When I was a kid I sometimes watched a show my dad liked called The Prisoner. It takes place on an island that gets a new ruler each episode, referred to as “number 2.” (You never find out who #1 is). Every episode the main character tried to escape the island and every episode he was brought back in a big clear bubble. In one episode, he made a boat that he disguised by taking it apart and putting it in art exhibit. He calls it “escape.” But what does it mean, a guard at the exhibit asks. It means whatever you want it to mean.
For the past couple years I’ve done some kind of traditional year end round up: last year we spent Christmas writing his and hers books we read list; the year before I rounded up my favorite articles.
This is not that kind of list. 2017 wasn’t that kind of year, or any kind of year I know how to recognize. Aside from the ongoing shit show on the world scene, it’s been a year of personal changes that seems almost comical in fulfilling the idea that there are years where nothing happens and months where everything happens: I got promoted, got married, got pregnant, moved, had a baby, and my mother died unexpectedly. All of this has made for reading that as been more scattered and fragmented but also more periodically more intense and visceral than usual. I find myself more desperately clinging to something that give the illusion of permanence, or at least gives a vantage point from which to reflect on impermanence. For a while I was trying to train myself not to look at my phone when I was with my kid on the playground; when I got antsy I would try to recite the first twelve or so lines of Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking. I never got beyond those 12 lines, but this year I have been turning more and more to poetry.
The best best-of lists always have the air of achievement: I got through this many serious books, or read that classic I always meant to. This year was the first year I didn’t make my “goal” of reading more books than I had the year before since I started keep comprehensive lists in 2013. I’m willing to cut myself some slack on this given what this year has been. Poetry and living with poetry takes me away from thinking this way; finishing a poetry book doesn’t feel like something to cross of the list- it’s easy enough to read them quickly, but you don’t want to if they are working. I’ve been thinking about living with poems in that way we tell our students reading poetry will help them do. I have them memorize or imitate or translate poems as a way of “living with.” For me, teaching can be a way to “living with” – my sense and memory of them blur with comments students have made over the years, I track their changing reactions and my own. As with writing, they float through the categories: things I am thinking of teaching/writing about, things I have taught/wrote about, things I remember only because I once taught/wrote about them.
Towards that end, a few of the poems I’ve been living with:
- Adrienne Rich, “On the Burning of Paper Instead of Children,”
Rich starts this meditation on language and suffering with a quote from Daniel Berrigan, the radical priest who is also the source of this poem’s title, which is taken from his statement about an action in which a group burned draft files with homemade napalm. From there Rich goes to a scene of schoolboys burning Algebra books to scenes from the cruelties recorded in libraries and scenes from a never to be recorded love affair. Along the way it’s a meditation on the sanctimony of liberal dogma about the value of writing and explores the possibility that some pages must burn so that other pages – and other people – might live. In a time where there are too many conversations about whether and how the times are really worse than those we read about in books, I keep going back to these lines:
there are books that describe all this
and they are useless
You walk into the woods behind a house
there in that country
you find a temple
built eighteen hundred years ago
you enter without knowing
what it is you enter
so it is with us
no one knows what may happen
though the books tell everything
2. Grace Paley, “People in My Family,”
I got to hear Paley read once, not too long before she died in 2007, at NYU, at an annual Spanish Civil War veterans event, back when some of them were still around also. Paley and Rich linger large and together in my mind, feminist, poets, and thinkers somewhere between my mother’s and my grandmother’s generation, and not incidentally, both mothers themselves. This was one of the poems she read that night, also about generations and what they have and don’t have to tell each other and whether we are supposed to have “hope” for children:
The ninety-two-year-old people remember
it was the year 1905
they went to prison
they went into exile
they said ah soon
When they speak to the grandchild
yes there will be revolution
then there will be revolution then
once more then the earth itself
will turn and turn and cry out oh I
have been made sick
then you my little bud
must flower and save it
3. Marge Piercy, “My Mother’s Body,”
For the obvious reason. The specifics of Piercy’s poem have nothing to do with my mother, but it’s always been one of my favorite elegies. I once read about two thirds of Piercy’s many, many books because I was writing an encyclopedia entry on her and I was struck by what an unusual writer she was: a model of workman-like prolificness she attributed to her working class background who was also an activist and radical. Once again, the question is generations, though here it is only one who can speak: the left behind daughter sho must speak of the now-gone, only covertly politicized or self-realized mother, but also just a beautiful account of the hollowed out places where loss comes to visit us:
4. Linda Pastan, “Ethics,”
One more woman poet of this generation. If I may. I think I first saw a copy of this in Adrienne Rich’s papers, and I love it for embodying one of the things that made me come to poetry – how you can have a fragment of an idea, a tangential connection that’s not meant to be something larger and decide it gets to be something, all on its own. I remember versions of the Ethics 101 pseudo-profound game she mentions here. I was at camp, I think, and we were charged with deciding which character we would take in a lifeboat based on two line descriptions. I remember that one of them was a pregnant woman and the counselor desperately trying to avoid the inevitable abortion debate that one led to. No one said, the whole premise of this thing is crap, no one’s life is more valuable than another, and even if it were, would you really want to leave it a bunch of kids?
In any case, the perfect respite to “the wasteland is worth five old ladies”:
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond the saving of children.
5) Frank O’Hara, “Animals”
Because it can’t all be loss and struggle, this wonderful ode to youth. I teach O’Hara a lot in both Creative Writing and literature classes and students usually love it and it works well for imitation and memorization. As long as something like New York, something like sex, or something like youth exists I think it will work.
My life has generally gotten better over the decades, so I always wear my nostalgia with an asterisk, but at a certain point you realize you feel that way about your youth not because it was great just because it was yours. Or, why not imagine you had O’Hara’s? Short enough to quote in full:
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
Some thoughts and links on poetry, Palestine, and Kafka for the start of summer:
I recently was honored to give the keynote at LaGuardia’s Women’s Studies Conference on Adrienne Rich and in particular her time teaching in CUNY’s SEEK program. I’m hoping to publish a version of it somewhere soon, including a long section I didn’t get to include in the actual talk about her “Talking about Trees” response to Brecht. In the meantime, here are my two favorite pieces about Rich that have come out lately, in the many great ones that have come out since her death and the publication of her Collected Poems. First, here’s Michelle Dean in the New Republic, who makes use of the archives of Rich’s letters to her friend the poet Hayden Carruth to trace the many transformations of her mid-life: the end of her marriage, her husband’s suicide, and her coming out as a lesbian; her growing activism as a feminist and anti-war activist; her growing love of teaching (unlike many writers, she never resented the time spent with students and seemed to feel younger people had something to offer); the change in her poetry away from the formalism she’d been rewarded for early on; her increasingly difficult health struggles. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about how dominant the awakening at middle-age narrative was in the stories of women’s lives I grew up with, and how much it applies to those of us today, many of whom grew up with feminism and who are having our children mid-life instead of coming out the other end of the early years of immeshment.
In Dissent, Lidija Haas covers a lot of the same ground, with an emphasis on Rich’s defense of poetry’s political engagement. When I was working on my talk, I was thinking a lot about how Rich approached teaching during the time of the Vietnam war and student strikes, how you do justice to the intensity of the moment while also seeing the classroom (and poetry) as something that should extend our thinking behind the heat of the moment. And then I realized some of Rich’s writings which are most intensely in the moment are from the ’80s, as the horror of backlash and Reaganism set in; Haas begins with Rich refusing an award from Bill Clinton calling art “incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” The answer for “why write poetry in ‘times like these” is that it is always times of these. I’ve also been thinking a lot about a passage in Rich’s 1981 essay “Towards a More Feminist Criticism” in which she expresses a different side of the issue: of course, activism and poetry mix, but about what is lost when writers are elevated to “spokespeople” above on-the ground activists and how we might look at the causal relationship between these things: “It’s not that I believe in a direct line of response, from a poem to an action: . . . In fact, it may be action that leads to poetry, the deed to the word.
We recently marked 50 years since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has been a time of heightened activism both here and in Israel/Palestine, where political prisoners recently ended a forty day hunger strike and where hundreds of Jews from around the world recently joined Palestinians and for a series of non-violent actions connected to Israeli celebration of occupation. Two recent pieces point to how, in spite of everything, non-violent resistance still matters:
First, over at In these Times, a good piece by Tamara Nassar about the results of the recent Palestinian hunger strike. Prisoner solidarity is such an important part of the history of liberation struggles, and it’s easy to think there’s no leverage to be had over the brutal Israeli government, but Marwan Barghouthi is one of the most respected figures in the Palestinian community, and we’re in a period where international solidarity can’t be ignored.
And at Jewschool, Jodi Melamed has an interesting piece about the Sumud freedom camp, an inspiring action to help the families of Sumud return to their villages. Melamed talks about something I’ve wondered about a lot – Jews who want to oppose the occupation and Israeli violence but haven’t come around on BDS. A lot of times those of us who support BDS react with frustration to these folks – BDS, we point out, is the international, non-violent solidarity moment liberals claim they had wanted (if only there was non-violent resistance, we would support it!) But Melamed makes a convincing case that if there are actions like the Sumud one (inspired in part by Standing Rock), and organizations like the Jewish Center for non-Violence to organize and support them, people who aren’t there on BDS can take action, and when we come together on non-violent action, it dissipates so much of the rancor that marks the debate. It’s not about compromise or meeting in the middle, but a realization that, as I believe is very often true, action guides our beliefs, not the other way around.
This semester in my fiction writing class I taught The Metamorphosis for the first time. I’d had it on there before, but always took it out in the end of semester crunch. To prepare for the discussion, I happened upon something a student gave me years ago: this little book, which, despite appearances, is not a kind of spiffed-up Cliff Notes but is a real book, and a fascinating one at that, co-written by R. Crumb and offering gorgeous visual riff’s on Kafka’s work plus their own take, one which emphasizes Kafka’s Jewishness and the role of the Prague ghetto in shaping his vision. There are lots of telling details I didn’t know, but this is the one I keep coming back to: this account of the details of Kafka’s famous “day job”:
Did everyone know this but me? I mentioned this to J., who said, I don’t know if you want to go there with the political implications of this: was worker protection the model for hated bureaucracy? But I think about it differently: I like the idea that this person who, at least in most versions of him we have, is so apart from others, from comfort, from his own body, that we think of him as barely functioning in the world, let along thinking he could shape it, let alone doing so – – – that this fragile man maybe did more good than all of us robust good citizens? To plagiarize Jamaica Kincaid writing about a different corner of the world and its cruelties, there’s a world of something in that, but I can’t get into it right now.
Like everyone, since November I’ve been looking to strike the right balance between staying informed and active and staying focused and sane. I tell students to find an issue they care about and really focus on it: it doesn’t matter if it’s “the most important” necessarily but if it’s one they have a community or personal connection to and can find the right organization/community to plug into, that will be the most effective.
Of course, like most teachers, I’m terrible at taking my own advice, so I’ve been focusing not on one but on three main areas, in my writing and teaching and small bits of activism, and I’m going to try to catalogue some of the most useful writing I’ve found to think about where we are in these struggles.
My own writing has been focused on this area in the last few years, and was particularly glad that, in tuned with the Women’s March and women’s strike, there were more and more pieces that saw feminism in the context of social movements: as something that has a history, strategies, tactics, and goals, not as something people “are” or “aren’t.” Along with the great social movement scholar Mark Engler, I wrote my contribution to this here, looking at the strategies of 70s feminism that created a whirlwind for mass social change and how they might be replicated today.
Although written several years ago, this piece by a nursing home worker was the most powerful reflection on the women’s strike for me. It reminded me of the most vital work of the period I’ve been writing about: fearless about describing the dehumanizing powers of injustice, drawing on both personal experience and analysis. During the 70s, feminists talked a lot about finding names for things that had been previously described as just life: names like “Sexual harassment” and “domestic violence.” Today, those who come up with feminism as part of the air have terms like “care work” and “second shift” at hand, but sometimes we don’t square the circle back to what these terms feel like day in day out. This piece brings that home in a devastating way.
Contra the click-bait headlines, in my experience having been pregnant and now being a mother have not made me an ounce less radical or pro-choice. (It made me more anti-capitalst for sure, but that’s a story for another day.) What it did do is make me think different about the way I “consume” stories about the pain of others, and it made me a ton more sympathetic to people who need to shut things out for their well-being. Another example of a piece that’s personal without losing an ounce of its analytical and political force, this piece by Dani McClain, an invaluable reporter on Black Lives Matter among other things, takes on the disparities in outcomes for Black mothers and their babies, with a particular eye to how the stress caused by discrimination plays a role. A great piece on a neglected and crucial issue.
I’ve been enjoying Sarah Jaffe’s interviews for the resistance a great deal. So many “what we should do” pieces take place on a level of polemic and abstraction don’t feel useful to anyone who’s tried to do any hands-on organizing, no matter how modest. In trying to plug into and understand the sanctuary movement through my work at a college with a huge immigrant population, this interview with Aly Wane of BAJI gave me one of the strongest senses of history of how we got here through the Obama years and where to go.
One challenge of understanding the sanctuary issue is to understand the real difference of policies from place to place without letting relatively progressive cities with official sanctuary policies off the hook for how policing still feeds the deportation machine. In the case of NYC, this piece by Jarret Murphy gave the fullest overview and outline of who controls what levers I’ve seen.
Someone I love dearly once told me that, based on his experience, you shouldn’t get active on Palestine unless you want it to be the only thing you do. Since I’m as bad at taking loved one’s advice as I am taking my own, since the Gaza assault of 2014, which I couldn’t look away from, I’m done my best as an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace. I don’t consider myself and expert and so don’t write about this much, but I’ve been trying to read more and encourage other folks to be more vocal. In my experience, it hasn’t been true that any speaking out on the issue instantly puts a target on your back, but I know that’s different for people with different levels of visibility. Right now, with Trump’s soul mate Bibi feeling more emboldened than ever, there’s as always, a danger of Palestine getting lost in the shuffle.
I sometimes call Brant Rosen, a crucial figure in making space for a non-Zionist Judaism, my “in-spirit” rabbi. This piece on the Right of Return and why so many Jews resist it so forcefully has been especially clarifying.
Finally, continuing the theme of personal pieces that are intellectually powerful. (I wish there was a way to state this that didn’t sound like it was surprising that these things might go together, but it’s also the case that a lot of internet writing that claims powerful space for the personal fails to do this, but that’s also a post for another day.) My NYC-JVP comrade Asaf Calderon has a piece in Haaretz about what it’s like to have a family member you never met who participated in the atrocities that founded Israel: “Remember Mordechai, because genocide has a face. Humans commit massacres, not demons. Remember his family, my family, and the love and loss of his mother, because grief knows no judgment. Remember his victims, those whose names we know and those that we will never know. Remember the Nakba.May he rest in peace, and may we all find peace, when his victims’ relatives are allowed return, reparations and justice.”
Over at her blog, my friend Rohan has a great post about what’s wrong with the old “show don’t tell” saw, drawing on her love of the Victorians by way of a reading of Adam Bede. Where would Eliot be without telling? It’s a great question and one that made me think about my own practices while reading, writing and teaching. I do use “show don’t tell” when I teach creative writing, as it can seem a useful shorthand to get students to work towards specificity. I think a lot of what motivates the its use is the sense that while an Eliot or a Doestevsky might make great use out of telling us what things might mean, the average apprentice writer can’t be trusted to use abstractions or ideas for more than clichés. Whereas if we just describe an experience, or what we see at Grand Central Station (to take an example of a CW exercise I use), we’ll be relatively immune to cant. We want students to notice, so we say, “Look at how that person walks, describe the way their arms sway. Don’t tell me how they embody the soulessness of modern man.”
It’s useful as far as it goes, I guess. But Rohan’s post made me think: what if this is another example of the workshop-ification of everything: if a somewhat useful tool for those starting to write contemporary fiction takes over how we read fiction of all kinds, as when one of Rohan’s commenters dismissed a novel she loved for having too much telling? And what of the fact that it’s exactly the opposite of what we tell them when they are in our essay writing or composition or literary criticism classes – namely, to have a thesis? In the first draft of this post, I wrote, we might not want fiction to have a thesis but we want it to have ideas, but actually I don’t think there is anything wrong with fiction that has a thesis. And I think saying it shouldn’t is the same kind of anti-intellectualism that says it shouldn’t have ideas at all. If we think that to write a thesis is to make something rote, pat, and generally not useful, why do we spend so much time teaching them? Yes, I know, works of art are different from works of intellectual argument, but sometimes texts can be both.
Anyways, this was a particularly interesting post for me to read since I just watched Manchester by the Sea* and was discussing with Josh why I wasn’t sure what I thought about it, but that I was sure that Lonergan’s previous movie, Margaret, was much better. As J. pointed out, both are in a sense about the same idea. What if something terrible happens, for which one is responsible if not guilty? That is, there was foolishness but not malice, and so the meaninglessness of the tragedy ways particularly heavily? What if this is just chance and there is no catharsis or redemption? What does living after this look like?
The difference is, that in Margaret, the protagonist desperately wants there to something there: some meaning to what has happened, some justice for it, even if it means she will be punished. The working through of that idea – that there can be no catharsis but that searching for it is a noble desire and a core part of what we are – is what makes the film so unusual, so morally serious, so willing to take its characters moral struggles seriously, all the more so since one of those protagonists is a teenage girl. In Manchester by the Sea, the lack of catharsis mostly just leads to moping. I think what people find interesting in Affleck’s character and performance are his odd affect with work well for a character who resists performing his grief in a recognizable way – instead he just shuts down – except that we can’t ever totally shut down. So, instead of the conflict in Margaret – where the desire for catharsis and its refusal are both given their due and articulated with the best of the movie’s brilliant writing – we get a brief plea from Michelle Williams’ and a blank refusal, which we are supposed to take as the correct, tragic, brave response. Williams’ desperate plea for catharsis isn’t really allowed to speak, just to emote.
Watching Manchester, I thought of something I read that Picasso wrote: “Women are machines for suffering” (a nice formulation by which the machine-maker hides, no doubt). I won’t deny that I probably enjoyed Margaret more than Manchester in part because it gives so much more for its women to do – but there are class as well as gender dynamics at play here. Margaret is unusual in articulating morally serious questions through female characters of different ages, and draws on the idiom of its Manhattan settings, culminating brilliantly with a scene at the opera. Manchester can’t or doesn’t want to find a similar idiom through which its characters can speak, and seems to
say that working-class men are machines for suffering. So while Margaret feels wholly original, Manchester by the Sea is more like a lot of indy movies which seem to think they are superior in resistance to traditional narratives but offer little in return. It’s better than most of those, but would have been better if, like Margaret, it had dared allow its characters to articulate. That is, it would have been stronger if it had been willing to tell, not just show.
* I totally get people who don’t want to see this movie because of Casey Affleck. I’m not a “the art and artist are SEPARATE” purist – I will mostly likely never watch another Woody Allen movie. Where and how we make these calls is subjective and interesting – possibly the subject of another post. (Perhaps I will unlock the big Woody Allen post of doom someday I’m feeling grumpy.)
Here are some books I read this year! I made my goal of reading more than last year, if by one. A striking fact this year is how many of these I reviewed or taught, and how many are by friends or acquaintances, which speaks to nothing but my good fortune and good taste in friends. Another is how I pretty much liked all of them. There’s also some interesting overlaps/discussion with Josh’s list.
Thomas Geogehan, Which Side Are You On? I didn’t learn much about the labor movement until I got involved in grad unions. I learned what the NLRB was when I was asked to testify in front of it. As I met more lefties who were involved in the union movement through many hard years, I noticed they all had a copy of this 1990 book on their shelves, and a lot of them had stories about Geogehan. I finally picked it up this year and couldn’t put it down. Geogehan is an amazing storyteller and something like the Zelig through the world of unions when they came up against Reaganism head-on. The description of how the Chicago steel mills died gutted me. Unfortunately the circling storytelling mean it wouldn’t teach well (I think) but anyone coming to the labor movement should read it.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project. A great oral history collection by many important voices that corrects a lot of myths about the movement. Set aside all the what ails feminism think pieces and read this instead.
Mark and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. I reviewed this for the DSA journal. This book by my friend and comrade Mark and his brother bring their long experience of social movements to bear on figuring out the art of revolts that seem to come from nowhere but never do. All activists should have it on their hope-in-the-dark shelf.
Therese Svoboda, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. I reviewed this one for Open Letters Monthly. It’s not a perfect book but it’s a solid introduction into yet another great woman writer/activist you’ve probably never heard of.
Kristen Hogan, The Feminist Bookstore Movement. I reviewed this for The New Republic. It’s a great account of something I’ve been trying to write about and am really interested in: how the feminist movement of the 70s was fundamentally a project of public intellectuals and what seem like very inward tend-your-garden projects were an important part of this hegemonic shift.
Sarah Jaffe, Necessary Trouble. Another one for the resistance shelf by a comrade I’m lucky enough to call a friend. Where Mark and Paul’s book is more about social movement theory with examples from across history and country, Sarah focuses on recent movements in the states, which she’s been covering as a journalist for years. The stories she tells are of the people from Occupy, from anti-foreclosure struggles, from Black Lives Matter who have been doing the work and will keep doing it, and these are the stories we need to understand.
Sheila Rowbthobm, Rebel Crossings. Hopefully will have a review of this one coming out soon. An intersection of the themes of all my non-fiction: stories of forgotten-ish rebels you’ve never heard of that give up, in this case from a pioneer of feminist history and a grade-A rebel herself.
Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos. Well, it can’t be all hope. I gave a chapter of this to a seminar I’m part of about globalizing the curriculum and we had a great discussion so I read the whole book. It’s an examination of how climate change is and will create politic instability and carry on the legacy of cold war and colonial histories that devastated the global south. It speaks to our moment in a way that the word frightening doesn’t begin to describe.
David Kay Johnson’s The Making of Donald Trump. One more for the dark side. I picked this up at Josh’s parents for a little light Christmas reading. I agree with a lot of comrades that HRC’s decision to personalize Trump, to focus on his vulgarity, was a mistake, and we would be better off understanding the current moment through the lens of the terrifying Republican domination from top to bottom.
Still, Trump is a fascinating person to my narrative-inclined brain. Trying to find a narrative of why he happened as so many morning after pieces have done is a fraught enterprise. But what reading Johnson’s book made me realize was that more simply I didn’t really even have a good narrative of who he was. I knew the outlines of the spoiled rich kid, the cheating and mobbed up real estate dealings, the tabloid celebrity and racist entry into the political fray. But reading step by step how Trump not only cheated his way to where he was, but how he was enabled at every step. Forget today’s cowardly “never Trump” Republicans or the feeble Dems and think about all the cowards like John Degnan who gave us Trump.
John Degnan was the attorney general of New Jersey. When Trump was trying to establish his casino in Atlantic City, he refused to go in front of the board that was vetting owners for corruption. Instead, he went to right to Degnan. He threatened that unless the approval was sped up he would not build on the land he’d already bought, or that he’d use his muscle to get New York to allow him a casino on the other side of the river. Degnan, anxious not to make enemies while planning a run for governor, caved.
I’m sure the movie has bad politics, but whenever I hear a story like that I always remember the look on noble Paul Scofield’s face when a man who betrays him shows off a fancy pendant, saying he’s won some noble title over Wales: “it profit a man not to sell his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” Degnan didn’t even sell it for Jersey: he lost the election.
But there are also people in the book like Harry Diduck, a dissent union member who took the unfathomable brave step of suing Trump, his corrupt union and Met Life for wages and benefit owed the Polish brigade, the undocumented workers who built Trump Tower without basic safety equipment, and Libby Handross, whose documentary Trump suppressed with lawsuits. Here’s to more of their spirit in 2017.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child Where to start? I’ve always been jealous of people who are always immersed in some long series or another. This was the most immersive reading experience I’ve had in a long time – walking around thinking the streets should resemble Naples, imagined arguments with the characters in my head. I spent a good deal of time sort-of arguing with Josh about these books: he was much harder on Elena than I was – I identified with her struggle to escape the neighborhood even knowing it’s doomed and even though I wanted to scream at her as she took up with that damn Nino. But I don’t really disagree with what he says in his post: that, through Ferrante and thus through Elena, we are meant to Lila’s refusal to achieve, to separate herself from the neighborhood, and above all her unhappiness are a noble refusal, the great no. I think I see that no more in terms of her temperament and not a choice: she could not accept the world even if she wanted to, and in a way that makes her refusal more tragic than noble. But maybe this is always the case with refusers: they resist because they cannot do otherwise.
But I also want to try to understand more about the writing, why it works so well. She doesn’t go in for too many bravura set pieces (Lila’s wedding at the end of the first book, when we see the whole of the community arrayed and ready to swallow her, is a notable exception). There isn’t a lot of showily brilliant sentence by sentence passages. A bit like Alice Munro, at a certain point you marvel at what has been constructed and wonder how the hell she did it. Some of the things that will stay with me: how, at the beginning of book 2, we feel the abusive marriage Lila has entered take hold and the walls of what the marriage means in her town close in: it’s the best depiction of how patriarchy exists and replicates itself I’ve ever seen. Elena’s wonder as she witnesses a young activist at university breastfeeding at a political meeting. Elena tending to her mother’s death and realizing the only alive part of her mother his her own body. Before I read them, I saw a writer friend I admire post something like “Book 2; page xxx. She never has to say who she is. She knows.” I don’t know what page it was but it doesn’t matter. Ferrante knows.
Justin Torres, We The Animals I wrote about this for Open Letters Monthly for their year of reading feature. Short version: teaching this gorgeous novella in stories was the best teaching a book experience I’ve had in years. Teach this book!
Michelle Tea, Black Wave In a year of books that came to be close to my heart, this one has a special place for how much it speaks to my Gen-X-went-to a woman’s college in the 90s heart, and also because I got to review it for a certain publication you may have heard of.
Jonathan Ames, I Love You More than You Know I didn’t really read any bad books this year but if pressed this was one of my least favorite. I was curious about Ames and enjoy some of the anecdotes here but the sad/funny/bitter tone of these personal essays is always a bit off for me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me I’m hoping to teach this one sometime, especially if I teach creative non-fiction. I think what some of the debate around the book – and some of the praise too – missed was that this isn’t a book that can be reduced to its argument. The comparison to Baldwin is apt not just because of the content but because of how they use the essay – they can be polemical and righteous but they convey the texture of their experience in a way the reader needs to experience – what it’s like to know the state can kill you with impunity, for instance. The description being raised with Black nationalism and of finding “the Mecca” at Howard even while realizing its limitations spoke to some of my experiences of going to an all-women’s college. Some people find this unrigorous – but I think you can’t understand the movements we have and the movements we need without spending some time with the experiences that make it necessary. And while I understand the critiques of its seeming fatalism – the conclusion – which he expresses not as argument but as felt reality, the demand for hope is ultimately a moral claim not an intellectual one and so we have to deal with it on this turf. Anyways you should read it. It’s stayed in my mind in large part thanks to this meditation on it (among other things), definitely on my top list of High Holiday sermons, if I were ever to make such a list.
Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style This doesn’t really fit any category. A series of variations on the same anecdote, I use it in creative writing courses to ensure they pay attention to language particulars from the get-go. Not really made to be read straight through, but I did it because that’s how I roll.
Jenny Diski, In Gratitude Up there with Ferrante and Torres on the reads that will stick me this year, a series of essays by the writer who died this year, chronicling her sort of adoption by Doris Lessing and her cancer. I read the first essay that makes up the book in LRB and then skipped the others until the book came out because I couldn’t just enter her world and stay for only a time. At the end of that first essay, about her diagnosis, after lamenting that she doesn’t want to write another fucking cancer diary, she says, all right then: I have cancer and I’m writing, and all I could think was that I might be closer to the acceptance of death if I could ever write half as well as her.
Kristen Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism. The other one I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly this year. A strange book, I wasn’t sure what to make of it though I think Dombek is brilliant and you should read all her pieces for n+1.
Kathryn Harrison, Seeking Rapture. A series of autobiographical essays. I think I actually got this from one of those “take a book/leave a book” kiosks. There’s some good essays about childhood, religious longing and motherhood here. She’s an elegant, cool stylist in a way that might turn some off but that appeals to me.
Anne Sexton, Words for Dr. Y. A posthumous collection of her work – great mixed back with exploration of therapy and great pieces for imitations and exercise like horoscope poems.
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn. A real find for me this year – poems that are narrative, interesting reference points, conversational but poetic – a glimpse into a history and a mind at play.
Sherman Alexie, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned A super-fun collection with sonnets and odes filled with pop-culture – hoping this combination works well to teach these forms in my next CW class.
Philip Levine, What Work Is. The title poem has long been one of my favorites but somehow I hadn’t read the full collection until now. Levine writes above all about his native Michigan, memory, and, of course, work. I started the book a little before the election and after it happened, when I couldn’t sleep or concentrate on anything, I picked it up again to push the latest awfulness aside for a few more minutes. “Among Children” is the one I keep coming back to.
I walk among the rows of bowed heads–
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Hal Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed. Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy. There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
dosed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted alone,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke or memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.
On this day in 1965, a young father and devout Quaker named Norman Morrison set himself on fire underneath the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to protest the Vietnam War.
In her essay about her trip to Hanoi, Susan Sontag would remember that nearly everyone she met would make a point of telling her that they loved American people, it was only the government that was the enemy. As evidence they would talk about their admiration for Morrison, whose picture she found the taxi drivers had attached to their dashboards.
On August 31, 1970, Kate Millett appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Probably this was the first, last, and only time the cover of Time has featured some one who became famous for a feminist PhD thesis turned book. The cover story was actually a group of articles – along with the central piece there was a profile of Millett’s life as an artist, and a pair of “pro/con” essays on feminism by Gloria Steinem and Lionel Tiger. The main article too, zig zags between pro- and anti-feminist statements, often quoting anonymous “average” people representing different viewpoints without much connective tissue. The mockery of feminism we’ve come to expect is there, but so is a sense that something big is happening and Time is struggling to keep up, trying to make sense of it all and walk a middle line when none may be available.
If the Time pieces tell us a lot about how the mainstream was struggling to respond to radical feminism, it couldn’t encompass much about the book itself, which, like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and Celestine Ware’s Woman Power, both also appeared in 1970, mixed disciplines and tones for a mix of scholarship and polemic, marked above all by the scope of their ambition. Sexual Politics is structured in three main parts, with the first and last devoted to critiques of authors who were darlings of the counterculture for their sexual frankness, including D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and, of course, Norman Mailer. These are the parts most people talk, but the middle section is the real heart of the argument, as she traces an overall pattern of liberation and backlash from the nineteenth century onward. It includes comprehensive readings of a range of Victorian authors from Ruskin to the Brontes. I’ve always known about the Nazi’s pro-natalist ideology but the first time I ever about the specific policies the Nazis implemented to turn back feminist progress, like instituting university quotas, was when I read Kate Millett.
Norman Mailer may have thought she was coming for his balls, and Irving Howe may have sneered at her “middle class mind,” but reading the book, you can’t help but feel that her real sin was actually taking what she’d been taught seriously, actually thinking that literature isn’t a parlor game but actually has something to say about the world.
Sadly, the mixed bag of the August 1970 coverage was better than what was to come. In December of the same year, they ran an article called “Women’s Lib: A Second Look,” which attacked Millett’s bisexuality as a way to attack the movement. Many of her later books deal with the personal fall out of her time in the spotlight and her struggles to continue to work as an artist. In 1998 she wrote an essay called “Out of the Loop and Out of Print” and she wondered in response to the latest “who killed feminism” tone, how an out of print author could do that.
Since then, there’s been more attention to the books and Sexual Politics in particular, with a new edition in 2000 and another one earlier this year along with some interesting pieces about Millett and her relevance.
But in an odd way, I think, the weird back and forth of the August Time piece, reflects something no retrospective can: the feeling of instability, that everything is up for grabs. To my mind what was present in 1970 and was lacking so long after (and perhaps seems to be coming back now) was not a reverential sense of the “power of literature” as many retrospectives focus on. It’s the intellectual ambition, idiosyncratic nature of books like Millett’s, Firestone’s and Ware’s, all of which blend disciplines and tones, mixing critique and utopian longing.
Norman Mailer certainly had some sense of that when he devoted a whole book, The Prisoner of Sex, to attacking Millett. The high-Mailerism is on display of course – he refers to himself in the 3rd person and comparing including statistics in writing to thinking about laundry lists while fucking. And yet, his actual response to Millett is not much different from the mainstream: he concedes pretty much the whole of the liberal demands for economic equality, but lamenting the more radical claims for “a cultural revolution and a sexual revolution.” If this is revolution, he notes, maybe he’s not a revolutionary after all.
“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” James Baldwin, Mailer’s one-time friend with whom he argued with perhaps a little more respect but little more understanding, had written in 1955. In 1970, it seemed even to Mailer that the world was no longer male, and would never be male again.
On June 21, 1973, in an opinion written by Justice Lewis Powell, the Supreme Court ruled against the Pittsburgh Press, which had claimed that a Pittsburgh ordinance banning sex-segregated job ads violated their freedom of the press. The court had that local authorities were permitted to prohibit commercial speech advertising illegal services and that descriminatory hiring was illegal under the ordinance.
An appendix of listings from the paper told the story of what this discrimination meant in practice: the first few jobs listed under “Jobs – Male Interest” on January 4, 1970 and their salaries read as follows:
ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000
ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000
ADM. ASS’T, CPA . . . . . . . .. . 15,000
ADVERTISING MGR. . . . . . . . . . 10,000
BOOKKEEPER F-C. . . . . . . .. . . 9,000.
“Female Interest” went like this:
ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000
ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 6,000
AUTO-INS. UNDERWRITER. . . . . . . OPEN
BOOKKEEPER-INS . . . . . . . . . . 5,000
CLERK-TYPIST . . . . . . . . . . . 4,200
(Full list is found here. The male-female “interest” designation was a modification-without a difference the Pittsburgh Press had taken on to replace the traditional “male help wanted.”)
In theory, job discrimination on the basis of sex became illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was added in under strange and fascinating circumstances – according to some accounts as a joke, to others as an attempt at a poison pill. As Gillian Thomas’s book outlines, it took many years of case law to make this theoretical right at least something of a reality. The desegregation of the ads in the New York Times was an early victory for the National Organization for Women, which in those early years was populated with many women with experience in journalism and in similarly highly visible but low-paid and highly-discriminatory media industries. The Pittsburgh case was also driven by NOW, with the Pittsburgh chapter having helped passed the ordinance challenged by the Press.
As I’ve been immersed in reading feminist history, the role of local NOW chapters during this key years is interesting for a number of reasons. With its focus on ending formal discrimination in the workplace and the public sphere and the passage of the ERA, NOW is often seen as the embodiment of “liberal,” reformist feminism, as opposed to the radical groups that emphasized utopian reworking of every gendered aspect of society, especially sexuality and the family.
There’s a lot to the distinction in terms of how activists at the time saw themselves and their goals. Today, however, when the history of cases like Pittsburgh isn’t much remembered, the label can obscure as much as it tells us, as associated as its become with elitism. NOW and the ERA movement were both mainstream and grassroots. Talk to women from that generation, and you’re as likely to hear stories about the friends involved with their local chapter or ERA campaign as with a consciousness-raising group. And not insignificantly, NOW and its leadership were by many accounts more diverse than many highly visible radical movements. With certain politicians who shall remain nameless capturing the mantle of inside-the-system activists, the activist part of that equation gets lost. Whatever causes they espouse, most politicians (to say nothing of celebrities with book contracts) don’t belong in the same category as someone like Wilma Scott Heide, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter and later President of NOW, tireless ERA campaigner and the activist most responsible for the Pittsburgh Press victory.
Last year Jill Lepore had a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about why the nineteenth amendment, unlike the fourteenth, became a kind of dead branch of law. I’d read a lot of versions of the argument that it would have been better had Griswold, Roe and other reproductive rights cases been made on the basis of equality rather than privacy, but for some reasons I hadn’t really considered the nineteenth amendment as specifically the untaken route.
Aside from the legal implications, this feels like an interesting analogue to what has happened with historical memory. During the 1970s, many feminists wrote about the demobilization of the feminist movement after the achievement of suffrage as a cautionary tale. Tragically, more than any of the many victories, it was the loss of ERA that played the largest role. The fact that so many victories from this period came through cases like Pittsburgh perhaps speaks to why the movement is more often remembered through a handful of celebrities and cultural tropes than through its actual significant accomplishments.
At the same time, however, it’s a mistake to see these victories as evidence for the efficacy of insider strategy at the expense of street action and agitation. Without Heide and countless activists like her, there would have been no court cases to win. Behind important cases like EEOC vs. Sears were the activists who organized, shared information, selected targets, and shifted public mores to such an extent that these victories were possible. Whatever opportunists try to sell us, even to be an inside agitator, you have have stepped far enough outside to know what needs agitating.
When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.
One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this: