Book...Ish: A Debrief of Samantha Irby with Lindy West
Last night I attended a Town Hall Seattle event, part of their Arts and Culture series. It was perhaps one of the best pairings I've seen—Samantha Irby in conversation with Lindy West.
(Let me take the opportunity to briefly expound on how much I love Town Hall Seattle, because I absolutely do. Their events are incredibly varied and culturally relevant/intelligent, and tickets for their events are only $5, so they are super accessible. And, if you have a little bit of extra money, you can become a member. It's only $45 for an individual annual membership. At that level, you don't get free tickets, but you do get early/exclusive access, and you get special VIP seating at events.)
Anyway, back to the thing. The event was for Samantha Irby's book tour, celebrating the re-release of her first collection of essays, Meaty.
I actually read We Are Never Meeting in Real Life before Meaty, and it resonated with me so much that I promptly bought several copies, just to have on hand in case I ever need last minute gifts—plus a copy that I took with me to give to my best friend when I went to visit her in New York in January. So as soon as I found out they were re-releasing her first book—and especially having learned recently how important pre-orders really are to authors and publishers—I immediately pre-ordered it.
And THEN, I heard about this great event. Though obviously the event was on the surface designed to promote Meaty, it really was mostly a conversation between Samantha and Lindy. You know how sometimes there are writers you love, and their work makes you laugh out loud and cry and hate the people they hate and love the people they love, and then you go to see them talk or do a Q and A and it just doesn't have the same feels (WHICH IS TOTALLY FINE because they're authors and not necessarily public speakers)? Such was not the case here. Both Samantha and Lindy were exactly as hilarious and opinionated and glorious as I hoped. They commiserated over Hollywood projects in the making (or stalled), they discussed sometimes missing regular "day jobs" and getting to bitch about work to coworkers (honestly one of my favourite parts of my job), and Samantha told a new story about worm penis dude (you'll have to read her book to know THAT story) for an audience member who was looking for another funny pet story to tell her friends.
Samantha has also been clear that she doesn't have concrete goals; she basically takes opportunities as they come to her. (Which I love and also is generally how I live my life, because I realized that when I was too stuck in my "goals," I wasn't open to possibilities.) But she did amend that by saying that she does have one goal. And that is to use her position to help those who might not have the opportunity otherwise. Which reminds me of that great gif that people often share on International Women's Day (and never any other time).
One of the things that struck me most about the night, however, was their response to a question from an audience member: If they weren't writing what they write (namely, essays and stories mostly about their lives and identities), what other genre or type of writing would they like to do? And though Samantha and Lindy had different responses, the reasons behind their responses seemed to be the same: I would be writing something that makes me respected as a writer. Samantha said that she still gets people when, say, she writes a piece for The New York Times, that are like, "Wow, how did you get to do that?" They don't really see her as a writer, because she "just" writes about her life.
Lindy went further to examine why this might be. She said that when she started writing on the internet, it was during a time when women's blogging was really becoming a thing. And the disrespect of that type of writing even back then was staggering. People who wrote for recognizable or established publications, especially men, would be incredibly condescending. "Isn't that woman cute, trying to write? How adorable. Oh, she pointed out a major point of privilege in this piece I put together? Thanks for the feedback, you itty bitty woman." There seems to be this belief that because women were talking about their lives and experiences, that it was somehow less valid than the Very Important Work that the men were doing.
It's so demoralizingly disappointing to hear, that these two women whom I and many others consider icons and role models—for their work, for the raw sharing of their experiences, for the validation of our own work and experiences—feel like they would sometimes rather be writing poetry, or literary fiction, or "anything that people would respect." And it's not disappointing because they feel that way, because that feeling is completely understandable. It's disappointing that this stupid fucking trash society doesn't give them the respect they deserve because of the subjects they write about.
And all of this conversation automatically made me think of romance novels, and how women who write romance novels are so looked down on—and so is the genre itself—even though it's a $1 billion industry and makes up OVER A THIRD OF THE U.S. FICTION MARKET.
Which led me further down the path to this mini-ephiphany: the reason that stories that feature or center women, or are FOR women (especially women whose identity as a woman intersects with other marginalized communities) is because we've spent our entire history as a society believing those stories had no value. That women's entertainment, much like women's labor and women's pain and women's opinions (ad infinitum) is inherently less valuable. And correlated to that, we've spent our entire history as a society telling men and boys that their stories are the important ones. Usually I believe that somebody else's success does not equal my failure, but it seems to be until pretty much this moment in history, the men in charge believed that the success of women would have been their failure.
And then because there are few (or no) examples of successful women's (or Black or POC or LGBTQ+) media, that's used as evidence that there shouldn't be because obviously nobody is interested. It's part of the reason why somebody can look at a fucking gorgeous poster for A Wrinkle in Time—a story about a young girl—and ask whether or not the marketers want boys to be interested in the movie because there's a girl featured on the poster and it's got pastel colors. God forbid boys experience stories that don't center them. It's part of the reason why (white) writers are trying to find reasons to tear down or diminish the success of Black Panther. God forbid whiteness not be centered for one moment in time.
Maybe if the (mostly) cisgender straight white men had let us share the podium before now, we wouldn't be pulling them off of it entirely. Sorry not sorry, you gotta go. You're not good at sharing, so we're taking your toys away and kicking you out of the sandbox. (That's some mixed metaphoring, but I don't care.)
So, to Samantha Irby and Lindy West, if they ever happen to see this: please keep writing whatever the fuck you want. The people who don't respect you now will be replaced by those who do. By the people to whom your writing means something, and is important, and validating.
We're on the way up. Thanks for helping to ready the path for us.
Edited to add: Town Hall does a podcast that often features upcoming or recent event folks, so if you wanted to listen to one featuring Samantha Irby and Lindy West, you could find that here.