I've taken a little break from blogging about writing books in order to actually write books, a good trade as far as I'm concerned, but it's good to exercise the blog-muscle too. (Or really any muscles -- I also exercise somewhat less when I'm in the writing throes than when I'm in the prepping-for-writing-throes. My agent's point, and it's a good one, is, "Everyone can exercise. Not everyone can write." Fair enough.) Also we adopted a puppy from this very great shelter (should you find yourself in the greater Seattle area and craving a pet) called PAWS. Does everyone want to see a picture of said puppy, even though really she's a subject for another post? Of course you do.
ANYWAY, the point of this post is not to look at puppy pictures nor to recommend a book but -- wait for it -- a book review. Never in my life have I recommended a book review. Never in my life has anyone recommended a book review to me. I can't recommend the book because I haven't read it yet. But the review, well, the review blew my mind. It's by Katie Roiphe for Slate on a new novel called The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. (Is it bad form to link an entire sentence? Whatever.)
I like Katie Roiphe though boy does she piss people off. Which is some of what I like about her. She started off pissing people off -- that is, she remains most famous for her first book, The Morning After, which argued (in 1993) that that statistic you hear that one in four female college students will be raped at school is a load of shit. She further argues that saying so does everyone a tremendous disservice and that saying to women who had sex when they wished they didn't that it wasn't their fault because they were drunk or felt bad basically keeps women second class citizens. What has always impressed me about this book is not the argument itself but that she wrote it in grad school while getting a PhD in English.
Getting a PhD in English seems like it should have something to do with writing books, but it really doesn't, especially not this kind of not-about-literature book. Her writing this book during graduate school seems to me about as impressive as learning a foreign language during the World Series. I will also say it was timely and provocative, and too little is. She writes for Slate now, as well as other publications as well as other books, about a whole variety of topics, which itself has been criticized as selling out in some circles, that she was going to be this feminist academic powerhouse and instead is writing memoir and book reviews and thoughts on parenting and marriage (because really, what kind of feminist cares about self, books, parenting, or marriage? Jeez.) Anyway, this is a person who both can't win for losing and wins big time for losing, so even when I disagree with her -- she wrote an article once about how ridiculous parents are to get so worked up when their kids won't sleep and she just lets her toddler wander around her apartment all night -- I am challenged and intrigued. And challenged and intrigued are good.
I will also point out the obvious which is two-fold: 1) much of the problem with her being edgy, provocative, critical, dismissive, judgmental, and prone to not giving a shit what other people think of her is that she's also female (as are her harshest critics). And 2) as you will recall from the start of this sentence, even though that's obvious, I feel the need to point it out.
All of which is to say: when Katie Roiphe says stuff, you'd do well to give it some thought. And in this book review, she wonders whether, "in coming years, the most provocative work in feminism will be in novels....It may be that the challenges currently facing feminist thinkers, the subtleties of how sexism plays out...are better dealt with in fiction. Now that we no longer need to name or discover it--'Sexism exists!'--the flatfooted outrage...is too crude, too simplifying, too unchallenging, too predictable, and the novel's delicate touch may be precisely what is called for." (Bold ecstatically mine.)
How great is that?
Like many in my generation, I came to feminism early and without question. Then I read a thousand pounds of feminist theory in grad school from which I learned a lot of history but a very little praxis. My search therefore has been where to go from here. We've ferreted sexism out, but my generation has neither done nor said very much new about it. Roiphe's point is ferreting it out -- pointing to it, linking to it, blogging about it, lecturing about it, non-fictioning about it -- has proven insufficient. So perhaps fiction is the feminist way forward. Novels are how the message progresses and minds are changed and consciousness is raised and change occurs. Novels, AS ONCE THEY WERE, will be again where the new, smart, strong, provocative, important, political, timely things are being said on this front, said and heard and germinated.
My own bias is for novels anyway. I am entirely a proponent of fiction being more true than non-fiction (after all, you can make it up). I have never had to be convinced that fiction matters and matters most of all, the case for which is a feminist one both historically and critically anyway. And still this seems revelatory to me. This makes me stand up and cheer! Who gets to carry the feminist mantle into the next wave? Novelists! To which I say: a) hell yeah and b) I'm so on it.
Last week, we returned Ernie Sings to the library before it made my head explode. Instead, we listened to Free To Be You and Me, the one kid CD that seems always to be in our car, about two dozen times in a row. It was a long time before I could listen to Free To Be without crying hysterically, so nostalgia-sodden was it for me. Three-hunded-some hours of Free To Be later, I can observe it with the exhaustive knowledge and academic remove of the world's foremost expert on the piece, which surely I must be.
For those of you who are uninitiated, it's an album (and book) of songs, stories, and poems whose point is generally: it's okay to be different, and specifically: gender stereotypes are a load of shit.
1) Whoever and however you are, Free To Be's thesis is: that's just great. Athletic girls, boys who like dolls, children who cry, dads who can't throw balls, kids without friends, congenitally confused school principals, young adults with no desire to marry, rude grandchildren, moms who drive vans(?), elementary school field trips to the jungles of Southeast Asia, and infant males whose life ambition is to be a cocktail waitress are all a-okay as far as Marlo Thomas is concerned. But prissy girls to whom matching clothes and well-coifed hair are important? Well, those bitches deserve to get eaten.
2) Though musically Free To Be just screams 1973, the year of its (and my) release, thematically, it remains heartbreakingly relevant. Spot the Free To Be message below that's no longer relevant, that kids today no longer need to hear:
a) Despite the fact that jobs tend to be gender stereotyped, you can grow up to do nearly any job you like.
b) It's okay for boys to cry. It's okay for boys to like dolls and generally to be nurturing and sensitive.
c) Housework is unpleasant and as a result should be shared equally among adult partners.
d) Women don't all want to get married. Marriage is not the end goal of all relationships. Permanent heterosexual partnership is not the ultimate dream of everyone.
e) Even if many of the boys you know are a certain way and like a certain thing, and even if many of the girls you know are a certain way and like a certain thing, you may not fall into those flawed categories and that's just fine.
f) Sometimes the gender you feel like and the sex your body is don't line up.
g) Parents are people.
h) Athletically gifted females are nonetheless desirable.
Answer: H. Even by the time Free To Be was relevant to me (i.e. eight years or so after its release), this felt dated to me. I was, myself, not athletically gifted and felt that this made me undesirable as a friend or romantic partner. All the popular girls at school were good at sports. All hail Title IX. Otherwise, these are all messages my daughter still needs to internalize because these inequities and stereotypes remain heart-sinkingly static. Nearly forty years on, the music sounds dated, but gender stereotypes and gender realities for children (boys shouldn't cry or have dolls) and adults (job/pay/marriage/childcare/housekeeping roles and responsibilities) remain strikingly, distressingly unbalanced.
Esquire Magazine has announced this morning a foray into publishing Fiction for Men. For starters, it will be an ebook series of short stories with some run in the magazine itself as well. Already this is sending everyone into screaming fits and fair enough, but on the whole, this seems like good news to me.
This article reporting the move begins, "That creaky label 'women's fiction' tends to conjure up images of novels about family, career or relationships. But men's fiction?" Jess Walter is one of the three authors in the inaugural collection. His biggest, most lauded book, The Financial Lives of Poets, is so entirely about "family, career, [and] relationships," that it's not about anything else. If you read the book and were asked afterwards what it was about, you'd say, "family, career, and relationships." You would. No question.
So what is men's fiction about? According to the Editor-in-Chief of Esquire, in the same article, it's writing that is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another. And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man's life that seem common." Now a) Think of the chic-iest chic lit you can imagine -- whatever else you want to say about it, it's going to be plot-driven. But mostly b) pray tell, are families, careers, and relationships not common to men's lives?
Of course really the question is not what is men's fiction about. Really, the question is this: why are some books about family, career, and relationships "women's fiction" and some books about family, career, and relationships about the human condition, the American spirit, a metaphor for our life and times, and an example of great art? And to an alarming extent, the answer to that question is this: it depends who wrote it. If the person who wrote it is female, it is a book about family, career, and relationships for women which needn't be taken seriously by reviewers or readers and which needn't be read by men.
Last summer, for their 75th anniversary, Esquire ran a list of the 75 books every man should read. One of the books on it -- one -- was written by a woman. One. And that's the rub. Women readers seem to think that male authored books about family, career, and relationships are worth their time and attention. Male readers seem to think that female authored books about the same are not. I refuse to detail why that might be a problem.
That said, let me add this: Magazines running more fiction? Yes please! Again from that article: "David Granger, the editor in chief of Esquire, said he has lamented the loss of space that magazines devoted to publishing fiction....'It's a struggle, because especially during the recession, we lost so many pages,' he said. 'Fiction begins to feel a little bit of a luxury.'" It has always struck me how much more serious of a magazine Esquire is than comparable "women's magazines." Does Cosmo run lists of 75 important books women should read? And is that list mostly literary heavy-hitters and complex, difficult texts? Esquire is mostly about politics and culture. Women's mags are mostly about weight loss. And we all need more literature, more fiction, more pop culture that's also smart, beautiful, and challenging.
The other point there is that with magazines it seems easier. I'm pretty clear on (and not offended by) which magazines are women's magazines and which are men's magazines. I like the idea of men's fiction because it un-ghettoizes women's fiction. Right now the label "women's fiction" seems to mean "unimportant, frivolous book men and serious readers needn't bother reading or even considering." It also means "book written by a woman which THEREFORE makes it an unimportant, frivolous book men and serious readers needn't bother reading or even considering." The intro of men's fiction might make both terms more descriptive, more useful, and more apt. Show me someone who doesn't need accurate, informative labels to help guide their reading choices, and I'll show you someone who still has a good, small, independent bookstore in their community. Alas, that number is ever dwindling. More sometime soon on why that's even more of a problem than you think it is.
About The Author
Laurie Frankel writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she's staring out her windows between words. She's originally from Maryland and makes good soup.