How Middlebrow Are You?

Dear CF,

n+1 has chronicled and foretold the death of the hipster, but only now does it seem to be happening. Not the hipster’s death, but exhaustion within the ranks of the tastemakers. People are writing about brows and where one wears them. (This season, high is the new low! they seem to say, wearing their eyebrows on their cheeks.) I’m just going to leave them here, because the conversation just dances and dances around the question of what taste is for:

From Nitsuh Abebe’s “Why We Fight” in Pitchfork (via):

4. We are suspicious of enjoying anything anyone else has told us about.

This is the habit that strikes me as most problematic. Fifteen years ago, the main problem a lover of music– or film, or television, or other varieties of pop culture– would experience was scarcity. It took money to get hold of the stuff, and if you liked anything weird, it took effort, too. As a result, the default mode was to like what you could. In fact, the best way to demonstrate to others that you cared and were discerning about music was to like things– to have enjoyed exploring all these realms that took some effort to get to.

Over the past decade and a half, this situation seems to have reversed. The problem people talk about now is not scarcity but glut: a glut of music available to consume, a glut of media to tell you about it, a glut of things that desperately want your attention. Somewhere along the way, the default mode has taken a hard shift in the direction of showing your discernment by not liking things– by seeing through the hype and feeling superior to whatever you’re being told about in a given week. Give it the attention it wants, but in the negative.

This extends far outside of music. There’s an entire Arch Snarky Commenter persona people now rush to adopt, in which they read things on the Internet and then compete to most effectively roll their eyes at it. And there’s nothing inherently terrible about that; a lot of the phenomena we read about every day can afford that kind of skepticism.

It’s interesting, though, just how overclocked a bullshit detector can get– to the point where we’re verging on a kind of paranoia about things that are, in the end, mostly trying to offer us pleasure. There’s some kind of whiff of it in just knowing that some artist couldn’t possibly be what she seems, and must be part of an elaborate plot to trick people less savvy than you are. Or maybe that line of thinking just makes us feel more clever than saying something sucks.

And Devin Friedman in GQ, wherein he takes a (sarcastic) shot at Pitchfork while writing for GQ in what might be the weirdest middlebrow-high-middlebrow-lowbrow ironic Mobius strip ever made (OH GOD, IT ONLY HAS ONE SIDE):

Saying you like Feist is like not having an opinion, the greatest offense in certain Internetty precincts of our contemporary culture. You might as well say you like chocolate or potato chips. It says nothing about you. It’s not curated. It doesn’t say what we most want our music to say about us: I used to read Pitchfork.com until it got lame. You can’t like Feist, in other words, because it’s middlebrow. And loving the middlebrow is an unforgivable crime against taste.

[snip]

People tend to hate the middlebrow because of its embarrassingly earnest desire to be liked, its scientific and successful approach to hitting people’s pleasure buttons. It points out the obvious fact that you’re not as much an individual as you’d like to think, that human beings are designed to like chocolate and potato chips and Jack Purcells. That’s where the high middle differs. Take Vampire Weekend. Sarah Goldstein, associate editor here, calls it “elevator music from Africa.” She’s right, of course: Last Christmas season, companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Honda used the song “Holiday” in their ads, even though it’s supposed to actually be about American imperialism.

[snip]

At bottom, perhaps my affection for the Stings of this world is just a function of the stage of life I’m in. Two kids, not a lot of time to read or etc., always pretty tired, no longer afraid of being uncool. A phase where I pretty much look for comfort food in whatever I consume. Music, film, literature, clothing: All I want right now is what could be described as the macaroni and cheese. And it’ll probably only get worse as I age. My parents have hardly any critical filter at all anymore. Everything feels like a fastball right down the middlebrow plate to them. Almost every movie is good. They go nuts over almost every meal they eat. Pretty much every glass of wine is amazing to them now—they’re not worried that Pinot Noir is played out. And you know what they suffer as a result? Unrelenting happiness and satisfaction. You can say it’s a critical lobotomy, and maybe you’re right. I’ll grant you that it’s important to challenge yourself at times. Read some Beckett. Go lowbrow and eat some Twinkies. Wear some asymmetrical nipple-revealing shirt from a Japanese designer who may or may not be a eunuch. But just admit that when you go home at night, you’d rather be watching Friday Night Lights.

Fondly,

M

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On The Face That Launched a Thousand Clicks, Or What The Social Network Isn’t About

Dear CF,

I had decided not to see The Social Network on the grounds that, having read forty or so discussions and reviews, I could give you a reasonably accurate rundown of the whole movie (though nowhere near as good as this brilliant Taiwanese one-minute version—thanks Balk!). I knew about the last five minutes, during which people claimed you suddenly felt for Teh Zuck (I didn’t). I knew about the first five minutes, wherein a woman, Muse-like, starts the angry hate-based manfire from which all brilliant things come. And I knew about the middle five minutes, in which there emerged a consensus that Teh Zuck has Asperger’s and is also Citizen Kane.

Having seen it, I can ask, with Natalia Vargas-Cooper, “So why is this entirely forgettable procedural lawsuit movie being hailed as THE SECOND COMING?” I can agree with Sasha Frere-Jones that “There is no take on this era. There is no take on the internet.” I can also agree, with Jim Emerson (h/t), that the first scene “becomes a fascinating back-and-forth about communication in code, and the infinite ways it can misfire.” All these things are true.

However, this is not a review of The Social Network. Like the Winkelvosses, I’ve come too late. The race has been run, the reviews are in. This is a smart one. Sample view: “The Social Network is, at heart, a conservative morality tale. Zuckerberg is the anti-underdog.” This is not. Sample view: “Fincher formulates the arena in which these combatants will draw weapons and fight. Sorkin merely provides the swords, sharpened and honed for an unbelievably literate battle.”

Throw in a couple of action figures (in suits) and you’d have yourself the (paperwork) version of Gladiator. Except that Mark and Eduardo’s accounts, which keep threatening to diverge into dueling narratives, never do: their interpretations of what happened accord in every single respect. Perjury zingers notwithstanding, My Best Friend’s Wedding has way more dissensus than this movie.

What that second review overlooks is that this isn’t a movie about combat, not really; it’s a film about alliances. The Winkelvosses and Narendra. Zuckerberg and Saverin. Zuckerberg and Parker. If we want to address the social network this movie is really about, let’s talk about the boys’ clubs whose multiple formations lie at the film’s heart.

Looked at through this lens (here, speaking of lenses, is a great overview on how Fincher achieved the really “collegiate” lowlit feel of the film), a particularly interesting moment comes when Zuckerberg assigns roles to all the people in the room. When the two Asian women ask if there’s anything they can do, Zuckerberg says, his eyes already dead with disinterest (Eisenberg does that so well): “No.”

Fair enough! the viewer thinks. What can they bring to the table? What have they ever done?

It bears mentioning, at this juncture, that these willing bimbettes, so adept at makeup, arson and blow jobs, got into Harvard, an institution whose status as brainiac petri dish the movie stresses and blurs at will, depending—as far as I can tell—on gender. As the Harvard male partakes of, assumes and/or challenges Harvard’s centers of power, the Harvard female good-naturedly sucks his dick. This is, I think, what Elissa Bassist is getting at in her delicious diatribe (Sample view: “There was so much testosterone in the movie that I feel fucked six ways sideways.”) If Zuck and Co. are accidental billionaires, Alice and Christy’s admissions to Harvard are just as accidental.

That’s a lot of accidents. The skeptical observer might wonder whether, well, more research is required.

Let’s go back to that moment, when Zuckerberg is busy assigning jobs, and do a quick thought experiment. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that these women are actual Harvard students. If we provisionally accept the (apparently self-evident) fact that Alice and Christy know nothing about programming—or anything else—they might nevertheless have access to social (or financial!) capital that Teh Zuck would find useful. They might, in short, have Winkelvossian networks of their own.

The movie skips right over that possibility. Not, I’ll hasten to add, because it wasn’t “true.” Precious little in the movie is true—Facemash, for instance, was a system for rating both men and women. Alice and Christy are sugary inventions. The real question, and the point where it becomes tricky to separate the misogyny of the storytellers from the misogyny of the story told, is this: whose inventions are they? Can their absurd existence be chalked up somehow to Mark Zuckerberg’s terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad misanthropic misogyny?

Yes! Sorkin-Fincher defenders will argue. They’re inessential but useful foils who show Zuckerberg being the insensitive douche he is (and must be). Alice and Christy develop the character—how a man treats women is one of the ways Hollywood loves to measure his growth. True to form, that scene illuminates Mark’s failings (and the lady’s bitchiness eventually returns the favor, showcasing Eduardo’s virtue as his house burns down around him).

The problem with that argument is that it concedes, as its first premise, that these two women are the way they are, not because of any “real-life” exigencies, but because the film insists (in spite of the facts) on constructing a narrative of American coming-to-power that perversely writes stupid women into the story and smart women out of it.

I’m belaboring this point—that the stupid/crazy ladies are artificial constructs—because of how successfully the film defends its choices on the shifting sands of “good storytelling” and the even shiftier grounds of “truth.” The biopic, as a genre, confers this double-edged protection. In every discussion I’ve seen of the gender politics in the film, someone always points out that NO WOMEN WERE INVOLVED IN THE FOUNDING OF FACEBOOOK. GET OVER IT.

The next relevant question is, well, why the hell not?

In one sense, that’s easy to answer: because they didn’t. Mark did the programming. Women didn’t. Q.E.D. But I’d suggest that the more interesting answer—in a moment when truth and storytelling perhaps converge—lies in that scene, when the women offer their help and are politely refused. Consider sweet fictional Eduardo, the hapless CFO, who has so little to recommend him. His algorithm aside, what he brings to the endeavor is enthusiasm, money, some social capital from his association with the Phoenix, and an above-average intelligence. There’s no good reason why our invented Alice and Christy wouldn’t have those same qualities (these bimbettes spend their free time watching Bill Gates, after all). Their offer of help contains as much innate “value” as Eduardo’s (they might even have rich parents too). Yet Eduardo is asked to be part of the company, and they are not. That the film’s propulsive engine obliterates the very possibility of their inclusion is, in a strange way, what I find most interesting about it. Once the creators decided to make a smart woman the catalyst for Facebook’s creation, there was no room for a Facebook creation-story, however counterfactual, that would have women as members.

I’m not actually proposing that The Social Network should have been an updated version of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister, complete with imaginary female cofounder. What I’m suggesting is that the movie could have resisted Photoshopping in Shakespeare’s crazy sexpots and Erica Albright (a.k.a. The Plot Device That Sparked A “Revolution”). Facebook’s history, if we can call it that with any seriousness, was substantially distorted so as to reflect a misogynist non-reality. That’s a peculiar intervention, and it deserves scrutiny.

Why, in this post-whatever age, disillusioned as we are and surrounded by fallen heroes, does a movie actively (and absurdly, given the foregoing conditions) modeled on Citizen Kane needs to reduce its protagonist’s motivations to sex?

A lamentable blindness underlies the decision to superimpose that cliched revenge narrative onto a complex story—all the more lamentable since Eduardo Saverin seems to have been less angelic and more savvy in real life than he was in the film. But that portrayal leads, as many blind spots do, to an interesting and quite accidental revelation about (sigh) “the way we live now.” What the movie suggests (still, in 2010, because we’re talking now not about the events of the plot but about that plot’s construction), is that boys’ clubs persist not because of something as overt and ugly as woman-hating, but simply because for many men, a Venn diagram of their  social and professional networks reveals an intersection populated exclusively—and without malice aforethought—by men.

I’ve observed the beginnings of this trend in my capacity as amateur anthropologist among many of my own “social networks,” and I know you have too: how many times have the men of your acquaintance launched into long monologues about their pet obsessions? How many times have you patiently listened as the other men in your circle boisterously debate them? And how many times, when you chime into the fun, are you politely listened to and mumblingly agreed with before they turn back to each other, eager as wrestling puppies? Why is this? Why the courtesy, the dismissal, the fleeting surprise that you, too, can be funny? And why, when one of the women starts on a similar monologue, do the gentlemen start a side conversation? What is with this subset of amiable but flighty males who only have ears for each other—and who only, in consequence, have real intellectual regard for their fellow dudes? It’s a fascinating pattern, and The Social Network shows how easily those nebulous social habits can slip (“by accident”) into professional networks.

I hasten to add that this is a gross generalization and isn’t true of all my guy friends—luckily for me, many of them have either the good manners or the real interest to hear me out and argue back. But the Boys’ Club is a sufficiently robust effect, especially in group settings, that many of my female friends have noticed it in their “networks” too.

The men in these different circles are emphatically not Zuckerbergs. That’s what makes it all so scary. No one *really* minds being tuned out. I like the monologues enough that I’ll put up with them, even if I don’t insist on making them hear mine. But when a film like this describes how power structures develop via the painstaking legal review of conversations in a dorm, it suddenly seems true that our social performances are auditions for professional appointments—and that we ladies aren’t doing much auditioning.

Not being a sociologist, I don’t know how to explain this. On the boys’ side, I’m sure some of it has something to do with a good-hearted avoidance of unintended sexual tension. A heated debate is pretty easily suffused with anger and/or adrenaline, and neither is easy for heterosex friendships to navigate. Especially in a group, where flirtations are likely to be noticed. We’ve all had moments when we’ve really gotten into it with someone, and it’s all very exciting. (This is the magic of college.) It’s also a dangerous feeling because it’s so, well, open and promiscuous. Maybe the boys comfortably engage with each other for the usual homosocial reasons: post-college, older, wiser, they’ll forgo the thrill, worried that the debate frisson will be misconstrued as something else.

Perhaps some part of it is an odd byproduct of feminism? Since the ladies have a right to express their opinions unshackled by patriarchal structures, it’s impolitic to tell them to their faces when you think they’re full of shit? Disappointing, since that’s obviously counterproductive and not remotely conducive to actual equality, but we’re many of us Hobbesians, rehearsing what we think are the expected behaviors.

Whatever it is, I want to think harder about how to push past this because a life bereft of intellectual conversations with men is not a life I’m particularly anxious to live. (And, while I’m being honest, I’m bored of this—bored of having to think about the gap, bored of spending so much energy on the weird interference that gender creates, which gets in the way of actual conversation. But until it goes away or I figure out how to scrap it, I guess I’ll have to keep being bored.)

The explanations above probably coexist with the uglier possibility that these boy-clubs are actually only interested in each other. While we’re thinking about the drama of code, think about how much programming we have. Many men of our generation are still wired to regard only the stories that feature male protagonists as worth seeing, reading or thinking about. They grew up watching He-man, not She-ra. Many feel that female-centric stories are simply not their job. They are, as one good friend of mine put it, the “wrong demographic.” How small a step it really is, from that position, to accept the corollary that women’s ideas are “not their job” either. (This is the problem with the TEDWomen conference.) Ugly as this possibility is, let’s face its likelihood squarely: it’s not so hard to give into the message, hammered into us all since infancy, that philosophical greatness is gendered. Not so difficult to accept that male unpleasantness is powerful, and that female unpleasantness is impotent or evil (frequently both). It’s not much of a stretch, with the social training we all get, to believe, in your heart of hearts, as a politically-correct, polite and “evolved” person, that it’s still the thoughts of men that change the world.

Worst-case scenario: our offers of help, like our challenges, and our ideas, are translated, via that sexist Babelfish we all carry, into a language other than Alpha-Programmer-BoyBrain-Awesomescript. Into Alice-Christyhood, in fact. There’s some evidence this happens. Think back to college: how many times did a boy repeat a comment you made (earlier, to lukewarm effect) and get praised for his smarts? How many times, as an adult, have men taken an idea of yours and presented it, without even knowing they didn’t think of it, as their own? This is why TSN felt dull to me: most women have been Winkelvosses several times over and it would never occur to us to sue.

(I should add, parenthetically, that I’m not convinced the Winkelvosses had much of a case anyway: Facebook is just a neater, more exclusive version of Myspace, so that lawsuit, along with the notion that Zuckerberg, on top of being a brilliant programmer, is some kind of Promethean inventor, is hyperinflated. The movie’s claim that Mark invented “Relationship Status” is one MySpace Tom might want to contest.)

In her review, Elissa Bassist says of the woman problem, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s apathy.” That’s right, I think. So is this:

In his essay “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” One could, for example, want a penis and want to be so far away from one at the same time. The men behind the movie and the movement: their confidence, their determination, their ego; I was with them. But of course, if The Social Network’s point of view is correct, I can never be with them. I’m someone who dreams as big as Zuckerberg but lacks the penis required for social revolution. Women are there to blow the dick, excite the dick, but not wield the dick.

Bassist was obviously excited and inspired against her will by the film; she describes this as a kind of rape, even while she admits she was sort of willing. I didn’t fall under the spell, and I’m relieved I didn’t, being something of an Olympian when it comes to the mental gymnastics she describes. When it comes to being entertained, I’m a pretty easy sell. I can’t count the number of times I’ve hated myself a little for getting swept up in a good story, even while I understood and resented my own exclusion. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this is an apt statement of Mark’s problem.) Our appetites betray us, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself unseduced and faintly bored by much of the film—it was fine but too long, and the Winkelvoss arc did decent symbolic work but fell flat at the level of pure story.

Still, the curious thing about talking about all this in terms of programming is thinking about how difficult it is to deprogram yourself once someone has modified your code. In a movie about communication, the biggest irony is that, for all of its language and machine-gun Sorkinese, no one can actually hear.

On Programmes/Fictions

TKO: The Puffy Chair vs. Paper Heart

Dear Millicent,

Forgive my absence–I have been afloat in a Netflix sea, as well as the Baltic (seriously! Was in Denmark: I have seen more full length fur coats than I ever imagined possible in this life).  As I woozily recovered from jet lag and a stodgy January, I leaned heavily on my Netflix, which is where this odd matchup comes from.  Both are movies that wear their hoodies on their sleeve: one to great irritation, the other to surprising depth.  I have given them this imaginary fistfight because I think they started with similar intentions, or at least are depending on a similar audience (more hoodies).  In the past, we have talked about the line between preciousness and charm, the twee and the supple, and I think we have it again here: the firecracker and the real deal.

VS.

The Puffy Chair is a mumblecore film (a term I just learned last week, and am not sure if it is a noun or an adjective).  According to Wikipedia, it is a niche that arrived in the early 2000s focusing on twenty-somethings figuring out their lives, often played by non-actors with improvised scripts.  This sounds like a horrible idea, and something that would get my hate on in only the way that very special things can.   But it’s fantastic.  I think I feel about mumblecore the way most reviewers treat Avatar: I cannot believe it didn’t piss me off.

The Puffy Chair focuses on a guy going to pick up an Ebay purchase with his girlfriend and his brother.  Nobody is exactly likable, but neither is anybody a full-on loser.  The film doesn’t rest on charm, and does a smart job of acknowledging how annoying and subtle the privilege of middle class youth is.  The questions are big, and the narrative is strong and littered with all the prevalent real life propsetting of a modern un-Meyers project.  But, there is only one dick joke, and no unrealistic tidiness or mess.  There are so many places this film could sag or break, and it just doesn’t do it.  It leans to the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind side of human emotion, but with no tricks to brightly illuminate the path.  While I love Kaufman’s well turned tricks, what we have here is another kind of naked animal, and it looks just like us.

I’m worried that as I yap about TPC, you will give it a try and sigh loudly in disgust.  The cute voices, the clean Adidas sneakers, the fact that it starts in NYC…all I can say is that the characters get weak, humiliated, and unmasterful in their lives, and those sneakers don’t protect a soul.

And then, there is Paper Heart, which I had expected to be charming and realistic, the new take on the romance.  I happily sighed as I watched the promo in the theaters, but upon arrival, I couldn’t watch more than 20 minutes of it (thus my critique is under-informed, yet sure).  The firecrackerness of it made my stomach churn.  Instead of an envelope of a generation being pulled open, soft guts out, this movie is sealed cellophane.  Are you in your twenties and a comedian in Los Angeles? If not, these house parties and unmade beds are not for you.  Since everybody is a a little unglamorous, you are supposed to have one of two reactions: if you are trying to get out of your small town: I want to live there like them; and if you are currently in high school:  They are just like me, the future is where it’s at,  and love is a poky little thing that can happen. It is almost this generation’s Reality Bites, but a little more offensive because it believes in its mission. From the twenty minutes I could stomach, the shaky camera and real life interactions were only people saying things out loud, proud of their voice.

The titles sum up the distinction: Paper Heart is so wispy and pitch perfect–who wouldn’t want to see that movie? And thus you get a package of youth in love that is all glitter (with the glitter being that there is no glitter).  Whereas The Puffy Chair is one of the most un-enticing titles I have heard in a long time, and yet, like it’s film, it is honest and successful in its representation. There really is no glitter.  Mumblecore might have fallen on that hardest of narrative tricks: the navel-gaze that is interesting to other people, and a realism that elevates the audience through specificity.

Yours,

CF

Oh Stein! O Toklas! Biographies and Autobiographies

You know, titling things as something other than they are might be my favorite tired metaliterary joke. I guess Eggers started the recent iteration of that trend with his Heartbreaking Work. Then there was Willett’s book, then Banksy’s movie, and this morning I’ve been flipping through Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, that Escheresque ourobouros of nonfictional genres. It’s an “autobiography” of Toklas which is actually a “biography” of Stein, except that it’s written by Stein in Toklas’ voice. I want Shari Lewis and Lambchop to read the entire thing out loud.

The Autobiography is ridiculously fun and parts of it are magical, megalomaniacal exercises. Sample view (in Toklas’ voice, obviously):

The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

What virtuosic panache! Establishing Toklas as the authority guaranteeing her (Stein’s) genius! Writing yourself as the instrument of someone’s “full new life!” Imagine imagining your lover’s inner life this way! What verve! What delicious, delusional hubris!

And maybe fake, but maybe not. One story claims Stein begged Toklas for years to write her autobiography. When she wouldn’t, Stein announced that she’d buy the flowers herself, so to speak. Another story holds that Stein needed money and wrote the piece in six weeks, intending it to be a commercial hit. It’s rife with tabloid fodder—a cleverly fictionalized expose of the art world would fly off the shelves.

Whatever the real story behind the story is or was, what’s true is this: the name that shows up the most is Gertrude Stein. Not Gertrude, not Stein, but Gertrude Stein, always and forever, and always in a reverential tone.

A 1934 review of the autobiography addresses the pitfalls of this approach with kindly restraint:

“Altogether the most challenging estimate found in the book is that which the author makes of herself. ‘She realises,’ so the reader is informed, ‘that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.'” He calls this opinion “preposterous” but says the Autobiography “mirrors the vigorous mind and the strong and engaging personality which have left their imprint on those with whom she has associated.”

My favorite part of the Autobiography might be this:

“In the story Ada in Geography and Plays Gertrude Stein has given a very good description of me as I was at that time.”

Outdoing Leonard Woolf, who heavily edited Virginia’s diaries, and Ted Hughes, who destroyed much of Plath’s unpublished work, Stein omits Toklas altogether. She praises her own description of Toklas without actually giving it.

Brava, Firecracker. Brava.

Why Women Don’t Make Top Ten Lists: Prose on Prose

Dear CF,

Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998.  It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.

[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]

“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”

[Prose meditates on why this might be:]

“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]

“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’

[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]

“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’

“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’

“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”

[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]

“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:

I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.

She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.

“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.

The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.

As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”

Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control.  Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.

One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.

Fondly,

M

The Bitch

Dear M.,

I just ate two tamales happily microwaved into melty Trader Joe’s delight, and feel fortified to write what I was going to originally try to work into my earlier post.  On one of my recent library scavenging hunts, I picked up Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing.  I read it yesterday while waiting for Glee to buffer on Hulu (to no avail).  Yes, dearest, the majority of my literary intake happens while I wait to watch shit television without interruption.  It was an appropriate window for Mr. Mailer, who stoked my ire triple time for every nugget of ye olde writing advice.

He is a self-mythologizer, very much in love with the idea of the hungover writer who understands the virility of being.  Writing is dangerous: you risk alcoholism, depression and madness if you let yourself go into your art.  Writing is dull: only stupid people choose it as a profession (but this is so much in the vain of self-de/precation that we are supposed to begoggled).  The world doesn’t want your art, but you have to dare to look in that great void and understand it will takes its toll for doing so.  Picasso was a jerk, Vidal Gore could have learned some things from him, The Last Tango in Paris needed actual cock and vagina.  He adores Hemingway, but understands what got him killed.  Mailer reads like the writer that the young men in Mad Men are hoping to be.

I would like to say his sexism is part of his generation, but as the book was published in 2003, I’m surprised there wasn’t more editing.  Generally, when he refers to an aspiring writer, it is a he.  He also mentions that women “might be less comfortable” writing about war:

How often have women shown the same inventiveness and hellishness that men have at war? How can they approach the near psychotic mix of proportion and disproportion which is at the heart of mortal combat?

However, we can write about bravery (he goes into a long example how brave an old woman must be crossing a street, so therefore, women do have bravery in their lives).

Some other doozies:

  • He is anti-masturbation, calling it a “miserable activity…all that happens is everything that’s beautiful and good in one goes up the hand.”  And then, “it strikes me that masturbation, for a variety of reasons, does not affect the female psyche as directly.”
  • In a chapter on writerly identity, he tells a story where a friend was at a party where he didn’t know anybody.  He apologizes to Mailer because is a moment of recklessness, he decided to introduce himself as Mailer at the party.  He took a girl home. “Were you good with her?” Mailer asks. “Yeah. It was a good one. Real good,” the friend says.  “Then I’m not mad.”
  • “The novel is like the Great Bitch in one’s life. We think we’re rid of her, we go on to other women, we take our pulse and decide that finally we’re enjoying ourselves, we’re free of her power, we’ll never suffer her depredations again, and then we turn a corner on a street, and there’s the Bitch smiling at us, and we’re trapped. We know the Bitch has still got us.”
  • “Every novelist who has slept with the Bitch (only poets and writers of short stories have a Muse) comes away bragging afterward like a GI tumbling out of a whorehouse spree — –“Man, I made her moan,” goes the cry of the young writer. But the Bitch laughs afterward in her empty bed. “He was just so sweet in the beginning,” she declares,”but by the end he just went, ‘Peep, peep, peep.”

I think the heat that rises when I read this is the sexiness of it all, the great drama of writing.  The great manfeat of it all.

But, some of his advice is really helpful. For example, he says that if you tell yourself that you are going to sit at your desk and write tomorrow, it is important that you actually do it.  Otherwise, you unconscious quits trusting you, and won’t show up as reliably.  This is why it’s hard to get back in the habit of work after letting it go.

The rule in capsule: If you fail to show up in the morning after you vowed that you would be at your desk as you went to sleep last night, then you will walk around with ants in your brain. Rule of thumb: Restlessness of mind can be measured by the number of promises that remain unkempt.

So, there’s that.

Yours,

CF

Canada, Oh

Dear Millicent,

Let’s move to Canada.  Why? While the healthcare will be nice, and we’ll have the seasons, they will be extras.  The real benefit will be good television, radio, and publishing.  It seems as if in Canada the arts not only matter, but they are inclusive.

My ridiculous proof for this is a TV show that I stumbled upon, Maisonneuve, and radio essays that often show up on PRI. We can joke about the lackluster (a poor word for such sequined divas) Celine Dion and Shania Twain, but they are cancelled out by The Munro, and Montreal’s great charm on all who visit (I have never been).

The TV show is called Slings and Arrows, and I think it might be the best show I have seen.  I say this giddy off of a Netflix binge on the first season, and I have been known to give this title lightly.  I said the same about The Wire, Can’t Get a Date, Duchess of Duke Street, Berkeley Square, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, Arrested Development, Kids in the Hall, Peep Show, The Office (British), Mad Men,and years ago I was high off of Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks. All of these shows have left me breathless in what they have accomplished.  They are each the best in their own bright way.

I can’t believe Slings and Arrows got made.  I have never seen a script that was so odd, so unformulaed, so light, and so weighty.  It is about theater, for god sakes, and it’s about Canadian theatre, no less.  The show isn’t focused on setting trends. Nobody in the piece is wickedly outfitted as a cultural gatekeeper.  There is commentary on art in its public and commercial space.  There is a lightness in drawing the characters in three dimensions.  The writers seem to be unburdened by the need to play to the balcony–and they can have a grim fun that isn’t centered on flash or ego.  Yet flash and ego are present, but their creation is subtle and swift.  And deft and honest and well-played.  Humble is the wrong word, but there is a strong sense of confidence that carries more swagger in its apparent geekiness than the usual intricate and hip HBO offering.  This is only one show, and one season of that show, but it leaves me with the impression that Canada is the type at the party that looks like an IT clerk (unironic glasses, pleated pants, bland unbranded sneakers), but who is so relaxed and interesting that they make all the people in boots, scarves and tattoos look unfortunately overwrought. Maybe they are just refreshing.

Maissoneuve does the same for me.  Less McSweeney’s quirk (not that the quirk isn’t its own kind of gold), and more open conversation. Again, theirs is the party I want to go to.

We can go look at the cedars, get jobs where we won’t be millionaires, but it won’t matter, and in the summers we can wear dresses with puffed sleeves and drink cordial (I was thinking of Nova Scotia, and thus good old Anne).  We can also still drive to visit the folks on this side of the border.

If the second season of Slings and Arrows doesn’t hold up, this is all subject to change.

For now, to Canada, where the firecrackers seem lovely, the air is crisp, and the people have all swum in lakes,

Yours,

CF

Susan Boyle’s Got Balls

Dear CF,

Tonight I give you the contrarian Snuggie of blanket statements, so general it comes with sleeves:

Men are better at demanding an audience. BUT—if an audience is supplied (in teaching, say)—women go to greater lengths to please.

That is to say, I think you (and the MLA) are onto something: it’s easier to respond to a concrete demand—wash a dish, make a lesson plan, grade a paper—than it is to generate and honor extra demands of one’s own.

To write a novel is to demand an audience. To write the Great American Novel is to demand that the audience you’re about to create ex nihilo hail you as the greatest. That takes balls.

Take Milton, who (in turn) takes as his subject the Fall of Man, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. And crams it all—all space and all time—into the first five lines of Paradise Lost. Says he’ll justify the ways of God to men. Announces his project of molding you—fallen twit that you are—into a “fit reader” of his poem.

He was an arrogant mo-fo.

This doesn’t come easily to those who are easily deterred, or who too eagerly welcome an escape from their own private hells into someone else’s vision.

Whether by training or instinct, I think women are pretty well-equipped to seduce and placate an cater to audiences. It is, after all, women’s traditional mission to be desirable. (I don’t offer this as a good or bad thing; just as a matter of historical fact.) Culturally, we’re understood to be the beings who adapt—who wax and tweeze and diet and curl. Biologically we expand with babies and deflate and swell and bleed and stop depending on the women around us. Obviously our system of reward revolves around external demand and validation. And good qualities are associated with this: charity, generosity, nurturance, even intelligence and talent.

This is why I find Susan Boyle so fascinating. For so many years she DIDN’T perform to an audience. Nor did she demand one. Think about the difference between her virtually anonymous recording from 1999, and compare that to this guy:

Look at him. He’s her equivalent in many senses, but he’s creating an audience right there—the picture of post-indie self-effacement and he manages to plug his album four times.

And yet—just now, all at once—Boyle has received an audience ready-made, voracious to see her made-over and redone. It’s slavering for her to finish the story they want for her. Talk shows. Makeovers. A boyfriend. An onscreen kiss. It’s hollering demands.

Will she listen? Or will she remain unresponsive to the thousand distractions that threaten to eat her up and do her thing—sing? It’s an interesting experiment. Let’s put off our personal projects and watch.

Fondly,
Millicent

On Flirting: The Meeting of Eyes and Ayes and Is: Part I–Theory

Dear CF,

So enjoyed your last few posts which–as it happens–coincide with what I wanted to write you about anyway: flirting. I’ve conducted a smallish experiment and am eager to share the results with you.

But first, let me agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the sexes’ attitudes toward pizzle and cooch instrumentality. Yes! Having read figleaf a bit, you’ve no doubt noticed that one of his major pet peeves is the “No Sex Class”–not just a population but a whole system built around the self-evident truth that men always want sex and women never do. That what is in fact being transacted across a room when people make eyes at each other is a tricksy rhetoric by which a man convinces a woman to let him do something to her that she doesn’t particularly want done.

Returning for a moment to the question of sexual fantasy, I’m going to offer a slight corrective to figleaf’s lucid cultural critique: wrongheaded as it is, I think this might, in fact, be the biggest unacknowledged fetish in Western culture. The pretense that women don’t want sex (or some sort of contact) is a HUGE fantasy that fires the imaginations and loins of the lusty, and it has the benefit of being sufficiently widespread (heh) that it doesn’t need Craigslist postings or special outfits to be enacted in bar after bar the world over.

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