What This Feud Says About Sexism in Literature

by Emma Cueto
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When a man who apparently considers himself a guardian of the literary world decides to publicly denounce a female writer, you almost don't have to read the essay to know what it says — and this comes very much in handy when that essay is 11,000 words long. For those of us who did make it all the way through (in)famous book blogger Ed Champion's unnecessarily long takedown piece aimed at author Emily Gould, certain segments of the literary world are clearly still threatened by the idea of young women finding literary success. And, it seems, are very comfortable writing about how awful these young women are, even if it's someone as innocuous as Gould, the author of three books that weren't major sellers but were mostly well-received.

Champion's blog post, "Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials," is scathing in its analysis of young people on the literary scene, whom he terms "middling millennials" and for some reason identifies as exclusively female. He charges these women with sins like being on social media, calling themselves writers, and not being James Baldwin. Champion seem to think that if all our young writers are not producing works of genius in their 20s, then our entire generation is a failure, Eleanor Catton be damned. And, of course, this is only a standard that applies to the "middling millennial" women.

Yet even though Champion tries to make the essay seem broad in scope, his real focus of the essay is attacking Gould, author and former editor at Gawker, who once wrote a short piece about Champion's attempts to get a late check for some freelance work, and asked him two brief questions after an event, failing to catch the literary reference in the alias he gave instead of his name.

Champion picks apart Gould, her career, and her work, calling her everything from a "young ambitious type," to a "dim bulb," to a "callous sociopath," among many other not-nice things. He compares her work to other writers, finding it lacking. He is furious that she claims to have made apologies to people she unfairly profiled at Gawker yet hasn't gotten around to apologizing to the important person of himself. He fixates on her spending habits, contrasting them with his own more meager resources. And perhaps most perplexingly of all, he criticizes her, and all the female "middling millennials," for failing to "recognize their privilege." This, coming from a straight, white, cis man who barely alludes to his privilege once in 11,000 words, is almost laughably hypocritical.

The subtweet saga that unfolded on Twitter following this piece, which was largely critical of Champion, certainly reveals a lot about both the article's author and its target, including Gould's savvy use of social media that Champion objects to so strongly, and Champion's potential mental health problems (which hopefully he gets help with soon). However, Champion's essay itself also reveals a great deal about the literary world and the way the men in it feel entitled to judge and invalidate women's success. Because even though things may be changing, those old attitudes are still very much alive.

Some of Champion's criticism in this piece are probably valid — for instance, he touches on the whiteness of literary culture and the times Gould has seemed oblivious to it. However, Champion is also a white person, and one cannot help but feel he's bringing up these objections more as part of his personal vendetta against Gould rather than out of genuine concern for the whiteness of literary culture. In truth, the piece as a whole (a very long whole) feels like something written by a man who is uncomfortable with the idea that young women might be succeeding in the literary world.

Not every female author will be Toni Morrison, but then not every male author is Gabriel García Márquez. Acting as though it is some sort of great cultural tragedy that a woman Champion doesn't happen to like has found literary success (while Champion himself has still not published a book) is petty but not unsurprising. And this idea that serious literature is not something for women to play with is not restricted to Champion alone.

Women, as well as people of color and LGBT people, face all sorts of obstacles to getting published, and in getting their stories taken seriously by the literary establishment. And yet the relatively meager gains that people who are not straight white men have made in the literary world still makes so many uncomfortable.