I spare you the twists and turns of my cogitations, for no conclusion was found on the road to Headingly, and I ask you to suppose that I soon found out my mistake about the turning and retraced my steps to Fernham.

--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

 

 

A Great List from Sylvia Townsend Warner

When I was a graduate student, twice I TA’d for John Hollander’s “Daily Themes” class, a creative course in rhetoric. Every Monday, he would lecture on a rhetorical technique, distribute a packet of great examples, and send the students off to try the technique themselves.

The week on lists was one of my favorites.

When I came upon this list, in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novella, The Salutation, my first impulse was to email Professor Hollander and share it with him for the packet. Alas, he died in August, so I share it with you.

The Salutation (1932) is a kind of sequel to Mr. Fortune (1927) (They're printed together in the NYRB edition). At the end of the first book, the missionary Timothy Fortune is leaving the island and his beloved behind. In The Salutation, the heartbroken failed missionary is walking across South America, walking through the pampas grass, walking himself to death. He collapses and is taken in by the Spanish widow of an Englishman. In their tumbledown estate, he finds a lot of stuff:

The remains of two races and two civilizations were mingled here, lying pell-mell. Lacquer fans, stirrup irons, baby-clothes, spice-boxes filled with scentless shreds and dusts, old books of devotion, advertisements from hardware manufacturers, swords, sewing machines, flintlocks, rosaries, dog-collars, quilted petticoats, charms, and a model steam-engine were packed away with spirit-lamps, mandolines, and mouldy furs. Stuffed into the crannies of the great chests and domed travelling-trunks were packets of old letters, deeds, invoices, crumpled fiddle-music, daguerrotypes, astronomical charts, pedigrees of horses and dogs. Into this humus Angustias would dive in unflustered search bringing to the surface whatever she felt whim to unearth. Her memory never failed her. She would pick up a nut and say from what machine it was lacking. The recognition sufficed her, she felt no need to rescue or restore. Everything was there and everything was in her memory; as she had said, she lost nothing, she put things away. ‘Look,’ she exclaimed, extricating a crumpled platter of green chiffon and rusty wires from a wicker bassinet filled with spurs and medicine bottles. ‘This is the hat I wore on my honeymoon. It looks old now, doesn’t it.’ And balancing it upon her damasked hair she looked at him serenely.

No Surrender

About a year ago, I read Constance Maud’s No Surrender (1911). I felt like I needed to have read at least one suffrage novel, and my friend Urmila admires this one (a Persephone book). It was slow going at first, but novels are always very slow going at first for me. And Persephone makes no special case for the writing, though it does praise what’s truly remarkable about this political novel: its accurate depiction of many of the events within the suffrage movement as they were unfolding.

via Persephone Books

via Persephone Books

So, with expectations low and determination high, I persisted in reading the book. And I wanted to write, however briefly, about it—it’s kind of wonderful—but I’ve hesitated because another friend, an expert in suffrage novels, tells me it’s utterly typical for the genre. So, then I got all tangled up in myself—worrying that suffrage scholars would find my enthusiasms inaccurate, misleading. This kind of worry is the way I know that, for all my love of writing short essayistic pieces, I’ve been affected by a life in over-cautious academe.

The novel follows two women’s involvement in the movement: a mill worker and a minor Irish aristocrat. Beyond the interest of learning about the sisterhood of women across age and class who worked together for the vote, there were three moments in the book that struck me as particularly moving and formally exciting: a story-telling scene in jail where imprisoned suffragettes take turns telling how they’ve come to the movement; a staged dinner-party scene in which the aristocrat hires the mill-worker to be a maid and disrupt the event—terrific theater, even on the page of a not-brilliantly-written book; and, best of all, the final scene of the novel in which the aristocrat watches one of the huge suffrage marches pass her window. Overcome, her friends think she’s about to faint, but no, she’s joining the movement.

What a sweet relief to have a novel end with a young woman committing herself to a cause. The Cause, in fact.

You can read fuller accounts of the novel from Persephone itself, Book Snob (a really lovely blog I was glad to discover) and the Desperate Reader.

February

This is always a tough time of year for me. I have to work hard to fend off the winter blues. This year has been particularly challenging. Ice and snow have scratched my plans to run more. Correcting the XML proofs of Mrs. Dalloway—that is, the conversion of my edition from a word & .pdf document to a universal mark-up language—has proven unexpectedly challenging. A young friend died after a long illness. Long hours at my desk necessitates my eating lots of little tiny bites of things to keep going, a habit that is not great for my diet. In short, it’s not just February around here it’s FEBRUARY. Yuck.

Then, I look at something like this little girl, just bursting with joy in her snowsuit, and I think, well, she’s got something right. Or someone sends me a quick email—or even a tweet—to say something kind. Or I see a picture of one of the babies whose wee lives I’m following on Facebook, and I can keep one foot in front of the other for another few hours.

I find myself thinking, in the same breath, “We should have a dance—a big square dance, something joyful and goofy and open to the whole community!” (seriously, and with a burst of “I know! Let’s put on a show!”)  and “I wish I could just crawl under the covers and have someone deliver me soup.”

When I was in high school, my grandmother was very ill and far away. I wrote her letters, constant letters, instead of keeping a diary. I told her all about my life, but I kept the focus on the good parts because I wanted to cheer her up. That ended up serving me well, too: instead of wallowing in the miseries of unrequited crushes and worries about popularity and SAT’s, I wrote about my friends, movies I saw, hopes and dreams.

Grammy has been gone a long time, but I still try to keep that alive. And when I see people urging us to be more “realistic” about the challenges of our lives on social media, I understand the impulse, but come at it from a different place. To that end, then, I offer you this random list of the things that I’m using to give me that little hit of joy as I slog through the slog of this month:

  • butter
  • Humans of New York
  • checking Twitter and retweeting any little piece of good news or sharp satire about bad news I can find
  • artist trading cards
  • watching the birds at my bird feeder
  • tea
  • liking cute baby pictures on Facebook
  • cranking our new Girl Power Dance Party Mix
  • cottage cheese with blackberries
  • Brainpickings
  • recipes for King Cake: Mardi Gras is just around the corner, people!

So, imagine me, if you wish, cycling through these options, sometimes pretty rapidly, to stave off the blues.  Maybe they'll help you, too! After all, spring cannot be far behind, can it?

In Praise of Unbored

A few years ago, it was hard to go into the children’s section of a bookstore without seeing huge dumps of The Dangerous Book for Boys and its belated companion, -- -- for Girls. With its appealing Victorian-ish cover and its incitement to old-fashioned fun, I could see why it kept selling and selling, but I was so disgusted and bored by the gendering of fun that I couldn’t bear to do much more than flip through it. It was too stupid to be worth my time.

Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered Unbored at Posman Books. I snapped up a copy for my nephew, and another for my daughter. Co-written by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, Unbored is a 21st century version of How to do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself or the Brown Paper School Books (such as The I Hate Mathematics Book or I am Not a Short Adult) (all wonderful books that my dad & I were raised on, that we own now & all worth hunting down): a book full of information and experiments that kids, from eight to thirteen or so, can do on their own.

Unbored has sections on you, society, adventure, and music. The website is full of tempting naughtiness. Want to make a seed grenade? A really gross fake wound? Unbored’s got you covered.

And I should know. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and once again I’m breaking my vow to spend it with my kids in service. Bound to my deadline for Mrs. Dalloway, my daughters, 7 & 11, have been pretty free-range this weekend.

What did they do? They went through Unbored and found all the activities that, together, would help them make a circus: a magic trick (supplemented by several more from the web), a cool, acrobatic yoga partner pose, a banner. They will tell you it was a boring weekend, but I saw things a little differently: two little girls, consulting a book, getting more supplies (“Mom, do we have tinsel? What about a coin?”), giggling, and going back down to the basement to play some more.

Childhood at its very best. And allowing me to do the grown-up things I need to do to finish my work, and make my deadline.

This is a great book and I feel like we need to shout that from the rooftops: when someone gets something right about helping kids explore the world, learn and have fun, without putting them into boxes based on identity, let’s celebrate.

It wasn’t reviewed in the Times (though it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere), but this feature from the Home section gives you a sense of its vibe.

Winter Blues & Coloring

What's going on at Fernham, you might ask. What, indeed. Christmas was lovely. I cooked and cooked and cooked some more. Then, when company left, I made julekage (my recipe is better, but it's analog & I'm lazy). It failed. I made another batch of julekage. It's not great, but it satisfied my need for some Norwegian Christmas bread.

Now I am copyediting the XML of Mrs. Dalloway. Reader, this is a dispiriting task.

So, to stave off the tedium and blues, my daughters and I have been coloring. We made some artist trading cards.

We put out a call on facebook to see if anyone wanted to trade. 

People got interested.

We decided to stop at 20. Now, 21.

I'm tumbling the project here

If you want to be part of round two, let me know. We may never stop coloring...

My Mandela Memory

In 1985 or 1986, I took an amazing class called “The Politics of Race Domination in South Africa” taught by Wellington Nyangoni, a visiting professor from Brandeis. This was a tough class: the reading was challenging, graduate-level political science and Prof. Nyangoni had the old-school African intellectual style: brilliant, charismatic uncompromising, demanding, with no patience for sloppy thinking or fuzzy hoping. He didn’t care if you hung out at the shanty town for divestment (I did not—I was too busy studying); he wanted you to read and think and understand the systems of oppression, political and capital, that kept whites in power.

I remember a lot about that class, which was my first introduction to the ways in which corporate America was complicit in the very worst of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I remember Professor Nyangoni pausing to tell a rare personal anecdote about his boyhood in what was then Rhodesia. He went to hear the President give a speech and, unable to see, climbed a tree. “Look at those monkeys!” said the President, pointing at him and his friends. As racism goes, this is small potatoes, but for me—for the twelve of us in that seminar—Professor Nyangoni was a giant, a professor, commanding and worthy of our utmost respect. Hearing that story from his lips affected me deeply.

But, with the passing of Nelson Mandela, I also remember the only thing he said to us that was probably wrong.

We were a dozen hopeful privileged young women sitting in a classroom at Wellesley. We listened to The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” and believed in divestment. But Professor Nyangoni warned us that Mandela would never become president. That man, he said, is a warrior, a guerrilla fighter, and a rebel. He is great at that, but he has been in prison for over twenty years. The skills needed for a president, when apartheid falls, just don’t match up with the skills of such a man. That made sense to me. It seemed like adult wisdom. I didn’t want to believe it, but it seemed right.

So, when Nelson Mandela did become President, I thought back to that class and my professor’s very wise prediction.

Oh.

This was indeed a great man.

May he rest in peace.

Arithmetic

As a college teacher in these depressing times for college teachers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost of education and its value. Why, for example, does an adjunct teaching a single course at my university earn only $3,800 when my salary, for teaching five courses per year (and doing research and sitting on committees and advising dissertations and planning new classes) is much more than five times $3,800. Indeed, an adjunct teaching six classes at this rate would earn $22,800/year. How is that close to a salary?

Still, this inequity is nothing compared to larger inequities. Recently my husband pointed out to me an article on David Tepper, the hedge fund billionaire. He’s just given $67 million to Carnegie Mellon. I am in favor of such donations, of course: higher education depends on donations from philanthropists and large donations like this one are a testament to the power of college.

Tepper lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, just down the road from me. Last year he earned $2.2 billion dollars. That’s a lot more than I earn: about 25,000 times my annual salary, in fact. That's right. Not 10 times; not 100 times. This man, who lives a few stops down the commuter rail from me earns twenty-five thousand times my annual salary. No wonder he can be so generous.

I’m not a good capitalist. I made a choice, many years ago to pursue a Ph.D. rather than go into consulting or law and it’s a choice that I’m happy with, mostly. I always was fine with the notion that many many people with my education and intelligence and privilege would make much more than I, but 25,000 more? That kind of inequity at the top end makes me terrified for the poor, and for those far less fortunate than I.

I was thinking about this the other weekend as I stood with other members of my church, putting slices of ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato into rolls, wrapping the sandwiches, adding fruit and cookies, and getting these hundreds of sandwiches ready for delivery to the homeless who congregate at Newark Penn Station, just down the road from my house—and his.

Unlike the hedge fund capitalists down the road in Short Hills and unlike the homeless, I have a little weekly money and, every week in November and December, I try to hold back some of the $60 my husband and I each budget for coffees and lunches. My goal is to get to $100 so that my daughters and I can “adopt” a family and give them the Christmas presents they otherwise couldn’t afford. These are the kind of calculations that keep me grounded and worried. These are the kind of calculations that the very wealthy may no longer be able to fathom.

Essex County, New Jersey has tremendous economic inequity, but it took a little arithmetic and a few sandwiches to make me see it intensely again.

So for all that we might want to give thanks to the philanthropist who gives a substantial amount—but a small portion of his annual salary—to a university, I am thinking about a revolution. Things are out of whack. This year, I’m giving thanks and preparing to get onto the barricades.

Eek, again: rats & dogs

I'm writing a piece on To the Lighthouse & Woolf's diaries & wanted to find a quotation describing Woolf's mother when she was alive, something that gets beyond the majesty of Julia/Mrs. Ramsay to something individual and strange. I think this does the trick. Written when Woolf was ten (and not, of course, Woolf): 

“Mrs. Leslie Stephen though she is an ardent lover of rats is somewhat ‘riled’ by the way in which her favourites eat her provisions and therefore she has determined to get a dog. ‘Not for pleasure but for business’ as she told her offsprings….Mrs. Stephen has requested that it shall not be a dog like some others of her acquaintance ‘frinstance’ (to use Master Adrian Stephen’s favourite phrase) Pepper” (HPGN 79; 4 July 1892)

 

Eek!

From the way-back machine (going through notes, on deadline): 

“By the way, shaking my dirty clothes basket the other morning, a dead mouse dropped out—starved to death. Nelly believes that I brought him home from Monk’s House in my petticoats. Lottie says if she had shaken him out from her petticoats she would have died. This is about all the news there is” (L 2.430; 15 April 1920; to Vanessa)

 

My two pages

Pushing, against all odds, to meet a deadline. (I'll miss it, but don't want to miss by too too much.) Taking notes & thinking and, as ever, Woolf's thoughts on writing suit my needs: 

“The novel is now easily within sight of the end, but this, mysteriously, comes no nearer. I am doing Lily on the lawn: but whether its her last lap, I don’t know. Nor am I sure of the quality; the only certainty seems to be that after tapping my antennae in the air vaguely for an hour every morning I generally write with heat & ease till 12.30: & thus do my two pages.” (3 September 1926; D 3.106)

 

The End of the World as We Know It

This government shutdown has me trembling with a kind of muted rage. Some day, not long from now, we will look back on this moment and shake our heads in disbelief: the polar ice caps are melting and a few recalcitrant lawmakers, determined to prove their fealty to a smaller government, one that does not provide affordable health care, shut down the whole government altogether. For this, then, we are recalling our scientists from Antarctica for the season?

None of this do I understand.

I lie awake at night trying to find reasons to hope for the future for my students, my precious daughters, but, happy as I am in my life, the future looks bleak to me.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was choosing what kind of good to do in the world, I chose teaching and writing. I rejected the possibility of consulting work—jobs where recent college grads were earning more than I earn now—reasoning that the right thing to do was to try to do good in the world from the beginning, not to get rich and then atone through philanthropy. I chose to teach, to write, and to work on feminist issues.

Now, that feels like a mistake.

The government shutdown itself is nothing next to the destruction that is coming as we continue to ravage our environment. What, in the end, will all my years of work on Mrs. Dalloway matter if every year another flood, hurricane, drought, or worse disrupts our lives, destroys our livelihoods, and kills our neighbors?

But what can I do? In a class I observed today, a young teacher was leading her first-year students through Thomas Friedman’s diagnosis of the current college students as a quiet generation, lacking in courage. I’m older, but I lack courage, too. I feel so strongly that I must change my life, but my ties to my life are too strong. I will not just go and become a Greenpeace activist, risking my life and my freedom for the health of the planet.

I wrote “cannot” first, but, of course, I could, although I predict that I won’t. Nothing but my own love of comfort is stopping me from leaving my life behind.

So, what can I do? What can we do? I have been listening to Claire Balding’s Ramblings, thanks to a Slate rec. It’s a BBC Radio 4 podcast in which Balding joins an avid walker on a favorite walk. She and the walker talk about the landscape, the route, and the walker’s life. It’s a beautiful tribute to all the many, many Britons who, in very quiet ways, love the land. I think about these lives of quiet dignity, these stewards of the land who help preserve it, it seems to me, just by communicating their love. Is that a contribution?

When we set out in July to spend a month driving (a glorious, magical month), were we, in spite of being in an automobile, also helping teach our children to love nature? Does that help? Can it be enough?

Listening to a Canadian radio station, I heard that Godspeed You, Black Emperor had refused to accept an award because, well, how can you celebrate when the icecaps are melting?

Something’s wrong with that, too, I know. My students, mostly musicians this fall, and I talked it through the other day and, after class I realized how much more I admired DJ Spooky: he’s not being churlish, he’s making music about Antarctica and then going to Reykjavik to perform and sign books at Arctic Circle.

I can see that “doing what I can” is no longer enough. What is? What will be?

 

An Audience of One

I’m on a Janet Malcolm binge lately. My friend in London gave me Forty One False Starts and I read much of it. Then, I read with the shock and slightly embarrassed pleasure of recognition her profile of Eileen Fisher in a recent New Yorker. Finally, then, in preparation for teaching Stein the other week, I read her Two Lives, a total pleasure (as I knew it would be).

But, as much as Malcolm herself, whose prose I’m studying and admiring,  one of the greatest pleasures of her book was this quotation from Stein, a brilliant and inspiring quotation about the importance, for any artists, of having one person, just one person, who understands what you’re doing.

It is a very strange feeling when one is loving a clock that is to every one of your class of living an ugly and a foolish one and one really likes such a thing and likes it very much and liking it is a serious thing, or one likes a colored handkerchief that is very gay and every one of your kind of living thinks it a very ugly or a foolish thing and thinks you like it because it is a funny thing to like and you like it with a serious feeling… or you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it…and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed. (Stein, qtd. Malcolm 157)

Stein wrote this shortly after beginning her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the someone who “says yes” to Stein going on writing.

I shared it with my students this fall—I’m teaching at Juilliard, so all my students are young artists—and they nodded in recognition. Such a beautiful, beautiful reminder of how much we need, and how little.

 

Feminist Theory Reading Group: Sianne Ngai

So, we at my university, started a Feminist Theory Reading Group. Our mission: for faculty and Ph.D. candidates to meet & talk about a recent monograph on feminist theory. We aim to read a book each semester. Tonight, twelve of us met over wine and snacks to talk about Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories.  

Here is a kind of summary of our conversation. It's sloppy, incomplete, misses all the joy of conviviality, all the texture of the personalities in the room jostling against each other, interrupting, and apologizing, but maybe, in spite of all that, it captures something about why it's fun, even in a stressful moment of the semester, to try to talk about something very challenging, brilliant, and innovative:

 

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard 2012)
Zany, cute, interesting: Ngai again looks at familiar but not valorized categories and at mass-culture. The blurb doesn't sell it as feminist (thanks, Harvard!), but I believe her work is: at least Ugly Feelings was. LARB long piece on this. (Just linking: haven't read yet.) [AEF]
This sounds like it would be an enjoyable read. [CH]. Agreed. [MAM]

This was the only question on our list when we started our discussion & it's how we began:
In "The Zany Science," Ngai writes, "Indeed, while virtually all our current aesthetic categories, from the beautiful down to the cute, turn in various ways on the objecthood of objects or the thingness of things, our experience of zaniness is often that of azany person//" (193, italics mine). I'm curious about how this final aesthetic category most often describes a person (or character) rather than an object. What is at stake in describing someone as "zany" that might be different from the "cute" or "interesting" object? Does identifying someone as zany confer a kind of "objectness" onto that subject? If so, what impact does that have on our experience of the zany? [KMN]'

We moved quickly from this question to a challenging passage about subjectivity in the introduction. That led to a segue from the zany back to the cute, and the relationship between the cute and the beautiful. Where we lingered for a while: 
How is the cute different from the beautiful? The beautiful is a category that “reveals how the faculty of judgment…presupposes the existence of other humans” (239); it’s one that messes Burke up; it’s feminized.

We debated the ethics of reading transhistorically. Ngai is interested in the now, but what is the present? How much do we care that the periodization is "late capitalism" instead of, say, "post-1989."?

We also discussed some problems with her examples--mistakes or looseness in the discussion of Stein and some special selectivity in the examples from kawaii. Some of these demonstrated Ngai's deftness: it's the case that the cutest character in anime is also the most dangerous (Anthony passed around a panel of cute characters yelling "Eat Their *X%$#!@ Ovaries!!!"), so that fits Ngai's argument. However, it's also true that Murakami's art is not representative and is, in fact, particularly, ostentatiously meaningless.

We talked about how discussions of the cute don't include what's funny in Stein, in manga. Why leave out the funny? Is laughter an aesthetic response? Doesn't the cute help Ngai describe the changed relationship between art and commodity in late capitalism?

Does it matter that zany isn't a live category, isn't something we say or talk about? Ngai offers one answer, maybe, here:

  • “The interesting is culturally ubiquitous as a judgment but by no means easily or intuitively recognizable as an aesthetic style…the zany as a style of desperate playfulness is virtually everywhere but is strangely recessive as a term of judgment” (235).

But, as an answer, "strangely recessive" may be a euphemism for "my idea alone."

We had a moment of admiration for the ways in which the book is cool: for its ability to contain a 3-page footnote on Flashdance. For some, that coolness grates; for some, it inspires. Then, why isn't "the cool" one of these new aesthetic category?

The discussion on race was missing in ways that some of us missed, that others saw as an opening for future criticism. What, for example, would a doll with "cute" "squishy" features be if it was also black? Why doesn't Ngai discuss Harriet Mullin's race in her discussion of Mullin's revisions of Stein?

We connect Ngai's work to weak theory: cf. panel at MSA & Wai-Chee Dimock's work on weak theory. Where some advocates of weak theory seemed to be simply advocating the ambiguity of the essay, Ngai actually demonstrates the political power of demanding that we pause in a moment of indeterminacy, that oscillation where something cute excites feelings of both tenderness and aggression. 

In what sense is this a contribution to feminist theory? what is Ngai's contribution to feminist theory? We talked about the ways in which Ngai revives aesthetic theory with new categories that are feminine and feminized. About how the book is anti-nostalgic for older aesthetic forms, categories, and the New Left in general. How, the very "our" of the title claims a space for feminist theorists in high theory.

Then, just when the conversation seemed over, we got into a big, lively talk about the uncanny valley, cuteness, disgust and disability studies, wondering at the way in which we are attracted to cute robots but feel the terror of bodily difference in the face of a prosthetic hand.

 

In Memoriam: John Hollander

John Hollander died yesterday. He was one of my favorite professors and a profound influence on me. The obituary in the New York Times and Jenny’s memories of him as a professor both give you a sense of the man. I wanted to add my own tribute, too.

In high school, I fell in love with the son of a poet, a professor of poetry at the University of Washington. One year, that professor exchanged places with a professor at the University of Iowa, leaving the son behind, and bringing his own teenaged son to Seattle with him. The three of us would go to the poetry section of the local bookstore and comb through the boys’ father’s books, searching for the poems about the boys. Then, one told me, if I was really serious about poetry, I needed to read Rhyme’s Reason by John Hollander.

Drunk on love, poems, and this amazing proximity to fame—sitting on the floor with boys who could point to their names in books in the bookstore—I bought the book and devoured it. I covered it in a hand-made book-cover of Hmong embroidery that the aide in the ESL program where I volunteered gave me, and it sits in my office to this day, consulted not to write poems but to teach them. Hollander’s amazingly clever and catchy poems explaining poetic forms—a sestina defining a sestina, a haiku explaining haiku, a line of dactyls exaggerating the strange meter—still guide me whenever I teach prosody:

            How many bards gild the lapses of time?

            Read this as dactyls and then it will rhyme.

Then, years later, when I was admitted to Yale for a doctorate, I got a letter from him, the mimeograph faded enough that some of the type was broken, explaining that there were certain books every educated person ought to have read and the enclosed page of suggested texts would be a good start, I felt a thrilled panic at how very few of those books—Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Dante, Sophocles, Horace—I had read then, at twenty-one. That summer, I drove customers at the bookstore where I worked crazy. “What are you reading, dear?” “Um, The Aeneid.

He would teach in the last slot of the day so he could keep talking, regularly keeping us half an hour after the class was to have ended. We would be angry and ravenous, walking home to our apartments off Orange Street, kicking rocks and trying to figure out what we had learned: it was unfair, but we had to admit, something—it would be a different remark for each of us—had been brilliant, maybe even worth it. Speaking about allegory one day, a favorite topic and an unimaginably unfashionable one in the late-1980’s, he said that, as a boy, he had been fond of comic books. Do you know, he asked us, how to change scenes in comics, sometimes there’s a rectangle at the top of a panel, “Meanwhile back at the ranch…”? We nodded, whether we knew or not, unsure what this had to do with Edmund Spenser. Well, one day, he came upon a panel showing a woman, leaning over a sink, washing dishes and crying, “Woman in Detroit…” said the panel, and Hollander told us that, never having heard of the city, he thought Detroit was a sophisticated French word for the emotion of narrow despair, overwhelming, domestic sadness, depicted in that panel.

That was what it was like taking a class from him, or teaching for him, as I did for two years in his Daily Themes creative writing class. He was full of brilliant stray remarks, as another student of his remarked in one of the many facebook posts I've been poring over. At the same time, he had no patience for cultural studies, for the students, just arriving on the scene then, who wanted to write dissertations on comic books and conduct books: “You’re talking about the kind of thing that smart people think all the time.”

I was a middling student at Yale. At my best, I might have been the top of the second tier, not a worry to anyone, but no one’s favorite, either. Still, Hollander seemed to think I was smart and he treated me like I was smart. He liked my Spenserian stanzas, written in a code based on the Victorian language of flowers, an amalgam of anachronistic allegory that amused us both. He liked my paper, too. And, although I bombed the Milton questions on my oral exams, I know that I had already saved myself with Shakespeare for, when he asked me about plays within plays, I talked about Posthumous’ dream, which takes the form of a Jacobean masque, in Cymbeline. (Frankly, I didn’t dare try to be coherent, not to mention smart, about Hamlet.)

One day, at the end of one of his Daily Themes lectures, the other T.A.’s and I gathered around him for any special instructions for the week and he said, impatiently, that he couldn’t understand people’s reluctance to admit they were intellectuals. By his reckoning, anyone who decided to pursue a doctorate in English literature at an Ivy League University ought to be an intellectual, and proud of it. And it hit me like a thunderclap in that instant, I was an intellectual and a feminist and I would never, from that day forward disavow either term, although I suspected Hollander wouldn’t have been as excited about the feminist part.

He called me once in Cambridge to encourage me to apply for a job. I was so shocked that he knew who I was, I could barely breathe. But I hadn’t spoken to him since.

In all those years of working on the edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I thought of him often, more often than any of you can guess, and some of the footnotes I think of as his footnotes, footnotes that would please no one more than John Hollander to read. I thought about how much he would be tickled to see Woolf’s erudition, my detective work. I had hoped to send him the book, still delayed, maybe coming out in the year to come. When I heard he was ailing, I had hoped to send him a footnote or two, but it seemed too small a tribute and, uncharacteristically, I got shy and remained silent. Now he is gone, and though I know that he knew as well as I, that for whatever weird reason we both love these random, formal erudite details that don’t really go anywhere, I will always miss him fiercely.

 

Always Be Counting

After the profoundly disappointing VIDA event on women and book reviews last month, I felt duty bound to attend this second VIDA event at the Center for Fiction last Wednesday, May 29th. This packed event in the charming but always too-hot second floor of the Center for Fiction was the public portion of the NBCC (National Book Critic’s Circle) meeting and part of BEA (Book Expo America), so not only was the room packed, but it was packed with important editors and writers and eager freelancers.

The panel was moderated by Laurie Muchnick, book editor at Bloomberg News and president of the NBCC. She took a much firmer hand than the moderator at the Housing Works event had taken, with welcome results. Muchnick was aided, too, by the panel’s composition: with one of the co-founders of VIDA (Erin Belieu), the editor of the New York Times Book Review (Pamela Paul), the editor of Tin House (Rob Spillman), the book critic for New York Magazine (Kathryn Schulz), and a novelist (Meg Wolitzer!), the panel included people with a wide range of perspectives on the problem. 

You can read Laurie Stone’s thoughts on the same event here.

Paul, new in her position, knows first hand the special vitriol reserved for women in positions of power in the book world, and it was reassuring to hear her speak about her ambitious goals for a wide range of diversity in the pages of the Times. Wolitzer, as a novelist whose books treat Big American themes without getting Big American Male (FRANZEN! ROTH! UPDIKE!) attention, spoke about reviews, blurbs, and marketing from the perspective of an artist wanting to make money through her art. By contrast, Schulz spoke about her position at New York, where she has complete freedom to choose books to review and was really smart about the real downsides of that freedom: for, while she reviews a fairly good balance of women to men (6 women for every 5 men), her predecessor, a man, reviewed 8 books by men for every 1 book by a woman. Spillman was a welcome presence on the panel: an editor whose journal had made big changes to assigning and soliciting pieces based on their originally very imbalanced VIDA numbers.

For me, it was Belieu and Schulz who best summed up the message of VIDA: for true change to happen, we need to always be counting: how many women are reviewing? how many books by women are getting reviewed? True, the count is crude and imperfect, but it also reveals a continuing inequity in our literary culture that is not trivial. And, though I, too, tire of counting, being tired of counting (and seeing, yet again, how little we count for), is no reason to stop.

Belieu spoke about the origins of VIDA, in Cate Marvin’s 2009 essay, emailed to like-minded friends, bemoaning the lack of reviews of and by women writers—a cri de Coeur that became VIDA. She said that, in spite of all the limitations, “we liked the simplicity and elegance of the count. We liked the fact that we were able to get a picture of the year.”

And Schulz returned to this at the end, positing that a structural answer is the only answer. That editors need to do what Spillman has done at Tin House: that part of curating a vibrant literary culture includes counting: how many books by women are we reviewing? how many by men? how many of our reviewers are women? how are people of color represented in the numbers of reviewers and of books reviewed? how are we doing in representing a range of class perspectives, in reviews and in books reviewed? If we don’t ask this question, and continue to think that all we want is “the best,” the best will continue to look like this hoary dinosaur.

Only after listening to this did I recognize how much counting is part of my life as an editor, a teacher, and a teacher of teachers.

When we edit The Norton Reader, we look for all kinds of diversity and we look to see that every section of the reader not just “Personal Narrative” includes contributions from women and people of color. 

When I teach young teachers how to put a syllabus together, I demand that they look for essays old and new, difficult and easy, and that they make sure that there their syllabus represents women, people of color, gay and lesbians writers, and writers from a range of class backgrounds.

When I design my own syllabi, I demand the same of myself.

And when I was working on the introduction to the forthcoming (Summer 2013) special issue of Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies on Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies and Feminist Theory, Urmila Seshagiri (who has an article in the issue) and I engaged in our own, informal count. How many special issues on feminist theory had Mfs done recently? One, kind of. How about modernism/modernity (the other top scholarly journal in the field)? Zero, ever. So this forthcoming issue, with eight articles by eight women scholars using feminist theory to analyze the work of ten often neglected women artists from the early 20th century will be a good corrective, to say the least.

Still, I dwell so deeply and completely in a world of women that sometimes I wonder if I’m doing too much.

The other day, I asked the students in my summer graduate class why they were enrolled in a class on modernist women writers (100%  women). One woman, a strong feminist, said that, as she came to the end of her M.A., she realized that for her coursework, she had only read three women writers.

People, our work here is far from done.

Always be counting.

It’s a start.

[corrected to fix Schulz's stats which I had backwards at first]


Dull

“Mean” and “serious” criticism were discussed at last night’s star-studded and utterly, appallingly disappointing panel on women in arts criticism, Sharp, at Housing Works last night (May 8, 2013). Are women critics more reluctant to be mean? Are women getting a chance to write serious criticism?

At one point, as the panelists, accomplished women all, were congratulating each other, someone noted in passing how it was once the way of young critics to make their mark with an initial excoriating salvo: a “mean” review to make your name, and then, a career.

Ladies, allow me.

And yet, mean is really beside the point. In fact, throughout the evening, I found myself thinking of Henry James, a sharp writer, who also said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I value kindness as highly as James. However, it is being neither mean nor unkind to call out an event for failing to deliver on its promise.

Kate Bolick got the evening off to a particularly inane start by asking, rhetorically if her gravitating to the midcentury women critics (Hardwick, McCarthy) was indicative of her unconscious feminism--or was it sexism? Because, her hypothesis went on, they didn’t have to deal with feminism.

At that, I should have thrown my beer can on the stage and left. Those midcentury New York women are sharp as tacks because they had to figure out how to navigate the peculiarities of a Patriarchal Landscape for Literary Journalism (let’s call it the PLLJ) in the 1950’s which differs in texture from the PLLJ that Virginia Woolf faced in London in the 1920’s and 1930’s or what we face from the PLLJ in the early 21st century.

That texture was what was consistently missing over the course of the evening. Kael, Hardwick, and McCarthy were invoked. Sontag was mentioned--and at the mention of her name, I longed to summon her ghost to march up on the stage and sweep everyone off it with her grand white forelock. Vague things were said in praise of their sentences, their beautiful sentences. But not one beautiful sentence was quoted--and, in fact, on several occasions specific essays were cited for their great language and then paraphrased. People: quote the words, cut to the clip, it’s not good enough to hum a few bars and call it Beethoven, to say, “Then, Hamlet has this amazing speech where he’s thinking about whether or not to commit suicide, and he really, well, you know, it makes you think.”

As for serious, again, the wasted promise of all that talent on stage and a genuine disagreement, was infuriating. Laura Miller spoke against serious criticism, by which she seemed to mean pretentious, snobby, only-highbrows-need-apply stuff; Miriam Markowitz, by contrast, spoke for the serious, really deftly explaining how The Nation wants its reviews to eschew the consumer model and be about ideas, and how she is heartened to find women pitching her idea-driven reviews more an more. But why was it only at the end that they began speaking about a lively intellectual culture? It would have been nice to hear that word a little earlier. A long digression on how frustrating the marketing of books has become is hardly interesting to a roomful of people who know too well that tale.

The event was described in ways that gave me such hope:

Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael… In spite of abysmal byline counts at many publications, the English speaking world has a rich tradition of women critics of books, music, film, and the culture at large. Join some of today’s celebrated women critics for a spirited discussion of the women they’ve been inspired by, the challenges of being a woman of sharp mind and pen, and the question of whether women have a distinct purpose as critics at all.

I had hoped to hear more about these women, about the particular struggles they faced. Gossip. Anecdotes. Bracing tales to help me gird my loins as I try to pitch more mainstream publications. It would have been great if the organizer had assigned each of the really talented, smart women on stage a precursor, and asked the living critic to read a favorite quote from the precursor and talk about what Sontag or Kael or Didion or Woolf meant to them, why they could or could not be a model for writers today. Then, we would have had a treat, have learned something.

I had hoped to hear about the living critics’ experiences. Ruth Franklin joked that she spent time asking “are you my mentor?” but that thread was dropped. Parul Sehgal said, more than rivalry, she enjoyed stories of collaboration, but had none to hand, and then we had a tired rehearsal of the Arendt-McCarthy friendship. Franklin and Sehgal seemed every bit as smart as I expected but, like others, both women was hamstrung by the loose format, the general, dispiriting inanity.

I had hoped to hear more about reviews written and the reactions they elicited, about judgments withheld, about editors meddling, about if and how being a woman might have affected any of these hesitations or volleys.

I had hoped to hear more direct accounts of the VIDA count and how it affects these writers’ lives--in their pitching, their editing, their conversations with other writers at the office. Franklin said she’s worked with editors who care and editors who don’t. I can believe that, but, again, it wasn’t worth spending my one night out a week to hear it.

As I was getting ready to go to the ironically titled “Sharp,” I remembered Virginia Woolf’s essay “Why?” It’s a cri de coeur, a lamentation on the difficulty of asking any serious question in public and on the waste of time, consequently, of most lectures: “Why, since life holds so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” “Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies?”

Why indeed. Oh, Woolf, how you are missed.

Noted without comment

“Maude [Margaret’s mother] had, according to family legend, dreamed of going to New York to become an actress. She seems to have stuck to her goal through college…but in opting for the security of marriage, Maude made a decision in keeping with both convention and common sense. With the leisure that married life afforded her she pursued her aesthetic interest along the avenues then open to women of comfortable means: decorating china plates, gardening, reading poetry, collecting early American glass, dressing her children” (10).

From Leonard Marcus's 1992 biography of Margaret Wise Brown