From books

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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“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might think this came from a particularly blunt self-proclaimed truth-teller following the chorus of millinial-bashers, telling the young’uns to buck up and stop expecting life to be fair. Stop thinking you’re special!  And enough with the trophies already!
But I suspect a certain generational subset (late X, early millennials) will instantly recognize this little bit of “tough love” as the wisdom of Brad Pitt, aka Tyler Durden, aka the “every nice-guy’s” alter-ego anti-hero of the 1999 cult film Fight Club. (I suppose film buffs would say it was too mainstream and popular to be a cult film, but hey, some cults have lots of members.)  Back before the 2008 crash, before the 2001 crash, before two wars, Tyler bellowed out his cry against the spiritual emptiness of nineties prosperity and consumerism. We haven’t had a war he says. We haven’t had a Great Depression.  “The Great Depression is our lives.”

Looking back of course this seems like a dark joke along the lines of the prescient Onion headline marking Bush’s election: “Our national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” You want a depression to give your life meaning? Done! My friend Ben Balthaser has a smart article about (among other things) how Fight Club combines strains from the nineties global justice movements, a concept of rebellion as a form of hallucination, and a healthy dose of wounded machismo. (Is there another kind?)   Even during a time of prosperity, the film suggests, young men need to realize that the world is dark and violent place and overcome their domestication at the hands of doting mothers, absent fathers, and leather sectionals.  (My extensive research shows that nearly everyone who was a young single woman during the peak of the movie’s popularity had at least one boyfriend quote Tyler Durden asking why a “guy like him” should know what a duvet was when the subject of cohabitation, a trip to IKEA, or the possibility of buying one’s own furniture arose.)  Fight Club appealed to a certain kind of young man, I think, in a kind of masochistic way: it accused them of being emasculated wimps, offered them a fantasy of a way out, then rebuked them for falling for it. In this context, the “not a special snowflake” line serves to critique the hypocrisy of consumerist individualism while also offering a different kind of distinction, the brave world of the ones willing to live without illusion.

I don’t know whether college and post-college kids still go in for Fight Club. That line about snowflakes came to mind recently because now, when you hear about  someone talk about how the young must realize they are not “special snowflakes” it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with resisting coy marketing come-ons. It’s become a way of dismissing the impact of economic crisis as the result of so much permissive parenting, and noncompetitive soccer games, something like when people blamed the hippies on Dr. Spock.  There are certainly some quirks of contemporary parenting in certain social strata that could be described as permissive, and there’s interesting points about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to talk about.  But the subtext of the snowflakes/tropies thing is not about that: it’s about the notion that parenting should be about initiating kids into a world of hierarchies. In a country with shameful levels of inequality and child poverty, it seems a sick joke to try to diagnose a cultural pathology rooted in being too kind to children and having too much equality.

The most terrifying book I’ve read in recent years is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  The novel begins in a boarding school where the students there are treated well. Their lives seem innocent and their surroundings beautiful, but we are ill at ease from the start. Ishiguro’s tight, unshowy writing has a light touch – the opposite of Fight Club – but the doom is unmistakable: a terrible fate awaits these children.  They are in fact, the most un-unique of snowflakes: clones being raised to provide organs for donation. When you summarize it that way it sounds like that’s the big “reveal.” But what’s fascinating – and terrifying – about the book is that it’s not a sci-fi dystopia, much less a staging of some bioethics debate, as much as an allegory for our world so close to the actual thing that it barely needs its premise. The faculty at the school who clash over how much and when the children should be told about their fate resemble earnest liberal parents and teachers: is it better to shield them from what is to come, if just for a while? Is truth-telling less cruel? But it’s a hard world, after all and we best be prepared. You can almost hear them saying “In today’s global economy, every clone-child must be able compete.”

Crucially, no one in the book rages about the injustice of it all or plots for a Hunger Games-style revolt of the clones. Not because they believe it is just or they have internalized their oppression or some such but simply because that is normally what happens, and Ishiguro is interested in working through how we push against our knowledge of the unthinkable. The children’s one hope lies in the illusion that, in essence, they will be recognized and judged as “special snowflakes.” The boarding school has been collecting their artwork for display. The rumor is that, like in some twisted fairy tale, if two students fall truly in love, they will be spared, and the artwork is the key to their souls that will allow that truth to reveal itself. Of course, there is no such way out. The art is just something for the kids to do, some fuel for their illusion that they are cared for, that their inner lives are cherished. Not long after I read the book I came across a cartoon in the New Yorker where employees of a slaughterhouse are looking out over a pen of cattle. “Just before they’re slaughtered,” one says, “each one gets an achievement award.”

I suppose you could read this as endorsing the crusade against participation trophies. But part of what works about Ishiguro’s novel is that it isn’t about scoring points against the liberal position by pointing out its hypocrisies. On some level, you could say, it’s a conservative novel, showing how we all accommodate ourselves and our children to what is unthinkable: here, that they will die young, the rest of us, that we will die. But I think he also wants us to understand what makes the children take their “art” so seriously, and believe so dearly it will save them. Middle-class and upper middle-class parents get mocked a lot for wanting their kids do art and music, for thinking that they must be “gifted,” for not realizing that talent and the right to do creative work must be reserved for the very few. When decent futures and meaningful work are scarce, expecting them is seen as an exercise in entitlement, and we try to repress all the evidence of how powerfully we desire them. If we can’t make a world where they are available to all, we could at least stop making fun of parents for wanting to shield their kids for it just a minute longer.

If NY Mag Had Asked Me

So there was a bit of a noise recently after New York published this survey about the now (presumably complete) Roth oeuvre. Most of it had to do with how many women and men were included in the survey (take a guess), the probable impact of this on the answers to the question “Is Roth a misogynist?” and the unfortunate start of Keith Gessen’s response to that question: “Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?” Oh, and they asked James Franco. So there’s that.

So New York didn’t ask me, sadly. But I do feel somewhat uniquely qualified here. I’ve written about Roth quite a bit, and have read almost all his books, including the lesser-known non-fiction memoirs and essays. Even the one about baseball. And because, while I’m sure many people would think this only shows my “bias,” I actually think having also spent a lot of time reading, writing and thinking about feminism, might put me in an interesting position to answer these questions.

So, if New York had asked me? Well, before getting to the misogyny thing, I would have been tempted to make fun of their questions. Is he the greatest living American novelist? Like, really, the greatest ever ever? And should he win the big prize? They might as well have asked, but is he awesome. . . or super awesome?  (A fawning biographer having an affair with her famous subject would make a pretty good Roth novel, actually). Can’t we leave the obsessive ranking to the Ivy League admissions offices and the guys from High Fidelity? If you have to go there, I do have a soft spot for his consistency: it is pretty impressive that of the almost thirty books of his I’ve read, there’s only one stinker in the bunch. (That would be the baseball one.) 

So, is he a misogynist?  Presumably a lot of people find the question stupid or insulting, but I’m with Zoe Heller here: it makes no sense to celebrate art’s potential to offend, and then claim that anyone taking offense is deluded or stupid. Of course, to take offense is to risk sounding like one of the Puritans Roth rails against.  That’s probably why Nell Freudenberger said “I don’t like the way he writes about women, and I don’t like the way I sound complaining about it.” And it’s true that while, as everyone rushed to point out, the fact that the characters spend a lot of time thinking about fucking women doesn’t mean they aren’t misogynist, it doesn’t mean they are, either. Straight male sexuality is as good a theme as any, and, given that Roth isn’t wrong about our Puritanism, there’s a tendency to react negatively to that in a way that is kind of hollow. There’s a Terry Gross interview with Roth when she asks him about his character’s “excessive” sexuality, and he said that the concept of normality wasn’t one any serious person has any business entertaining.

But I think a lot of readers who aren’t Puritans are responding to something else. At times it’s the Tom Wolfe-level satirical misses: a lot of The Human Stain is wonderful but as a satire of a female academic Delphine Roux could have been written by a National Review intern over his lunch break, and about Rita Cohen, the man-eating radical from American Pastoral, the less said the better.

More than that, though, I think the interesting question is the extent to which there’s an imaginative sympathy extended, one which at least attempts to see all the characters as they see themselves. Not everyone has to be George Eliot, of course, and being inside one head, with all its peculiarities and solipsisms, even the same one year after year and book after book, can be a pretty rich vein to tap. (Though the churlish part of me wonders whether such a project would get a woman author labelled as ‘personal’ or ‘minor,’ rather than land her a manly poll with big yellow circles to mark the circumference of her greatness.) And ironically, his big theme actually necessitates that Roth spend more time with his female characters than a lot of male writers. No one that I know of has asked if Cormac McCarthy is a misogynist for creating worlds where women often don’t exist. Personally I prefer writers who explore masculinity rather than take it as a given universal.   I think, for example, that Junot Diaz’s latest collection is brilliant in how it does that – and not only because he includes a story from a woman’s point of few.  It’s still noteworthy that he does this, I think, and that it’s hard to imagine Roth doing this. Not that anyone has to, of course, but shouldn’t it be seen as a skill that’s part of what we talk about when we talk about writers who can ‘do everything’?

Still, at a certain point there’s a failure of imagination that does get wearying. It’s interesting that Benjamin Kunkel picked as his favorite passage this one from American Pastoral: “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.” That’s Zuckerman talking about “Swede” Levov, whose placid world and un-Zuckerman like bonhomie has been torn apart by his daughter’s radicalism. The daughter, Merry, is completely unconvincing as a character in her own right but completely convincing as a portrait of how the Swede would see her. But it’s Zuckerman who’s worried about getting the Swede right – Merry herself is portrayed as so irrational there’s nothing right or wrong to get about her.

Interestingly, for me there are two times in Roth where a female character breaks outside of the projections and fantasies, one from the start of his career, and one from much later. As Vivian Gornick writes in her essay on Roth and Bellow from The Men in My Life, the relationship between Brenda and Neil in “Goodbye Columbus” has a tenderness that immediately disappears from his work thereafter: “When, close to the end, Neil says to himself, “Who is she? What do I really know of her?” it is not to demonize Brenda, it is to underscore the mystery of sexual love.” To Neil’s final reflection that “I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her” Gornick remarks, “A long while? How about never?” (I’d been working on this post for a while when I realized that of course Gornick had already said it all and said it better. I don’t think the essay is online but there’s an interview where she talks about its argument and the relationship between sexism and the Jewish thing. There’s also a fascinating 1976 essay on Miller and Mailer and Roth in this collection.)

Never indeed, but to my mind something interesting did happen late in the game with Sabbath’s Theater, the winner in the “best book” part of the poll.  Drenka, mistress and foil for the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is the one woman in Roth who is a peer of the man who pursues her – not only because her libido and erotic imagination match his, but because they’re both outsiders. Unlike so many women in Roth, Drenka doesn’t embody the fear of aging or illness or death; instead she’s a kind of double for his own experience of isolation, someone whose solidity is as tenuous as his own. In the Gornick interview I linked above, she talks about how Roth and Bellow use women as a way to avenge the experience of feeling excluded.  By the time we get to Sabbath, though, there’s something else: how the resistance to domestic and conventional life has made this almost-old man another kind of outsider, and the cost of this. Not that he should have done otherwise, exactly, but it’s an ongoing joke in the book that he fancies himself the proper bohemian artist sacrificing everything for his art, but his art is puppets. 

Sabbath also points to something that’s evident throughout late Roth: the sense that his protagonists are raging against an order that’s long since faded away. Sabbath’s friend asks him “Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero . . .Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism . .. the discredited male polemic’s last gasp.” Interestingly, Gessen says something similar  in the rest of his response: “Still, it might be said that Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposites sides of the question of sex, but arranged, together, something helplessly, against it; where sex is less of a battlefield and more of a tragedy.” I’m not sure about the tragedy part:  Everyman, for example, doesn’t work because adultery no longer carries that weight. I was reading Details at the hairdresser yesterday and there was a teaser for the Roth documentary coming out. So I guess Roth is still a male symbol of some sort for some people. It quoted him saying something about all those 19th century novels with adultery as their theme. I love adultery he says, don’t you. Well, many people do, it would seem. But by Everyman he was tired enough of writing it that he breaks off a scene of the protagonist’s fight with his wife, noting that scenes such as these are common enough, no need to write them again.

  I do think what Gessen says applies more to the pre-sexual revolution mores depicted in things like Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and Indignation than to all of Zuckerman and Kepesh’s exploits. Still it makes me want to give Gessen the benefit of the doubt that he was making a joke with the first part. Either way, it does point to something: as Freudenberger’s comment shows us, no one wants to be the reactive critic, waging a finger at the artist’s vision. But Gessen gets at what’s behind her ambivalence: it’s Roth’s work itself which is so often the “reaction.” This is not necessarily a fault, but it’s something that demands a better question than one about greatness.

All of which is, I suppose, to say: I would have gone with the 52% who voted “well . . .. “

The Secret Lives of Wives and Widows

So T.S. Eliot’s wife has died.  Wait, what? How is that possible?

Of course you can probably guess: “Mrs. Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at the publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957.” 

The Times obituary itself is a kind of accidental masterpiece, a perfectly calibrated mini-biography, evoking the strangeness of the lost worlds that passed away with her:

Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926. Her father, who was in the insurance business, was a bookish sort who passed on to his daughter his love of poetry. She said she fell in love with Eliot — or at least his work — when, at 14, she heard John Gielgud’s recording of “Journey of the Magi.”

After her schooling, she worked at a library at the University of Leeds and then as a secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. When a family friend who knew Eliot mentioned that he was looking for a secretary, she applied.

I love those dashes. Because how is a 14 year old to know the difference between a man and a voice on a phonograph, one that doesn’t even belong to that same man? 

 In my benevolent literary dictatorship when novels about professors who sleep with their students have been banned, I may make an exception for stories about those students, or other younger women who  marry much older men years down the road: what happens later when the men are not older but old or sick or dying? I know this sounds nasty or vengeful like, ha, they still grew old and died but I don’t mean it like that. A while back I read the excerpt from Francisco Goldman’s memoir/novel Say Her Name in the New Yorker. He says that when they got together, they would joke about how the future would play out, and he’d promise that if he was still alive at a certain point he would go off and leave her while she was still young enough to meet someone else, but as it turned out he was the one who lost her.

But of course more often the odds are not defied.  Valerie was 86 when she died. The marriage that put her obituary in the papers  lasted seven years. Her widowhood lasted forty-seven. 

My own grandmother was a widow for twenty-seven years, despite having married a man one year her junior. Only shortly before her death did I come to understand that so much of her personality and interests, so much of her way of being in the world – or what I had understood it to be – had been forged out of this widowhood, and that my mother and aunt and her husband and four sisters and known and loved a very different woman.  

For Valerie, of course, the widowhood that lasted more than half of her life was also her career. She managed his estate,  edited an edition of The Waste Land, edited his letters, got rich by authorizing Cats, started a foundation with that money, and defended his reputation. 

There are a lot of very obvious feminist points about this, about the trajectories of bookish girls born in 1926.  For a while I got kind of obsessed with the throw away descriptions of wives in profiles of artists and such and started collecting them. Things like this: 

During their thiry-five years of marriage, Natalia Dmitriyevna served as her husband’s first reader, editor, assistant, cook, driver, researcher, and (because Solzhenitsyn was a kind of literary monk) conduit to the earthly realm of agent, publishers, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. She also raised three sons because, she said jokingly, “the way Alekasandr Isayevich saw it, they would just grow up on their own.”
“The Widow’s Peak,” David Remnick, The New Yorker June 18 2012

 Or this: 

“It’s curious, and perhaps no more than curious, that the two most productive periods of Bowie’s career coincide with his two marriages.”
Thomas Jones, “So Ordinary, So Glamorous,” Thomas Jones, LRB, 5 April 2012 

“Perhaps no more than curious.” Because of course one mustn’t make too much of such things.
I always thought “And they were mostly, men” could be the great title for something: how that phrase, nine times out of ten consigned to a parenthesis, is called on to do so much by way of explanation and apology.

And yet. Were one to make the obvious feminist points, to reach for our Virginia Woolf and go to that passage I just taught my students, the one about how we’re on “the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet,” when we read of “a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother” – we might be led off the track.

For one thing, there is this: apparently Valerie hated talking to the press but made an exception when the movie Tom and Viv came out, defending her husband against the charge, among others, that Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, had written parts of The Waste Land and been denied credit. “The exemplary literary widow” delicately describes her understanding of Vivienne’s illness, expresses sympathy for Ted Hughes, and asserts that the first Mrs. Eliot’s role in creating The Waste Land was the traditional one: causing the misery that helped to inspire it.  Valerie comes across in The Independent as the reluctant truth-teller, making a more modest but more accurate claim for her role in the great man’s work.

No doubt for some people this is a cautionary tale about the perils of looking too hard for the evidence of lost female genius. I remember one time in graduate school a certain professor saying that for the material we were looking at, 19th century French poetry, there were no women. “And not because they’ve been suppressed,” he said with something like a sneer. But Woolf’s point was not just about the things that don’t get read, or the things that were written as “anon”, or the ways women’s intellectual capacities were channelled into work produced by men, but the things that never get written at all.

But in a way this all misses the point. In some ways,  literary history remains a stubbornly conservative field no matter how many of us pinkos teach it. The whole mythology of genius teaches us to spend our time thinking about creation as a process that is ultimately distant from the rest of human experience, done by a select few. We can expand the pantheon, and we can talk about “context,” we can look at literary movements that tried to be collective, we can study popular culture, but it’s very hard to ever have the cultural equivalent of social history or history from below, or to really study anything but a few works at a time, be they representative or exemplary, no matter what the “digital humanities” people say.

Looking again at the lives of those who live in proximity to the big names can of course be a part of this in the worst way, like those awful panels run by author societies where everyone talks about what so and so wrote to so and so and talks like they knew them, like when the nice Jewish lawyer in Quiz Show comes back from hanging out with Van Dorens talking about Bunny Wilson. That’s what they call him, he tells his wife. Well, you don’t have to, she says.

But when you look at these in another way, they can be something else entirely. My favorite part of the obituary is this:

He was made for marriage, he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too,” Mrs. Eliot said in a 1994 interview. “We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble. He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed.”

If they’d made Tom and Valerie, no one would fall in love with Bertrand Russell and no one would go to the looney bin and I don’t know how you dramatize thirty years spend editing his letters, but I would watch any movie that showed a moment like this. Genius is all well and good (actually it’s not but that’s another story), but she also serves who knows when to lose at cards.

More Vanity and More Despair

So, this is what I’ve been up to. Of course, there’s an infinite amount to say about this, all of which is far too much and too overwhelming and too wonderful to give shape to just now. So for now I’m writing about easier things. Sadly, motherhood has not insulated me from the freak show that is the Republican primary, but distaste is a lot easier than love. Hence, Callista Gingrich.

During the 2008 election, I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, which revolves around a fictionalized version of Laura Bush. It was an odd thing to be reading at the height of Obama mania. At the end, there’s a “twist”: she didn’t vote for him. On some level because she didn’t want to be First Lady, but also because in her sensible librarian way she thinks the other guy is more qualified. When she thinks about all the decisions the Bush-like character has made, she tells the reader, hey, I just married him, you all elected him. It’s a funny moment. It’s also one that from a certain point of view could be seen as a kind of liberal fantasy, with all the flaws therein, an extension of the old knock against Pauline Kael not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon: the liberal feminist novelist can’t imagine anyone who would vote for Bush, not even his wife. But Sittenfeld can’t really explain why she married him either, except suggesting his sexual prowess from some scenes I’m still trying to get out of my head and which prevent me from recommending the novel to anyone in good conscience.

Another funny moment comes when the Laura character describes the low point of being first lady: the book she writes under the “pen name” of the first pet. It’s a little unfair since as far as my google-fu can tell, she’s penned only her memoirs and a children’s book. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, is the author of “Millie’s Book as dictated to Barbara Bush,” while Hillary Clinton has Dear Socks, Dear Buddy Kids’ Letters to First Pets to her credit along with Living History and It Takes a Village. It is of course beyond unfair to think this all says anything about these women; I’d wager that none of these were their ideas and that they spent no more than a few hours on them, and even if this weren’t the case, so what?
Still, I’ll cop to a curious fascination with the literary output of First Ladies and those who aspire to be First Ladies, which is how I ended up with a copy of Callista Gingrich’s Sweet Land of Liberty, a romp through American History with Ellis the elephant, on my shelf. I started thinking about Callista after reading this brilliant profile by the always-brilliant Ariel Levy. I remember talking about it when I was in the hospital and a friend was flipping through the then-new issue. When I got to it a few weeks later, I thought, have I already read this? No, that was the profile she did of Cindy McCain the last time around. You have to hand it to these women: god knows it takes a lot of something to do what they do on the campaign trail: as Levy notes, they have to gaze adoringly while listening to the same stump speech over and over.
In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s documentary about Woody Allen touring Europe with his jazz band, we see Soon Yi taking care of his laundry and keeping the outside world at bay. It’s a bit of a shock, given everything, to see her acting as a sort of mother figure to him. You get the same feeling reading about the third Mrs. Gingrich. When Sean Hannity poses and unwelcome question, she “raised her eyebrows slightly and replied in the implacable tone of a kindergarten teacher scolding a six-year-old.” The sentiment seems to extend to her husband: “The woman is always the grown up,” her husband is quoted as saying. “No matter what.” No matter how much younger she is, presumably. It’s been said lots of times before, but it’s always stunning to hear this stuff from the traditional values crowd. Not that we feminist man-hating types never roll our eyes at stereotypical Peter Pan stuff, but we almost always have the good taste not to do it in public about men we supposedly love, let alone ones we’re holding up as great leaders.

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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