From writing

On Reading Lydia Davis, “Can’t and Won’t”

A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. “To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation.” Precisely.  

On Men Writing On Women

“In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct of morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathetic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommy Dearest memoir – where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster – the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.” 

                                          Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

When I read something and am trying to figure out why and how it works, or does not work, Gornick is the writer I go back to more than anyone else, and to this passage above all.  Gornick talks about this need for imaginative sympathy when discussing a passage from D.H. Lawrence that troubles her – it is not that his view of women is “incorrect” but that there is no attempt to imagine a woman as she might imagine herself – no exploration, only reaction. In a sense I go this passage when I am looking for “permission” to be troubled by an author, especially a renowned one, especially a man when it comes to women.

The passage came to mind for a different reason while reading Hilton Als’ The Women. I’ve loved Als’ writing for the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for a long time, and I’ve always been struck at what I can only inadequately term empathy – his deep love for artists and their work, for the imaginative intricacies of the craft and those attempt it, even when they fall short.

The Women is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres – a collection of biographical essays, reflections on the meanings of lives, extensively knowledgable but unabashedly subjective in its interest and these lives and their meanings. The subjects of the essays are first, Als’ own mother, second, Dorothy Dean, the third Owen Dodson.  Because Dean and Dodson are not household names, the convention would be to briefly attach a label to each by means of introduction. The difficulty of accurately doing so is, in some sense, the subject of these essays. Dean’s wikipedia entry leads with “an African American socialite connected to Andy Warhol’s the factory . . . and Max’s Kansas City, where she worked as a door person.” The back of Als’ book describes her as “brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men.” And so Als’ empathy and identification with her reflects and refracts her own. Dodson can perhaps be more easily classified as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Yet Als’ focus is more on the disappointments of his later years, when Als knew him as a mentor and lover, and on his identification with women, as suggested in his inclusion in a book by this name.

What unites these figures is the ways they responded to and crafted themselves out of their disappointments. We tend to think of those who don’t find suitable outlets for their talents burning out in a blaze, as Virginia Woolf imagined the fate of Shakespeare’s sister, or retreating into silence. But we all know from our experience what is more often the case: frustrated talents (frustrated by a tangle of external and internal circumstances which, Als demonstrates, are impossible to pull apart) drink too much, pester their more successful friends, host parties, read and edit manuscripts, take refuge in snobbism, sleep with people whose work they admire, and so forth. In the case of his mother, who lacked Dean and Dodson’s the artistic and social outlets, love and disease become the vehicles. When tragedy comes, it comes slowly and excruciatingly: “In the end I think my mother’s long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people.” And a doctor who examined Dean after she had lost her home declared that she “must be delusional: ‘She keeps saying she went to Radcliffe.'” Which, of course, she had.

And yet very often, Als suggests, they are more effective mentors than those with smoother paths could ever be – and richer subjects.

The feminist complaint against stereotypical female characters is by now well known. But less recognized, as Als’ own criticism has shown, is how male writers, especially queer ones, have been actively attacked for imagining women more fully. In this fascinating piece about A Streetcar Named Desire, Als recalls Mary McCarthy’s attack on the play: noticing Williams’ identification with Blanche DuBois, she accuses him of deceit, just as Blanche is accused of in the play. Seeing only the grating aspects of Blanche’s femininity, she misses Blanche’s discomfort with convention, her inability to play the role:

Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”

The other other artist I immediately associate with these two traits – empathy for, and identification with, the feminine and female characters, Pedro Almodovar, famously dedicated my favorite of his films, All About My Mother, “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. . . To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” Gender and its associated identities are here both performative and not: a woman or a mother is something a man might become, but it is not an empty category.

Another wonderful Almodovar film, Talk to Her, tells the story of a male nurse who talks to a woman in a coma, a dancer who has been struck by a car. He says he has learned his care taking skills from caring for his mother. In one sequence, we are presented an invented old surrealist film the nurse remembers: a man drinks a potion that renders him tiny. In his new state, he crawls across his lover’s body and blissfully disappears into her vagina.  In his New Yorker review, David Denby says that one way of looking at the film, “I suppose, is as a story shaped by a homosexual’s longing for women, a longing that can only be expressed as irony or as a nightmare.” I suppose. But only if one supposes that longing for women is the only stance a male director can take towards women – as opposed to curiosity, empathy or identification. (The extent to which heterosexual longing for women is so often expressed as irony or nightmare comes through in Denby’s swift takedown of Brian DePalma’s Femme Fatale, with which his review of Talk to Her is paired.)

Back when New York magazine asked a number of writers about Philip Roth’s legacy, Keith Gessen took a lot of flack for saying “Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?” As I wrote then, critics were right to note that taking male heterosexual desire as a central theme doesn’t mean one isn’t a misogynist – but it doesn’t mean one is, either. Or, to reframe the question aesthetically, away from the moralism that gets people so upset, it doesn’t mean one can credibly create real female characters – and it doesn’t mean one can’t. It is of course too simple to say that Als, or Almodovar, or Williams, or Allen Ginsberg, who beautifully gave his mother the last lines of his elegy to her – are successful in imagining women characters with empathy and nuance because they don’t, by and large, want to fuck women. It is probably far too simple as well to say that their experience of sexual other-ness or outsider-ness, allows them this success. All I can say for sure is that their work confirms for me how essential and undervalued these qualities are in writers and artists and how much our categories of gender, sexuality and desire – completely real and completely imagined at the same time – can both get in our way and get us there.





Last week I went to buy a new blank notebook. The situation had gotten pretty desperate:  the scraps of paper I was using were taped to other scraps.  Somehow I went to my campus bookstore three times before I could find where they were keeping them. But how many to get? I needed one for my teaching notes, one for notes on various writing projects, one for a personal journal. Should there be one to take notes on things I was reading? Some of those were related to the writing projects, but some might be extensions of the journal. And sometimes the journal would turn into a story if I got bored with telling it straight.  Someone suggested another one for to-do lists and life management. In the end I bought four, but already they’re all mixed up, what is in one should be in the other . . . 

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My Joan Didion Problem: On Empathy

I’ve always had a problem with Joan Didion. Once on a long drive I listened to the audiobook of  My Year of Magical Thinking. I ended up pulling over to a rest stop and crying. A cop came and asked me if I was ok. It was a big book at the time, everyone found it moving, and I guess the fact that I was in that rest stop means I found it as moving as everyone else. But I remember that, while moved, I was mad at her. There was something about the way she described and remembered her life with husband that grated. She introduced us to their inside references, then picked them up later, as if we would then feel part of the charmed life she was recalling.  I’ve always had a weakness for the memoirs of old movie stars rock starts and other creative people with charmed if tragic lives. I think it is likely these books are not good for me. Oh, they make us think, if only I had arrived in the East Village in 1968, I would have met Robert Mapplethorpe. Um, no.  But there was something else going on here, something I put my finger on after reading Nick Paumgarten’s profile of James Salter, when he quotes Salter as saying the writer should make the reader envious of the life the writer appears to be leading. I don’t think Didion was necessarily courting our envy, but there was something there, and throughout her writing, that suggests she does not wish us well. 

As anyone who’s ever taught composition knows, the “personal essay,” as Didion’s are generally considered to be, has an authority problem and an evidence problem. It’s always at least three parts ethos and pathos to one part logos. So much of Didion’s appeal seems to be wrapped up in a particular ethos, one rooted in the absence of pathos. A cool customer, as she describes herself in Magical Thinking. Presumably she would not start crying while listening to the audio version of her own book. From this ethos comes a recurring argument of sorts: life is tragic, the soft-hearted are fools, the utopians most of all. The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, many about some aspect of “the sixties,” circle these themes again and again. As someone who has read a lot about that period and its social movements and will confess to having the nostalgia for it that can only come from not having lived through it, I always thought their arguments were “wrong,” but I took them to be a natural outgrowth of her skepticism, a useful corrective to romanticizations of the period, the ever-elusive “smart conservative” view liberals are always looking for.  

But then, recently, I reread her essay “On the Women’s Movement.” It was published in the Times in 1972 and was in included in The White Album. You don’t find it in the composition anthologies the way you find “In Bed,” and “On Self Respect” and “On Keeping a Notebook,” probably because it’s  too particular to the moment, too polemical, too untidy to fit snuggly in the section of an anthology dedicated to “identity” or “gender.” And what saturates the essay is not a cool, critical distance, or skepticism, or even irony.  It’s contempt. It’s only through this contempt she is able to make sense of the fact that the movement’s radical ideas – which she also dismisses – have found a popular audience. To Didion, this is possible only insofar as these women have mistaken the movement for a program of midlife empowement: 

It wrenches the heart to read about these women in their brave new lives. An ex-wife and mother of three speaks of her plan “to play out my college girl’s dream. I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing.” She mentions a friend, another young woman who “had never had any other life than as a daughter or wife or mother” but who is “just discovering herself to be a gifted potter.” The childlike resourcefulness-to get a job in publishing, to be a gifted potter-bewilders the imagination. The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words.

I suppose this is what people mean when they said that Didion’s writing is “tough” or “tragic,” but it seems to me nothing but a high-minded way of telling the proles to stay in their place. That women must grapple with “the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life” would seem to mean that they must stay in their marriages, that they must have children, that they must recognize that being a writer is something granted only to a few – presumably, including Didion. 

If you were supposed to live in New York, you already did, if you were supposed to be a writer, you already were. 

Because wealthy and middle-class women were traditionally raised to dabble in the arts, to use their art history degrees as hostesses and museum volunteers, and because, when turning away from these roles, the idea of “creative expression” was often the language they had to imagine a different life, women like Didion –  “real artists” – often felt the need to distinguish themselves from such amateurs and dilettantes.  Unlike many of today’s anti-feminist populists, Didion doesn’t care or pretend to care about the women feminists are leading astray with their contempt of the family and so forth. When she says “somehow touches beyond words,” there is no empathy there – she finds these “childlike” women touching because they are pathetic to her. That she is so certain these women are aspiring to something where they have no place suggests that the notion of women as an oppressed class – though not without its problems and complications – is not as ridiculous as she assumed. 

Leftists often make the point that in an anti-political culture, psychology takes the part of politics: we think activists must be motivated by their relationship with their parents or sexuality or what have you. Self-help takes the place of solidarity, therapy takes the place of action. In a certain way, Didion herself is making a version of this point when she talks about the popularity of the feminist movement among largely non-political women looking for personal transformation. But in fact her essay ends up proving that the reverse is also true: that in an anti-political culture, contempt takes the place of critique. Proclaiming that it’s never too late to be your best self, move to New York, and throw pots may not be the revolution, but between that and contempt, I’ll take pottery every time. 

Self-Help, Politics, and that David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-help lately.  From a left perspective, the critique of self-help culture pratically writes itself: it encourages us to think of our problems as individual, it shuts down critique and collective action, and it blames the victim, telling cancer patients and the unemployed equally that they brought it on themselves but not thinking positively enough. Which is all true enough as far as it goes. But one of the things I liked about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided  was that, although she makes this case definitely, drawing on her own experience with the truely noxious breast cancer cult , she also talks about the roots of the movement in the nineteenth century, as an attempt mostly undertaken by women to soften the Puritan/Calvinist tradition. There is, of course, a strongly gendered component to the way we talk about self-help: just mention Oprah to the sort of fake-populist who is always waxing poetic about the wisdom of their cabdrivers and watch them go crazy about her self-esteem “cult” and “middlebrow” book picks.

But I’ve also been thinking about the versions of self-help that circulate in liberal/upper middle-class circles: yoga, meditation, the more “spiritual” claims of certain kinds of foodies.  Since it’s graduation season, I’ve been noticing David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech “This is Water” floating around the internet again, and now there’s a “film version.”   Wallace has riffed on self-help ideas in a good deal of his work, most thoroughly in the depiction of addiction and the culture of 12-step programs in Infinite Jest. His personal library contained a huge number of carefully annotated self-help books, as The Awl’s  Maria Bustillos  maticulously detailed. Even without thinking of the tragic end of Wallace’s life, it’s easy to think about much of his work as a way to redeem self-help from the tyranny of cant. I’m thinking especially of that piece at the end (near the end?) of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in which the interviewee struggles with his contempt for his girlfriend’s New Age-isms which have, despite the aesthetic offense they give him, saved her life. (A side note which isn’t really a side note: it is of course impossible not to think about the end of Wallace’s life, and there’s no reason to feel one shouldn’t out of some lingering New Critical-taboo, which often comes from the same pseudo-sophisicated gendered place as knee-jerk Oprah bashing.)

The heart of Wallace’s speech is his discussion of how, ideally, a liberal arts education should teach one not “how to think” but “what to think about” and therefore a way to manage the frustrations of everyday life. Describing a frustrating trip to the supermarket at rush hour he talks about the choice we have to see the others in the supermarket lines as something other than impediments:

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

It’s good stuff, really.  One of the reasons I like teaching writing and especially “creative” writing so much is how intellectually and personally powerful it can be for students just to take a step back, to reflect, Here’s my question, though: what if you are the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line?”  Or the clerk he mentions in a previous section, whose boredom Wallace is sure no one at Kenyon could ever imagine? What inner resources are you supposed to muster in order to not yell at your kids? To feel a little less “dead-eyed?” What about to not yell at the liberal arts grad who is looking at you as a symbol of everything about the world that depresses them? And doesn’t that liberal arts grad deserved to get yelled at, just a little bit? (And, come to think of it, I’d bet that a Kenyon college graduate mother  (or father!) has yelled at his/her kids at least once in the history of the universe.)  Interestingly enough, just a few paragraphs before Wallace himself tries to steer his audience away from the kind of lazy superiority he falls into here:

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on. 

Wallace insists his argument isn’t a moral one, that he’s not trying to lecture the Kenyon kids about how to be, to tell them to be more compassionate, but just to think about the control one has over one’s mind. But it can’t help but be moralism, because he’s punching down. He figures that the main problem Kenyon kids will face is all the ordinariness of the world and the people they’ll encounter who aren’t as special and passionate as Kenyon told them the word would be.  He’s counseling them against despair and anger when they find this out. But for people who already know this, isn’t anger sometimes the way out of despair?

I’m sure that to Wallace or many who love him it would seem like I’m just doing the same thing he’s talking about – running an automatic left tape through the scenario the way the Kenyon students wanted to run the liberal one. They say “modern consumer society sucks”; I say “capitalism sucks.” But the thing is, big cars really are trashing our planet, and long drives to stores with musak really do make us miserable. And things are that way for reasons, and those reasons don’t have anything to do with mothers who wear too much makeup. In reading and writing about second wave feminism, “Consciousness raising” gets mocked a lot but I don’t think you can underestimate the liberating move of saying, this thing – be it rape, sexual harassment, my inability to take my own work seriously – it is a thing, it is not “life.” Unlike a lot of lefties, I don’t begrudge anyone Oprah or religion or anything that helps, and I think a lot of them actually are genuinely helpful, not mystifications or what have you.  But sometimes we fish need to say to each other: This is not the world. This is not water. This is a tank.

More Gaitskill

When I was about eleven, I wrote a story for English class about a teenager who wanted to be a model. I found it a few years later and my budding feminist self was mortified:  it seemed the sort of thing written by an eleven year old reading certain magazines, the worst possible topic for a young girl who understandably wants to write about the only thing young girls can write about, which is wanting.

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