On Ladybox Books, Women in Publishing and Gender Inequity, a Conversation with Constance Ann Fitzgerald
I was fortunate enough to secure quality time with editor-in-chief of Ladybox Books Constance Ann Fitzgerald for Ladies Month. I ended up throwing just about every conspiracy theories about gender inequity I had at her and she patiently sifted through my crap and taught me a thing or two.
If you don't know who Constance is, you should check out Ladybox Books like, now. They released one of my favorite books of 2015. Also, drop by her personal site. Ladybox Books have right now three books out. Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert by Rios de La Luz and Life is Wonderful, People Are Terrific, by Meliza Bañales.
So, without further ado...
Ben: You've been running Ladybox Books for how long now? Two? Three years? You've told me last fall that it was difficult to get women to ACTUALLY SUBMIT their work, which blew my mind and inspired me to dedicate an entire month to female fiction on Dead End Follies. Why do you think that is? Are there built-in misconceptions about the mission of Ladybox?
Constance: I'm glad to be part of your month long dedication to shining the light on women who write!
I've actually only been running Ladybox Books as a press for a year and a half. We've gained a lot of momentum and I couldn't be happier with our trajectory. The issue with getting women to submit is not actually an issue unique to Ladybox Books. This is actually something I've been told by multiple publishers, both male and female themselves.
I don't know why it is. It just seems to be that way. Which is a damn shame. There is so much great stuff out there waiting to be shared and for whatever reason these authors feel hesitant to submit their work. We're missing out on fanfuckingtastic stories and journeys! I want to read those stories and I know so many others do as well.
Ben: Agreed and I believe it points at issues that go way beyond publishing. Walk me through your acquisition process. Were Ladybox Books publications all submissions or did you come across some of these authors in a more unconventional way?
Constance: Absolutely it does. Like, in comedy it comes to "women aren't funny" which is such complete bullshit. Or "women only write about themselves and flowers and other girly shit."
1.) I massively beg to differ. If that's all you've found from female authors than you need to branch out a bit. Try harder.
2.) why shouldn't a woman write about themselves? What about being a woman says that her stories and experiences aren't fascinating and worth sharing? Bukowski, Burroughs (though through an opioid lens), Kerouac and a grip of other male writers made careers on doing damn near nothing but that, and they're praised for it.
So far none of the books I've acquired for Ladybox Books have come through the regular submission process. Which isn't to say it isn't possible it could happen in the very near future.
Authors have come to me through other authors, been pointed in my direction. I've seen their work, loved it, and needed to be part of putting it out into the world. For me, I'm not just trying to publish books, I'm also trying to build working relationships with people whose work I believe in and build a community of talented, strong, intelligent writers.
Ben: See, the way you went from zero to 100 here interests me. Do you think there's an outward rejection of female ideas and experience or is it more of a shutdown? I apologize if it sounds ignorant, but it seems to me like an issue nobody really wants to get to the bottom of. I'm a white man so I don't have this problem, but I'll be the first to admit white men's ideas and experience are privileged in the publishing industry and it frames our understanding of everything else because there's only one reality being represented (I've been reading Derrida for Beginners does it show? I apologize for that too). I don't think Jonathan Franzen would've even been published if his name was Emma Thompson or something. If the publishing industry sees value in white males in great majority, women will not see value in what they do, right? They won't see it as "fit for publication." Am I making sense or am I just making shit up about sexism in the publishing industry? The way you reacted to my initial comment leads me to believe I'm on to something.
My apologies if I'm wrong. Sorry for apologizing so goddamn much too. I'm Canadian, that's what we do up here.
Constance: I apologize all the time too. I'm not Canadian but I'm pretty sure it's because I have Italian and Irish blood so there's just this genetic catholic guilt bogging me down.
I'd say that the rejection of ideas and the shut down are very closely related. One begets the other. When women and their ideas and experiences are constantly being told they aren't important or worthwhile there will be a disconnect. There will be a voice (or many) that say "you know what? don't even try. no one cares what you have to say."
But they do! I do! We do! And more and more people are speaking up and sharing their words and voices and saying that they matter. I think it's important for women to do this, but I think it's especially important for Women of Color and LGBTQ folks to be heard. They've lived experiences so many of us never will. We can learn so much by shutting up and listening. It's not hard to do.
Ben: Do you have stories of female writers being outwardly shut down by editors and publishers? I would love to hear them and subsequently use them in argument like : "Here, motherfucker. It happened." But I've never really seen it happen. The way I see it editors and publishers are torn between what they like (serious, traditional fiction about white men's middle-age angst) and what they think will sell (crap). Because you know, I figure every important editor to be an angsty, white middle-aged man living vicariously through the author he publishes.
No need to name names. It doesn't even need to be entirely true. Be theatrical! Please.
Constance: Fortunately, no one I know has been shut down or done any shutting down of any authors based on gender or race. At least not that I'm aware of.
Maybe because I'm fortunate enough to be associated with really great people in the publishing industry.
Ben: So that's my hypothesis, right? That female writers are being systematically shut down. Of course, nobody wants to oppress any group or whatever, but they're just invisible to them. That's fucked up if you ask me. I'm as much to blame as anybody for this because I do love to hear about a miserable white guy avenging the wrongdoings that were made to him. I live vicariously through that. I've been trying to come up with a theory of what makes a female writer successful in a game that's rigged against them and maybe you can help be with that. Megan Abbott is probably the heavyweight champ because her novels are both feminine, sassy, haunting and quite frankly more entertaining than anything out there. Hilary Davidson writes better mysteries than anybody in the business, so she's kind of above the game too. They are books I surprisingly lived through because what happened in them could technically happen to anybody. There's Tiffany Scandal too, who we both like, who really worked a number on me last year because her novel Jigsaw Youth gave such a strong portrait of issues women are confronted to everyday.
See, I can only come up with three names from top of my head. Please, help me. What female authors do you vicariously live through?
Constance: It's funny because calling it a systematic shut down makes it sound so much more deliberate. Like, there is a room full of bro-dude writers somewhere vetoing the words of women.
I think it's more of a general dismissal. The way women have been historically ignored and dismissed or written off as hysterical, over emotional, etc. The dismissal, to me, coincides with this need to not give away any bit of the pie they might be able to hang on to just for themselves. There's plenty of pie. We can make more pie.
When Tiffany pitched Jigsaw Youth, I knew I wanted that book. I wanted her to write it. And I think whether or not I accepted her pitch, she would have written it anyway. Because it's important to share these issues and experiences. And it's done in such a relatable way.
I feel very much the same about all the books I've put out on LB so far. These are books I wish I would have had or found when I was younger. These are the kinds of books that make women go "oh man! Me too!" and they feel less alone. Which is such a beautiful thing.
Living vicariously though the fiction of an author is so magical, but there's also a lot to be said for feeling solidarity with their work because you've already been there. Some of my favorite female authors who take me to those places, in no particular order are: Juliet Escoria, Leesa Cross-Smith, Elizabeth Ellen, Rios De La Luz, Tiffany Scandal, Meliza Bañales, Laura Lee Bahr, Amy Hempel, Violet LeVoit, Melissa Broder, Chelsea Martin, Rachel Bell and Samantha Irby.
(And yeah, you're probably thinking "Constance, you included the authors of your press on this list. How bias." And fuck yeah, I did. I absolutely and genuinely feel moved by the words of these women, that's WHY I published them in the first place.)
Ben: Nah, I'm good with bias. Some of these authors I've reviewed here already and others are on the program this month. So,it's cool. But yeah, shut down, dismissal, maybe my English Second Language is catching up to me on this one, but I see both terms as being equivalent. I do not think it's deliberate either. It's a publishing issue, but it's not. It goes way deeper than that. Women are being dismissed in arts, on the job market, in sports (and this one is particularly insidious), even in their own lives. How many single women I know who have dating horror stories of men barely acknowledging they're human beings. Marginalization and even commodification of women is an issue we need to talk about, but I don't see any solution to it (and I'm a solution-oriented guy) outside of having women carve history themselves. History was always carved by white men (or almost), so who we are now it a byproduct of that, I believe.
What do you think about that? Is there a world where we both live in where women are significantly less marginalized?
Constance: I'd agree that women can and should carve out space for themselves. And I'd also add that men who notice these things happening should speak up too.
Women don't need men to speak for us, so much as we could really use their support.
Ben: Now, you're being interesting again. That leads me to something else I wanted to talk to you about: what do you think of these men who call themselves feminists and who write lengthy blog posts about it. I'm aware there are several dudes in the writing community who are like that and I think they all missed the plot. Wouldn't being supportive of the movement involve getting the fuck out of the way and letting women figure out the place they want to occupy?
Now maybe I'm the one missing the plot. That's why I'm bouncing all my unspoken hypotheses on you!
Constance: I think we already know the space we want to occupy. It's the same space as anywhere/one else, we just want to feel safe when we're there.
Men are entitled to opinions, and sure, sometimes they have great intentions. But there is a lot to be said for passing the mic, and letting someone who has lived it speak for themselves instead of trying to speak on their behalf.
Ben: We agree on that, but I wonder what part of both our perceptions is being influenced by the way reality is being presented to us. For example, when you pick up let's say, Elle Magazine. It's labeled as a magazine for women, but it's also setting up impossible (and very photoshopped) beauty standards that keep women in an endless cycle of consumerism. Who the fuck sets up beauty standards anyway and why are women judged on their prettiness anyway? Some would say it's evolutionary, but if it's the case I say everybody gets judged on their general badassness.
Anyway, what else pisses you off? Your views are well-defined and structured, but I know you're not just an editor. You're writing too and usually that's where the stuff that really gets to you leaks into your writing. So, tell me. What do you write about?
Constance: Women's magazines are women's magazines in that they are 40-100 pages of advertising directed at women: "You need the latest fashions. You need the best make up, with the most coverage because your skin is flawed. You need to lose weight. You need bigger breasts/ass or the illusion of. Your hair isn't shiny enough. He doesn't want you. He's cheating on you. You could be better in bed. If you give us all your money we can magically make everything perfect and you can be this airbrushed Dynamo."
But I'll still cut up an issue of Vogue for an art project, so I guess they serve their purpose.
I think the better question is, what doesn't piss me off? It doesn't take much.
When it comes to the things that anger me that I write about, it tends to be people treating people badly. Because it's so common and so unnecessary and so easy to not do. And yet so many people treat others like complete garbage all the time. Maybe a decade in the service industry has me a little bitter, but it's so strange to me the way people have zero regard for the fact that the person they are interacting with is a humanfuckingbeing.
Ben: Why do your think people treat each other like garbage? Why do you think people are always longing for what they can't get, shunning what they fortunate to have in the process? It's something that pisses me off too, but I believe there's a sad poetry to it. Would you agree?
Constance: Aw man, if I knew then maybe I'd be able to head it off at the pass. Curb that shit the second it rears its head.
I think people have a hard time just appreciating what they have instead of wanting what they don't. I'm absolutely guilty of this and I try so hard to remind myself what my life was growing up, and all the shit I put myself through in my twenties, and how lucky I am to be in a space where I'm making ends meet, generally sane, and working my shit out.
On the flip side of that, longing and pining create the poetry you're speaking of. Wanting and being dissatisfied with things can make great art. Maybe we're just wanting/worrying about the wrong things sometimes.
Are there wrong things? Can we invalidate the way the human condition makes us feel/want/long? Maybe we're entering deep water here...
Ben: The conversation is taking a turn for the abstract indeed. Here's a question I ask most of my conversationalists: how has you first book Trashland A Go-Go come to life? I'm familiar with Portland's bizarro scene and it's inspiring nature and I'm sure the creative vibe convinced you to get started, but where did it come internally? What were you trying to say with it?
Constance: The concept for Trashland came from a time when I was working in an adult shop in the Bay Area. At the time I came up with the general outline for a BizarroCon workshop, there was a woman who had been hired to revamp the store in order to make it more successful. She was a fucking nightmare. She didn't know what she was doing and was basically just milking her time to get as much money out of my boss as possible. All she did was talk about how she used to be a stripper and sit behind the counter criticizing me instead of doing the job she was hired to do.
The idea of having something horrible happen to her and making her wander through a disgusting landscape was cathartic for me. This woman made several months of my life absolutely miserable, so I just wanted to work out some of that shit on paper instead of blowing up at her and losing my job.
I didn't actually end up writing it for several months and in the space between the workshop and the actual writing I watched a friend die. Before (and for a while after) that death I was in a space of being a trainwreck drunk and letting people (mostly men) treat me really horribly. Writing that book gave me something else to focus on while I processed what the fuck had just happened. Initially I wanted the main character to be a victim, for her to have horrible shit happen to her and to enjoy those things happening to her. But as I wrote it I saw the opportunity to make her a strong character. Someone who could overcome and kickass. So I did.
I think we've all felt a little disposable, at least once. But if you can claw your way out from under the mountain of shit that life has dealt you, there is a lot more to see and do.
Ben: I like how you've deconstructed an unpleasant character (and unpleasant situations in general) in order to create something new and turn multiple negatives into a positive here. It's something most people never really achieve in their lives.I'm curious: did it help you gain perspective on tragedy you were facing? And if so how? I'm asking because I believe language is an area where women can truly take command without having to fear for their safety like you said earlier and you know, like Orwell once proved (in my opinion), if you master language, you master reality.
I don't think I've ever seen a woman get the better of a man physically, but verbally? All the time. I'm surprised we don't have more female politicians and CEOs today (although we have a few iconic ones), because the end of inequity between men and woman has to go through there, I believe. Not that it's the be all, end all answer to it, but I think it's a mandatory passage.
Constance: I don't think it actually helped me gain perspective. I didn't actually recognize the themes of what I had written until I read the published printed version. It snuck up on me. With death and loss, perspective comes with time and distance. Which sounds really cliche, but so far it's proven true for me.
That or a bigger/badder/more horrible death. Then you have to start at square one, in a much deeper darker hole.
Breaking down a bunch of negatives and rebuilding them into some kind of Franken-positive is a survival technique. You have to find a reason to keep going and if everything is bleak and awful and pointless then you'll eventually stop showering, getting out of bed, or breathing.
I don't think there are as many women in politics or holding more important positions as there should be because while women may be able to verbally eviscerate a man, the men themselves, the media and on-lookers will turn that around and boil it down to her being a "bitch" and then attack her physical appearance. But I'm probably just being hysterical or menstruating. Go ask my father/brother/husband what my answer should be and I'm sure we'll come up with a more reasonable explanation.
Ben: No, your anger is understandable. It's true that the narrative is always written the same way in media, which makes me think maybe gender equity balance should be established there first because media definitely manipulates the information. The older I get, the more I realize this. Good thing it's imploding at the moment. Is it something you ever pondered writing about? If so, how would you proceed? Do you believe in militant literature?
Constance: I mean, I guess that depends on what you mean by militant. Are we talking Valérie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto? Because while it's a great read, woah.
I believe in writing your truth. If you need to share your story, uncover injustices, expose inequity, if you feel that in your gut, do it.
Unless you're gonna try and shoot Andy Warhol, then maybe take a breath and re-evaluate.
The media manipulates pretty much all the information filtered through it. It isn't just the lens through which we view women. It's elections, the murder of POC by police officers, and the things they don't address at all. It's astounding how many people still think FOX news is a viable source. And while that may seem to be imploding, they own everything. Money talks and money censors. Even with the Internet, you really have to do a little research/leg work to get a decent unbiased report. Everyone has an agenda. Be that ratings, money, or a pat on the back. What happened to just reporting it as it happened?
I've taken to ranting again...
Ben: You're not ranting. It seems to me like you're operating under the notion that what you have to say it unimportant or uninteresting, which is not the case. I do think we see things through a paradigm created by media and to a certain extent, they define the biases we filter reality through also. If you never experiences something, you will rely on mediated perception in order to make yourself an opinion, so your concern is really valid. I do am convinced the answer is equity, but where do we begin in order to make an efficient and durable change in society: business? media? politics? Think it should start with fiction in order to give young women an ideal that doesn't exist yet in order to make it a reality? Do you think female writers should embrace this responsibility?
Constance: Business, media, politics, and parenting. Raise your children to know better and ask questions and treat other people as human beings regardless of gender, race or class differences.
I absolutely feel that giving young women strong female characters to relate and look up to is SO important. It's why I've put out each of the books published by Ladybox Books.
Look at Ella in Jigsaw Youth, any of the protagonists in The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, Missy Fuego in Life is Wonderful, People are Terrific. These are women who endure and stand strong doing so.
If authors can embrace this responsibility, by all means, do it. If not, support those who can.
Ben: Well, this is something we can definitely agree on! Thanks for doing this. Anything from Ladybox or from your personal writing we can expect in the near future?
Constance: I've been personally working on a thing that hasn't been announced yet, so, TEASE. Ladybox Books is still seeking out the next badass releases and plotting away at making more cool shit!