Dec 10, 2013

Silences by Tillie Olsen

Silences by Tillie Olsen

No one has as yet written A Room of One’s Own for writers, other than women, still marginal in literature. Nor do any bibliographies exist for writers whose origins and circumstances are marginal. Class remains the greatest unexamined factor.
Tillie Olsen’s Silences, which was originally published in 1978, is a collection of essays about writers’ periods of silence and the circumstances that surround these. Having noticed that, up until the early twentieth-century at least, it was common for women, people of colour and working class authors to only publish a single work, Olsen decided to analyse the factors that may contribute to these silences. Her conclusion is that the demands of work, domestic or otherwise (and in the case of women of different backgrounds, the demands of family life and of constant availability and responsiveness to the needs of others), often made it difficult for these writers to focus on their work. It takes privilege and the confidence privilege engenders to be able to say, “My work is important and I’m going to prioritise it.” The central thesis of Silences is that we lose important voices because life’s demands crowd out people’s writing, and this is a great shame.

Olsen’s point may strike us as fairly obvious, but I find that even today the struggle to balance writing with life’s other demands isn’t always approached with understanding. My favourite thing about Silences is that it’s such a compassionate book: one that acknowledges that being constantly run down by exhaustion signals unjust and often impossible life circumstances, not insufficient motivation or personal failure.

Finding the time and space for writing is complicated, and sometimes discussions around it make me uncomfortable because they seem to conceive of being a writer as an identity rather than a practice. You can Be a Real Writer, in which case you’ll seldom fail to find a way around the exhaustion and lack of headspace and get the words out day after day, or you can Not Be a Writer, in which case no strategy could possibly work. I’m not particularly concerned with who gets to call themselves a writer (anyone with an interest in the act of writing, if you ask me), but I am interested in strategies to maximize the practice of writing even though life makes demands upon us all. Motivation and commitment probably do play a role, as they do in several aspects of our lives, but that doesn’t stop “If you want it enough, you’ll make it work; if you give up, I guess it wasn’t that important to you” from being one of my all-time least favourite catch-phrases or pieces of advice. However good the intention, this understanding of things is smug, insensitive, and inevitably flattens out the complexity of the several factors people have to juggle in their daily lives. It also erases the power of last straw-type small disappointments and hurts to defeat people who were already so close to overwhelmed.

Having said that, I do understand the human appeal of this idea. Sometimes we’re drawn to explanations that are simple and cheery: we need to hear that something that’s within our control (our own level of commitment) will be enough to defeat all the other things we can’t so easily have a say over. I’ve felt the lure of this idea myself — but at the end of the day, no matter how badly I want to set the alarm for 5:30 in the morning so I can have a few hours before work to start on that essay I’ve been daydreaming about writing for days, there will be times when I won’t be able to wake up. There will also be times when I do succeed and feel triumphant and on top of the world, but realistically, it isn’t how much I want it that varies from one day to the next.

Then again, hearing someone acknowledge these difficulties is in some way more encouraging than being told we’re sabotaging ourselves every time we succumb to exhaustion. So in a roundabout way, there is comfort to be found in a straightforward statement of fact like the following:
But what if there is not that fullness of time, let alone totality of self? What if the writers, as in some of these silences, must work regularly at something besides their own work—as do nearly all in the arts in the United States today?

I know the theory (kin to “starving in the garret makes great art”) that it is this very circumstance which feeds creativity. I know, too, that for the beginning young, for some who have such need, the job can be valuable access to life they would not otherwise know. A few (I think of the doctors, the incomparable Chekhov and William Carlos Williams) for special reasons sometimes manage both. But the actuality testifies: substantial creative work demands time, and with rare exceptions only full-time workers have achieved it. Where the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor efforts and accomplishments; silences.
Time to devote to substantial creative work is a luxury that’s directly connected to material privilege. In addition to this, we have to contend with the psychological pressure anyone who isn’t a white male can be subjected to when they attempt to carve out space for their work. Women who prioritize writing are often called selfish, cold, remote and unfeminine — not only by others but by the inner voices that anyone growing up in a culture where these ideas are so prominent is bond to develop. Olsen reflects on the effect these factors had in her own writing life:
The years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks. Now, lightened as they are, when I must do those tasks into which most of my life went, like the old mother, grandmother in my Tell Me a Riddle who could not make herself touch a baby, I pay a psychic cost: “the sweat beads, the long shudder begins.” The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, mark you, become you. The cost of “discontinuity” (that pattern still imposed on women) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years. I speak of myself to bring here the sense of those others to whom this is in the process of happening (unnecessarily happening, for it need not, must not continue to be) and to remind us of those (I so nearly was one) who never come to writing at all.
Silences is concerned with that this “pattern of discontinuity” has meant for marginalized groups historically. With this in mind, there are two angles from which to approach the idea that members of marginalised groups haven’t contributed as much as straight white men to literature and culture as a whole. One is to look for works by members of these groups that do exist but have been forgotten and dismissed because sexist, racist, classit and heteronormative assumptions affect what we consider relevant, important, and worthy of being added to canons — needless to say, this is important work. But Olsen is also interested in another approach: to understand the reasons why women, working class, lgbtq or POC writers have historically not been as prolific in ways that go beyond simplistic essentialism or outright prejudice. And this is relevant to debates we’re still having today: the same arguments Olsen demolished so effectively back in the 1970s are still made with a straight face in 2013. Case in point:
Only a few months ago (June 1971), during a Radcliffe sponsored panel on “Women’s Liberation, Myth or Reality,” Diana Trilling, asking why it is that women have not made even a fraction of the intellectual, scientific or artistic-cultural contributions which men have made came again to the traditional conclusion that it is not enough to blame women’s place in culture or culture itself, because that leaves certain fundamental questions unanswered… [and] necessarily raises the question of the biological aspects of the problem.

Biology: that difference. Evidently unknown to or dismissed by her and the others who share her conclusion are the centuries of prehistory during which biology did not deny equal contribution; and the other determining difference—not biology—between male and female in the centuries after; the differing past of women—that should be part of every human consciousness, certainly every woman’s consciousness (in the way that the 400 years of bondage, colonialism, the slave passage, are to black humans).


Bolstering. Vicarious living, infantilization, trivialization. Parasitism, individualism, madness. Shut up, you’re only a girl. O Elizabeth, why couldn’t you have been born a boy? For twentieth-century woman: roles, discontinuities, part-self, part-time; conflict; imposed “guilt”; “a man can give full energy to his profession, a woman cannot.” How is it that women have not made a fraction of the intellectual, scientific, or artistic-cultural contributions that men have made? Only in the context of this punitive difference in circumstance, in history, between the sexes; this past, hidden or evident, that (though objectively obsolete—yes, even the toil and the compulsory childbearing obsolete) continues so terribly, so determiningly to live on; only in this context can the question be answered or my subject here today—the women writer in our century: one out of twelve—be understood.
I recognised some of my own struggles as a woman who’s interested in exploring thoughts through writing in Silences, but I also recognised my own privilege. I do have, for a limited amount of time a day, a room of my own. As much as I sometimes struggle with exhaustion, I’m very fortunate not to have to work a soul-destroying job, or two or three different jobs just to make ends meet. Our current socio-political arrangements rob us of the voices of people in such circumstances much too often. I don’t have an immediate solution for this, but I do know that whatever it is, it will surely involve not blaming people for not “triumphing” over really difficult circumstances, and not holding anyone who does manage to succeed (at who knows what personal cost) as an example that with a little will-power really it can be done. Systematic problems demand systematic solutions, not superhuman feats of strength.

As you can probably tell by now, Silences resonated with a lot of my long-term concerns, and reading it was important to me in many different ways. Having said that, I have to mention something I had huge issues with and that made me trust Olsen’s arguments and analysis less than I would have otherwise. The central thesis of Silences demands some guesswork, and over-interpretation in a risk inherent to this kind of research. Still, it saddened me to see Olsen take her guessing in horrible directions due to biases she’s unaware of. In the following passage, she decides that writing good but “inevitably limited” genre fiction rather than “deeper, more lasting literature” should be counted as a form of silence, because if not for difficult circumstances these writers would surely not have “sacrificed their talent” and succumbed to crass commercialism:
There is another kind of professional who, also beginning with aspiration and capacity, ends up making the pot boil—but by Fitzgerald’s “sacrifice of talent, in pieces, to preserve its essential value.” Easily distinguishable from the meretricious, the sleazy (along with the conscientious, capable free lancer), they are the producers of the good in the daily stream of publishing: the made-to-order, the topical, the popular, the entertainment, the ghost writing—the current staples. Like Rebecca Harding Davis, they remain serious writers—committed to substance, respecting language and craftsmanship. If they cannot make each piece art, they make it as readable, believable, and rewarding as possible. Sometimes—notably with science fiction, Gothic, detective, mystery—their work is so distinguished, they establish a new form in literature. Able to reach and touch people, they often directly affect their time as few “quality” writers are able to. But many are a Silence—that is, an absence from deeper, more lasting literature.
Gah, why? I mean, I know why, and I won’t even bother to address the assumption that writing genre marks you as anything other than a Serious Writer. What troubles me is not so much this ridiculous but fairly common assumption, but Olsen’s willingness to speak for her subjects and twist their choices to suit the purposes of her argument. She gives us no primary sources that indicate that the writers she has in mind did indeed think of themselves as having sacrificed their talent for financial reasons. There are no letters or diaries where they go, “Gah, I wish I could be creating Real Art, but there are bills to pay, so it will have to be science fiction again”. It’s only Tillie Olsen’s belief that this could only be the case that drives her to include them among her list of silenced writers. If she were writing today, would Olsen consider the many women who have succeed in bringing about what many call a new golden age of young people’s literature silenced writers?

But don’t let that put you off: most of the times Silences is sharp, insightful and well-researched. It’s an excellent antidote to the insidious form of victim-blaming we tend to direct at people who fail to be superheroes we can turn into inspirational little anecdotes that “prove” that the world is indeed a meritocracy, and an excellent companion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

(Have you read this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. It does sound like it raises some interesting points! I will have to see if the library has it. :)

  2. I read this back in college in a women's lit course and loved it. Still relevant today though perhaps it was much more controversial and groundbreaking in its own time.


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