A Patriarchal Loyalty

When James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, came out, I was actively opposed to thinking about it—far too painful. But then, sometime this spring, I was listening to a podcast (probably TrumpCast) interviewing Comey and I missed my subway stop: That never happens.

He was so interesting, so soothing, so smart and confident, that I couldn’t stop listening. I still blame him for playing a role in Clinton’s defeat in 2016, but he was compelling enough (and had a very pleasant voice) that I decided to listen to his memoir on audiobook.

Comey’s personal story is incredibly moving and hearing him read his well-written memoir in his own voice was worth the time. I had several good runs this spring listening to him talk about leadership, about the stress and strain of being in a 24-7 job, about the assistant who knew to alternate his daily sandwich between turkey and tuna. I loved and still wince at the powerful metaphor he offers for trust as a reservoir. A pool of water that it takes for ever to fill and only a moment to poison, spoil, or drain. Indeed. 

A commentator guessed that he must have been intending to write a book on leadership for some time and I share the sense that this must be right. Each chapter begins with a moving epigraph from Comey-favorite Reinhold Niebuhr and others on the topic. I often wished, mid-run, that I could stop and think through the significance of this or that idea from one of these epigraphs.

Still, while I wasn’t exactly hate-listening, and while I came to like him a lot as a person, and while it became clear to me that, were he part of my life, I would probably like and admire him a lot, what was the problem?

What was the problem?

For me, it all came down to the way that he praised his wife, Patrice. Don’t get me wrong: she sounds like a wonderful person. He writes tenderly and movingly about how she coped when their infant died, how she understood how to break the terrible news to each of their young children—who was too young to see the dead child and who needed to say goodbye. He writes with compassion, too, about how supportive she has been about the several moves that his career has brought upon their family.

But when men praise their wives again and again for support and then, in the same volume single out women (Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton) as having crossed a line, having gone too far, the ugly, deep-seated force of patriarchy is rearing its head.

(In parenthesis, let me add: I know, Martha Stewart’s insider trading was absolutely illegal and her response to it was wrong, stupid, and inadequate. As for Hillary Clinton’s emails, given what we have learned since 2016 about the terrible email and texting habits of powerful people of her generation and mine regarding electronic communication, I don’t even see her misdeeds as rising to the level of notice, to be honest.)

My point is this: as you look at men in power, look at how they treat women. Look at how they treat the women whom they like, whom they love, whom they purport to respect, whom they admire. And then, look at the women they attempt to bring down. The men of the current administration are acting to restore patriarchal power. This effort succeeds because good men—and I do think James Comey is, on the balance a good man—still see women as primarily supporting figures to men. Until that changes, we will have to keep fighting.

Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

Title page, The Life of Poetry (1949; 1968 repr)

I meant to write more, to write up my experience of the women's march, to write about what I'm doing to connect, resist, and defend this outrageously nasty new Republican administration (more than nothing; not enough; maybe enough), but then those who are doing more shamed me into silence. For a moment.

In any case, let's get back into it with a little Muriel Rukeyser. Beautiful, astonishing, bracing words, as valuable now as they must have been in 1949. These, the opening paragraphs of her nonfiction collection of talks and essays, The Life of Poetry. Its incantatory and strange. Read it. Read it again. And again:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are luck, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.--Muriel Rukeyser

The Syllabus for Hard Times

My grief at the outcome of the election is profound and it continues. It’s the atmosphere in which I live. It affects my sense of what is possible. It limits my horizons of hope. I can read all the Rebecca Solnit in the world, but the truth is I’m sad.

At the same time, I have work to do and I know that it is never more important to teach than in times when hope feels hard to grasp. So, every day I try to still be the best teacher I can be. And, of course, my students are doing the same and together, even in our sadness and uncertainty, we continue to arrive at great and good and exciting places of discovery and wisdom.

As propaganda surrounds us, how can teachers—college professors, especially (since that’s where my expertise lies)—work to help students distinguish truth from spin? As we prepare for the administration of a President who has courted the support of racists, hate groups, and neo-Nazis, a President who has admitted sexual assault and has openly mocked the disabled, a Gold Star family, Mexicans, and too many other groups to count, what is the right kind of respect—if that’s a word that has any meaning any more—to accord the office of the presidency? How bet to we continue to value the presidency as part of our democracy as we fight the policies—and outright lies—of the incoming President himself?

I am asking myself these questions every day. Following and learning from activists such as Rebecca Solnit, Shaun King and his #Injustice Boycott, Mikki Halpin, and her action now newsletter, and others.

My tiny contribution to this is a massive, open google drive folder which I’m calling the Syllabus for Hard Times. I value reading long hard things, but I find doing so increasingly difficult. I am distracted. I like the quick hit of a game of solitaire, a podcast, a “like” on a cute post. I’m not proud of it and I am striving to go deeper, to learn more so that I can be worthy of the credo Virginia Woolf expressed in the 1930’s: “thinking is my fighting.” If thinking is my fighting, I have to feed my brain enough so that I can think.

I have learned a lot from the various syllabi that have been circulating lately around #Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, NODAPL, and other movements, and, as I’ve been teaching a lot of pedagogy seminars lately, to teachers both new and experienced, I started the drive with a long bibliography of what I've been using to discuss teaching with teachers and then I and others have been adding from there. 

You can find the whole folder here. You can fill out the survey on how—if at all—your teaching will change here. Please take a look, add your own ideas and contributions, and pass it on.

Not really a review of Spinster

Among English professors these days, there is a debate about world literature. What is the best way to teach literature from countries and cultures other than our own? How can we introduce students to different cultures without imposing our own values on them? This is a complex question, but I think it’s safe to say that Kate Bolick’s book offers a kind of limit case on moving too far in the direction of writing what you know.

If there are dangers in spreading your expertise too thin, in pretending to be able to teach a Mongolian short story, a Kenyan poem, a Uruguayan essay, surely the greater danger lies in thinking that red-headed women from New England who move to New York City to become writers is a meaningful category.

Still, with expectations low, I devoured Spinster. My mom did, too. And, judging by the publicity it received, we are not alone. Nor are we alone in finding that the book has left a bit of a sour taste, that its narrowness suggests a profound failure of imagination. The articles in Slate and the LA Review of Books offer a more thorough take-down of the book than I have the patience to compose. I wanted instead to write about the value that the book might continue to have, in spite of its flaws. So, I went flipping back through the pages I marked in the book, to see what there might be that’s worth sharing.

So disappointing to find nothing. 

Royalties

If you're lucky enough to get money from your writing, what should you do with it? Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight, Moon, has, to me, the best answer ever. In 1935, she sold her first book, When the Wind Blew:

“When the check for her royalty advance came in the mail soon afterward, Margaret cashed it immediately. Horse-drawn flower carts were still a familiar sight in the Village; fresh from the bank, Margaret hailed a cart, told the vendor that she wanted to buy everything he had, and directed him to her front door, where the entire cartload was deposited. She decorated her apartment, then called her friends over for a party”

From Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus, 1992.

Maggie Righetti, Knitting in Plain English

My reading lately has disappointed—more on that, perhaps, soon—so that’s part of the reason, perhaps, that the best book I’ve read these few weeks is the amazing Maggie Righetti’s Knitting in Plain English (2007).

I tried to knit a little as a teenager and then, last year, my daughter and I thought we might try it. We didn’t get much farther than buying some wool and when I went back, this year, to the stitches I’d cast on for a hat, they were much too tight to work with. I ripped them out and decided just to use that lovely purple and green variegated yarn to make a scarf.

That down, I went and bought more yarn and then I decided that quirky YouTube videos were not going to be quite enough. I’m just a bit too old and staid to find Stitch’n’Bitch amusing, so I bought this book.

She really is the Mark Bittman of knitting, teaching basics, principles, and methods, with a soupçon of Erma Bombeck or Nora Ephron. It’s a very funny and helpful book. More than once she writes “Once you accept that God gave you a brain and that She intended you to use it to make your life better, you can do almost anything.”

I have rarely read a book with such a terrific, funny, feminist voice. She describes, in goofy detail, the mistakes she made and the tearful outraged women who confront her at her yarn store with spoiled projects. She is frank about differences among our bodies—heavy arms, large busts, tiny waists—and how they demand that we alter patterns to suit the body we have. There are not many pictures at all, but what pictures there are show a range of races, ages, and body types. She is relentless and very funny about all the ways pretty, tall, slim, young models trick us into thinking we are admiring the sweater when we are simply admiring them.

There is a lot of prose, but there is also a catalogue of pretty stitches and a kind of syllabus of projects to work through to learn some basic principles with pleasure, most famously something she calls “The Dumb Baby Sweater”: “I don’t care what you do with these baby things when you have learned all you can from them. And I don’t pretend that they are things of beauty, but they are filled with learning experiences. What you do with the silly things after the learning is over is your business.”

Plus, from her I learned that the Kitchener stitch, a method of joining two knitted pieces together, was invented by Lord Kitchener himself.

You can read a little bit more about her here, and find some of her patterns at ravelry. Maybe this is all old news to you, but, not being a knitter (yet), she is a delightful discovery to me.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I’m delighted for Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen, a book of prose poems on Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America, is getting lots and lots of praise. I read the book—devoured it, really. It’s an amazing performance, full of contemporary art (including some work by Glenn Ligon, whose text-based paintings have long been a favorite of mine), rage, tenderness. Some of the language is so easy to understand that it hardly feels constructed at all; other pages are dense, thick, hard to read. Sometimes what’s hard is the confrontation with my own racial fears, my own biases; sometimes, she makes the text hard just by leaving you with a lot of blank space on the page. I expected it to be a great book, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging. I’m amazed at the power with which she manages to speak hard truths about race, racism, and violence in ways that keep you reading even through the pain. We are talking James Baldwin levels of power, here.

Of all the pages in the book, the one that upset me the most, the one that sticks with me, the one that makes me wince is the one about going to a new therapist: “You have only ever spoken on the phone,” she writes. “Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients…..When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”

With that, the trauma therapist doles out her trauma to the patient.

How do you go on from there?

The therapist apologizes, there is a break, and Rankine writes “I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Who is apologizing? To whom? We know the therapist was wrong—very, very wrong, and we know she apologizes, but this free standing sentence is more than that: it’s a kind of prayer for the mess we are in, an acknowledgement of how much more we will have to do before we can get out. It’s one of many apologies in the book and it’s both enough and not nearly enough. It’s beautiful.

A Woman in Berlin

You might think, given that I’m on research leave this term and the edition of Mrs. Dalloway is done, that I’d be free to read absolutely anything. And that’s true. I have given myself complete free rein to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I surprised myself by choosing the dark, disturbing, and beautifully written A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This memoir, published anonymously, was written by a German woman, about 30, who lived through the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. One of my graduate students wrote about it, but I hadn’t had time to read it until now. She had been a journalist before the War. Her account of what she endured—rape, rape, and more rape—is harrowing, but also precise. She asks each woman she encounters “how many times were you raped?”, trying to survive in part, by continuing to do her work. She has beautiful things to say about the frustration and anxiety of living without work and continually returns to the notion that she cannot live like a plant, does not want to be a plant. As her food stores dwindle and she’s picking nettles to boil for food, she persists in her drive to be more than just a plant or, as she sometimes calls herself, a walking machine.

It is strange to read about the War from the perspective of a German woman. Strange but important: I could feel assumptions and stereotypes weakening a little as I read.

Of all the many passages that moved me in this beautiful and careful account of wartime life, the one that truly sticks in my memory is her account of the slow emergence of American flags flying from the balconies of Berlin. Every home had a Nazi flag and, she writes, unpicking the swastikas and appliquéing on a hammer and sickle to make a Russian flag was quick work. But, as the plan for Berlin to become a city of three districts emerged, citizens were encouraged to hang flags representing all the Allies. Sheets were easily available for the white bits. Scarce as blue was, it could be found. Of course, the French tricolor is not difficult. Even the Union Jack could be stitched together, with help from consulting an encyclopedia, but all those stars: “the woman with eczema asked me on the stairwell how many stars the American flag ought to have. I didn’t know for sure whether it was forty-eight or forty-nine.” Finally, she is rueful about the competence of the German housewife, even in defeat: “This could only happen in our country. An order came—I have no idea from where—to hang out the flags of the four victorious powers. And lo and behold, your average German housewife manages to conjure flags out of next to nothing.”

You can read more about the text’s complicated path to publication in this review from the Times. It was made into a film, too.

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

 

 

In Praise of Unbored

A few years ago, it was hard to go into the children’s section of a bookstore without seeing huge dumps of The Dangerous Book for Boys and its belated companion, -- -- for Girls. With its appealing Victorian-ish cover and its incitement to old-fashioned fun, I could see why it kept selling and selling, but I was so disgusted and bored by the gendering of fun that I couldn’t bear to do much more than flip through it. It was too stupid to be worth my time.

Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered Unbored at Posman Books. I snapped up a copy for my nephew, and another for my daughter. Co-written by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, Unbored is a 21st century version of How to do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself or the Brown Paper School Books (such as The I Hate Mathematics Book or I am Not a Short Adult) (all wonderful books that my dad & I were raised on, that we own now & all worth hunting down): a book full of information and experiments that kids, from eight to thirteen or so, can do on their own.

Unbored has sections on you, society, adventure, and music. The website is full of tempting naughtiness. Want to make a seed grenade? A really gross fake wound? Unbored’s got you covered.

And I should know. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and once again I’m breaking my vow to spend it with my kids in service. Bound to my deadline for Mrs. Dalloway, my daughters, 7 & 11, have been pretty free-range this weekend.

What did they do? They went through Unbored and found all the activities that, together, would help them make a circus: a magic trick (supplemented by several more from the web), a cool, acrobatic yoga partner pose, a banner. They will tell you it was a boring weekend, but I saw things a little differently: two little girls, consulting a book, getting more supplies (“Mom, do we have tinsel? What about a coin?”), giggling, and going back down to the basement to play some more.

Childhood at its very best. And allowing me to do the grown-up things I need to do to finish my work, and make my deadline.

This is a great book and I feel like we need to shout that from the rooftops: when someone gets something right about helping kids explore the world, learn and have fun, without putting them into boxes based on identity, let’s celebrate.

It wasn’t reviewed in the Times (though it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere), but this feature from the Home section gives you a sense of its vibe.

An Audience of One

I’m on a Janet Malcolm binge lately. My friend in London gave me Forty One False Starts and I read much of it. Then, I read with the shock and slightly embarrassed pleasure of recognition her profile of Eileen Fisher in a recent New Yorker. Finally, then, in preparation for teaching Stein the other week, I read her Two Lives, a total pleasure (as I knew it would be).

But, as much as Malcolm herself, whose prose I’m studying and admiring,  one of the greatest pleasures of her book was this quotation from Stein, a brilliant and inspiring quotation about the importance, for any artists, of having one person, just one person, who understands what you’re doing.

It is a very strange feeling when one is loving a clock that is to every one of your class of living an ugly and a foolish one and one really likes such a thing and likes it very much and liking it is a serious thing, or one likes a colored handkerchief that is very gay and every one of your kind of living thinks it a very ugly or a foolish thing and thinks you like it because it is a funny thing to like and you like it with a serious feeling… or you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it…and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed. (Stein, qtd. Malcolm 157)

Stein wrote this shortly after beginning her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the someone who “says yes” to Stein going on writing.

I shared it with my students this fall—I’m teaching at Juilliard, so all my students are young artists—and they nodded in recognition. Such a beautiful, beautiful reminder of how much we need, and how little.

 

Feminist Theory Reading Group: Sianne Ngai

So, we at my university, started a Feminist Theory Reading Group. Our mission: for faculty and Ph.D. candidates to meet & talk about a recent monograph on feminist theory. We aim to read a book each semester. Tonight, twelve of us met over wine and snacks to talk about Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories.  

Here is a kind of summary of our conversation. It's sloppy, incomplete, misses all the joy of conviviality, all the texture of the personalities in the room jostling against each other, interrupting, and apologizing, but maybe, in spite of all that, it captures something about why it's fun, even in a stressful moment of the semester, to try to talk about something very challenging, brilliant, and innovative:

 

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard 2012)
Zany, cute, interesting: Ngai again looks at familiar but not valorized categories and at mass-culture. The blurb doesn't sell it as feminist (thanks, Harvard!), but I believe her work is: at least Ugly Feelings was. LARB long piece on this. (Just linking: haven't read yet.) [AEF]
This sounds like it would be an enjoyable read. [CH]. Agreed. [MAM]

This was the only question on our list when we started our discussion & it's how we began:
In "The Zany Science," Ngai writes, "Indeed, while virtually all our current aesthetic categories, from the beautiful down to the cute, turn in various ways on the objecthood of objects or the thingness of things, our experience of zaniness is often that of azany person//" (193, italics mine). I'm curious about how this final aesthetic category most often describes a person (or character) rather than an object. What is at stake in describing someone as "zany" that might be different from the "cute" or "interesting" object? Does identifying someone as zany confer a kind of "objectness" onto that subject? If so, what impact does that have on our experience of the zany? [KMN]'

We moved quickly from this question to a challenging passage about subjectivity in the introduction. That led to a segue from the zany back to the cute, and the relationship between the cute and the beautiful. Where we lingered for a while: 
How is the cute different from the beautiful? The beautiful is a category that “reveals how the faculty of judgment…presupposes the existence of other humans” (239); it’s one that messes Burke up; it’s feminized.

We debated the ethics of reading transhistorically. Ngai is interested in the now, but what is the present? How much do we care that the periodization is "late capitalism" instead of, say, "post-1989."?

We also discussed some problems with her examples--mistakes or looseness in the discussion of Stein and some special selectivity in the examples from kawaii. Some of these demonstrated Ngai's deftness: it's the case that the cutest character in anime is also the most dangerous (Anthony passed around a panel of cute characters yelling "Eat Their *X%$#!@ Ovaries!!!"), so that fits Ngai's argument. However, it's also true that Murakami's art is not representative and is, in fact, particularly, ostentatiously meaningless.

We talked about how discussions of the cute don't include what's funny in Stein, in manga. Why leave out the funny? Is laughter an aesthetic response? Doesn't the cute help Ngai describe the changed relationship between art and commodity in late capitalism?

Does it matter that zany isn't a live category, isn't something we say or talk about? Ngai offers one answer, maybe, here:

  • “The interesting is culturally ubiquitous as a judgment but by no means easily or intuitively recognizable as an aesthetic style…the zany as a style of desperate playfulness is virtually everywhere but is strangely recessive as a term of judgment” (235).

But, as an answer, "strangely recessive" may be a euphemism for "my idea alone."

We had a moment of admiration for the ways in which the book is cool: for its ability to contain a 3-page footnote on Flashdance. For some, that coolness grates; for some, it inspires. Then, why isn't "the cool" one of these new aesthetic category?

The discussion on race was missing in ways that some of us missed, that others saw as an opening for future criticism. What, for example, would a doll with "cute" "squishy" features be if it was also black? Why doesn't Ngai discuss Harriet Mullin's race in her discussion of Mullin's revisions of Stein?

We connect Ngai's work to weak theory: cf. panel at MSA & Wai-Chee Dimock's work on weak theory. Where some advocates of weak theory seemed to be simply advocating the ambiguity of the essay, Ngai actually demonstrates the political power of demanding that we pause in a moment of indeterminacy, that oscillation where something cute excites feelings of both tenderness and aggression. 

In what sense is this a contribution to feminist theory? what is Ngai's contribution to feminist theory? We talked about the ways in which Ngai revives aesthetic theory with new categories that are feminine and feminized. About how the book is anti-nostalgic for older aesthetic forms, categories, and the New Left in general. How, the very "our" of the title claims a space for feminist theorists in high theory.

Then, just when the conversation seemed over, we got into a big, lively talk about the uncanny valley, cuteness, disgust and disability studies, wondering at the way in which we are attracted to cute robots but feel the terror of bodily difference in the face of a prosthetic hand.

 

Always Be Counting

After the profoundly disappointing VIDA event on women and book reviews last month, I felt duty bound to attend this second VIDA event at the Center for Fiction last Wednesday, May 29th. This packed event in the charming but always too-hot second floor of the Center for Fiction was the public portion of the NBCC (National Book Critic’s Circle) meeting and part of BEA (Book Expo America), so not only was the room packed, but it was packed with important editors and writers and eager freelancers.

The panel was moderated by Laurie Muchnick, book editor at Bloomberg News and president of the NBCC. She took a much firmer hand than the moderator at the Housing Works event had taken, with welcome results. Muchnick was aided, too, by the panel’s composition: with one of the co-founders of VIDA (Erin Belieu), the editor of the New York Times Book Review (Pamela Paul), the editor of Tin House (Rob Spillman), the book critic for New York Magazine (Kathryn Schulz), and a novelist (Meg Wolitzer!), the panel included people with a wide range of perspectives on the problem. 

You can read Laurie Stone’s thoughts on the same event here.

Paul, new in her position, knows first hand the special vitriol reserved for women in positions of power in the book world, and it was reassuring to hear her speak about her ambitious goals for a wide range of diversity in the pages of the Times. Wolitzer, as a novelist whose books treat Big American themes without getting Big American Male (FRANZEN! ROTH! UPDIKE!) attention, spoke about reviews, blurbs, and marketing from the perspective of an artist wanting to make money through her art. By contrast, Schulz spoke about her position at New York, where she has complete freedom to choose books to review and was really smart about the real downsides of that freedom: for, while she reviews a fairly good balance of women to men (6 women for every 5 men), her predecessor, a man, reviewed 8 books by men for every 1 book by a woman. Spillman was a welcome presence on the panel: an editor whose journal had made big changes to assigning and soliciting pieces based on their originally very imbalanced VIDA numbers.

For me, it was Belieu and Schulz who best summed up the message of VIDA: for true change to happen, we need to always be counting: how many women are reviewing? how many books by women are getting reviewed? True, the count is crude and imperfect, but it also reveals a continuing inequity in our literary culture that is not trivial. And, though I, too, tire of counting, being tired of counting (and seeing, yet again, how little we count for), is no reason to stop.

Belieu spoke about the origins of VIDA, in Cate Marvin’s 2009 essay, emailed to like-minded friends, bemoaning the lack of reviews of and by women writers—a cri de Coeur that became VIDA. She said that, in spite of all the limitations, “we liked the simplicity and elegance of the count. We liked the fact that we were able to get a picture of the year.”

And Schulz returned to this at the end, positing that a structural answer is the only answer. That editors need to do what Spillman has done at Tin House: that part of curating a vibrant literary culture includes counting: how many books by women are we reviewing? how many by men? how many of our reviewers are women? how are people of color represented in the numbers of reviewers and of books reviewed? how are we doing in representing a range of class perspectives, in reviews and in books reviewed? If we don’t ask this question, and continue to think that all we want is “the best,” the best will continue to look like this hoary dinosaur.

Only after listening to this did I recognize how much counting is part of my life as an editor, a teacher, and a teacher of teachers.

When we edit The Norton Reader, we look for all kinds of diversity and we look to see that every section of the reader not just “Personal Narrative” includes contributions from women and people of color. 

When I teach young teachers how to put a syllabus together, I demand that they look for essays old and new, difficult and easy, and that they make sure that there their syllabus represents women, people of color, gay and lesbians writers, and writers from a range of class backgrounds.

When I design my own syllabi, I demand the same of myself.

And when I was working on the introduction to the forthcoming (Summer 2013) special issue of Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies on Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies and Feminist Theory, Urmila Seshagiri (who has an article in the issue) and I engaged in our own, informal count. How many special issues on feminist theory had Mfs done recently? One, kind of. How about modernism/modernity (the other top scholarly journal in the field)? Zero, ever. So this forthcoming issue, with eight articles by eight women scholars using feminist theory to analyze the work of ten often neglected women artists from the early 20th century will be a good corrective, to say the least.

Still, I dwell so deeply and completely in a world of women that sometimes I wonder if I’m doing too much.

The other day, I asked the students in my summer graduate class why they were enrolled in a class on modernist women writers (100%  women). One woman, a strong feminist, said that, as she came to the end of her M.A., she realized that for her coursework, she had only read three women writers.

People, our work here is far from done.

Always be counting.

It’s a start.

[corrected to fix Schulz's stats which I had backwards at first]


Dull

“Mean” and “serious” criticism were discussed at last night’s star-studded and utterly, appallingly disappointing panel on women in arts criticism, Sharp, at Housing Works last night (May 8, 2013). Are women critics more reluctant to be mean? Are women getting a chance to write serious criticism?

At one point, as the panelists, accomplished women all, were congratulating each other, someone noted in passing how it was once the way of young critics to make their mark with an initial excoriating salvo: a “mean” review to make your name, and then, a career.

Ladies, allow me.

And yet, mean is really beside the point. In fact, throughout the evening, I found myself thinking of Henry James, a sharp writer, who also said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I value kindness as highly as James. However, it is being neither mean nor unkind to call out an event for failing to deliver on its promise.

Kate Bolick got the evening off to a particularly inane start by asking, rhetorically if her gravitating to the midcentury women critics (Hardwick, McCarthy) was indicative of her unconscious feminism--or was it sexism? Because, her hypothesis went on, they didn’t have to deal with feminism.

At that, I should have thrown my beer can on the stage and left. Those midcentury New York women are sharp as tacks because they had to figure out how to navigate the peculiarities of a Patriarchal Landscape for Literary Journalism (let’s call it the PLLJ) in the 1950’s which differs in texture from the PLLJ that Virginia Woolf faced in London in the 1920’s and 1930’s or what we face from the PLLJ in the early 21st century.

That texture was what was consistently missing over the course of the evening. Kael, Hardwick, and McCarthy were invoked. Sontag was mentioned--and at the mention of her name, I longed to summon her ghost to march up on the stage and sweep everyone off it with her grand white forelock. Vague things were said in praise of their sentences, their beautiful sentences. But not one beautiful sentence was quoted--and, in fact, on several occasions specific essays were cited for their great language and then paraphrased. People: quote the words, cut to the clip, it’s not good enough to hum a few bars and call it Beethoven, to say, “Then, Hamlet has this amazing speech where he’s thinking about whether or not to commit suicide, and he really, well, you know, it makes you think.”

As for serious, again, the wasted promise of all that talent on stage and a genuine disagreement, was infuriating. Laura Miller spoke against serious criticism, by which she seemed to mean pretentious, snobby, only-highbrows-need-apply stuff; Miriam Markowitz, by contrast, spoke for the serious, really deftly explaining how The Nation wants its reviews to eschew the consumer model and be about ideas, and how she is heartened to find women pitching her idea-driven reviews more an more. But why was it only at the end that they began speaking about a lively intellectual culture? It would have been nice to hear that word a little earlier. A long digression on how frustrating the marketing of books has become is hardly interesting to a roomful of people who know too well that tale.

The event was described in ways that gave me such hope:

Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael… In spite of abysmal byline counts at many publications, the English speaking world has a rich tradition of women critics of books, music, film, and the culture at large. Join some of today’s celebrated women critics for a spirited discussion of the women they’ve been inspired by, the challenges of being a woman of sharp mind and pen, and the question of whether women have a distinct purpose as critics at all.

I had hoped to hear more about these women, about the particular struggles they faced. Gossip. Anecdotes. Bracing tales to help me gird my loins as I try to pitch more mainstream publications. It would have been great if the organizer had assigned each of the really talented, smart women on stage a precursor, and asked the living critic to read a favorite quote from the precursor and talk about what Sontag or Kael or Didion or Woolf meant to them, why they could or could not be a model for writers today. Then, we would have had a treat, have learned something.

I had hoped to hear about the living critics’ experiences. Ruth Franklin joked that she spent time asking “are you my mentor?” but that thread was dropped. Parul Sehgal said, more than rivalry, she enjoyed stories of collaboration, but had none to hand, and then we had a tired rehearsal of the Arendt-McCarthy friendship. Franklin and Sehgal seemed every bit as smart as I expected but, like others, both women was hamstrung by the loose format, the general, dispiriting inanity.

I had hoped to hear more about reviews written and the reactions they elicited, about judgments withheld, about editors meddling, about if and how being a woman might have affected any of these hesitations or volleys.

I had hoped to hear more direct accounts of the VIDA count and how it affects these writers’ lives--in their pitching, their editing, their conversations with other writers at the office. Franklin said she’s worked with editors who care and editors who don’t. I can believe that, but, again, it wasn’t worth spending my one night out a week to hear it.

As I was getting ready to go to the ironically titled “Sharp,” I remembered Virginia Woolf’s essay “Why?” It’s a cri de coeur, a lamentation on the difficulty of asking any serious question in public and on the waste of time, consequently, of most lectures: “Why, since life holds so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” “Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies?”

Why indeed. Oh, Woolf, how you are missed.

Smashing Patriarchy After the Second Shift

These days, I’m teaching Woolf and working on revisions to the introduction to a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies. I’m reading feminist theory and reading modernist theory that neglects women. My antennae are up.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still overwhelmed by the space-time problem of being the mom in a two-career household with two young daughters.

In fact, the combination of trying to do feminist work while trying to live as a feminist who doesn’t yell too much makes me long for Erma Bombeck or Nora Ephron to come and give me a good belly laugh. It’s too predictable.

  • At the pharmacy, the pharmacists hesitate over my desire for a recommendation for wart removal creams. If she’s really only six, she should go to the dermatologist, they think. I miss a job talk by a potential new colleague that I’d wanted to see, leave the office early and take her to the dermatologist. She recommends I go to the pharmacy for some over-the-counter wart removal cream.
  • During a stolen hour, re-reading A Room of One’s Own for a book club, I am interrupted in my study by someone requesting that, as long as I’m around for an hour, maybe I can run a load of laundry.
  • In an effort to be healthy and even lose some weight, I make pasta with lentils which is roundly rejected. The next day, the leftovers are gone and I have no lunch on hand.
  • The dog was jumpy but not unusually so, this morning, pacing around, cocking his head. Cool it, Flynn, I’m getting to you, I say, but get out of my office! He walks under my desk, cocks his head, lifts his leg and pees on the floor.

Ah, the second shift.

Heroines, All We Know

Heroines are pretty much all I think about these days, if they are not all I know. It’s all modernist women all the time here. And, when I’m not thinking about my introduction to the upcoming special issue of mfs Modern Fiction Studies (forthcoming: Summer, 2013; topic? Women’s Writing, the New Modernism, and Feminist Theory. In other words, fasten your seatbelts!), I’m teaching Woolf. So, it’s a lot a lot of thinking about, reading about, writing about, and reading modern women writers.

For all the work of a quarter century on Woolf (with more Woolf projects to come, no doubt), my passion right now is to shine that light on other women writers. I dream about a book that would profile multiple modern women writers who are not Woolf. Happily, for my reading life, there are two super exciting new books that do just that (and, happily for me, neither is a book I could have written). Community bookstore hosted Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines, in conversation with Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know, for an event last week. It really was one of the coolest book events I’ve been to in a long time. I left just aglow with the sense that, for all the other ills in the world, I could still find a pocket of brilliant women who worked hard in support of other women. That still fills me with hope.

I took to Twitter a few months ago to ask about favorite recent feminist theory and a couple people recommended Zambreno’s book, a meditation on modernist wives with a dollop of Woolf. I haven’t finished the book and I find it brilliant, exasperating, thrilling and crazy. I hope to write more about it separately, but the little fragments of what happened to Zelda Fitzgerald, bumping up against Valerie Eliot and Zambreno’s own frustrations as a “trailing spouse” in the rural Midwest (oh, we have lived that nightmare here, gentle reader) are provocative in the best way. Not since The Pink Guitar have I read a mixed genre feminist text with so much interest (and, it must be said, exasperation).

When I learned that she’d be appearing with Lisa Cohen at Community Bookstore, I jumped at the chance, secured childcare and flew (via the MTA)  to Brooklyn. Zambreno was charming and interesting, but Cohen blew my mind: she is clearly a brilliant woman and a beautiful writer for she presented some of the key feminist theoretical ideas of the moment in clear but uncompromising terms. Most notably, her remarks focused on Esther Murphy, one of the three lives of bourgeois lesbians at the heart of All We Know, and Murphy’s inability to complete a book in her lifetime. How do we understand this failure? Cohen’s work fits right in to much recent theoretical work on failure as a queer art, on failure as resistance to socially constructed (straight, white, bourgeois) ideas of happiness, but in a book that one yearns to read for pleasure, not for a theoretical workout. I was so thrilled by the intellectual energy of what Cohen was reading that I whispered to my friend that I wanted to rush up and just give her a big hug of gratitude.

So imagine my sheepish delight to learn that we had been in grad school together! The narcissism of my youth, which prevented me from knowing a brilliant peer because I was too deep in my own worries, aside, this only made that sense of the power of brilliant women all the better.

To see, in the audience of thirty, several friends. To be introduced to new people through them, to learn, from a new friend that she went to college with—and loves—my amazing yoga teacher. All of this is a big thing that is right with the world right now.

I am still reading the books. Both continue to amaze and impress. More soon, I’m sure. Both books have lots of well-deserved press. I've tried to sprinkle links throughout the post--click away!

A room of one's own

I teach my Woolf class from 11:30 to 12:45. The next class begins at 1:00. On the first day, around 12:30, a man stood outside my door, peering and bobbing. He came in at 12:46 and, while I was explaining how to sign up for oral reports, he bodied me to put his coat down.

Today, he gave me till 12:47. I was explaining something to a student who'd just added the class and he interrupted to speak to me. "DON'T interrupt me while I'm speaking to my student," I said, but he would not be deterred. I apologized to the student and turned to him. He pointed at the board, covered with notes from the 10AM class--there was no eraser.

"Yes, I'm sorry about that--"

He says, "But you have to---"

I say, "I was going to tell you. Those are not mine. Listen: you need to give me time to get out of this room."

He says, "What time does your class end?"

"12:45."

"But I need time to prepare," he whines.

I, channeling the Dowager Countess, said "SO DO I." And then I went to the Dean's office and filed a complaint.

My colleague now has an email from the associate dean requesting him to respect the shared time. 

Something about teaching a lesson on feminism only to get bullied really raised my hackles.