Category Archives: Literatures

Teaching Tigers

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the one book that all high-schoolers universally adore. We give it to them to read at home on their own, while in class we cover the core curriculum via decontextualized slices of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, nuggets of Confucius and Dante.

I was not pleased at having to re-read the book, and found myself equally entertained and irritated by it. But I will admit to being more intrigued by its ideas than I was the first time around. Pi, the main character and predictably unreliable narrator, has two obsessions–zoology and theology. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to separate human aspirations from animal behavior, but they remain frustratingly entwined, all but inextricable. Humans are animals, the book says over and over, but are we just animals? Or does the power of storytelling elevate us beyond the reach of our animal bodies? Is storytelling just a complicated lie to cover our savage nature, or are we in fact capable of sublimity?

These questions are very compelling when you’re facing a classroom full of students who are half-human, half-monster.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s what makes them so interesting. Like minotaurs and mermaids, they have certain human traits, but they frequently behave like beasts, easily distracted by sex and the weather and all the familial drama that is constantly fogging up their home lives. (It’s easy as an adult to forget how much the family drama affected you when you were locked up with it every single day, with only a tiny corner to call your own.) They are, in fact, quite like Pi; they are [SPOILER ALERT] at once thoughtful, philosophical young people and sullen, feral beasts. They are one part starving human and one part part seasick tiger.

I try to nudge them toward humanity by giving them the stories that will make them feel human. I give them The Life of Pi and refrain from criticizing it, instead letting them get caught up in its whirlwind, getting caught up in the whirlwind myself, and then experiencing with them the disappointment and betrayal at its abrupt ending. I read aloud the gory parts of the Odyssey and encourage them to picture the action movie in their heads. I try to explain, futilely, it seems, how poems make meaning not just through their words, but through the shape those words take on the page, the sounds they make when you say them aloud. How parallelism, for instance, can give substance and form to ideas that we know to be true but that our brains would otherwise reject–we call them paradoxes.

“How can surrendering be the same as continuing?” I say. “How can mortality be the same as eternity? How can a person hear deafly? Speak mutely? Why would Marianne Moore write a poem entirely about impossible things?”

How can surrendering be the same as continuing, indeed? In the classroom, there is no control; the harder you push, the harder they push back.

The seniors, in some ways, are the worst. They truly are like caged tigers (“So is that a simile or a metaphor?”), stalking back and forth in their cages and glowering at me through the bars. They’ve been to college campuses; they can smell freedom. They are as emotionally ready as they’ll ever be to step into the big world, but they’re still stuck in a narrow one. They can feel its limitations, but they have no way of transcending them intellectually. They don’t know what it’s like outside the cage, how hard it is to survive, how many rewards there are in freedom and how lost you can feel when you’ve lost your taste for them.

They don’t see a person when they look at me; they see a grown-up, and grown-ups aren’t yet people to them. They think they know what people are like from watching TV and movies, but they don’t recognize the one standing in front of them. I am just one of many adults who stand guard at the cage door, keys dangling provocatively from our belts.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to be misrecognized in that way. It lets you hide in plain sight. I am reminded of my interview with Aspergers Are Us, the sketch troupe made up entirely of comedians on the autism spectrum. This is New Michael Ingemi and Noah Britton talking:

NMI: That’s why it’s so awkward to make eye contact. Because when someone’s addressing you, they’re acknowledging you, that you exist—

NB: They’ve reminded you that you’re a human. And when you’re reminded that you’re a human, that’s really painful and unpleasant. And that’s one thing autism interventions try to do, is force us to do that, which hurts. It’s physically painful.

NMI: Because we’re not human, we’re animals.

There’s a kind of safety in not being human, because the rules of human behavior–compassion, empathy, politesse–don’t apply. For an animal, the only thing you have to worry about, beyond survival, is the fluctuation of power, the jostling of alpha, beta, and omega. And, of course, that’s survival too.

This week, I kicked a girl out of my classroom. I really should have done it months ago. She is a chronic eye-roller. I worry that she will strain her ocular nerve. I worry that someone will hit her on the back and she will look like a white-eyed zombie for the rest of her life. I have seen the northern hemisphere of her irises precisely three times. I want to tell her that her eyes are lovely when she uses them to look at people. Instead I let out an explosive breath of air and I say: “I’ve had it. Go see the principal, Katherine.” (That’s not her real name. Did I mention they all have the weirdest names these days?)

After she left—eyes now squinched with tears of rage and humiliation—the other students, no doubt as sick of her theatrics as I was, started snickering. And I, guardian and treasurer of the humanity of our nation’s youth, said: “Don’t laugh, [last name]. You’re next.”

You know who else said those exact words? The gym teacher played by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson on “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, I have officially become Coach Fredricks.*

Yeah, it sucks making kids do something they’d clearly rather not be doing. All you can do is keep telling them stories and wait for them to feel like humans.

The same day that happened, I assigned my class a literary analysis. I wanted to give them a choice between poetry and prose (too may choices, I always give them too many choices), and I quickly picked “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning for the poem, because, duh. For the prose option, I was temporarily stumped. Finally, I decided to use the “double-consciousness” excerpt from Chapter 1 of W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Empathy is a decidedly human preoccupation. To save time, I went ahead and allowed my heart to break before class even began. My school is full of white kids. It’s a private school in a largely segregated town. I do not have a single black student, nor have I seen any on the campus. I knew the DuBois excerpt would taste like medicine to them, that only the most sensitive among them would even feel shivers of discomfort, that others would fail to draw any connections at all between the experience of a black man in 1903 and their experience as white teenagers 110 years later. 

“Why should that matter?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial indecision, and then thought, “It does matter, that’s why I’m assigning it,” and that decided it. 

In class, I pointed to them one after the other and enjoyed one of the few powers a high school teacher retains–the power to command students to read out loud. As I conducted this depressing symphony of not-caring, the last student in the class began to read the double-consciousness paragraph. “One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It’s not medicine, it’s straight up grain alcohol.

The kid reading the passage is bright but has been checked out all year. He seems to have given up at some point. I have been prodding him with praise and threats, but it’s not working. He began reading, droning through the difficult first sentence. Then, suddenly, there was a change. He leaned forward. He slowed down his reading. He frowned a little, and his eyes opened a little wider.

I noticed, or remembered, that he’s not white. He has brown skin. He’s not Mexican, he’s South American–adopted–but I’m sure ninety percent of Texans who meet him casually assume he’s Mexican (with all that entails in a border state). I had grown so accustomed to his sullen silence that I didn’t even try to make eye contact with him in class anymore, so when he suddenly spoke, I had to turn my head to look at him.

“It’s about how people see you? And how you’re always thinking about it,” he said. “It’s about how you always have to think about people looking at you, seeing only this one thing about you. You’re different.”

Twice at the University of Chicago, I was reading James Baldwin in an undergraduate class. Both times, when we came to Baldwin, the majority of the students became glazed and restless, while one student perked up, engaged for the first time. Both times, I intuited in a flash that the student, not feeling entirely white, had picked up on high-frequency notes that the other students couldn’t hear, had read the plain, straightforward words as a secret message just for them. Colorblindness is not the absence of racism, and there is a special kind of invisibility that comes from being the only non-white student in a white classroom. James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois work on these students like lemon juice on invisible ink. While the rest of the students saw this as “black writing,” they saw it as truth. The text looked straight at them and recognized them as people.

We don’t always know who we’re changing and how. I have said many times that a teacher doesn’t get to see the difference she makes, and that is the hardest part about caring, the thing that wears teachers down over time. We don’t get to see the difference we make. Every lost kid drags a cohort of lost adults behind them. They are animals, and we are animals, and no story you can tell is ever going to change that. So we feel like failures. We can’t tame them. We can only feed them and try to listen to the stories they are telling us about our own humanity. 

*Why is it such a joy to call some kids by their last name? The world may never know.

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Emma Donoghue Says All the Smart Things (and Still Gets Mansplained To)!

Twelve years ago I picked up a racy-looking paperback with a gaping bodice on the cover and a dictionary definition on the title page: “Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.”

As it turned out, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin had a lot more to do with slimy breeches than heaving bosoms. Set in 18th-century London, the novel is almost straight naturalism, a grimy, depressing, but riveting story that follows a young girl on her path from prostitute to refugee to [spoiler alert!] murderess. Mary’s psychology, such as it is, is almost entirely molded by outer circumstances, accidents of birth and station and bad timing. Given her environment, it only takes a soupcon more than the usual amount of envy in Mary to set the wheels in motion that lead her to her ghastly fate. It’s enough to make you listen to your elders.

It wasn’t until I read the historical notes at the back of the novel that I realized this wasn’t just a realistic story, it was a real story. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it was inspired by a gruesome murder about which the historical record says little. Many (though not all) of Donoghue’s other books have done the same type of historical reconstruction work: The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, and the short stories in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Astray, her latest collection, which covers four centuries of wanderings, migrations, and peregrinations from the micro-perspective of those caught up in the crosswinds. Emma Donoghue thinks like an academic and writes like a woman possessed by the ghosts of historical nobodies, whose minor, idiosyncratic histories tell a larger story about their time.

In 201o, Donoghue’s contemporary novel Room appeared, a gut-wrenching account of a mother and son in a captivity scenario out of your worst nightmare. Room‘s unconventional narrator is a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a tiny, one-room prison with only his mother for company. Trapping the reader inside a child’s head is far from just a gimmick, or even a tool for ongoing dramatic irony. It conveys at once the airless, stunted quality of life in the room and also the astonishing potential of the human mind, its almost sublime ability to reach beyond its narrow limits to the incomprehensible beyond. Jack and his mother shape one another asymmetrically but wholly; Room is Emile written as a love story between mother and child, boxed in by their bond of love and the utter dependence of one on the other just as they are by the literal prison around them. Room was masterful, and it should have won the Booker Prize, or the Orange Prize—it was shortlisted for both.

So, given all that, let’s just say I was excited to get a chance to interview Emma Donoghue for CultureMap. I was nervous, and consequently listening to the recording was not fun: I sound dumb as a rock. I asked questions that made it seem like I hadn’t actually read any of her books; I blanked and failed to listen properly or follow up. Luckily, Emma Donoghue was smart enough for the both of us, so my awkwardness didn’t ruin the interview.

And anyway, I’m proud of it. It’s a landmark for me. At the beginning of 2012, having just graduated and not knowing what was next, I conceived of this ludicrous idea to interview all my favorite contemporary female writers. Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue were at the top of the list. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen more female authors, and have been fortunate enough to interview a couple of them. But to speak to someone who was an initial inspiration for this project, whatever it is, that was really something.

Interview after the jump. Continue reading

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“The Roy G. Biv of Female Experience”: A Big Ol’ Interview with Libba Bray

*vital note: You can find an abridged version of this interview on CultureMap Austin. Enjoy!

Preparing to interview young adult novelist Libba Bray, I wrote at the top of my notebook page, “THE GOAL IS NOT TO BE HER FRIEND.”

Though seemingly written in reality-TV-ese, these words of advice are reasonable. If there’s anything that Jennifer Egan interview taught me (and dear God let there be something), it’s that a reporter should never secretly want the approval of the interviewee, because that is the road to a little town I call Klonopinsville. So I rode into this encounter in full battle armor, having banned myself  on pain of death from all forms of gushing, as well as any appeals to common ground or comments that might be construed as hints at my own humanity.

Imagine my surprise when Libba Bray turned out to be a human herself, with a gift for hilarious turns of phrase and a healthy supply of anger against patriarchal politics and religious shame-mongering. She was brave, open, weird, and funny. When I tentatively followed up a question about her religious upbringing by asking her about her current spiritual beliefs, not only did she answer me at great length, but she asked me the same question right back. And then listened to the answer.

At Libba’s request I’m not putting up that part of the interview, but there’s a ton of fascinating stuff in this version. She talks about her gay Presbyterian minister father, the life-changing car accident that left her with a glass eye when she was 18, and the crippling depression that followed. And oh, thank god, she talked feminism. She brought it up on her own, and she nailed it time and time again. Listening to her on the phone, I was pumping my fists and silently cheering.

While there are no plans for matching friendship bracelets, I believe if it came down to a reality TV-style survival situation, she would have my back.

——-

OED: How did you get started writing YA, after being a playwright?

LB: The first books I wrote, I actually wrote for a packager. They hire people to go, “McNovel, drive-through, please!” They would say here’s your premise, we’d like you to write a book. It taught me an awful lot. If you can outline a book and then write it in six weeks, you can do just about anything. But I wanted to write my own stories. My first idea, honestly, was, man, wouldn’t it be cool to write a Victorian “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? That was the inspiration [for A Great and Terrible Beauty], and then I just kind of kept noodling around with it. I loved Victorian novels growing up, I loved Wuthering Heights and I loved Jane Eyre and anything gothic.

OED: You say that it was “love at first sight” for you with YA. What was it that drew you?

LB: I want to say, the sincerity of the story telling? I just read this great quote by Junot Diaz. He was talking about true intimacy, and he was saying that it was the willingness to be vulnerable and to be found out. I loved that phrase, that you were willing to be found out. That’s what I felt that YA did. It wasn’t pretentious, and it wasn’t hiding its heart. It wanted to be found out. The first YA book that I remember really falling in love with was Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas. Rob Thomas went on to make “Veronica Mars,” and he’s from Texas. . . I felt this kinship. It just felt very honest to me, and I appreciated that. It was kind of a relief. It felt like those moments when you go to a party and you’re standing around for a long time going, I don’t fit in here, and what am I going to talk to these people about, and everybody’s getting drunk, and then you find this one person and you end up sitting in some corner talking about all these arcane things, and then before you know it you’re having a conversation about the meaning of life and it’s four o’clock in the morning? That kind of feeling, that kind of intimacy? I felt like that’s what I got from YA.

OED: Do you think that sincerity is part of why there’s been this big boom in YA fiction?

LB: I always hesitate to generalize about YA because it’s so vast . . . But I would say the teens, our audience, keeps us honest. Because they can smell bullshit a mile away, and they will call you on it. And so you really kind of have to be willing to get down to it. This is one of the things I always say when I’m doing writing workshops when teens. I always say, “You can lie, because fiction is made up of lies. But just don’t bullshit me. And there’s a difference.” So I think that’s it . . . you don’t have to bullshit.

OED: I’m not a big follower of YA, but I was walking through Bookpeople one day and I saw your covers and the first thing I thought was there’s somebody who—you’re working within the YA wheelhouse but you’ve done so much different stuff, and that seems to be kind of unique. So I wonder if you could talk about playing with different genres.

LB: I like to read a lot of different stuff, and I think that’s part of it. As rudimentary as this sounds, some days I wake up and I think “I would like to wear an outfit that’s very Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.” Or, “Today I would like to dress like Devo.”. . . I like horror, and I like political thrillers, and I like supernatural things. But I also really like satire, and I like Thomas Pynchon and I like—trying to think of something far afield from Thomas Pynchon, but my brain cells are not working! I mean I like so many different things that I couldn’t imagine being tied to one kind of storytelling, that’s just not the way that I am. I am an eclectic person, and so, because my interests are quite varied and my reading tastes are quite varied, I feel like it would make sense that my storytelling would also be quite varied.

One of the things that was tough for me in writing the Gemma Doyle trilogy was, there’s humor in there, but the humor is very particular to a Victorian sensibility. And so it’s corseted, for lack of a better term. It’s restrained. So it was kind of fun to then be able to open up the throttle and write something like Going Bovine. All of my friends who knew me really well, when I came out with A Great and Terrible Beauty, all went, “Huh, that is not the book I thought you would write.” And then when I wrote Going Bovine all my friends went, “Oh yeah, I totally get that you would write that book!” But anybody who’s read the Gemma Doyle trilogy, they went, “Huh, that is not the book I thought you would follow up with.” [Pause.] Or perhaps I just have a penchant for career suicide.

OED: It is interesting because those Gemma Doyle books, I remember seeing them on the shelf for the first time years and years back, they’ve got the sexy young adult thing going on with the covers.

LB: They were pretty daring for the time, the covers.

OED: I kind of made a beeline for them for that very reason. But it’s a trilogy, and there are so many YA series that can stretch on and on. Especially since those books were so successful, to go in a different direction seems very daring in a way.

LB: She eats danger for breakfast! And then she gets, like, a little repeating action. Danger repeats on her. Yeah, it was a craaaaazy thing to do, but you know you must [parodic serious tone] tell the story you need to tell.

OED: I’m right in the middle of Beauty Queens right now. And I have to say, I love it. And I think it really has to do partly with, like you said, the release of the corsets. I thought, Oh, all bets are off! Also being a Texas Girl, as soon as that Taylor [Miss Texas] character opened her mouth I was like there it is! That is the accent, I can hear it. I was like, oh, I know those girls!

LB: I’m not gonna lie, it was really fun. I hail from the home town of two Miss Americas you know. I’m from Denton, north of Dallas. I always say it’s like Tatooine with a Walmart.

OED: In Beauty Queens, the satire that you mentioned really comes out swinging. That is a book with a very intense point of view, which is part of what makes it so delightful to read. And I wonder, people have asked you about gender in your books before, but also the critique of consumerism and all that, is that something you feel really strongly about?

LB: I heard Lois Lowry speak this summer, and I loved what she said. She was talking about how people say to “write what you know.” And she said, “I want to write about what troubles me, what keeps me up at night.” And I thought, yes! That is part of it, is that there’s something that’s like, I’m not entirely—I have all kind of thoughts and feelings about that, but I feel like I need to explore that.

A few years ago David Levithan called me up and said, “I have an idea for a story and you need to write it. Let’s go have lunch.” He said the magic word, which was lunch. And so we went to have lunch and he said, “Okay here’s the one sentence: planeload of teen beauty queens crash on an island.” And I was like aw, dude! I want to write that book! But I was finishing up [the Gemma Doyle trilogy], so I said, “Okay, but it’s going be a while before I can get to that.” My first thought was, I’m just gonna do a crazy, crazy book, like a full six-pack of crazy. I thought that would be so fun, to lampoon that kind of stuff. And then when I actually got down to writing it, I thought, I don’t want to lampoon these girls, because I feel for them. The truth is that so much had happened in terms of setting women back in that amount of time, and I was really troubled by that. I thought, why is there so much misogyny? I mean I know that misogyny is always with us, but why is there so much misogyny? Why are we so hard on ourselves? I had walked into the grocery store or 7-11 or something, and there were all those magazines up front, you know like the tabloids and People. And every single freakin’ magazine cover was “So-and-so, what will she wear! Look at her engagement ring!” “So-and-so tells you all—she wants babies!” You know. And it was all so just reductive and regressive. Hey man, I love being married and having a baby. I have a son, and I enjoy motherhood and all that. But it became almost Stepford Wife in the way that we were supposed to kind of parrot these things back. It’s like, “Of course my family is the most important thing!” All of these things that just felt like a corset again. And I thought, what is going on that this kind of stuff is happening? And I felt troubled by it, and I felt angry.

And at the same time I had a lot of questions about gender. I think that one of the things that I enjoy about writing is that it forces me to question my own status quo. It is really easy to get complacent and think, well I believe this, or I think this. And when you start getting in there and digging around in the guts of the story, you’re like, I thought I believed this, but I don’t know, I’m not really sure, maybe I’m just really guarded about this. Maybe I’m not willing to be vulnerable about what this feels like. I think sometimes in literature we can also kind of police ourselves.

I know a lot of people talked about Twilight, and they would say, oh, but the heroine is so, she kind of lets this man make her decisions. And I thought, that may not be the—I’m saying fantasy here, because it’s the only word I can think of, it’s not really the right word. But you know, like, that may not be the particular fantasy or trope that works for me. But could we ever deny that—Listen man, I read Wuthering Heights! I wanted me a little Heathcliff action. I mean like, why can’t we indulge that fantasy and also be like, “And now I would like the ERA passed, please. Also, this lipstick is fuckin’ killer.” I always say I want the whole Roy G. Biv of female experience. I don’t want it to just be Roy, or G., or Biv. . . . Also I was pissed off, I was pissed off about everything that was going on, the way that we were being sort of chipped away at. Also I really love James Bond, and I was like “I want a female James Bond.” And there’s a way in which they could all be Bond girls, but instead they become Bond.

The one thing I was very, very clear about was, I did not want this to be a big cat fight. Because my experience with my own female friends is that we have been there for each other through everything, and that we’re a support system for each other. I didn’t want it to become this female against female kind of thing, because that wasn’t my experience.

OED: The book is full of women who are struggling with their identities, not just as women, but as people of color, or disabled, or transgendered people. A lot of the heart of the book seems to come from that struggle with identity. So I wondered if there was any basis for that in your own life, if your experience either as a woman or with your identity has informed that. 

LB: Absolutely. And this actually gets back to your question, too, about why does YA appeal. One of the things I always say is, “Because we never stop coming of age.” It doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 40, you’re still working on identity, you’re still trying to figure out who you are, and who you are now. Like all right, well who am I now? And I think that never goes away. It’s interesting, when I started writing Beauty Queens I thought Adina [the feminist character] was going to be my touchstone. And that did not turn out to be the case at all. In fact, the passage that I wrote where I went, that’s it, now I’m under the skin of the novel, was Mary Lou. There’s the whole part where she talks about her sister Annie, and she talks about sex and sexuality. And I think that was a huge part for me. Growing up in Texas, where there is this sort of—you’re supposed to be alluring, but also have a sort of Britney child-bride thing. You’re supposed to be sort of alluring, but also kind of wholesome. And you’re not supposed to take charge of your sexuality. And I just did not feel that way! I was like, well I feel kind of large-and-in-charge about my sexuality! And I grew up in the church as well, you know, and I thought, but I feel so, you know, I feel really sexual, and why is that I have to hide that? Why is the world is so afraid of that? Why is it that I have to apologize for it and pretend that I don’t have it, that I don’t enjoy it, that it’s not like this great juicy awesome thing? Why is it that I have to feel shame about it? And that has bothered me my whole life. I think it is a real push-pull for women, and I think we get a lot of mixed messages, and I think we give ourselves mixed messages. And we give our daughters mixed messages, because it just perpetuates. And that is one of the things that I would love to be able to just completely deconstruct is that whole . . . I think it is very much tied into religion.

OED: How restrictive was your Presbyterian upbringing? I also was raised in a Presbyterian almost mega-church myself, so . . .  

LB: Really? Was it really conservative?

OED: Well, it had not been so. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s when I was really young, it was really inflected by that hippie movement. . .

LB: Sounds like we had very similar—yeah, the church you’re talking about is exactly the one I know, so keep talking.

OED: Now there’s big screens with bouncing balls, and everything is projected onto these screens, and there’s a praise band, and now it just seems so conservative to me, I just can’t stand it. But when I was growing up in it, as a young child, it was a very loving nurturing kind of hippie-ish place for me to be. 

LB: I had almost exactly the same experience. And a thing that informed it was the fact that my father was a minister, and my father was gay. I was 14 when he came out to us. The message from my liberal, Democrat, Presbyterian, the-Bible-is-an-allegory folks was, “This is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with being gay, and we can talk about it. But you can’t tell anybody, because your dad could lose his job, or worse.” So my dad was in the closet, but then so was I, because I had to keep it a secret. I’d go visit my dad and his lover, and we’d go out to Oak Lawn, which was the gay area of Dallas, and it was like leading a secret life, a double life. Someday I would love to be able to write about it, because it was a really interesting thing.

But I had the same kind of thing, where when I was young and we were living in Corpus Christi—this would be the late ‘60s early ‘70s through the ‘70s—because of the hippie movement, and because of the Civil Rights movement, I think there was this wonderful opening up of the church at that time. I felt the same way, it felt kind of hippie-ish. Kind of like, “Agape, y’all!” And then when we moved to Denton it was like the climate changed. The ‘80s had come in, and the religious right starts kicking in. It was a sea change. It felt restrictive to me. Definitely those mixed messages about how girls were supposed to be. And my mom, God bless her, she’s lovely, but she came of age in the ‘50s, postwar, with very different messages about how you were supposed to be. I think she’s very cool, I love my mom, but certainly the message was, “How about this nice dirndl skirt?” It was like, How about I die first? How about I stab myself through the head with a knitting needle? I was not wearing that ugly ass thing!

OED: Church clothes, right?

LB: Church clothes, exactly. So, certainly that was an influence on me. And again it gets back to the why’s of things. Why is it this way? Okay, this is what you say, but how is it that you’re basing an entire system of oppression on it? If you get to say, well God told me. . . Where am I supposed to go with that argument? Well, tell God he’s wrong! Or have your God talk to my God, because my God isn’t saying that. One of our Gods is wrong, and I’m just sayin’, I’m going to put my money on mine. . . . That is part of what I wanted to get to in Beauty Queens too. Just pay attention to the rhetoric. Pay attention to the messages. Because if you can deconstruct the rhetoric, it’s like “The Matrix.” Those are the bullets that you are trying to learn how to dodge and make fall in front of you. But if you don’t know how to think critically, if you can’t hear a message like “Well, we really want to protect women” and understand that “protect” really means “oppress”—Yes, it makes you angry to hear that, but then you also have to think, where does that come from? I have to snake it back to where it comes from. What is the fear, what is the threat that it seems to pose for these people? Because unless you can trace it back, you can’t really start trying to root it out at the source, you can’t really try to fight. But when push comes to shove about somebody trying to take your rights away, you can try to do all that, but if you’re up against somebody who’s irrational, you just have to fight like hell. You just have to say Oh hell no, you are not taking my rights.

OED: Yeah, sing it. What’s going on now is just making me feel that way every day.

LB: It’s mind-boggling. . . the hate that is coming out.

OED: Unbelievable.

LB: It’s not just one or two misguided people. I mean like, this is scary stuff. And it is I don’t know did you by any chance, I don’t know if you ever read my blog, but I had done a blog post, it’s called Transvaginal Overdrive, and it was a hysterical post. It was spelling out, here’s all the legislation, just in case you were asleep, here’s what’s been happening. But it is terrifying to me.

OED: Have you seen , this is a pretty awful and bizarre thing to see, the Youtube video that’s a commercial for “legitimate rape” as birth control? It is hilarious satire, it’s perfectly done, and it’s very informative as well. But it’s harrowing to watch at the same time. It’s almost too scary. . . Now I feel like I’ve taken us on this road.

LB: No it’s fine, I love conversations that go all over the place. Just like I like to write lots of different genres.

OED: I do too! I was going to ask you, so you’re writing from a place of anger and curiosity and sort of trying to work out these feelings. But do you also write specifically to educate? Is there a pedagogical thing behind your writing for young girls specifically? 

LB: No. Because I think that when you get into that, it’s a PSA and not a story. There always has to be a beating heart to a story. It gets back to that Junot Diaz quote, your willingness to drop all your defenses and explore yourself, with a sort of brutal honesty. And if you are adopting some kind of pedagogical perch, then you’re not there. You’re not inside your story, you’re outside of your story.

[religion stuff]

OED: Can you talk a little bit about your accident? Only if you want to, but you brought it up earlier and I understand that it was a pretty serious accident that had a long-lasting effect.

LB: So it was about three weeks after high school graduation, and I was driving my dad to the airport. He was actually flying off to the Presbyterian General Assembly. And I had gotten the car, I had had it about a month. It was stick, not automatic. So I was getting a little more practice, and he asked if I could take him to the airport and I said sure. As I was coming back, it was raining, and I hydroplaned. I went into a spin, my brakes locked, and you know just that kind of panic of, like, not being in control of your car. And . . . um . . . I was right near a major intersection, and I thought I don’t want to go into the intersection, so then there’s a grassy median, and I thought, okay, if I can just get to the median. Well I say “okay,” but I was in panic. All I can think is maybe I hit the gas instead of the brake, because it was like clutch, brake, you know, all that stuff. I hit this big light pole. The front end of the car caved in, and I hit the steering wheel so hard with my face that it broke it off at its column. I basically broke my face. I lost my left eye, broke my legs, although I didn’t realize that until they were getting me out of the—and I definitely had, while I was out, I had that “see your life in reverse” moment. I can remember that. And so yeah, so. . . . I was in exploratory surgery for nine and a half hours, and then I was in the hospital for two weeks in Dallas while they tried to put me back together. It was quite physically painful. I broke my jaw, they had to wire it shut, and I couldn’t breathe because my nose was completely demolished, and my cheekbones.

But the big thing was about the eye. I couldn’t see, because I couldn’t open my right eye, so it was like being in a sensory deprivation tank in a way. The doctor would come in, and he would shine a flashlight, and he would say, “Tell me when you can see the light.” And for a while on my left side, there was some residual light. And then by day three, I remember he came in and said “Tell me when you can see the light”. . . . . and it was a long time. I thought, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to go “Psyche! I wasn’t even shining a light!” I thought, he’s clearly shining a light, and I can’t see it. I can’t see it. And he said, here’s the deal. You have damaged your eye basically beyond all repair. Um. And he said, you can keep your eye, but it will look unsightly and the risk of infection is good, and if you get an infection then it can travel to your right eye and you can go blind. Or you can remove the eye and we can fit you with a prosthesis. And I remember my parents were really upset, because they were like, you can’t ask her that! And he said, she’s 18. She has to make the decision, because she has to live with it for the rest of her life. Of course I said, take it, I don’t want to go blind.

Even at 18 there’s some of that magical thinking of childhood. You just think, well, this can be fixed, this can be a do-over, I’ll be fine, by the time they finish with me I’ll be good as new. And then of course, by the end of the summer, um . . . . they fitted me for my first prosthesis and I finally got my jaws unwired, and I looked at myself. And I was like, that’s not my face. That is not my face, and what the hell is this piece of plastic where my left eye used to be. And it hit me. It was like a death. It was that realization of, like, oh wait a minute. This is not a do-over. And also coming to terms with mortality at 18 was pretty heavy. Because you think of yourself as so invincible. Um . . .  so it was huge.

I moved into the dorm and all my friends were going out to parties. I had not really dated much in high school, and I remember my teachers always saying, when you go to college, I swear, you’re going to get dates. So I thought, wow, when I got to college, that’s when things are going to be fun. And here I was in college, and I felt like I was getting robbed of the experience.

And people can be cruel. There was a guy I had worked at an independent bookstore after school when I was in high school. One of the guys who used to come in there all the time, he was a filmmaker—pretentious asshole. I ran into him on campus when I moved into the dorm, and he didn’t recognize me. I told him who I was, and I told him what had happened. And he said, Oh I wondered, he said, because you know, part of your face, over here, is as beautiful as it always was. Except the rest of you looks like Frankenstein. Yeah. Like, oh, thanks for that.

I felt broken on the inside as well as on the outside. The only thing I can say is, it was just despair. I was suicidal. I was so depressed I stopped going to class, I was in the same pair of sweats for like two weeks. There was a lot of self destructive behavior, I call that my Lindsay Lohan period. I had no one to talk to, I felt completely cut off. I would listen to side four of Quadrophenia over and over again. Pete Townsend kind of helped save my life. But the other thing, one of my graduation gifts was, somebody had given me a journal. And I started to write in it, because that was the only way, honestly, to keep from killing myself. I just started to write down everything I thought I couldn’t say out loud. And that was when I discovered how powerful writing was. Because it literally saved my life. And then I began to do it for its own sake, I began to look forward to the writing. And that’s what got me through.

OED: Wow. That is really an amazing story. Isn’t that amazing, that that experience actually became formative for your writing. 

LB: Yeah. I mean, to get back to our larger spiritual questions, there’s a part of me that’s like, well now, huh . . . There is that trial, there is that—and then the worst possible experience of your life turns out to be the thing that saves you.

OED: That’s pretty intense. 

LB: That is pretty intense. Now maybe you should ask me about, like, nail color. “That was okay, cool, thanks Libba. But like, what I really want to know is like, okay, Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift? Okay, you can only pick one!”

OED: “If you could be a type of tree what would you be?” . . . But yeah, I was going to ask if you had read Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me.

LB: I have not.

OED: The main character is a model who gets into a terrible car accident and her face has to be completely reconstructed. The first part of the book is about her walking around and feeling unrecognizable, the feeling of being unrecognized, for a model who’s been looked at her whole life. 

LB: Yeah, I mean certainly I was not a model! But just the experience of not having the same face.

OED: That must be so weird.

LB: And it’s also such a crash course in perception. Because people treat you differently. It doesn’t matter that you’re the same person, people treat you differently.

OED: Well that kind of goes back to that whole question of identity. I mean, that seems to be a profound interrogation of the whole concept of identity, right? 

LB: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I think it’s one of the things that’s really interesting about David Levithan’s book Every Day. There is a character, and his—and I just said “his”! There you go. The character’s name is “A”, that’s it. The character has no gender, no culture, no race. It is a pure being who wakes up in the body of somebody different every single day. Trying to get past your notions of gender, of race, of culture, of sexuality. Those boundaries that we erect are kind of fascinating to me. Because I think there’s so much more fluidity.

OED: Yeah. But they’re so hard to tear down. I mean you go around, you think that you’ve done away with that sort of thinking and then you go and assign a gender automatically, and it’s male! 

LB: Right, exactly.

OED: I catch myself all the time reading about characters in books, and I’m just picturing a white guy. And I’m like, Oh right, because people are just white, right? Like, automatically! You know, the default position is that. It’s amazing how you can spend so much time working to erode that, those ideas, and still be weirdly imprisoned by them.

LB: I know. It’s like when you’re a kid, and you go, well infinity goes on until . . . uh, hold on.

OED: We haven’t talked about The Diviners much. So, you took off the corset from the Victorian Era, and now you’re in with the flappers. . .  

LB: Wow, Diviners. So I basically just took everything that I’m interested in and threw it into a big Cobb salad of a series. The Diviners is set in the 1920s in New York City. It combines horror and politics and, I suppose, superheroes, in a way. The inspiration for that was, I was writing it as historical and supernatural, but at the same time I had wanted to write something about post-9/11 America. Because, and this is four or five years ago, I thought, we are doing things like waterboarding, we are torturing people and calling it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Is this really the America that I belong to? You know, what is it, this America, how is it that we’re letting this happen? . . . So I started reading up on the 1920s, and I was doing this research. And as I looked at it I thought, well holy cow, we never learn anything do we? Because there were all these uncomfortable parallels between the two, like the anti-immigration fervor, the fears of terrorism because of anarchism and the red scare, and the eugenics movement, which is scary as hell. So you know I’m looking and start reading about all of this stuff, and I thought, wow, the monsters that we think we’re fighting are never as scary as the monsters that are actually happening. And so it is a story about America and politics, and the American myth, and flappers and booze and things that go bump in the night. And monsters.

OED: I absolutely love the heroine.

LB: She’s pretty unapologetic.

OED: She’s fun to hang out with.

LB: You know that if you ever got stuck somewhere, she would have the gin.

—————————————–

Postlude: Libba Bray making me feel better about the Jennifer Egan thing.

LB: No, I have been there. My friend Laurie still talks about my John Turturro story.

OED: Oh my god, you met John Turturro?

LB: Yeah, because he used to live in my neighborhood, and he was on the train one night. And it was like I had fucking Tourettes, man. I don’t know what my deal was. I went up to him–and first of all, whatever possessed me to go up and speak to him?–but I went up to him, this was maybe 15, 18 years ago, and I went up to him and was like, “I just have to tell you, I think you’re really great.”

And he was like, “Thank you.”

“I just, I just, I think you’re great.”

He’s like, “Thank you.”

I was like, “No, I mean, like Barton Fink, you were, you’re great. You’re so, so great.”

And he moves away from me. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Just, yeah. No, I’d go see you in anything, I would see you in anything. You’re just, you’re so–” And inside I’m screaming Shut up! Shut up! Jesus Christ, shut your pie-hole! And it’s like I can’t stop, I cannot stop telling him how great he is. And he is so gracious, and the doors open and he bolts. And I’m standing on the subway going, I just made an ass of myself. I made an ass of myself with John Turturro. Yeah.

OED: So now there’s this person that will now forever think of you–like they’ll ever think of us ever again!–but like, if they do, they’ll be like, oh remember that crazy person who just was completely out of line every second? Yeah, totally.

LB: So, you’re among friends.

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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.

The Custom of the Country

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Franzen and Egan hadn’t exactly been starved before the fight, but, as was the custom, they had been fed on a parsimonious diet of lean proteins, just enough to keep a corrosive hunger burning in their bellies without actually weakening them.

Or, so he explained to her over the murmur of the crowd. In the stands, a thousand men were quietly explaining the rules of the game to a thousand women sitting next to them. How the prisoners would be fed a single slice of bread just before the games began, spiking their blood sugar after the long fast. How they had been sequestered in soundproof cells for months, able to hear only the sounds of their own voices.

This was not as difficult for writers as it would be for other people, he explained. In fact, many writers expressed the opinion that their months in the cell had been very productive.

“Ian McEwan claims to have written most of Atonement in the cell. Or”—he grimaced—“claimed, I guess.”

“I think he wrote that book just to prove he read Clarissa.” The professor paused to consider her own statement. “Do you think he’s really read Clarissa?”

The man laughed. “Does it really matter? Has anyone actually read Clarissa? We still get what he’s doing, replacing the actual rape in Clarissa with a false accusation of rape that ruins a man’s life. Which is just as violent.”  The professor didn’t say anything, so he elucidated. “It’s subversive.”

The professor shifted on the hard bench and opened her program. “Why do they do the interviews right before the fight?”

“Well obviously they can’t do them afterward.” He grinned. “Not both of them, anyway.”

“No, I meant, I don’t understand why there are interviews at all.”

“Come on, it’s our one chance to see these guys be completely honest for once in their lives. Maybe for the last time. They haven’t been eating or sleeping much, they haven’t spoken to anyone in months, and they’re about to face the opponent for the first time. They forget there’s even going to be an audience. They say the craziest things, not realizing that any little slip up might cost them their fan base. Which could cost them everything. It’s so—raw.”

He sucked his lower lip a little in anticipation. She felt it too, but would have been embarrassed to show it so publicly. The more typical attitude was one of suppressed bloodlust—eyes darting nervously behind square-rimmed glasses, blazers creaking over shifting shoulder blades, throats fluttering under artistically draped scarves.

She had been avoiding the obvious topic of conversation, but since it was already being discussed in low voices all around them, she decided to bring it up first.

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Does it really matter?” he asked again. “I’m sorry, I know she’s your favorite author. But she’s pretty scrawny.”

It was true. In a boatneck t-shirt you could spot her clavicles a mile away. “So is Franzen.”

“Plus, she’s older than she looks,” he continued. “Did you know she’s 50?”

“Franzen is 53!”

“Sure, but you know what they say—women get older, men just get more distinguished.” He laughed. “No but seriously, it’s true. That face has helped her career a lot up until now, gotten her a lot of extra attention. But looks don’t last forever. And in the ring, she won’t have makeup artists to prepare her for her close-up.”

The professor didn’t feel like arguing the point, and besides, it did seem pretty hopeless. The two might be evenly matched physically—Franzen was not exactly a paragon of physical prowess. But he was demonstrably more aggressive than Egan. Just look at the way he went on the offensive in ’96, preparing the canon for The Corrections even before he had finished writing it. Taking back the tradition, the commentators called it. And his bold refusal to accept a marketing advantage that would have boosted his readership by millions, because those readers were women who watched daytime television—that was a masterstroke. People might not like him, but he had always generated the buzz he needed to stay alive. And he wasn’t here to make friends.

He did have glasses, she reminded herself, a definite handicap. The committee never allowed contestants to get fitted with contacts for the ring. The thought was that any author who had chosen to wear glasses instead of contacts their whole life had almost certainly done so in the hopes of benefitting from a more intellectual public image—a strategy whose efficacy had been proven time and again by the number of bespectacled contestants over the years. To let an author jettison the image that got him to the ring in the first place would be unfair, to his fans as well as his opponent. So if Egan could knock off his glasses early on, she might gain an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, there were rumors flying around that the glasses were an affectation, that Franzen had first donned them to appear more interesting to girls at Swarthmore. This rumor was unlikely to be true, and was probably originated by Egan supporters trying to undermine Franzen’s image. However, Franzen fans—or “frans,” as they called themselves—had spread the rumor with glee, gloating that if Egan got close enough to knock off the spectacles she’d be in for the surprise of her life. The professor couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that it might be true. She abruptly closed the program and tightened her jaw.

“Hey, you gonna be okay?” He put his hand on her elbow and leaned in. He really did love her a little bit, even years after their one unsuccessful date had shown that there was no hope of a romantic relationship between them. The concern in his voice touched a guilty place in her conscience, as she remembered his shattered look at the restaurant.

She reminded herself that he had been reluctant to read Jane Austen because the plots weren’t “universal” enough. “I’m fine. I think the interviews are starting.”

The Jumbotrons above the stadium came to life, lighting up the twilight with images of typewriters colliding in midair and leather-bound tomes bursting into flame. The crowd erupted into cheers as the loudspeakers began booming out chamber music laid over a heavy backbeat, then hushed as a face appeared on the screen: the master of ceremonies, with his long, literary face and his theatrically nerdy bow-tie. Opening the ceremony with a few tepid jokes, he directed the audience’s attention to previews of next year’s fight, introducing a montage of possible contestants that included the dapper Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, and Irish underdog Emma Donoghue. From the way the camera lingered on Donoghue’s fluffy red hair and childishly makeup-free face, the professor was willing to bet that she would make what they called “the shortlist.”

Just as the crowd began to stir restlessly, the announcer’s face appeared again, and the camera began the crosscutting of the two interviews. The interviews were supposed to be broadcast live from their cells, a fact the announcer enthusiastically repeated every thirty or forty seconds, but nobody really believed they weren’t edited down to the most sensational bits, perhaps even rearranged to appear more in sync with one another. Egan and Franzen were shot cinematically in director’s chairs against a black background, each turned slightly in toward the center of the screen, so that when the camera cut back and forth it looked like they were facing off.

Franzen, perched tensely on the canvas edge of his chair, was first. The interviewer asked him whether he had been writing anything in his cell.

“I’ve been working on a piece about Edith Wharton,” he answered, blinking owlishly.

Sounds of interest and surprise wafted up from the audience.

“You know, I’ve always thought that she’s very hard to sympathize with because of her wealth. She was probably the most privileged American writer ever.”

“Interesting,” said a female interviewer’s voice from offscreen. “Do you have any evidence to support that statement?”

Franzen shrugged impatiently. “Well no, Carrie, I’ve been locked in a cell for four months. I’m going off what I remember from a conversation I had with Gary Shteyngart at a cocktail party. But even if it’s not true, I’m sure it’s basically true.”

“So you’re saying she was a bad writer because she was rich?”

“Well I’m not really talking about her writing in detail. I’m more talking about her as a person, about how maybe if she had been prettier, and not so rich, she would have been more sympathetic. Or the rich thing doesn’t really matter, but prettier. Like Jackie O., or Grace Kelly. Or—” The audience held its breath. “Or Jennifer Egan.”

The camera cut immediately to Jennifer Egan gazing placidly toward the center of the screen from the other direction. She did indeed look beautiful, although the strong horizontal lines in her face were sagging a bit here in there with exhaustion, or possibly resignation. She wore the nautical striped top that she was so often photographed in. “Jennifer,” the offscreen interviewer’s voice asked, “what is your make-up routine like? Do you use a primer?”

Egan smiled graciously, her thin lips barely turning up at the ends. “I usually just wear some tinted moisturizer. They let me bring it in with me because it was already in my purse.”

“Wow, unbelievable. What a complexion. Okay, can you give us a sense of what your method is like? Do you think that it’s harder for you as a woman?”

“Well, writing isn’t easy for anyone. But I do work hard, yes.”

“I meant the competition. Will it be harder for you as a woman?”

Egan squinted her eyes a little bit in thought. Then she shook out her blond hair and said, “I don’t think so. I did track and field at UPenn.”

The camera cut back to Franzen, who had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “I don’t want to kill anyone. Christ, I can barely handle clearing the mouse traps in the attic.” The audience laughed sympathetically. He pulled his hand away, shook his head as if to clear it, and blinked his eyes open. The professor could feel her companion leaning forward, straining along with the rest of the audience members to discern some sign of imperfect eyesight. The glasses were on again in an instant, and a moan of frustration rippled through the crowd.

“Carrie, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. She is a human being, after all. And so gracious. She’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“Do you think she’s a good writer?”

There was a pause during which the only sound was that of audience members anxiously fiddling with their laptop bags.

“I think A Visit from the Goon Squad had universal themes.”

The camera cut back to Egan, who was staring somewhat blankly off into the distance. After a moment, she seemed to recover her sense of purpose, and her gaze refocused on her interlocutor offscreen. “That’s an interesting question. I think . . . I think he’ll be well read in his lifetime. None of us know, after that. None of us has any right to know. I write a lot about celebrity, not literary celebrity, but the kind of manufactured celebrity that we see in our culture. And I think . . . there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, or wanting to be the best.” She looked up, and then she smiled and laughed at the ceiling, and the crowd seemed collectively to catch its breath. A few audience members began weeping. The professor listened closely. “But will either of us be remembered? Not for me to say.”

Shortly thereafter, the screen went dark, and the audience, unable to pretend indifference anymore, began to stomp and chant for the tournament to begin. The contestants were given their slices of bread, or, as a few men in the know were telling the women next to them, their carbohydrate shots, which is how they were doing it this year for the first time. They were released into the arena, Franzen in a sweater vest over a maroon button-down, and Egan in her signature boatneck top with navy horizontal stripes.

The fight didn’t last long. Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen fairly quickly, and, after a brief glance around the crowded stadium, walked out of the arena with a fatigued look on her face. A thousand women cheered and went home with plans to apply to graduate school and write their dissertations on Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston. A thousand men remained very quiet on the car ride home. The professor resigned and became a writer. Her friend resigned as well, but for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton was published posthumously in the New Yorker, and when people read it, with tears in their eyes, they thought how much better it would have been if he had at least had access to Wikipedia.

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Team Johanna: the Hungry-for-an-Alternate-Ending Games

[spoilers ahead]

Love this Bitch article by Kelsey Wallace about “complex masculinities” in The Hunger Games:

Yes, obviously Katniss is badass and I’m psyched to see a strong heroine get some much-deserved attention, but what really struck me about the Hunger Games trilogy was its complex portrayals of masculinity, embodied by the characters of Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark.

I’m Team Peeta all the way, but I think Wallace doesn’t quite capture just how complex Peeta is as a character – how passive-aggressive and even manipulative he can be, in that “it’s okay, I’ll just love you from afar, don’t pay me any mind” kind of way. But I’m thrilled that she acknowledges some of the lesbian subtext in a brief parenthetical:

. . . Katniss also chooses a feminist marriage. One where she can hunt and Peeta can bake, and they can share parenting responsibilities. It’s a feminist YA fan’s dream! (Well, within the confines of this heteronormative narrative, anyway—maybe feminist fanfic can give us an alternative ending where Katniss and Johanna run away together and start their own radical zine library, though.)

Thanks to Summer McDonald I’m basically convinced that Katniss is gay, or mostly gay anyway, though not too gay to settle down with Peeta in a post-traumatic marriage that is NOT this feminist YA fan’s dream. I think by the time Katniss gets through with all the book-three trauma, she’s not exactly ready to “blossom” in any direction, gay or straight. Her life with Peeta is all about the comfort he was always able to give her, starting before they had even met, way back in her childhood, where he provided for her in a way that her mother couldn’t. There’s a strong motherliness to Peeta. He’s a nurturer. (And he also likes bossy women, perhaps because his own mother was an unpredictable c-word with a nasty temper.)

Anyway, I’d like to think that in a perfect world, or even a slightly less completely horrible world than what The Hunger Games becomes, Katniss and Johanna would indeed have run away together, and Katniss could eventually have gotten over her whole I’ll-never-love-anyone-but-my-sister thing, and Johanna could have gotten over her whole I’m-angry-about-being-beautiful thing, and they could have had Prim over for tea sometimes, and maybe even Gale and Madge once they discovered they were in love, and Peeta . . . well I don’t know, Peeta would probably stay a lonely sad-sack bachelor, or maybe eventually he would have fallen for Prim, Little Women-style. Anyway THAT’s my feminist YA fantasy ending. (Did I mention that in my head Johanna looks like Keira Knightley from Bend It like Beckham? So throw in a darker-skinned actress, which is how Katniss should have been cast in the first place, and now my fan-fic does double-duty as Bend It like Beckham fan-fic. Mission accomplished!)

Two shell-shocked vets helping each other to not cry hysterically every single day do not a successful feminist marriage make. That’s all I’m saying.

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