Emily Matchar’sHomeward Bound articulates many of the thoughts that run through my head whenever I read a New York Times trend piece on urban chickens—a topic that reappears with surprising frequency. I get the romance of waking up at dawn to play farmer, but I grew up in a Midwest town lousy with farmers. So I’ve seen chickens. Now, some breeds of chicken might be beautiful, and some breeds might be especially tasty, but all breeds of chicken are two things: noisy and likely to shit everywhere. So if you’re in a NYC-sized space and you’re able to keep chickens without violating every imaginable health code, you must be spending thousands of dollars or thousands of hours cleaning up after your winged friends. Raising chickens isn’t so much a hobby then: it’s a career.
Which brings me back to Matchar. She may be a devotee of DIY lifestyle blogs, but she also acknowledges that many of the women running these blogs—who often pose as reformed professionals who’ve given up high-stress positions for more fulfilling lives in from-scratch homes—aren’t “regular” women at all. They’re talented professionals and brilliant marketers with valuable skills who’ve discovered that sometimes you can advance in the new freelance information economy by pretending you aren’t working at all.
On the day Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Slate culture writer Stephen Metcalf tweeted, “On Slate, Elizabeth Gilbert defends EPL by intimating sexism within the lit establishment. Minutes later, Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize.” Although I normally nod along with anything Metcalf says, this comment made me throw a little shade his way. One prize—weighty and Scandinavian though it may be—does not negate the very real sexism still prevalent on the pages of the New York Review of Books and its ilk. This is like arguing that Meryl Streep’s continued appearance on Oscar night accurately represents the ease with which aging women find work in Hollywood. One example does not, in fact, disprove all other counterexamples. And, as fellow Canadian lady-writer Margaret Atwoodnoted, Munro was herself the victim of the literary establishment’s dickishness when her early fiction was criticized for being too domestic, too small, and, obviously, too female.
Munro may be a self-effacing Canadian, who likely wouldn’t enjoy engaging in a battle over literary sexism, but she shouldn’t be used as a token example of talent trumping discrimination. Because her quiet and unassuming fiction is all about the seemingly invisible limitations imposed on women’s lives. Her form of social critique isn’t showy, and it doesn’t involve preaching. Instead, it’s about giving voice to a different type of woman: working-class women, older women, mentally-ill women, those women who normally appear only as tropes or stereotypes when they appear at all. So she isn’t a token. And she isn’t some apolitical stylist. She’s kind of a badass. And we shouldn’t forget it. Continue reading “Who Says Alice Munro Isn’t Political?”
Remember when Hannah Horvath’s manuscript was rejected because no one cares about female friendship? Her editor told her that she should instead write a book called A Year on My Back featuring tales of bad sex with college kids. So that’s exactly what came to mind when I saw that Periel Aschenbrand had published a book called On My Knees. It’s pretty much the same title. And then Salon published a chapter of the book wherein the buxom young memoirist talks about wanting to screw that legendary bag of douche known as Phillip Roth. And, I was like, yay male fantasy? Now, I’m very pro-sex. In fact, I’m pro-promiscuous sex. So I’m completely in favor of women writing about their sexual adventures with as much detail and aplomb as generations of literary manwhores. But when I look at a shelf of recent female memoirs and every single one is about either sex, eating, or walking, I can’t help but wonder if women are allowed to write about anything that’s not a basic bodily function.
But then I actually read Aschenbrand’s book—in about two hours because it’s REALLY short—and I realized that it’s not just about sex. In fact, there’s almost no actual sex in this book—unless you count her unfortunate encounter with a hairy Canadian who ejaculates on her couch (i.e., the worst type of Canadian). The book’s title isn’t even a BJ reference. It’s the universe that brings her to her knees after she endures a particularly rough breakup. So this isn’t a tale of lusty conquest so much as an account of one woman getting her shit together—with the help of her emotionally-scarred friend and her pushy mother. Point being, this is basically a book about female relationships marketed as Tropic of Cancer. Point being, publishing is the worst. Continue reading “Let’s Not Just Talk About Sex”
Jonathan Franzen recently reentered the public sphere with a jeremiad about the evils of self-promotion and that great 21st-century Moloch—the Internet. And he did so on the Guardian’s website with a 6,500-word promotional piece from his upcoming book. So remember when Kim Kardashian complained to her trusty cameraman—who was filming her Pilates class—that the paparazzi were so intrusive that she couldn’t attend a simple Pilates class without being caught on tape. Yeah, Franzen’s piece is kind of like that but with fewer single leg stretches. He’s incapable of admitting that he’s part of the very machine he’s criticizing.
Franzen—with his horned-rim glasses and punch-me smirk—appears to believe he inhabits some parallel economy untethered to the modern world. Adam Smith’s invisible hand apparently can’t reach Santa Cruz, CA. Who knew? Although he bemoans the passing of an age in which real writers didn’t have to self-publicize and were left alone to contemplate mortality and screw undergraduates, he doesn’t seem to understand that (a) this reality only existed for a very small segment of the literary world (i.e., a very white and very male segment) and (b) that it was brought about by the same forces of capitalist development that he abhors.
I may be a hardened lefty, but I do know that you don’t become a wealthy author because independent bookstores hand-sell copies of your work to eager, bespeckled readers of The Paris Review. You become a wealthy author because a publicity team at Farrar Straus Giroux funnels millions of copies of The Corrections and Freedom to big box chains who sell them at discounts that pummel the independent bookstores, leaving little shelf space for other deserving authors whose race or gender disqualifies them from becoming “the face of literary greatness.” So Franzen isn’t some quasi-socialist saint speaking truth to power. He’s an IKEA couch. Continue reading “Dear Mr. Franzen, Twitter Isn’t the Problem”
It happened while I was reading a perfectly normal novel by a perfectly normal author: Jonathan Franzen’sFreedom, to be specific. Although I had read The Corrections during the Oprah kerfuffle and responded with an equivocal “meh,” I finished this novel in a fit of gender rage. Have you ever met a woman who would be cool with her husband converting their vacation home into a bird sanctuary named after his dead girlfriend? I have not. As my self-righteous anger escalated, I started to wonder where this fury was coming from. Sure, Freedom is sexist, but so are scores of books, many films, and every show that has ever aired on CBS. Why the feminist rage? But then it hit me. Freedom was different from every other book I had read in 2013. It was written by a man.