoy myself more now, partly because I'll have changed, but also because as a community, we're all a lot wiser.