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”.



Schizophrenia, Hyper-Mentalism, and the Happy Puppet

Couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What to make of the Firecracker’s attraction to schizophrenia as a word and lifestyle, and why did it become the writer-singer-songwriter’s passport into a different kind of world? Schizophrenia, after all, goes beyond the mere desire for altered states of mind. Yeah, Coleridge loved opium, but this exceeds drugs, hallucinations, trumps the scope and governance of the will. Is this why it’s appealing? Is it a release from an oppressive hyper-consciousness? Is it a kind of Fate?

As evidence that what I’m saying actually happens, and that the word crops up in oddly reverential ways, some examples:

  • Talking about Lynch’s union of the banal and the grotesque, DFW says, admiringly, that “there’s a certain schizophrenia about it.”
  • From “In the Company of Creeps”, an article in Publisher’s Weekly:

    Wallace characterizes the public reception of both Infinite Jest and a followup essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997) as a ‘schizophrenia of attention.’

  • The Firecracker I married described his turmoil over whether or not his desires were compatible with being married to me as being sliced in half while in the shower. He called this his schizophrenia, and declared finally that his interest in madness isn’t intellectual, but religious. In my lower moments I think he yearns for it.

My sister is schizophrenic. She’s plagued daily by origami devils and monster faces in her food. She spends hours tracking down hackers breaking into her computer, scratches strips of skin off to get at the bugs beneath, turns sly and calculating whenever a collection agency calls to collect on one of the forty cell phone accounts she’s opened and closed and left unpaid. She resents that no one will believe that the doctor removed her temporal lobe during one the many unnecessary surgeries she’s convinced them to perform. She’s tried to kill herself three times.

I mention this to justify—or at least disclose—what might be an unreasonably rigid sense of what schizophrenia means. For me, it’s always meant a clinical condition.

So I thought I should check and see what it actually means. The word was coined in 1910 (or 1896, depending on whether you ask the OED or The Guardian). The OED defines it thusly:

A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usu. with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations.
Used in the U.S. with a broader meaning than in Britain (cf. quots. 1979, 1980).

The earlier term was “dementia praecox,” the premature unraveling of the mind. Schizophrenia means “split mind,” a term coined by Eugen Beuler to describe the splitting of mental functions. (It’s kind of ironic that these days “split-brain” patients are epileptic survivors whose corpus callosa—the bundle of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—have been surgically cut.)

In fact, the word seems to be losing status in the scientific community. The romance is unfelt in this quarter, and some people are trying to get rid of it as a category altogether: From Kate Hilpern’s article “Muddy Thinking” in The Guardian

“As a single word, schizophrenia can ruin a life as surely as any bullet,” says Hammersley. “I know of one woman whose psychiatrist told her it would have been better for her to have cancer. Our desire to dump schizophrenia in the diagnostic dustbin is therefore not just about the poor science that surrounds it, but the immense damage that this label brings about. Lives are being ruined on the basis of a highly suspect diagnostic system.”

Other scientists defend the label. Vague and bland as it is, to dispose of it would eliminate research funding. They’ve pressed on, and two in particular have come to a pretty awesome conclusion about a possible genetic basis for autism and schizophrenia.

Turns out the quest for a baby’s mental health is the ultimate Boy vs. Girl genetic free-for-all, the egg-and-sperm version of the bedroom scene in A Pocketful of Miracles. Nature recently published an opinion piece by Christopher Badcock (heh) and Bernard Crespi called “Battle of the Sexes”.

Here is what they found. Read more of this post