So beautiful I watched it twice.
I don’t know how it’s possible, but after reading this New Yorker profile “Written Off” by Rebecca Mead, I love Jennifer Weiner more than I did before reading it, although it’s widely being described as “a take-down” piece. The profile starts out fine, but about half-way through, the paragraph that starts “Weiner has also taken literary inspiration from her mother…” is the point where the whole thing just skates off the rails (Mead’s suggestion that Weiner’s lesbian characters are somehow anti-gay is bogus, small and unworthy of that publication) and Mead begins just coloring on the walls rather than finishing her work. I’m not sure whether I respect Mead’s audacity more for just saying “aw fuck it, I’m writing myself into a corner” in the middle of an article for The New Yorker, or The New Yorker’s for publishing it without fixing it, or apparently, even realizing it needs to be fixed.
This paragraph is so funny I had to get up and go to the bathroom and pee before I could finish:
A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,” and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and a realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, and my likeness.”
Emphasis very much mine. I can’t even with the Jane Eyre in a discussion of women in contemporary literature.
The thing that is almost entirely missing from this article is any detailed analysis of Jennifer Weiner’s case for re-thinking what is and what should be considered “literary merit.” Her critique is a serious (and valid) one, and not to be dismissed, but Mead attempts to ignore it almost completely, falling back on George Eliot’s 1856 essay to bolster the blinders she keeps, while ignoring the very points she lightly quotes about Weiner’s thoughts early on in the piece.
A loose paraphrasing of Weiner’s ideas:
- that the two great contemporary literary themes “white men doing great things or failing in the attempt” and “oppressed peoples struggling against a harsh society” leave some serious gaps of examination of human experience
- that white middle-class modern women’s life experiences (one of those missing pieces) are not just fluff (shopping and fucking? really?), and to dismiss them as such is fundamentally sexist
- that regular, ordinary people really do, actually, often achieve happy endings, and this is valid literary subject matter
- that literature doesn’t have to be painful to have great affect on us
- and that taking comfort in things that are uplifting can actually lift us up, and that has value
If you change the lens on the microscope by which you analyze writing, both commercial and literary, with many of these ideas in mind, you realize quickly that contemporary literary criticism leaves a lot of worthy writing behind, especially the writing of women.
Mead dissects and dismisses several of Weiner’s books in this piece by refusing to think of them in this proposed new context, instead shoving them under the traditional lens of “The Old-Tymey Rules of What is Good Literature” while willfully ignoring that more and more women are successfully challenging the notion that these long accepted “Rules” have some serious bias in the way of both sexism and snobbishness. That Mead has to reach as far back as George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë to make her case in discussing a contemporary author and her place in contemporary literature says a great deal about how weak her case is.
I can’t imagine how Mead interviewed Weiner, read large sections of the woman’s twitter account, and listened to her speak about women, commercial fiction and the place of both in contemporary literature and yet got Weiner’s voice so very wrong. The woman is not exactly smoke and mirrors; there isn’t a facade there. Weiner’s pretty straight-forward, and it’s impossible to follow her on twitter for any length of time and not come to think of her as self-reflective and open. I can’t imagine how Mead spoke to her and didn’t come away seeing her as genuine, but she didn’t.
Mead also bolsters a wide-spread belief that “Jennifer Weiner has two audiences. One consists of the devoted consumers of her books, which have sold more than four and a half million copies…. Her other audience is made up of writers, editors, and critics.” Even Weiner apparently believes that to be true, and I guess she would know her own audience(s), but I find it hard to believe those two audiences are entirely separate. I definitely bridge that gap.
In the end, Mead decides that Weiner is just whining; that her work doesn’t deserve critical recognition, not because it’s viewed through a sexist and snobbish literary lens, but because of:
the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches. (Readers looking for fairness and kindness will not always find those attributes displayed by Weiner’s fictional creations.)
That was a jaw-dropping statement for me; that same statement could be could be made about sections of work from many contemporary male “literary giants” including Roth, Franzen, Eugenides, Chabon, David Foster Wallace, men who clearly receive great critical recognition, some of it deserved and sometimes not so much.
Mead goes out of her way at the end of the piece to tie Weiner back into her place as “chick lit” by describing in detail the women who come to have their books signed, and how they measure her books against what Mead clearly considers the irrelevant minutia of their own lives, an ending I found as lazy as most of the article.
Sady Doyle writes “For the Record” on sadybusiness:
…and I’m mad at the trend of anonymizing and erasing women who do feminist work, attributing every single fucking idea and cultural gain to vaguely defined “feminists” rather than the actual people who sat down, wrote the pieces, made deadline, and endured harassment over it, only to find themselves literally erased in the coverage.
I was also pissed off by the way that Patton Oswalt’s re-thinking of rape jokes — which was genuinely just great! I loved it! I was such a fan! — was reported as Patton Oswalt randomly birthing a beautiful brain-baby, in all but one or two outlets, one of which I actually worked for. (The other one was Entertainment Weekly, which was just bizarre.) Actually, that post was the result of years of activist work, not least by Molly Knefel, but also by Lindy West, Melissa McEwan (who called Oswalt out for re-enacting a rape in one of his comedy specials, and has not let up in the years since — I had more than a feeling that she was the “idiotic blogger” he referred to in his Tosh tweet), and a decade’s worth of women who have worked on changing this conversation. There have been people, writers, working on this for a long-ass time, says [that blogger]. [That blogger’s] feeling is that, since they’re women, and feminists, there’s a real drive to cast their voices as both amateur and illegitimate. This, in [that blogger’s] opinion, is a way to keep anti-sexism from ever comprising a crucial and accepted role in both cultural criticism and social interactions.
But they’re not remembered. Their names — like my name — are erased. Their work — like my work — is cast as the work of a collective.
Sady Doyle writing about the pernicious tendency to not give credit to women doing the difficult and unrewarding work of feminist writing, even while accepting and appropriating their thoughts and writing.
Having just read the Patton Oswalt piece where he rethinks his ideas about rape jokes, I’m so glad she made this point, because yeah, I was ready to take what he said as a complete win without considering that there were a lot of hard-working women who worked on changing his mind and none of those women got a shout-out in his piece. Or get a shout-out ever. Given the quality of Sady’s writing, she should have a much bigger profile than she does.
Erasing the individual women who’s writing has influenced thinking about women is flat out sexism, and unfortunately the ability to easily appropriate people’s work without attribution on the internet means that an entire generation of talented female writers is easily ignored.
I wish that Sady had a more permanent archival home on the internet than she does now – tumblr is too ephemeral for her writing and it’s hard to see the full record of her work, which is amazing, thoughtful stuff.
If you go to Wikipedia’s page for American Novelists, you might notice something strange: Of the first 100 authors listed, only a small handful of them are women. You could potentially blame this on the fact that there simply are more famous male authors than there are female (a-whole-nother can of worms), but the real reasoning is much more intentional. Wikipedia editors have slowly been moving female authors to a subcategory called American Women Novelists so that the original list isn’t at risk of “becoming too large.” Bad luck, ladies. They need to make room and someone has to go first. Why shouldn’t it be unimportant literary folk like Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Louisa May Alcott?
Novelist Amanda Filipacchi was the one who — very recently — first cottoned on to what Wikipedia was doing. The edits, she noticed, have been happening gradually and mostly alphabetically by last name though in a few special cases the editors jumped ahead because they just couldn’t wait for R and T to get Ayn Rand and Donna Tartt off the list. Filipacchi herself was one of the authors to get booted to the subcategory.
More reporting on this:
Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists [New York Times]
More about this TED Talk:
When Colin Stokes’ 3-year-old son caught a glimpse of Star Wars, he was instantly obsessed. But what messages did he absorb from the sci-fi classic? Stokes asks for more movies that send positive messages to boys: that cooperation is heroic, and respecting women is as manly as defeating the villain.
Why you should listen to him:
Colin Stokes divides his time between parenting and building the brand of Citizen Schools, a non-profit that reimagines the school day for middle school students in low-income communities in eight states. As Managing Director of Brand & Communications, Colin helps people within the organization find the ideas, words and stories that will connect with more and more people. He believes that understanding the human mind is a force that can be used for good and seeks to take advantage of our innate and learned tendencies to bring out the best in each other and our culture.
Before starting a family, Colin was an actor and graphic designer in New York City. He starred in the long-running off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, as well is in several musicals and Shakespeare stagings. But he jokes that he seems to have achieved more renown (and considerably more revenue) for his brief appearances on two Law & Order episodes.
Very cool news from comic writer Mark Waid:
For the last few months, a talented university teacher named Christy Blanch has been putting together a college-level course called “Gender Through Comic Books”–but it’s not limited to college students. It’s the world’s first comics-related Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)–meaning that it will be FREELY AVAILABLE to ANYONE across the world who has web access and who’s interested in comics and in the creative process. There’s no obligation, NO COST, and all you have to do is take thirty seconds to enroll at the following site:
It’s about comic books, gender and women’s issues, writing. Boy is this up my alley. I signed up for it. If you’re interested in similar topics, you should too.
This is worth reading… Via Dr. Beetle: Evolutionary Psychology and its Top Ten Failures.
The dreadful pseudo science of evolutionary psychology is founded upon concepts such as survival of the fittest, selfish genes, inherited instincts and mind modules. It has shot to prominence in science and societies’ thinking, and found many a willing ear.
The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award is dominated year after year by men. (heh. See what I just did there?) I do find the thought that men can’t write sex well very funny. And there are some prominent male authors on the list, too, which is odd, because what’s so interesting about their books if the sex is stupid?
I’m also a bit alarmed that there is a “Bad Sex in Fiction” award in the first place. No editing until December, self. Do not panic.
“You should have your tongue ripped out”: the reality of sexist abuse online
by Helen Lewis-Hasteley – 03 November 2011 12:51
Accounts from several women, some prominent figures and some more anonymous, describing the nature of abuse that gets directed at them online because they are women.
You always remember the first time someone calls you ugly on the internet. I imagine — although it hasn’t happened to me — you always remember the first time someone threatens to rape you, or kill you, or urinate on you.
The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet’s festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults. But it’s very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner — particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the “satisfaction” of knowing they’re emotionally affected by the abuse or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out.
Both are understandable reasons but there’s another, less convincing one: doesn’t everyone get abuse on the internet? After all, the incivility of the medium has prompted a rash of op-eds and books about the degradation of discourse.
While I won’t deny that almost all bloggers attract some extremely inflammatory comments — and LGBT or non-white ones have their own special fan clubs, too — there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online. As the New Statesman blogger David Allen Green told me: “In three years of blogging and tweeting about highly controversial political topics, I have never once had any of the gender-based abuse that, say, Cath Elliott, Penny Red or Ellie Gellard routinely receive.”