Category Archives: Gender Politics

The Time I Humiliated Myself in Front of My Favorite Living Author, and Then Got Over It

Six months ago I called up my favorite living author, Jennifer Egan, who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

It was my second interview, ever.

I screwed it up, embarrassingly, horribly. I stuttered and stumbled and even managed to piss her off a little bit. My favorite living author.

After I was done quivering with self-hatred, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and wrote the article. Then I pitched it to the Hairpin, who accepted it, and then, two days later, rejected it.

Having failed to place the article anywhere, I decided to put the whole thing down the memory hole and NEVER THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN, except, of course, in the middle of the night, when turning over all the reasons I would never be a successful freelance writer, novelist, or human being.

And then, this evening, I interviewed bestselling YA writer Libba Bray, who is a warm, friendly, high-spirited, eclectic Texas girl raised by Presbyterians. And lo, it was as a cleansing balm poured o’er my soul. We laughed about funny stuff, we mulled over serious stuff. At the end of the interview, I somehow told her about my interview with Egan. She responded with a story of yammering at John Turturro in a subway. A shroud lifted.

So, here it is folks. Here is the article that gutted me. It turns out it’s not that bad after all.

The Invisible Woman

Jennifer Egan wants to be invisible.

“That’s my kind of ultra-fantasy.” She immediately clarifies: “It’s not a fantasy of self-effacement or self-erasure. It’s the desire to get to see things that I can’t see if people can see me.”

The irony of this wish for invisibility coming from a woman with one of the most recognizable faces in contemporary fiction is not lost on either of us. Egan admits that she is not entirely comfortable with the visibility that came with winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. But from what I can tell, Egan’s preoccupation with seeing and being seen did not begin last year.

Her first two novels, after all, were called The Invisible Circus and Look at Me.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Since we were speaking over the phone, Egan was, of course, invisible to me. Which served me well during an interview that was, shall we say, humbling.

I went into the interview hoping to ask her about gender in her work, in her life. However, starstruck by this woman whose prose I have been reading rapturously for a decade, I tripped over my fandom and started yammering. Listening to the tape, I hear myself self-describing as an “aspiring novelist” (ew), mentioning the “flash of recognition” I feel when reading her novels (double ew), and, in a desperate moment, revealing that I have written fan fiction in which she bests Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial battle to the death.

All things considered, I was probably better off not observing her responses. However, this also made it harder to gauge her reactions to my questions about gender. Ever since the notorious 2011 interview in which she appeared, in a passing comment, to disparage “chick lit,” Egan seems cagey about speaking directly to gender issues. I don’t blame her. The backlash against her, especially within feminist circles, seemed disproportionate to the crime, as if the fact that she was female made Egan’s remark—which she firmly calls “stupid”—even more offensive. One wonders: Had Franzen, my personal straw man, said it, would it even have shown up on the radar?

Questions about gender have dogged Egan throughout her career. Back when The Keep was published, a review by Donna Bowman expressed relief that Egan’s work could no longer be mistaken for “chick lit”: “[Egan’s] previous novels pigeonhole themselves in typical women’s-fiction categories by their synopses (model finds self, teenage girl finds self) and cover photos (youthful female faces).” Bowman even went so far as to recommend that Egan adopt a masculine nom de plume. Obviously, that measure proved unnecessary for Egan’s success. However, that horrible review has stuck with me over the years, and Egan’s “chick lit” comment brought it back to me in full force.

Moreover, women’s experience seems central to most of Egan’s novels, especially Look at Me. The main character of Look at Me—the character who grounds the novel in a way—is a model named Charlotte who becomes effectively invisible, in the modeling world at least, when reconstructive surgery renders her unrecognizable in the wake of a car accident.

I was curious about why Look at Me, which has enjoyed a recent vogue, never seemed to be discussed in terms of gender. When I suggested that female experience was at the center of the book’s symbolic language (well, something like that), she bridled.

“I didn’t exactly think of it as sort of emblematic of female experience per se. I mean go ahead and say it, it’s just that that’s not exactly how I framed it for myself. I was interested in looking at the image culture’s interaction with identity in the most extreme way I could devise. And so definitely it would be a woman, because I do think that these things—although men are catching up! But the construction of image, and the critical importance of it to some degree in one’s life, I think it is greater for women.”

This last part seemed like a small victory. But when I followed up with a question about the other major female character, a teenage girl also named Charlotte, I felt that Egan was losing patience with me. “You know, I feel like I don’t really do this kind of literary criticism on my own books. I feel like it’s for you to say. I mean you have every right to your opinion, but you can’t get me to say it for you.” I backpedaled. She continued. “You have to remember, this is really an old book. I don’t remember exactly how I thought of some of the stuff as I was working on it. I may not be able to match your level of scrutiny.”

“You mean you haven’t been sitting up reading and underlining passages in preparation for this interview?” I joked, uncomfortably aware of having done so the night before.

Trying to ease up on the scrutiny, I asked her to explain her frequent statement that Look at Me was her favorite of her novels, beating out the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Look at Me may be more flawed. In fact, I’m sure it is. Structurally, I felt the difficulty as I was working on Look at Me of keeping it from sinking under its own weight . . . . I mean, I felt like I was being buried alive.” And then she said the thing that made me happiest, because of course when you agree with something it makes you happy: “But all of that being said? I feel like, at its best, Look at Me is better.”

Look at Me contains perhaps my favorite scene in contemporary literature, and it’s one of Egan’s favorites, too. In the scene, Charlotte, the model whose face has been disfigured and reconstructed beyond recognition, gets one last chance for a comeback in the modeling world. The catch? She has to let the make-up artist cut her face, making tiny incisions that, as they bleed, will render the photographs more “real” and “authentic.” It is a simple but grotesque premise satirizing the obsession with “authenticity” that permeates image culture, an obsession that ends up destroying what it sets out to reveal. Set in the giddy, chaotic environs of a fashion shoot, the cutting scene crystallizes the novel’s most trenchant themes. For me, that scene is the razor blade that slices beneath the skin of the novel itself, revealing its purpose and defacing it at the same time.

Perhaps Egan’s biggest accomplishment is how believable it all seems, so believable that you almost feel as if you had heard about it somehow, or even seen it in the pages of Italian Vogue. Egan described it elegantly: “I love to get to the space in which things are completely crazy and yet also make sense. That’s my favorite place to be as a writer. It’s hard, because if you tip just a little too far in either direction you either have something that’s just like wacky and ridiculous, you know, or something that’s just not crazy at all. So you have to be in that realm where something is both. And in Look at Me, for sure, that scene of the cutting . . . .”

A dryer buzzed in the background, and Egan interrupted herself to apologize for doing her laundry while on the phone, leaving the sentence I most wanted to hear hanging in the air. It was clearly the middle of a busy day for her; she had to pick up her kids in fifteen minutes. She never returned to that scene, and I didn’t either. Instead, moving down my list of highlighted passages, I asked her about the two teenage girls who have sex in a swimming pool near the beginning of Look at Me. Occurring very early in the book, it seems to be largely forgotten in reviews and interviews—probably because the book itself seems to forget about it. The two girls, Charlotte (the model) and Ellen, encounter one another for a single instant at the very end of the book, and there is never any acknowledgment of their past relationship.

I tell her that as a reader I felt somewhat devastated by the way the interaction seems to disappear as soon as it happens.

Egan then explains what I take to be a central technique of her fiction: “walking away.” “I don’t want books to be about what you think they’re going to be about. I feel like—let’s just establish that and then toss it away. Let’s just move on. I’m not interested in a book about fleeting homosexual experience among teenagers. It’s not I can’t write that book. I don’t want to. I’m not interested enough. But that little facet of something bigger? Sure. Then I’ve gotta get on to the bigger thing. I was happy to leave it behind.”

She elucidates further as I reflect on how left behind I felt, and whether that was the point.

“I love if I can introduce a theme that you could build a whole book around, and then just walk away from it. I like doing that. I guess I feel like . . . it’s almost as if we can all imagine what that book would be. And because we can all imagine it, there’s really no need to write it. So let’s just let those intimations hang there and move on to something different that we haven’t thought of yet. . . . And the idea that it acts as a faint undertow, under all the very different things that go on to happen, is exciting to me. I like that.”

The use of the word “undertow” is suggestive. I picture the swimming pool, the bodies vanishing, submerged under glowing water.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Egan’s constant return to the technical problems she encounters and solves in her work reminds me of Henry James’s preoccupation with his process in the prefaces to his New York Edition. He, too, deliberately left central elements of the plot uncertain, the truth about them invisible to the naked eye. Egan praised this ambiguity in The Turn of the Screw, which she called “superb, flawless.”

Her discussion of the 2006 novel The Keep sounded especially Jamesian to me. She began, she explained, with an indispensable gothic trope: the castle. “And then I also really sensed that there would be a prison. And I thought, maybe the prison was near the castle? I’m thinking of The Invisible Man, where there’s the university, and then nearby this kind of asylum.” More invisibility! I took a note. “I thought, well maybe it’s kind of like that, and the action moves from the castle to the prison. Maybe someone escapes from the prison. I just wasn’t sure what kind of environment would contain both of them. . . .

“And at the same time I was also having this huge voice struggle. And so then one day as I was basically hammering away at this, I found myself writing the words, ‘I’m trying to write a book.’ And as I wrote those words, which were just a statement of fact, I realized that what I was dealing with was a third-person narrator who actually turns out to be a first-person narrator. And it was really critical, that moment, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my god, I get it.’ It all came to me that it wasn’t that the prison was near the castle, it was that the prison surrounded the castle. The castle was within the prison, so that actually there were sort of concentric circles of, kind of, world inclusion. It wasn’t that the structures all inhabited one landscape. It was that they surrounded one another.”

In other words, the third-person narrator, who you think is telling a story about a man, is actually revealed to be another man entirely—a first-person narrator who, like Egan, is “trying to write a book.” A man behind the scenes. An invisible man. “Was there any determining factor that caused you to realize that the main voices of the book were going to be male? Because we spend so much time inside of these two men’s heads, which is very different from the two books that came before.”

“The maleness of that world seemed to be inherent to the vision. I don’t quite know why, I mean there are plenty of women in gothic fiction. In fact, the fact that the person who gets lost in the gothic world and cut off is male is actually kind of a reversal of the most typical gothic story . . . it is often a woman who becomes helpless and lost in the gothic environment. I think I really liked not having it be a woman, actually having it be kind of a hipster . . . And yet, I felt like, this book can’t be quite as unrelentingly male as it seems. I felt, there’s a female element here that I’m not seeing.”

There is. Egan found that invisible woman in the last pages of the book. I won’t unveil her here.

“But it’s a very male-dominated book, and honestly I think men liked it better than women did on the whole. . . . I think most of the bad reviews were by women, and some of the really good ones were by men. Because I have a public email address, I do get mail, and it seemed like a lot of the most enthusiastic reactions came from men.”

As she said this, I recalled another male character in The Keep who gets lost underground, in the exposition. “So, is [The Keep] a book about lost men?”

She thought about it. “I guess in a sense the gothic is always about lost people. They’re never where they belong in gothic stories. Because the sense of . . . of . . . imminent disembodied communication which tends to infuse the gothic, it doesn’t really happen when people are just living their normal daily lives.”

I think to myself, I am having an imminent disembodied communication with my favorite living novelist right here, in my combination kitchen/living room, right in the middle of my normal daily life.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

At the end of our second 45-minute session, Egan, who seemed unsure what my interest in her amounted to, asked me what my project looked like. Having retreated from my main objective early on, all I could do was stammer something indeterminate about gender.

And now, just as we were wrapping up, Egan finally addressed the issue head-on for the first time. “I feel like the gender issue is so hard to—I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say about it, but I don’t have much of a synthesis of it. I find—in the end I find myself just wanting to forget about it. I feel like yes, there are definitely issues and things to be explored, but it feels somehow like my time is best spend just trying to write better books.” I asked her how she thinks her gender affects her experience as a writer. “I don’t think I’m a woman writing, I’m just writing. I don’t know what it would be like if I weren’t. And that’s true for all of it. There’s no way to know how things might have played out differently, but one thing is for sure: I can’t say that I haven’t been given a lot of rewards. In a way I’m the last person to be able to speak to the question of discrimination right now. I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and rewards.” There’s a pause. “I’ve been over-praised and over-rewarded.”

I, personally, do not think this is the case. Though possibly overexposed?

She continued. “That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

That seems reasonable, and after hanging up the phone, I tried to take the advice of my favorite living novelist: walk away, move on.

But it’s advice I’ll probably never be able to hear. My fantasy has never been invisibility. It’s flight.

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Reading Fiction Again, This Time for the Ladies

When I asked Jennifer Egan last week if she’s faced any challenges as a woman writing, she answered, “I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and reward. I’ve been overpraised and over-rewarded. That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

Fair enough; the woman just won a Pulitzer Prize. The thing is, I can’t imagine a post-Pulitzer Jonathan Franzen telling an interviewer that he’s been “overpraised and over-rewarded.” I take at face value her statement that she’s never been aware of lesser treatment. But her deflection of praise in the next sentence says volumes to me about the attitudes we have all internalized, to varying degrees, about “women’s fiction”—whether written by women or for them.

This fantastic article by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” appeared earlier this week in the The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Like so many things I vehemently agree with, it is brilliant (ahem). Wolitzer has articulated many of the things I’ve been preoccupied with—not to say obsessed with—of late, and she says them with a great deal more knowledge and experience of the contemporary literary scene than I can hope to have.

Not only am I not a published author, but let’s face it: I don’t even read much contemporary fiction. Here’s the story of how that happened, and how I plan to fix it.

In 2001 I lived in Portland, Ore., in a wonderful Boston marriage with my best friend from high school that lasted exactly one year. With no television and no other friends, we cocooned ourselves in a spinsterish fantasy of near-constant knitting and weekly trips to the Portland Public Library. In addition to reading a backlog of authors I “felt I should know,” I made a point of checking out new novels in hardback, often spending months on a wait list for hot titles. Every Sunday I pored over the New York Times Sunday Book Review, coffee cup in hand, taking mental notes on what to look for on my next trip to the reading room downtown.

These outings, which often followed lazy breakfasts at the French creperie down the street, were superb. The fiction, however, often left me cold. Perhaps Henry James is the culprit: I began reading him for the first time in Portland, and there’s nothing like racing through Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl in a matter of months to convince you that contemporary fiction is mostly bunk. Having sampled a wide swath of critically acclaimed contemporary authors that included Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, Mona Simpson, T. C. Boyle, Ian McEwan, and Thom Jones, I felt underwhelmed. My grunts of annoyance while reading frequently prompted couple-ish interactions with my roommate—she would gently suggest that I stop reading, and I would refuse, instead throwing the book down, fuming for a while, and picking it back up again, determined to fight it out to the bitter end. (My husband may think that my tendency to get irrationally angry over other people’s writing began with the internet, but my friend could tell him differently.)

By the time I entered grad school, I felt that modern fiction had let me down. Despite a few tiny treasures I discovered along the way (the short stories of Jane Smiley and Helen Simpson, for instance), the writers who spoke most to me had been at it for a long time: Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and even John Updike (exactly half of whose books are lovely and the other half of which are total crap). Satisfied that I had given contemporary authors a fair chance, I spent the next seven years on a diet of novels written between 1700 and 1960, from Tristram Shandy to Middlemarch to Peyton Place. In and out of the classroom, I cultivated what I considered to be the most useful type of book knowledge: literary history.

It was useful, and extremely pleasurable as well. It feels good to like something that is old and difficult. And now I can converse with the three other people in the universe who not only read Clarissa but enjoyed it.

Older novels have the advantage of having been curated by the passage of time. You don’t have to like Ulysses (I don’t) to recognize its dazzling technical achievements and crucial influence on twentieth-century literature. Additionally, over the past 40 years literary scholars in academia have done us all a great service in uncovering hundreds of fantastic and indispensable texts by women, minorities, and other marginalized populations. While the playing field has been leveled somewhat by these valiant canon warriors, the struggle for greatness is still essentially Darwinian, and only the very best of the recovered literatures will survive into the next century.

Contemporary fiction is bound to suffer by comparison with these survivors. Even the most talented and passionate current critics will never have the advantage of observing a book age over a hundred years. Will Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm be read in 2090? (God, I hope not.) Will Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections be more famous for its beautiful portrait of family life, or for the Oprah scandal that surrounded it? History tells us that the critics of Henry James’s day preferred the work of the largely forgotten and inferior author Walter Besant. The Don DeLillos, Cormac McCarthys and, yes, Jennifer Egans of our day might just turn out to be Walter Besants after all, literary-historical footnotes to more lasting works.

Despite this, literary history is happening right now, and in my opinion it’s happening around women. The persistence of categories like “chick lit” and its more respectable cousin “women’s fiction” testifies to lingering inequalities in a canon that is being formed even as I write this. In addition to Meg Wolitzer, authors like Judith Krantz, Jennifer Weiner, and Jodi Picoult have drawn attention to the subtle disparagement of women in the literary scene.

(I wish I could add Jennifer Egan to that list, but after interviewing her, I can’t. Though brilliant and generous, Egan is not the outspoken advocate of women in literature that I so desperately wanted her to be after reading Look at Me way back in 2001. My article on Egan is currently looking for a publisher, knock on wood, but if I can’t sell it I will post it in a few weeks and you’ll see what I mean.)

This is all to say that if I am serious about exploring women’s role in shaping the novel, which I apparently am, the time and the place to read is now. More women are writing novels than ever before (or are they? I’ll do the research on that), and I want to play my small part in discussing them, celebrating them, and, when appropriate, canonizing them. While I can’t predict whose fiction will outlive us all, I can advocate for those authors who take women’s experience seriously, and especially for those female authors whose work runs the risk of being ghettoized, marginalized, or simply ignored.

In point of fact, I think that as a woman who has been given a highly public platform, Egan is better equipped than anyone to address these issues. I can’t banish the suspicion that Egan’s well-deserved Pulitzer for A Visit from the Good Squad was won partially on the strength of her dexterity in representing both women’s and men’s voices—a skill that has developed alongside her growing critical acceptance. When female writers transcend gender in this way, they are seldom praised specifically for reproducing a masculine point of view; rather, their work is praised as having “universal themes.” By contrast, when male authors choose to write exclusively from a woman’s perspective, they are often praised for their ability to mimic a woman’s point of view, but not for “universal themes.” A woman’s point of view, after all, isn’t considered universal in the literary world any more than it is in the real world.

One last observation: every devoted reader has experienced the heartbreaking moment when you come to the end of your favorite author’s oeuvre. When the writer is dead and gone, there will be no more first-time reads ever again, which in itself is a reason I should start cuddling up to the ones who are still living. A dead writer is never going to grant me an interview, either.

I have higher hopes for the contemporary female authors I admire most. That’s why I’m going to start calling them up and asking them these questions.

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On Women’s Culture and Literary Cockblocking

Last week I dropped a flippant one-liner on Facebook about wanting to write a piece of novelist fan fic wherein Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial spectacle. People seemed to enjoy that comment, and someone told me I should write the story, and I did. Reveling in the silliness of the premise, I also tried to honor the sentiment behind my original comment. The actual beheading was more of a punchline than an event.

Immediately after posting it and sharing it on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by a mix of pride and terror. My first action was to hurriedly comment that it was written in the style of The Hunger Games. This was not true at all, though the books had undoubtedly been on my mind. It was my way of simultaneously disavowing the violence of the story and beating to the punch all the imaginary readers in my head who would think it was derivative. Like lots of women, I have a habit of prefacing my words with the phrase “I’m sure this isn’t very original, but . . .” and punctuating them with an apology for excessive feeling.

So I’ve been thinking about why I wrote the story, and the uncomfortable amount of rage I’ve been feeling lately—as in, my whole life—about women. Or specifically, being a woman in a patriarchy, with all the constant threat of violence and ridicule and just being ignored that it entails.

It’s wonderful of the Grand Old Party to wage a war on women right now, in a way. It seems to have kicked a lot of Americans in the gut, not to mention the womb. Now no one can pretend that misogyny is dead, that women are truly treated as equals to men, that the goals of the women’s movement were achieved long ago in the fuzzy past. It’s a mystery to me how anyone who’s been alive through the last four presidential administrations, which is about how long I’ve been noticing presidential administrations, could think that in the first place. But now that no one can deny that men in high places are trying to reassert control over women’s bodies and silence their voices, I feel a strange relief at the thought that now the battle is actually on.

The skills I bring to this fight are reading and writing and critical thinking. I’m not an activist, to my shame, or a lawyer, thankfully for everyone, or a policy maker, except in my nightmares, or a documentarian, which sounds hard. As a reader, writer, and former grad student, I’m fixated on the softer misogynies that create the climate in which the overt misogyny can thrive. To my mind, the relationship between creative production and structural inequality—between stories and legislation—is no less troubling for being indirect. It’s just harder to quantify, because it happens in our off-hours, when we read and watch movies for pleasure, during our playtime, as it were.

Here’s a story about playtime. My niece and her twin brother just turned eight years old. At the age of three my niece started refusing to wear pink. At six, she demanded a boy’s haircut. Without knowing the complicated thoughts that take place inside her intelligent little brain, I can only imagine what would compel a girl who has a twin brother to make these choices. Could it be that she noticed, as soon as she was old enough to notice things, that boy stuff was just valued more than girl stuff? That she was encouraged to play with trains, maps, and other stereotypically boyish toys, which we progressively think of as “unisex”; but that boys were not encouraged to play with dolls, kitchen sets, and other stereotypically girly toys? Can she really have noticed at the age of three that things associated with girls were not considered worthy of little boys’ attention? In case you don’t think that’s likely, here’s another story: when she was four or five years old, she announced during play time that she didn’t want to be a princess, because princesses just sat around waiting to be rescued. She wanted to be a knight instead.

A recent trip to Disneyworld acquainted her with the consequences of this attitude. In a land of princesses, my niece was mistaken for a boy more than once. She can only have felt deeply ambivalent, or whatever the 7-year-old version of that looks like, when the waitress dressed as Cinderella came back around with an embarrassed smile on her face to offer her a fairy wand instead of the sword she had been “mistakenly” given at the door. It’s not always easy being a knight.

The stories we tell affect our cultural beliefs about women. And, to get to the point, so do the stories we tell about those stories.

Because even after they’re all grown up, boys still don’t want to play with girls’ toys, which is what Jonathan Franzen fatally expressed in that decade-old gaffe on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. (Well, fatally for the Jonathan Franzen in my story, anyway). Franzen starts off by acknowledging the well-supported fact that women are the primary readers of novels in America:

 So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator . . . I continue to believe that . . .

It’s easy to misread this quote as Franzen denigrating a certain class of Americans. Elitist Author Knocks Beloved Talk Show, Calls Oprah Watchers Dumb. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the next sentence to be something about how great it is that someone is buying American novels at all, thereby keeping Franzen in tweed blazers. But in the next sentence, Franzen not only fails to acknowledge the value of his low-brow, Oprah-watching female audience, but actively reveals his craving for their low-brow, football-watching husbands:

. . . and now, I’m actually at the point with this book that I worry . . . I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.

Boys won’t play with girl’s toys, and this is “confusing” to Franzen. (It’s not confusing to me, but whatever.) He cites direct, anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. He is careful to point out that this is male readers speaking, not him. He cites the evidence.

He doesn’t mention whether women approached him at these book signings, or what they said if they did.  He expresses no interest in his potentially vast pool of female readers, in their potential reactions, in whether they will identify with his well-written female characters. He only expresses concern over the fact that their having bought the book will drive those men in line away. Not concern over the noxious sexism their comments revealed, but over the possibility of losing them altogether. The fact that women were reading Jonathan Franzen’s book wasn’t ever going to make them look more intelligent or perceptive. It made the book look like it was “for women,” and therefore unreadable by men. The role of female readers in this narrative can be summed up in one word: cockblockers.

In a really great 2001 interview in BOMB Magazine, Franzen told writer Donald Antrim that The Corrections was part of a general turn away from masculinist modes of fiction currently in fashion and toward the domestic fiction associated with—you guessed it—Edith Wharton. He said this to Donald Antrim, a highbrow postmodernist author who exemplified the style Franzen was rejecting. Franzen is a sensitive intellect despite that ludicrous Wharton article, and I believe he meant what he said. But that is what makes his other words, spoken in conversation with the most recognizable and respected female voice in National Public Radio, so disheartening. Somehow it’s always worse when a smart man says it. It’s more of a betrayal. It makes you feel so hopeless.

There are plenty of worse types of oppression for a woman than being told you’re not valuable as a reader of Jonathan Franzen. Like all women, I know women who’ve been raped by strangers and acquaintances, women who’ve been bullied and harassed at work and on the street, women who’ve been physically threatened on first dates and by live-in boyfriends, women who’ve been passed over for promotions or discovered their pay was not commensurate with their male peers. This is not any one man’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the fault of poor old Jonathan Franzen, who does not have an Oprah-like sphere of influence, no matter how many NPR interviews and New Yorker articles he botches.

But the crimes of misogyny are propped up by the culture of misogyny. And the culture of misogyny is perpetuated by literary fiction as much as by sitcoms and television ads, by The New Yorker as much as by Maxim. The culture of misogyny is perpetuated by smart, creative, well-intentioned, and fundamentally good people, as well as by Rush Limbaugh. I don’t really want to chop off Jonathan Franzen’s head, obviously. But as a woman watching the contemporary literary scene I was for a long time afraid even to be invested in (hence my retreat to dead authors in grad school), I confess I do want to see women get their comeuppance. When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had very complicated feelings about it, including delight, of course, but also sadness that her earlier, more female-centric novels had never pulled the critical attention that her novels that explored men’s experience did.

Franzen’s Freedom was published in 2010, and Goon Squad won in 2011so that particular gladiatorial spectacle was not to be. But a girl can dream.

DIY Martyrs, I Mean Mothers

Jess from Sprachbund In Austin wrote about this in a blog post way back in 2008, relating her experiences as a DIY mom to the Judith Warner book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

Judith Warner also claims that the mothers who are really facing the challenges of unrealistic expectations are those born between 1956 and 1972, i.e., in the wake of the 2nd wave women’s movement. But as a woman born in 1976, I think my generation is doubly judged. Not only do voices from the mainstream admonish us with “You finally get to have it all, career and family, so why are you whining?”, but there’s also the whole do-it-yourself hippie/hipster counter-culture movement that differs from Martha Stewart mainly in aesthetics and the politically-correct provenance of raw materials. Otherwise, I think DIY culture can be freakishly backwards. When I read an article in BUST or a similar magazine on knitting stocking caps for all my friends for Christmas, I’m sorry, but I feel like running to Target and buying everyone striped socks made in China. And this mentality carries over into counter-culture mothering, best exemplified by “Mothering” magazine, which I prefer to call “Martyring”. “Mothering” magazine seriously makes me want to wretch, despite the fact that many of my beloved family and friends are subscribers. I’d elaborate, but first I need to go finish harvesting my own baby food while my 5-year-old breast feeds in her hemp cloth sling. And that’s after I take her to a drum-circle that comes from a culture my country is neo-colonizing. Barf. [post here]

This is obviously the reflection of a woman who is in the throes of birthday-party planning for a 5-year-old. I would love to hear more thoughts on how mothering ties into the DIY/craft culture expectations of women of our generation. It’s interesting that she ties it into “neo”-colonization, too – in my article, my editor took the adjective “white” out of my list of self-descriptors, but I thought it was pretty important. Any women of color want to chime in on their relationship to DIY? Mothers? Women outside of my age group?

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File under “Do-It-Herself”

Please check out my article on DIY culture and women’s labor in CultureMap Austin and CultureMap Houston:

[. . . .] I can remember a time when I didn’t know that “antique” could be a verb, but weeks after earning my PhD I was antiquing everything in sight, barely pausing to ask myself how I had become this person.

At least I’m not alone.

[ . . . .]

If these women are anything like me, they go to Pinterest for DIY porn: heart-shaped elbow patches, vases crafted from fire extinguishers, tiny pies you bake right in the apple. They are irresistibly drawn to light-drenched photographs of knitted iPod cozies and snow globes made from jelly jars.

The women who make these crafts seem to live in a fulfilling world of vintage aprons and children’s birthday parties, rainbow-themed and miraculously unsticky, far from the grueling demands of the workplace. In this domestic paradise, everything is beautiful, everything is clean, and every detail testifies to a woman’s loving, unpaid labor. [full article here]

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Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

[You can read my article about women and DIY, which uses quotes from this interview, here.]

I first found Emily Matchar’s website, New Domesticity, in the aftermath of my DIY-wedding-related frenzy. Now, three months after getting my PhD in English, I handcraft greeting cards, raise chickens, make my own marshmallows, and fantasize about abandoning my academic job search to become a DIY wedding planner. I emailed Emily because I was curious about her take on the gender politics of DIY, and she emailed me back that she could relate to my situation: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.” After she sketched out the basic history of the DIY movement, from Kathleen Hanna to Martha Stewart, we started getting down to how contemporary DIY culture affects women’s lives.

Faux mercury glass candle holders, in process.

ME: You talk about your own relationship to DIY. Did that change over the course of writing the book?

MATCHAR: I think it probably confirmed some things that I thought, which was that DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular. This sort of domestic DIY is very much a women’s movement. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from that, because it’s not like, oh poor you, you’re doing DIY, you’re spending too much money! But there’s a sort of growing extreme DIY ideology of simple living or radical homemaking, this sort of idea of, why would you work in an office to make money to buy things that you can make yourself? That’s the driving ideology behind some of these extreme DIY movements, and I think ideologically that’s so flawed. Because, one, there are a lot of reasons to work besides making money, and two, it’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Yeah, I would rather make all my own bread to avoid having to work on an assembly line. But would I rather bake my own bread to avoid having a potentially more fulfilling and socially important job? And there’s very much, in this ideology, a very heavy strain of “working sucks,” and the workplace is terrible. It often seems like it’s just irredeemably terrible for women, and that it’s a feminist act to reject it and do things yourself. And I’m pretty wary of that.

ME: That’s really true. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Second-wave feminism was so predicated on getting out of the house and having a meaningful career, which, thank god, right? But there seems to be among women of my generation this kind of irritation with, why isn’t work fulfilling? For 90 percent of men, their jobs are not super fulfilling either. But I feel like women of my mindset and political inclinations view it as something that is going to be super fulfilling intellectually and psychologically and emotionally, and most of the time, let’s face it, it just isn’t that. But when you bake bread, you really feel an incredibly strong connection to that work. 

But why housework? Why does it have to be women’s work, why does it have to be girly crafts, why does it have to be baby clothes? What is it that we crave about that stuff? Why does it have to be weddings? Why aren’t we building shit? DIY is also a hardware store thing. So why is it that the things we make have to be these stereotypically gendered things, do you think?

MATCHAR: Well I mean sure, there are tons of women who go to the hardware store and build houses, but you’re right, it’s not part of this whole aesthetic. I think for girly stuff, there was already a pre-made script for that. And these are the kinds of things that women make, women make baby hats, and women do their wedding invitations and calligraphy and stuff like that, so there’s much more resources and learning available. I think when women officially started to reclaim this stuff as a feminist act, the very idea of it being so traditionally feminine was appealing. Hey, this was denigrated because it was traditionally feminine, so let’s do it. These are areas of life that have a sort of natural space for DIY – like a wedding, you’re making all this stuff, having a party, it’s a big transition. That said, there is a fair amount of DIY that sort of has nothing to do with that . . . I know lots of women who make IPod cases. And, you know, tampon holders.

These vintage pillboxes with homemade lip balm were my bridesmaid gifts.

ME: Okay, but the cute aesthetic is so predominant in DIY. I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a lot of women in their early twenties, and cute is just what they do. They make their own stuff because that’s what cool, and to me, there does not seem to be a trace of irony, or if there is irony, their relationship to it is completely different than mine. I don’t think it would occur to them to be like, why am I spending my time doing this? Why do I like cutesy things? Where did that come from? These are smart, well-educated, and often super successful and self-confident women who have just grown up with the assumption that baking cupcakes is a really cool way to spend your time. Which it is! But it seems like kind of an unquestioned assumption, whereas women closer to my age got into it via ironic appropriations of women’s culture. When did that shift happen, I keep trying to figure that out.

MATCHAR: That’s a huge question. I don’t know exactly how that happened or to what degree it has happened. I’m 29, and when I was 18, it would never have occurred to me to make cupcakes, I would have thought that was really, like, embarrassing.

Or really girly . . . I would have worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For the longest time that was one of the reasons women didn’t do that stuff, because it was denigrated as girly and there was a lot of sexism toward it. Women shied away from it because they wanted to be taken seriously. And then there was that reappropriation. I think now if you’re 18, you have the privilege, and that’s wonderful, of not having to worry that if I wear, you know, glitter cupcake earrings people won’t take me seriously.

ME: But do you think that’s true? Does it really not undermine their ability to be taken seriously in the world? Speaking to my friends who are in careers, they still have to scrap for every piece of respect they can get, do you know what I mean? 

MATCHAR: I think you’re totally right that yes, women still have to work hard to be taken seriously, and not being too stereotypically girly is part of being taken seriously. It’s just a luxury of growing up now that they don’t realize that, because it’s much more subtle, so that you grow up thinking, sure I can do cupcakes. And yeah, you will run into, a little bit later in life, people who aren’t going to take you seriously. But also I worry a little bit about just the sort of . . . how to phrase this . . . the . . . not to knock cupcakes, and we use cupcakes for so much symbolism beyond their actual meaning. But there is this idea that like . . . There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery.  I’m not saying it’s not. I mean if you’re a serious baker, that seriously wants to be a baker for life and you know what that entails, good on you. But the idea that that would be a cultural ideal.

Embroidering handmade cards is my favorite way to ruin my eyes.

I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, “God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,” or “I just want to start a bakery.” And I’m like, but you don’t really! Which I get, and people should do whatever they want to do. But the idea that work is hard and demoralizing, and that it’s maybe better to focus on the small things, is a little bit of an insidious cultural thing right now. I see a lot of people on blogs say, you can’t reach for too much. One of the ways people always introduce themselves on blogs is you know, my name is Anne, and I like pink cardigans and kittens and copper teapots. And there’s something very childish about it. And I’m not criticizing the people individually, but just the idea that you’re the sum of your whimsical interests. Does that make sense?

ME: So, do you have a magical answer for me about whether I should stop doing DIY and invest all my time in starting to earn income for my family?

MATCHAR: Well, how broke are you? [Laughs.] I mean you know basically as long as people are doing it for fun, and fulfillment, or people are doing it to make money but they have a very concrete goal in mind, and they have a very good idea of how that actually works, that’s great. I think it’s when we get into the slightly delusional space where we’re like, oh, we’re saving money. You are saving money, but at a really big cost of time. So as long as you’re enjoying growing all your own vegetables, and it’s not taking away from your ability to earn a living, if you, say, had to move somewhere else, or your vegetable garden got eaten by bugs . . . when you start going, well I’m spending three hours a day gardening and raising chickens,  and therefore  I don’t have time to do other things. I think that’s probably not a solid financial plan. But most people figure that one out pretty quick. You should check out that book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter [by Jennifer Reese]. She talks about that exact topic.

ME: I definitely need to check that out. In the mean time, don’t forget to look me up on Etsy. I have some great handmade cards.

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