Canon Fodder, or Screw You And The Top 10 List You Rode In On
The creation of a list is the creation of boundaries in a way that is necessarily normative and anti-queer.
When I was an undergraduate English student, the field was going through an anticanon phase and the way that this played out for students was thusly: at no time during my studies was I ever expected to read, write or know anything about the play “Hamlet,” but I was asked to read, and was tested on Shakespeare’s lesser-loved work, “Cymbaline.” I will leave it to scholars much more intelligent than me to discuss the relative literary merits of the two works, but the intention was to improve the education of the students by expanding our literary horizons to works we would have been unlikely to encounter previously, or ever again. However, this attempt was seriously flawed in that while it made the professors feel that they had caused a great shift in perspective, in fact it only proved to reascribe Mr. Shakespeare’s work at the center of the English-language literary tradition.
These cycles and pitfalls of canon/anticanon play out in any number of media arenas, from art galleries to The Huffington Post, and queer media is far from immune to the dangers of reifying the normative through attempts to counter it. Nowhere is this effect more insidious than the “Top 10” list format published by nearly every queer media outlet, most recently in today’s Autostraddle Hot 100 2012: The Hottest Queerest Women In All The Land. It is not enough to point out that this list fails to include an appropriate number of trans women, of women of color, of women above a size 16, of poor women, of disabled women. Autostraddle’s use of the word “Hot” instead of “powerful” such as Out or “under 40” like the Advocate is a false indication that it is able to subvert the paradigm by simply redefining the word hot to include various kinds of hotness. The problem with these list formats is that there can never been a list that is properly inclusive, because the form itself is necessarily exclusive. It would be politically impractical or even impossible to create a list like this that is truly inclusive, not because of the debate around who should judge such hotness but the idea that one person or group can judge the hotness of all queer women and elect a top 100, or top 1000, or top 10,000 for that matter. The creation of a list is the creation of boundaries in a way that is necessarily normative and anti-queer.
In realities these types of lists are created as much out of cheapness of production and the “viral marketing” value of the article. In this way, growth of the list from 10 to 100 Hot Queer Women is done as much for marketing purposes as it is the facade of inclusion. Instead of 10 people, there are 100 people sharing the article with their friends, who share it with their friends, etc. (This reminds me of an old East Village theater adage attributed to playwright Madeline Olnek, “If you want your play to be a hit, get a big cast and put the word ‘lesbian’ in the title,” which proved true time and time again.)
Maybe this seems silly, to be so concerned about a list of 100 Hot Queer Women, and it is, or rather it would be if it were limited only to these silly lists. In reality, the echoes of this type of content curation are seen over and over again in queer media: as boundaries are constructed, the content gets worse and the editorial process itself destroys the genre. Sarah Schulman has described the process of starting out as a lesbian novelist published by mainstream presses and watching as bookstores such as Barnes & Noble erected Gay & Lesbian sections, relegating to it her books and many books by other lesbian authors. In recent years, large publishers are more resistant than ever to publish work with lesbian content, as it is immediately segregated into the Gay & Lesbian section of The Bookstore and almost immediately forgotten.
There are many many ways we as writers and editors can address and overcome this, but be sure that the stakes can not be overstated. To leave, for a moment, the queer blog arena, I offer this thought experiment: Imagine that the head librarian at the New York Public Library has a red telephone that connects directly to the Oval Office, and in case of global thermonuclear war, that librarian gets a call. And at that time, the librarian needs to go into a bunker to wait out the disaster of all humankind and can only bring along the books that he or she can carry by hand, so maybe up to 30-40 books (if this is an especially robust librarian). Which books should the librarian choose? The Riverside Shakespeare? the OED? What about non-English books? How many books by women or by people who aren’t white? How many books by trans women of color?
I am encouraging my fellow content curators to diversify their portfolios.
The librarian’s task is almost impossible, but consider that while the NYPL houses about 45 million items, while the internet houses almost 200 million blogs alone. Our head librarian could spend his or her life’s career curating their doomsday list, while, as blog editors, we have to make these decisions constantly. True, the stakes may not be as high as global thermonuclear war, but in the arenas of queer media, curators have nearly as much influence over the future of culture as the librarian selecting the few dozen books that the next generation will get to read. Wouldn’t it serve us better to not build barriers where none existed before?
Even without the list-making, of course all content curation is necessarily the difficult process of selecting some content and excluding the rest. It is the job of curators to make decisions, as wisely as possible, about collecting and disseminating content, and the duty of consumers of the artifacts to judge and consume in as wide a range as possible. The process will always been necessarily flawed and beyond my suggestion to avoid the superficial list-making so popular in media from Autostraddle to the New York Times, I have only one other suggestion to ponder.
In the world of finance, even a first-year junior analyst understands this basic tenant of portfolio theory: there is almost no reason to ever pick individual stocks. Because of a fairly boring mathematical equation that I will spare you at this time, we know that pretty much any diversified portfolio of stocks will go up and down pretty much in line with an overall market index, like the S&P 500. The amazing thing about this theory is that a portfolio of even 10 or 12 stocks, selected completely at random, is going to act almost exactly like the market as a whole. This is the major reasons mutual funds exist, because this level of diversification is so desirable to investors. “Stock-picking” or the process of sitting down and analyzing individual company’s stocks in order to try to pick stocks that will “beat the market” almost always backfires, in fact. It is understood that some of the stocks in the portfolio will go down, and some will go up, but on average, it will probably look a lot like the returns of the market as a whole.
Analysts who consistently beat the market returns are almost always able to do so because of insider trading or outright fraud. Bernie Madoff’s fund was so popular because he appeared to be able to, against all odds, beat market returns through stock-picking. He’s currently on year 2 of a 150-year sentence in Butner Federal Correction Complex after having defrauded and destroyed the personal wealth of thousands of investors. Stock-picking doesn’t work.
What if our head librarian at the NYPL, instead of laboriously picking the 30 or 40 most important books ever printed using whatever method, knowing, after a long career as a book curator and researcher, that there is no way for him or her as an individual to actually select the most important 30 or 40 books to all of humanity. What if they instead selected 30 or 40 books completely at random? The librarian would have to assume that some of the books would be garbage, and some of the books would be spectacular, but overall they would average out to a realistic collection of written culture as it was in 2012. What a different list that would be.
I am not advocating that editors curate content the way that brokers select stocks for mutual funds anymore than I would recommend that an author randomly spew words on to a page in an effort to create, on average, the best book possible with those words. Instead, I am encouraging my fellow content curators to diversify their portfolios. I am certain that the process of actively seeking out subjects and authors who are foreign to you, who define themselves in language that is unfamiliar and whose narratives are unlike those you are already publishing will improve your product. Resist building boundaries around them with definitions and containers that will necessarily prove false just to increase short-term readership.
I hope that we can come to understand that it is impossible to pick the actual best or the actual hottest or the actually most powerful queer people. It is as useless and dangerous as the process of picking individual stocks, or trying to beat the returns on the market against all odds and mathematical laws. Ten years on, I have no recollection of Cymbaline’s characters, plot, or when it was written in relationship to Shakespeare’s other works. As an editor I struggle with the same challenges that all curators do, how to simultaneously serve my readers, my authors, and my ego. Let this essay be not read as a criticism of my peers as much as it is an admission of personal guilt and awareness of immense responsibility, as in writing it, I wish only to avoid hoisting myself on my own petard.