[tl;dr: There's a shorter, sillier update on this whole kerfuffle in my column today over at the Austin Chronicle.]
Last week a crazy (for me) thing happened: James Wood, senior book critic at the New Yorker and thus one of the few literary critics with broad name recognition outside academia, took issue with the introduction of my style column for the Austin Chronicle. In my piece, which is really about the Andrzej Zulawski film Possession, I take a potshot at Wood’s 2013 article “Sins of the Father,” which reviewed a literary memoir by Saul Bellow’s son alongside three other memoirs by the children (all daughters) of literary men. In his review, Wood raised the question–perhaps not in all seriousness, but certainly in all not-dismissiveness–of whether a “great” novelist can have a happy family life.
Email correspondence with Wood has left me with a greater understanding of his personal stake in that question. In fact, I believe he framed the New Yorker piece the way he did precisely because, as the husband of novelist Claire Messud and a novelist in his own right, he was deeply troubled over the issue of how to balance a commitment to art with a commitment to family. I know I wrote my Isabelle Adjani piece the way I did because I am deeply troubled over it. We would seem to have plenty of common ground.
Nevertheless, it’s still hard for me to sort out my feelings about what happened last week. I feel resentful that in his long comments on my column and over email, Wood never discusses my work in detail or appears to know anything about me–yet many of his emails to me were either about his other writings or his personal life. It strikes me that a writer with as much institutional authority as he has should not need to bring his personal life to bear on a critique of a single review; furthermore, that it would never occur to me to excuse myself that way, because, as a woman already writing about herself too damn much for comfort, I fear I won’t be taken seriously if I appeal to the personal or the emotional; and finally, that, although he claims to have read and appreciated a few of my Chicago Tribune reviews, he was extremely quick to assume, and assert in his public remarks, that I had misunderstood his review on the most basic level.
I’m a little embarrassed at how much that last bit stings; probably, after having gone through the ritual hazing that is grad school at the University of Chicago, I will never be able to stand having my intelligence taken less than seriously, no matter how many jokes I crack in my column, and no matter what bit of pop culture, even fashion, I’m writing about. In that respect I’m much the same as James Wood: I want not only to be read and understood, but to be respected and liked as well, even when those goals aren’t necessarily compatible.
At any rate, here is my full-fledged critique of James Wood’s review, in its original email form. It’s a critique that could never in a million years have made it into my Austin Chronicle column, because I have somehow wound up, despite having a PhD in literature and a gigantic feminist chip on my shoulder, writing a style column rather than a books column–a bit of personal context that may be all too familiar to other women out there trying to make a living with their pens. I tried to do too much in that initial column because I felt too strongly. I felt too strongly because I always do. And when I do, I always, always write about it.
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I was bewildered and somewhat abashed to receive your emails last night. Like many freelance book reviewers and aspiring novelists, I have read your work for years. You’re James Wood of the New Yorker and it never occurred to me that you would swat a fly, though of course you have every right to defend yourself against any less-than-subtle characterization of your work.
And it was unsubtle. I stand by my opinion of your review, but it is absolutely true that I was flip in paraphrasing it. My defense—that I was writing a fashion column for a free alt-weekly in Austin, Texas—is not comforting to someone who’s been straw-manned. I owe you (and possibly my handful of readers) a more sustained and rigorous critique.
It is clear–and was clear to me when I first read your review a year ago–that your intent was not to humiliate and degrade women, or to suggest that they are inferior to men as artists. So why did I, in fact, feel a strange humiliation when reading your piece the first time? Why did I hang onto that anger for more than a year, so that it finally popped out, surprising me perhaps as much as you, in a 120-word introduction to a totally unrelated piece about a horror film?
I’ll try to explain. I did perceive your initial critique of Steiner’s opinion, and understand that later on you’re paraphrasing outdated attitudes in free indirect discourse, rather than espousing them. Your caricature of Steiner in the introduction is funny–though on a side note, as a former academic I will forever feel a slight twitch of revulsion whenever anyone brings up Althusser’s murder of his wife, even disapprovingly, to get a laugh. You probably know, joking aside, that many academics will twist themselves into knots defending or excusing Althusser the murderer because of the brilliance of Althusser the structuralist. As a volunteer first-responder to victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have sat by the hospital beds of women who narrowly escaped the fate of Althusser’s wife. I’m a little touchy about it. If one is going to “mock” Steiner’s rhetorical sanctioning of domestic violence and spousal murder, a discernible undercurrent of outrage seems in order. This is a matter of tone, however, and I am clearly a biased reader.
At any rate, you begin the second paragraph by stating, “It is easy to mock Steiner’s romantic provocations.” To which, as a reader, I nodded my head vigorously and wondered what more there could be to say. “But,” you continue, “minus the murderousness (and the intense maleness of the proposition), perhaps Steiner is onto something. Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”
This is where we really begin to part ways. My quibble is not over the intent, but the execution of your argument, and the assumptions that seem to underlie it. The language is gender-inclusive in a cursory way—literally parenthetical. But it is not so easy to subtract the “intense maleness” from Steiner’s proposition as you suggest here. It feels rather disingenuous to dispose of centuries of subjugation in seven words structurally parallel to the word “murderousness”–which, again, reads like a glib dismissal of a really pernicious and horrifying position. (I should clarify that I haven’t read the Steiner article in question and hope I’m not required to in order to discuss yours with authority; I fear the Althusser line would send me all Carrie-at-the-prom and there would be no survivors. I’m just engaging with your version of Steiner here.)
Onward: “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.” The phrase “great novelists” sort of sucks all the air out of the room, doesn’t it? That phrase brings with it so many assumptions that the argument is immediately, to me, a little suspect. I suppose, looking at my bookshelves, I must agree, or at least defer to your greater biographical knowledge. Certainly the novelists I have read obsessively from prior generations—Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Willa Cather, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark—were not known for brilliant childrearing. But then again, the phrase “great novelists” implies an agreed-on category of great novels distinct from non-great novels, and further implies that such great novels are written by great novelists–not simply novelists who’ve had the time or opportunity to write great novels. I suppose I understand why that list might include Cheever, but not, for example, Ruth Rendell; although I suppose we’ll have to wait until her son pens a memoir to know how attentive a parent she was. There are certainly lots of women writing novels today around the demands of their children, including Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue (whose best work, in my opinion, was written after she had a child). But again, we won’t know whether their novels qualify as “great” in the test-of-time sense for another century; we won’t be able to calculate the costs to their children of their greatness, or the costs to their greatness of their children; or, for that matter, to measure them against the sacrifices of comparably great men. So the idea that family life and greatness are antithetical isn’t just speculative, it’s utterly unfalsifiable.
Perhaps “sacred devotion to thought” is a bit misleading as well, in that it doesn’t capture the full extent of the trouble. If there are any great CEOs of history, I suspect most of them are lousy parents as well. The great bus-drivers, cops, and schoolteachers of history, who devote proportional time to their work as the CEOs but for reasons of survival rather than ambition, are similarly neglectful. As you know, the incompatibility of any career with caregiving—writing included—is the product of a capitalist system sustained in part by unpaid domestic labor, the vast majority of which still falls on the shoulders of women.
You may feel that the attitudes you were paraphrasing were historical; in my view, they are bitter realities.
This is what put me in a rage-y frame of mind when reading the article. Reading that initial, and I confess! compelling, question–Is it possible to make great art and be an adequate parent–one simply does not expect an article about fatherhood to follow. Even today, the standards of adequacy for fathers and mothers remain so vastly different that it is very difficult to take seriously any argument that lumps them into the same category, or fails to specify ongoing differences in their experiences. (As the lightest possible example of this, I would point to women performers I know who return to their artistic careers after a short maternity leave only to be addressed as “Mama” and asked, in all friendliness, “Where’s your baby? Who’s watching ___ tonight?” In my experience, this is not a line of questioning to which most men are subjected.)
The biggest surprise for me, though, was the turn your argument took in the sixth paragraph, in which, after a review that purports to pit gender-neutral family life against gender-neutral artistic life, you almost in passing turn to pitting the hypothetical talents of men and women against each other. Paraphrasing with seeming approval what you believe to be the feelings of the three memoirist-daughters, you write: “As writers themselves, they understand the necessities and the inequalities of talent. The men wrote the books, but it doesn’t follow that in doing so they stole unwritten books from their wives.”
This strikes me as a significant, even defensive, slippage. Reading the review up until that point, it would never have occurred to me to wonder whether Styron’s wife could have been a great novelist; surely the novel thief implied by the rest of the review is family life, not the (implicitly greater!) talent of a spouse. If women novelists were, however belatedly, to enter your review, I would have expected them to do so as potentially great novelists whose novels had been “stolen” by their children, or perhaps by more prosaic partners—garden-variety lawyers and construction workers and the like. That rhetorical shift to economies of talent within the family—hierarchies, even!—spoke volumes to me.
At this point in the piece, you have failed to account for talented women at all except insofar as they are capable of memorializing dead fathers and producing narrative accounts of their lives in which they are ultimately happy to subsume themselves to those fathers’ “sacred devotions.” You say “the cold eye of these adult children is cast in the service of a warmer, more comprehensive vision,” but that vision does not seem at all warm and comprehensive to me, but rather exclusionary and ruthless. I haven’t read the memoirs in question, only your readings of them. But I am not at all surprised to find that the one child who seems unable to forgive his father, who continues to insist on his own personhood and authority at the expense of his father’s is a son, not a daughter (“But, when Greg Bellow talks about protecting his father’s privacy, it should be obvious that he really means denying his father’s publicity, as a way to keep his father to himself”). You are welcome to prefer the daughters’ memoirs to the son’s, and I’m sure you read all four with due responsibility. But it seems to me that the symbolic self-erasure you seem to endorse here is still, in our culture, easier for a woman to stomach than a man. It’s what we’re trained to do, after all, and the fact that most men aren’t may still, to this day, account for a significant portion of the world’s novel-stealing crimes.
I will say again: The argument that great art is incompatible with family life calls up so many gender-related questions that to take it seriously, even for a moment, requires a greater attentiveness to these issues than I believe you gave them. The rhetorical leap to Texas politics in my column must have seemed extremely unfair to you—I did not mean it as an ad hominem attack, but it was certainly an unfounded assumption. (If you do care about our plight down here, I hope you’ll consider donating to the Wendy Davis campaign, or to NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, if you haven’t already done so.) But, reading your review, it did truly seem as if you had forgotten us. Unwanted pregnancies forcibly carried to term have strangled the creative potential of countless women, heartbreaking hordes of women. Call it the drama of maternity! But it’s really, as you know, a tragedy.
Thank you very much for reading, James, and I welcome any response. One more thing: I am still curious as to whether you’ve seen Possession! If not, I hope you find an opportunity to do so. It really is a crushing film.