Seal Press scandal

Bloggers are battling the feminist press over recent comments about women of color.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published April 12, 2008 12:15AM (EDT)

Feel that heat? There's a blogospheric firestorm raging and it's burning up feminist blogs left and right. It all started with one comment -- "Fuck Seal Press" -- written at the end of a casual, stream-of-consciousness blog post by feminist blogger, Blackamazon. An anonymous reader later wrote in the post's comments thread: "Seal Press has NOTHING on WOC [women of color]!!!" Then, Brooke Warner, a senior editor at the enduring feminist press, stepped into the comments thread: "Seal Press here. We WANT more WOC. Not a whole lotta proposals come our way, interestingly. Seems to me it would be more effective to inform us about what you'd like to see rather than hating."

It was the equivalent of a door opened on an oxygen-starved fire. Cue: Virtual backdraft. Blackamazon responded to Warner's comment:

First and foremost how ever rude and disrespectful your entrance , welcome to MY blog. Secondly , considering you want more women of color I find it highly comical your response to a WOC is to tell her what it seems like to you is the best option for her experience. Because immediately my display of anger is met with a public call for what is essentially servitude ...

Readers wrote in to second Blackamazon's argument. Sylvia/M wrote: "Don't try to reframe the situation as if I, a woman of color, should be giving explanations to you two about why you don't publish more works by, for, and about women of color. That's your problem." Sudy added: "In desiring something, does the burden of labor lay on the shoulders of the desired ... or the ones desiring? I think the latter." So, Warner responded, again:

I appreciate the dialogue, ladies. First off, the blog feels very informal, and my language is in response to the language here:

1. You hate us.
2. We have nothing on WOC.

I get that you all engage best through negative discourse, but I find that too bad. It's not servitude when we pay our authors advances. And book publishing is not an industry of outreach as much as it is editors being presented with an idea and engaging would-be authors in creative co-creation. I just find it curious more than anything that you all are wasting your time hating (yes, purposeful reuse of the word) rather than actively engaging in changing something you find problematic ...

That, of course, only stoked the fire. A flurry of angry responses followed; the thread currently has 89 comments and, as far as I can tell, Seal Press is the only one coming to its defense. Most took issue with the fact the Warner expected women of color to knock down publishers' doors, rather than the other way around; that she used the word "hating" (one reader called this "misappropriating language"); and that she broadly addressed her second comment to "you all" -- did she mean women of color or just the women participating in the comments thread?

Warner also blogged about the issue on Seal Press' blog, clarifying that her comments shouldn't be taken to mean that she doesn't do any outreach to women of color: "I do and I have. But again, as the sole acquiring editor, there's only so much I can do. I have to rely on people who want to get published, and who approach me." But the outrage has since spread to several other blogs, including one written by Bitch Magazine's Andi Zeisler. She wrote:

Seeing the Seal folks respond they way they did to Blackamazon's post -- really, the fact that they responded at all in that space -- was like watching from afar as your friend exits the club bathroom with her skirt tucked into her pantyhose and walks straight up to the guy in the 'Too Drunk to Fuck, So Just Give Me a Blowjob' t-shirt. You're trying to yell, 'No! Retreat! Rewind! Bad idea!' but the music's just way too loud. Seal Press's subsequent post about the incident, then, was sort of like watching that same friend, a second later, whip out a big bag of glue and start huffing it. I mean, put the glue away! You've done enough damage already!

Well put. I immediately felt sorry for Warner when I stumbled across this scandal, if only because her sensitivity and defensiveness made total sense; Seal Press (which has an editorial department of two people) is barely surviving as a publisher. But ... of course, women of color have every reason to feel resentful, angry and unheard -- perhaps especially so within the feminist movement. And the truth is, women of color are under-represented in Seal Press' catalogue.

Now, it seems likely that Seal Press has decided that books written about the experience of women of color may not sell very well and so they do not seek them out, because they need guaranteed blockbusters. As Warner wrote on the Seal Press blog, "There's been a constant push to be more commercial, and we've responded to that. When it's try or die, I opt for trying." That's dismal and depressing, to be sure -- but it does make sense.

Call it cowardly, but I won't pick a winner here; I think the tack taken by both sides has been counterproductive and yet utterly understandable. I hope the life this has taken on in such a short amount of time is an indication that it can evolve into a broader, more productive discussion; clearly, it needs to happen. It better, because the need isn't going away, even as this particular debate dies down.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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