Women and the Global Imagination: See Jane Run

by Phoebe Wilcox

Filed under: Blog |

In hopes of continuing the dialog started by the poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, curated by Alicia Ostriker and included in our Winter 2014 Issue, we've collected a series of essays on this same theme. In her essay, Phoebe Wilcox reflects on approaching the world of literature from an outsider's perspective. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

See Jane Run

Jane is a woman.

Jane might also be a mostly unknown writer of poetry and fiction.

Jane might be pretty good at getting published in small journals, and she may be fairly confident in her skill as a writer.

What Jane may not be confident in is that the world will give her a fair shake, and this is not because she is a woman (although that factors in), but because she is a “nobody.”

Being a woman is a huge problem, not only professionally, but personally, what with the worry of saggy breasts, and because it seems like every man in every culture on this planet expects us to clean the house. First though, let me address this “nobody” stuff. What exactly is a nobody? Well, I’d venture to say it’s a syndrome that encapsulates different manifestations of disenfranchisement across gender, geography, race, and class. Human beings are highly evolved animals, and because we were smart enough to come up with the IPhone, the Prius, skyscrapers, and organic wheat grass smoothie shots, we think we know it all. And what we don’t know we make up, thereby knowing that as well. The human race has no shortage of epistemological hubris. How do we know it? Well, we say we do, that’s how. Humanity is a fearsome conglomeration of pheromones, prejudice, superstition, and power lust. Another seemingly innocuous and often completely unconscious facet of our common psyche is social conformity. Each of us wants to do what our crowd is doing. We spend our teens and twenties finding just the right crowd. We join in and then look out for number one. There’s nothing wrong with that either—it’s just survival of the fittest. Sometimes I have wondered though, if it’s the rare person who actually has the courage to look within themselves and analyze their own motives for what they actually are. I suppose it can be confusing, and a little frightening. I’m sure that sometimes we hide our darker motives from ourselves in order to spare ourselves an unwanted epiphany. Darkness and ignorance can be as comforting as a cozy granny afghan.

Let’s get back to Jane.

Jane’s been in love with words since she first read “See Jane Run” aloud in first grade. Jane’s a woman and therefore at a disadvantage (glass ceilings at the office, housecleaning for those men at home); she’s been running all her life, away from the ugly past, toward goals and the beautiful future, twenty years in trying to write the masterpiece, and then finally she lands in the world of small lit journals.

Surely what Jane would like for her literary efforts would be some sort of recognition. But maybe she was a Psych major and she doesn’t know very many literary people at all. Sometimes she’ll meet an established writer at a party, and it’ll seem like they want something from her, but she can’t tell what it is. It’s all very confusing. It seems like they want her stamp of approval. Why me? I’m a nobody.

Honestly, I don’t know what can be done to improve matters, other than approaching each new task with an open mind. Publishing is dying or morphing into something new. The big houses are terrified of taking on risks. The little houses like what they like, and follow their trends of choice. Editors have friends, connections, internal biases, and themed issues. I’ve seen trashy little magazines publish genius work (by nobodies), and eminent journals publish trash by great big somebodies. All I can say is that I’m 98% positive that this little essay will be rejected, but I’m glad I wrote it, because hey, what else was there to do?

Part Two: Life after Prairie Schooner Accepts the Piece

When my email acceptance letter from Prairie Schooner arrived, I was afraid it would say something like this:

Thanks for sharing your wonderful work with us, but we’re going to use a metaphor involving homeless people now, and send our sincerest hopes that your blog piece (like a scab-ridden, vagabond crack whore) gets itself up off the curb and drugs, and into some reasonable shelter—that it, in fact, “finds a home.”

When the email turned out to be an acceptance, I was bewildered. The blog post I’d submitted to them had ended on my taunting them with 98% certainty that I’d be rejected. I wasn’t sure how risky it might be to sass one of America’s most prestigious literary journals, but then again, one of my character flaws is that during certain times in life, under certain aggravating conditions, I simply cease to care. I briefly consider the ramifications, and then say, “What the hell.”

I won’t burrow too far down to the roots of my cynicism, because we would be here all day. I’m sure you all want to get up to pee or have something to eat. Let me just say that I am a woman and I’m not sure how much damage that has done me in life. I’ve had some hard times. I’ll spare you the horrific details; we are not having cocktails down at the corner pub together, we are just writer and readers—pen-to-page/eyes-to-page, sharing a formal relationship, possibly a very fleeting one.

When I got my first novel, Angels Carry the Sun, published in 2010 with Lilly Press, the cold hard facts about being a writer had not yet hit home for me. I accepted my publisher’s praise, then sat back and waited for instant fame. Funny, right?! Now if I were a man, and weren’t so busy with my second job of doling out hotdogs and pasta, I would probably have gotten myself an agent. As it is, I do the occasional author event—or even more “lucrative”—do my book whoring on the street corner routine. Believe me, as dispiriting as it sometimes may be, selling my book in the streets is the main reason my publisher and I have turned (no pun intended) a profit.

As the reviews of Angels Carry the Sun came back positive, I began submitting to more prestigious literary magazines. I noticed immediately that it was much harder to get published in the big literary magazines than in the small. A magazine’s whose title resembled the description of an acid trip was much more liable to publish me than a magazine with “Journal”, “Quarterly”, or “Review” in the title. I wondered at the statistical significance of the fact that I could get one in ten submissions published in small magazines, but had never yet had an acceptance from a big American literary magazine. I was approaching fifty submissions to the big magazines over the past few years. According to my stats, one of them should have accepted something by now, even with the consideration that competition might be more intense. I started to wonder.

By the time I submitted my blog post to Prairie Schooner, I was becoming bitter, and I may have told myself that I didn’t care what happened. Since I believe in writing like no one is watching anyway, I took a gamble: Prairie Schooner, I’m sure you won’t publish me because I’m an unknown author—an unknown female author. Or maybe you won’t publish me because I’m not an academic. Or because I’m more of a novelist than a poet. Or because I’m a street corner book whore. Or because I went to public school. Or because I like fish more than beef. Or because I have no tact. Whatever. Come on, I know you’ll find some reason to reject me, like you all do. You know you will. You know why you will? Because I’m always right, that’s why. Because I’m always right.

Well, it feels great to be wrong—it does happen on rare occasions. Wink, wink.

Phoebe Wilcox has published a novel, PEN/Faulkner-nominated Angels Carry the Sun, and a poetry chapbook, Recidivist (each published by Lilly Press in 2010). Her stories and poems have been nominated thrice for the Pushcart Prize, and her Rhysling-nominated poem, “A More Significant Sun” was included in the 2010 Rhysling Anthology. She was the winner of the 2012 Gertrude Stein “Rose” Poetry Prize awarded by Wilderness House Literary Review.