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On “Show don’t Tell,” or why Margaret is a Better Movie than Manchester by the Sea

 

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.)

 

 

Things I Read in 2016

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.

Political/Historical/Biographical 

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 ProjectA 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.

Novels 

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.

Memoir/Essays

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 NarcissismThe 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.

Poetry 

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.

Today in Anti-War History: Norman Morrison, 1933-1965

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.

 

 

Today in Feminist History: Kate Millett and Time Magazine

millett

 

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.

 

Today in Feminist History: Flo Kennedy, 1916-2000

February 11 is Flo Kennedy’s 100th birthday.  A lawyer who defended the Black Panthers and was instrumental to winning abortion rights in New York State, a founder of the Feminist Party that nominated Shirley Chisholm for President, a long time star of the speaking circuit that spread feminist ideals and supported feminist work, who built coalitions with a range of organizations and activists ranging from Adam Clayton Powell to Gloria Steinem. She was famous for her quips and style and she was incredibly effective.  Kennedy breaks down all the lazy categories people rely on to separate idealists from pragmatists and talkers from doers, and reminds us that social justice coalitions across race and gender lines are possible whatever their challenges. I just ordered the recently published biography by Sherie Randolph which I’ve heard wonderful things about. I’m especially looking forward to an account of the protest mentioned in her 2000 obituary, of leading a “mass urination” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.

 

Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

Very Belated Mini-Review: Selma and Viola Liuzzo

I watched Selma last night and really enjoyed it.  As usual, I agree with what Eileen Jones says: it’s a great and rare-for-movies portrayal of political strategy and tactics.  I was especially impressed by how many different activists were given important and distinct parts: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Diane Nash,  Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: we get a sense of their particular work without any cheap backstories.

But there was one, very small touch that really struck me: the way the family treated the story of  Viola Liuzzo.  I knew just a little about her story, mostly the outlines of her story Corey mentions in his wonderful post: that of a white mother of 5 and local activist from Detroit who heeded King’s call to come lend aid to the march, only to be murdered right after the third and triumphant march by KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma.  When I saw her introduced in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would handle this: portraying this senseless loss just after the moment of great triumph. That’s not the way the scripts go, and who would have blamed Ava Duvernay or the film for leaving it out? But they don’t. It’s right there in those usually triumphant final titles: we read: Viola Liuzzo was murdered 5 hours after this speech just as the music swells. It’s not a story of sacrifice and then triumph: the sacrifices just keep coming.

 

Most days I take my son to school on the bus and there are a couple of high schoolers who ride it regularly. Recently I heard them complain about their English teacher and why she kept talking about racism and King: “We get it. He made a good speech. Get over it.” I understand the resistance of many to using a Hollywood film, even a very good one, as the basis for education, but there’s no doubt Selma offers lots of people a lot more than what they’ve been getting.

Today in Feminist History: Hugh Hefner and the Chicks

So Playboy  is apparently bowing to the reality of the internet age and giving up on naked pictures. In elegizing the magazine’s relevance, the Times makes an interesting aside about its relationship to the feminist movement, stating “Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention — Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist, went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Mr. Hefner’s spinoff clubs to write an exposé for Show Magazine in 1963.” This isn’t quite wrong but it’s a little misleading: in 1963 Steinem wasn’t a well-known feminist but a young freelance writer just starting to find serious work; the Playboy piece ending up standing in the way of that. 

As the Times points out, the original Playboy’s version of the good life – (“cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, . . a little mood music . . .a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”) now feels if anything a bit quaint. What’s interesting is how, in its early decades, it cast itself as rebelling against two cultural forces that were themselves deeply opposed: first, the traditional domesticity of the fifties, and second, the feminist movement.

As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her great and under-read The Hearts of Men, the first feature article in the 1953 first issue of Playboy was an attack on alimony. The enemy in the early years were gold-diggers, wives, and all varieties of domesticity. Remarkably, some of the “personal” descriptions of miserable marriages actually sound a bit like what would be published in the radical feminist journals I’m studying 20 years later – except of course that it’s only the men who are miserable, and the wives are laughing at their good fortune to be kept in a life of card-playing and TV-watching.

Not that Hefner and feminists saw any common ground. In 1970, a secretary at Playboy discovered and leaked to women’s lib. groups a memo Hefner had written about an upcoming story on the movement. As Bonnie Dow outlines in Watching Women’s Liberation, some female editors thought the story lacked balance. Hef doubled down: “‘these chicks are our natural enemy'” and it is time to do battle with them . . .What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart.”

Many, many trees have died in all that has been written about how much the anti-porn turn of the feminist movement hurt and divided the movement. But if you look at what Miss America was in 1968, when it was the target of a famous protest, or what Playboy was, you understand why they thought they were on to something, and it’s difficult to imagine the Hef of 1970 would have been any more positively disposed towards a movement with a more nuanced reading of what constituted sexual expression or exploitation. But now Playboy is trying to make itself relevant with a female, sex-positive advice columnist. More has changed than the technology by which 12 year olds get their fix.

 

Fall Reading Challenge


Thanks to the wonderful Prof. Rebecca Hill, I’m taking part in a reading challenge for academics this fall. Teaching a heavy load, it’s all too easy to set both writing and reading aside during the semester. Having a “writing” or “reading” day isn’t realistic for me – it’s more like an hour here or there. I don’t know how we’ll I’ll do with this list, but filling it out was a lot of fun.

I’m starting with the American Quarterly issue and Kafka. I’m teaching the Metamorphosis for the first time in my composition class, and looking forward to rereading that one. Over the summer I tried to write a little about each book I finished and I’ll try to do the same here and on goodreads, for stuff reading for the challenge and other stuff also. 

You can see more about the challenge and other people’s lists on Rebecca’s blog.  




Professors’ Fall Semester Reading Challenge 2014 – checklist version
Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  pp. #
Date read
Points
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.
Swapped for J. Baldwin, The Last Interview.
J. Baldwin Devil Finds Work

J. Baldwin No Name in the Street 

Oct.

achieved 35 points

 15

10

10

book written by a friend, colleague or acquaintance
Chris Schmidt, The Next in Line, 71 page (poetry)

Also Anya Ulrich, Lena Finkel 

Oct.

Oct.
achieved 20 pts.

10

10

 book by a former  student or former teacher
Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country, 304 pages
10
 Entire academic journal including reviews
American Quarterly, vo. 60, no. 2
Oct.
achvd 10
10
 Book reviewed in the journal above
Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 388 pages.
15
 book about a country or region that isn’t part of research or current teaching
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, 336 pages
15
academic book you always meant to read or never finished
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 616 pages
15
 Novel nominated for a National Book Award, 2014 (long list, Sept, finalists in October)
TBA when list comes out
20
Book on current events written by a journalist
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah, 224 pages.
 Finished 12/31
 20
20
Pulitzer Prize winner before 1970 (any category)
Willa Cather, One of Ours, 206 pages
25
Book with “house,” “apartment” or “room” in the title.
Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes through the house: 395 pages.
20
3 books on same topic in different disciplines below:
35
 History
Stephanie Gilmore (ed) Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the US, 320 pages.
Literary Criticism
Lisa Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 224 pages.
Ethnography
Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project, 495 pages.
EXTRA CREDIT – Double up in any category above
10
Rules:
The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as it is unabridged and the print edition is at least 200 pages long.
Books must be started no earlier than midnight Sept.2 and finished no later than Dec. 31, midnight.