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”.

Fondly,

M

Norman Mailer, Whose Sorrow Lay Its Protection Over Him Like a Shawl on the Bones of an Arthritic

In our last installment of “Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer (played by Psycho-Pirate sans black leather jacket) was “attuning” to his secretary and the media to see if he’d get the Nobel Prize.

He doesn’t get the Nobel Prize, which he never wanted anyway, and starts thinking of himself not as the Famous Nobel Prize Winner but as “the Prizewinner” or the “Prisoner of Wedlock” or just “the Prisoner.”  (You see where this is headed? ‘Cuz prizewinner sounds like prisoner, see?) His fourth marriage having ended, he goes to Maine with five of his children and an “old love.”

He grows.

He understands what a woman means when she says her hair smelled of grease.

He learns the value of the cliches he’d always dismissed, like “The children almost drove me mad!” He learns that these cliches are also “paving blocks at the crossroads of existence.”

“While the Prizewinner was packing lunches this picknicking summer, the particular part of his ghost-phallus which remained in New York—his very reputation in residence—had not only been ambushed but was apparently being chewed half to death by a squadron of enraged Amazons, an honor guard of revolutionary (if we would only see them) vaginas.”

The attack was masterminded by his old nemesis, Time. Mailer thought he had won; after all, he once “captured the mistress of a Potentate of Time,” thereby vanquishing the Evil Empire once and for all. (WARNING: this might give you flashbacks of You’ve Got Mail).

If, in a story, he had once written called “The Time of Her Time,” the protagonist had been fond of referring to his sexual instrument as the Avenger, now the Prizewinner whammed nothing less than a Retaliator in and out of Vengeance Mews (thereby collecting a good share of the poisons the Potentate had certainly left behind) and was so intent on retribution it took him months to recognize that the dear pudding of a lady in whom he was inserting his fast-thrusting barb was a remarkable girl, almost as interesting, complex, Machiavellian, and spirited as himself.

Norman Mailer On The Battlefield Formerly Known as Pie

Dear CF,

This will be an ongoing series because there’s just too much stuff to put into one post. In brief, I’m reading Norman Mailer’s autobiography, “The Prisoner of Sex.” On page 1, after finding out he might win the Nobel Prize, Mailer relates, via this scintillating bit of prose, what it feels like to manpiss into the Big Time*:

“It’s impossible,” he said. After twenty-one years of public life he had the equivalent of a Geiger counter in his brain to measure the radiation of advancements and awards in the various salients, wedges and vectors of that aesthetic battlefield known as the literary pie.

Our hero is the ballsy but downtrodden offspring of (the equivalent of) Spiderman and a protractor, so he only thinks in radioactive triangles. Of VICTORY.  It’s a glorious radon-pastry of book-war!

It did remind me of something. Something to do with washing-up liquid. See 1:34-2:01.

Fondly,

M

*Mailer never won the Nobel Prize.

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