Intellectual Negging at Shakespeare & Co., a Womansplanation

Yesterday we ate lamb testicles in Paris. It was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had, and it was worth it. “Remember those lamb testicles we ate?” is a phrase I fully intend to integrate into my vocabulary, and I hope Curtis will always answer, as he did last night, “Those lamb testicles were so amazing.”

After our lamb testicle lunch, we wandered around the corner to Shakespeare & Co., the English-language bookstore and lending library Sylvia Beach ran for American ex-pats in the 1920s. I was there ten years ago, but must not have gone past the first room, because I did not remember it being so amazing.

The cramped rooms twist around one another like a baroque series of stomachs in a fantastical beast. Nooks and alcoves, curtained or cushioned and decorated with newspaper clippings and old photographs, appear around every corner. Improbably-shaped bookshelves line the narrow staircase and arch over the doorways, almost as if they’re supporting the sagging walls instead of weighing them down. Under a display table, a sunken wishing bowl holds pennies, euros and pounds.

This is not even to speak of the selection. English-language books not just numerous but also different than I’m used to seeing, by authors barely read in America—oddballs without genre like Michael Moorcock, humorists taken seriously like Jerome K. Jerome. Dalkey Archive Press paperbacks, vintage Rebecca West hardbacks, and a volume of Grimm’s fairy tales illustrated by Mervyn Peake and introduced by Sarah Waters. Not to mention a theory section stocked with all the Derrida, all the Barthes, all the Deleuze and Badiou and Ranciere. It was like Domy, Powell’s, Half-Price Books and the Seminary Co-op rolled into one, then crammed into a space the size of our apartment.

Because the bookstore is so small and so full of people, you can hear every conversation. Most shoppers murmur softly in French or English, gently jostling one another for a better glimpse of the display table or reaching for the shelves nearest the ceiling with a quiet “pardon.”

As I peruse the Doris Lessing shelf, a man’s voice rises above the others. One of those voices that, while not particularly loud, never lowers itself even when personal space is at a premium or silence is requested (subways and library stacks, respectively). And because he is speaking English in perfectly audible tones, I feel not only obligated to listen, but entitled to that delicious thrill of judgment which is the compensation for overhearing conversations you’d rather not.

The young man, of slightly less than average height, wears a backpack. Over the course of my visit he converses with two female compatriots, not at the same time. Having glimpsed a sign on the register directed at NYU exchange students, I automatically assume these three are from NYU, though it doesn’t really matter if they are or not. The young women speak with excitement and curiosity. The young man consistently mistakes their attempts to engage him in conversation as serious appeals to his superior knowledge, and proceeds accordingly.

HER: I can’t decide which of these to buy! They’re both amazing. What do you think, which one?

HIM: Um, neither is really my thing?

HER: I meant for me, not for you.

HIM: Well, I don’t know, because I would never read either one.

He comes up with ingenious ways of expressing his lack of knowledge and interest in such a way as to make it seem like a fascinating aspect of his personality about which every girl is dying to hear more.

HER, holding up a children’s book: I loved this when I was little. The illustrations are so beautiful.

HIM: [Silence.]

HER, holding up a novel: How about this, do you know if it’s good?

HIM: Yeah, I read it, but it’s been soooo long ago, I don’t really remember anything about it. Like early in high school? A long time ago.

I have to congratulate this dude on getting a jump start on a time-honored convention of academic discourse. “You’ve read X, right?” “Yes, but it’s been a long time.” In academia, everyone knows this is code for “I haven’t read it. Please do not reveal that you know this. Instead, give me a detailed summary so that we can converse comfortably about it, and so that in the future I can pretend I’ve read it more convincingly.” It should be noted, however, that, ridiculous as this encrypted dialogue is, it sounds a lot more dignified coming from a professor in his fifties than from a 20-year-old. A 20-year-old has barely had time to forget anything.

HIM: If you think getting a motorcycle is going to save you money, you’re wrong. It’s incredibly expensive to run and seriously inconvenient. I mean, Iguess if you’re getting it to look cool, fine, but if you’re getting it because you think it’s going to be cheaper or something, it won’t be.

HER: Well anyway, I’m pretty excited about it. It’ll be ready for me to pick up tomorrow.

These two women, both petite (I cannot help thinking this was one reason he enjoyed talking to them so much) were being mansplained within an inch of their lives. Hostages in a tight space, they gave this guy the benefit of the doubt, possibly for no other reason than a desire to share their enthusiasm with someone, and resignation at being stuck in Paris with this blowhard for the entire semester.

How many smart women, do you suppose, are at this very moment listening to men in bookstores and music stores and movie stores throw cold water on everything they’re saying, treat them like idiots, just because they can get away with it, and because they’re too busy intellectually negging these women like some kind of nerd/Mystery hybrid to realize they’re just being plain rude—not to mention inaccurate, ill-informed, or at the very least, over-confident in opinions that could use a little fresh air and opposition?

The sheer lack of intellectual curiosity of the mansplainer is only rivaled by his paranoia that if he doesn’t give an opinion dump right away, the girl might not think he is the smart one in the conversation. How many women are nodding along because (a) they’ve been taught that manners are important, (b) it’s just too tiring to try to penetrate this nonsense, and, worst of all, (c) on some deep level, based on implicit and explicit messages they’ve received over the course of their lives, they believe the mansplainer must be right–or at least right enough to not be worth arguing with?

I want to grab that guy by the backpack straps and say, One of these days, these girls are going to get wise and run out of patience with you. So you better practice listening to them, otherwise good luck getting laid in your thirties.

But the truth is, some girls will become women without ever running out of patience for this guy. Telling the mansplainer he was raised in a barn will not solve the problem unless you also take the women aside and say, Hey listen, you get that this guy is just being a douche, right? You get that he’s afraid of your brain and is pretending you don’t have one, right? You get that he sees you as a source of continual reassurance to shore up his self-worth, right? And you get that you do not have to take this bullshit, that you can express yourself back, forcefully, or, if you don’t feel like it, just walk away with a pained look on your face and find someone better to talk to?

Maybe the young women in the bookstore already know this. Maybe he started talking to the second one because the first one walked away in irritation. Maybe both girls are in the process of figuring it out right now, and this guy is part of the lesson plan.

By the time I got to college I was already becoming aware of it, but I could have used the knowledge a lot earlier. Every time I think back to Libba Bray’s keynote address at the Austin Teen Book Festival, I think, Where was this when I was young and literate and pissed off and didn’t know why? Where was this when I stopped wearing makeup and shopping at the Gap and started coming to school with unbrushed hair, in knee-length cut-offs and baggy tee shirts? I didn’t know I was a feminist then. I didn’t have a name for my anger, or anyone to tell about it.

When I get back to Austin, I start teaching writing classes at a tiny private high school run by a woman who left academia decades ago. I will have only six students in each class—not a lot of teenagers, but a lot of time with each one. These are students who have had trouble fitting in socially at the big wealthy public schools in the west hills of Austin, nerds and weirdos and the occasional miscreant. I’m not really clear on whether these kids are considered “troubled” or not. I guess I’ll find out soon.

But if they are, I can relate. I’m troubled too, by lots of things. I want to help high school girls put a name to their anger so they can start talking back. Everyone will benefit from this, including the budding mansplainer in the front row.

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One thought on “Intellectual Negging at Shakespeare & Co., a Womansplanation

  1. John Wise says:

    You nailed it. But have some sympathy for the guy. If he’s like me,he’s been raised in an intellectual household with a brilliant father who always new everything and was very competitive. His self worth and self image,like his father’s before him,are entirely based on Knowing Stuff. The women in his family support and expect this. If he is lucky,he will come to realize that we all know various amounts of stuff,but mostly we are infinitely ignorant,and as such all equal.

    Dumbstruck by the endless mystery,
    John

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