Julie Powell: Teaching a Self to Fish, How to Sell Fish, The Great Bitch

Dear Carla Fran,

Since writing you about how it seems like men and women handle absorption differently, I got interested in the intricacies of Julie Powell’s position as the Fallen Blogger. (You know, I assume, that her second book, Cleaving, is all about how she went into butchery and had an affair with a man who was not her “sainted husband.”)

I read most of her Julie/Julia blog. She’s gotten a lot of criticism, much of it no doubt deserved, but when I look at that blog, I’m amazed at the sheer volume of her output. How, after working a twelve-hour day and spending four hours cooking, did she have time to write that much?

And it’s good! It’s not Crime and Punishment, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s detailed and engaging and sometimes witty, it’s honest in a way that doesn’t seem to be angling for your approval, and if it’s sometimes blunt, it’s also sometimes really funny.

Her blogging and online writing (on Slate and elsewhere) since then isn’t as pleasurable to read. It’s slightly defensive and so aware that it’s being judged while insisting that it doesn’t care about your judgment that it collapses in on itself like a bad souffle.

(I know. I’m sorry. No more food metaphors, I swear.)

Still, the tone is significantly different. I wonder how much it’s due to the ways her life has exploded into a peculiar success story. She’s a much-despised celebrity figure (the Blogger) who got The Book Deal, The Movie Deal, got played by Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, had the nerve to complain about how she was represented and is ALSO guilty of admitted, thoroughly dissected infidelity with that clownish but beloved figure of domestic bloggery, the Dear Husband, and is in fact profiting off her misdeeds and trying to turn them into literature.

Food bloggers dislike her because she is a) not a Real Cook (though she never claimed to be one) and b) because trend pieces keep crediting her with shaping the food blog as a form, when actually The Julie/Julia Project preceded the explosion of that particular genre by a good year or two. She is also, some of them complain, insufficiently communal (did not interact with other blogs, etc.), and indefensibly opposed to organic vegetables.

So, I mean, there’s plenty not to like: you can accuse of her exploitation. Of insensitivity. Of falling prey to her own success. Of not being much of a networker, blogwise. Even of being a bad writer (I haven’t read either of her books, so I have no idea how her voice translates to book form.) But the main crime laid to her charge all over the interwebs is that she is a Narcissist. She is a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares.

Some qualify that assessment. They say Julie Powell seems to think that self-awareness means calling herself all the names she knows people will call her first. If she labels herself a whore before anyone else does, she vaccinates herself against judgment by being the first to confess herself guilty as charged. This set of critics complain that this is pure defensiveness; she doesn’t really think she’s a whore. Therefore, she doesn’t really feel guilty. To admit guilt without doing anything about it, this set of critics feels, is, well, it’s downright Catholic! It’s as if she expects absolution just because she says something that’s true without feeling, in her heart of hearts, its truth and changing accordingly.

This latter charge strikes me as probably true. It’s also what Woody Allen (for example) built an entire career on.

It’s one thing to say that reading the book is boring (which some have said). Boredom is unforgivable. But what these critics are clamoring for is a redemption story. They want her to be punished and they want her to emerge a better person.  Instead, they get a story that’s hard to swallow, written by a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares.

Back to Woody. Nobody would deny that Woody Allen is a selfish, unregenerate narcissist whose every project is a paean to his own ego. But neither is anyone suggesting that his career should end because of it. Narcissism does not necessarily make for bad art. In fact, to my everlasting despair, it seems like great artists almost have to be Firecrackers—it might be the case that great artists are constitutionally shitty people.

You may think that Julie Powell is not an artist, great or small. In that case, there’s no more to say—those are grounds for dismissal.  The shittiness of her writing is fair game. But the shittiness of her person is irrelevant.  

“But she wrote a memoir!” people like to say. “So her person is fair game!”

In the immortal words of G.O.B. Bluth, “COME ON!” We know it’s more complicated than that. We like to say that “memoir” exists in a world apart and that people who take on this genre openly invite our judgement and our scorn. And they do—as writers. We can judge them as people too, of course, and we do (hi Norman Mailer!). But to mistake one category for the other and start reviewing  the person instead of the piece—to suggest, for example, that Norman Mailer shouldn’t write because he’s a misogynist oversharing narcissist and a sociopath to boot—well, if we did that, we would be calling for the burning of most of Western literature. And art.

Most writers are narcissists, most artists are egomaniacs, and most memoirs are fake. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to that, the better. Memoirs are faker than (for example) Facebook profiles, and if you think your Facebook profile is in any way a representation of the real you, well—the deposed King of Nigeria desperately needs your help. 

This is one many reasons why it’s so damn hard to write—how absolutely great, but also how absolutely selfish it feels. That’s the wrong word. “Selfish” is really the wrong category. We’re all selfish in different ways all the time, and most of those ways should be worked on.  They can hurt the people around us who we genuinely care for and have reason to treat well. But this kind of selfishness, the writing kind, is strange in that it’s basically victimless but feels especially objectionable. It feels (and I speak only for myself here) like a HUGE taboo.  

While narcissism in male artists gets painted as brilliantly iconoclastic or even excused—Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso were just raw, ready to sacrifice convention (read: their partners) for the sake of great art, Roman Polanski anally raped and drugged children but made great movies!—women are severely punished when their desires or demands cross the line of the reasonable and prudent. (My God!!! Julie Powell cheated on her husband!!!)

I even found myself mimicking that mentality in my last letter to you. When men focus on their work to the exclusion of others, I described that as “admirably absorbed.”  Julie, who did something similar in Julie/Julia, was self-absorbed. She’s too interested in her own story, people complain, with all kinds of vicious modifiers. How dare she complain that Amy Adams portrayed her as something she isn’t, quite? She should be on her knees thanking God that anyone bothered to read her drivel. (Never mind that she earned that audience because they voluntarily read what she was writing, and that what she was writing was therefore, on some objective level outside her bitchy, selfish, narcissistic control, interesting to someone besides herself.)

I don’t find her recent online writing as interesting, and those are legitimate grounds for criticism. I hope she hasn’t gotten so caught up in the dynamic between an anonymous reading public and her public persona that she’s started writing at them instead of about something that arises from her bitchy, narcissistic self. But she might have. (I would.)

This isn’t a defense of Julie Powell, the person. I don’t know her. Do I care whether she and Eric make it as a couple? Only to the extent that she’s made me care about the literary version of them.  But I am criticizing the criticism. And I want to defend absorption as a principle and what Powell  actually did as a writer, which was, in that oldest of cliches, teaching herself to fish and selling that fish. Here’s to you and me being that “selfish”.



Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.



P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.