Quote of the Week

Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.

-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

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Even Zelda Fitzgerald Thought Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf Were a Bit Much

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at my local library. And while I wouldn’t always call them “love” letters, exactly, the correspondence that makes up the greater part of the book is engaging, well-crafted, and endlessly surprising.

Zelda Fitzgerald initially rose to fame by setting the pace of the ’20s as the consummate Jazz Age socialite, but by the 1930s her talents and ambitions were overtaken by mental illness. Doctors diagnosed her psychiatric struggles as schizophrenia, and she spent years in and out of treatment facilities across France, Switzerland, and the States.

As friends of Hemingway, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, and other celebrated literary figures of the era—and, of course, as writers themselves—the Fitzgeralds naturally expressed some intriguing opinions on their peers and competitors. I laughed out loud reading the following request from Zelda during the spring of 1931, sent to Scott from Prangins Clinic in Nyon, Switzerland:

I have been reading Joyce and find it a night-mare in my present condition, and since my head evaporates in a book-store it would be much easier if you would send something to me. Not in French, since I have enough difficulty with English for the moment and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wo[o]lf or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please—

My takeaway from this solitary letter: Zelda Fitzgerald may have been much saner than we thought. Joyce, Lawrence, and (sometimes) Woolf still write the plot of my own literary nightmares, and I never had to meet any of them in person.

 

“Chick Lit” and Other Horror Stories: My Interview with SpareMin

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First things first: I know.

I know it’s a random Wednesday at the end of October, and I know the air is chilly and the leaves are crunchy, and I know you’re probably halfway through a spreadsheet or a surgery or a stock… broking… maneuver.

I know.

But take a moment—right now if possible—and think back with me to this summer.

Remember June? June was warm, and sunny, and picnicky, depending on your chosen climate/hemisphere. June was pre-split for Brangelina, pre-Ghostbusters for those of us who saw and kind’ve liked it, pre-Olympics for the legendary Simone Biles, and pre-pussy-revelations for Trump. June was innocent, and hopeful, and naïve, like a first shot of tequila—a simpler, if not a better time, followed by an autumn that feels like a hangover.

I spent my June researching and writing an exhausted, exhausting, and (I hope) exhaustive post on Sexism in Classic Literature, something I come across all too frequently on The List. And then, because that was so depressing/distressing/discouraging, I added a post on Bookish Feminism a few weeks later.

Satisfied that I’d said my part, at least for the moment, I moved on with my summer.

So it came as a surprise when, in September, I was contacted by the founder of a new app called SpareMin. He had read my Sexism/Feminism posts and invited me to be part of a “mini-podcast” on the subject. The deal was that the SpareMin team would use the conversation to promote the app’s call-recording features, and I would get to talk about something I am passionate  fanatical maniacal about for 15 whole minutes.

And, last week, we did. Check out my talk with the lovely Abi Wurdeman here.

I’m including a transcript below—tidied up a little for clarity’s sake—to fill in any gaps in the audio, and to include all the appropriate links in all the appropriate places (huzzah!). Abi is in bold, and I am not, because I am incredibly modest and extraordinarily humble (if I do say so myself).

Happy listening!

Hello, this is Abi. Is this Jamie Leigh?

Yes, this is Jamie.

Hi, welcome! How are you?

I’m fine, thanks. I’m glad this worked.

Me too! Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

No problem. Just to warn you, someone got out a chainsaw in my neighbor’s apartment, like, ten minutes ago. So if you hear a lot of noise, that’s why.

Oh, OK.

I hope they’re doing construction.

Yeah! Yeah, I hope so, right? OK, so, just for listeners—just so they know who I’m speaking to—I’m speaking with Jamie Leigh, who is a reader and writer, and we’re speaking about the representation of women in the literary world. So, let’s start with the first general question: What attitudes do you notice in the literary world towards female authors and books with female protagonists?

Right. Well, we can start off with the fact that there’s a genre called “chick lit,” right, but no genre called, like, “dude lit.” I’m far from being the first person to point this out, but it’s like the industry’s way of saying that books written by and about men represent the sort of universal human experience, but books by and about women represent only the female experience—which, then, reinforces this idea that the male narrative is the default narrative.

And this starts really early on, right? Like, even in children’s books, there are more boys than girls in central roles. And we definitely, as a culture, you know, tolerate young boys’ contempt, I guess, for books about girls—or anything associated with girls, really. So we end up teaching boys from a really young age, without necessarily meaning to, that it’s OK to dismiss us, or to ridicule us.

So I guess the most common pattern I see is one of, you know, neglect, or of belittlement. I think a good example is Jodi Picoult. She writes these really—really, like, sober books, right? She’s written about school shootings, and mercy killings, and cancer, and suicide, and stem cell research. And still critics call her books “chick lit” and “beach reads.”

And then the opposite happens when a man starts writing in an area dominated by female authors. Like, this happened in YA, this happened in romance. You know, romance is one of the most ridiculed genres. But, of course, Nicholas Sparks comes along and he’s able to build a respected career for himself writing romance novels. I, uh, I hope—I hope he and all of his movie deals will be very happy together. But that’s bullshit.

Yeah. It’s true, it’s true. It always makes me think of—I mean, as you said, there are a gazillion examples of this happening. The one that I always think of is—and this is a movie review that I believe was in Variety, about Wild, which you know, of course, was a book first—but the reviewer, a male reviewer, actually said—was letting everyone know—this is a cool movie for guys to watch, too. And the line that he used in it was, “It’s—this isn’t—” it was something like, “This isn’t a woman’s story; this is a human story.” 

Oh, for God’s sake. Thank you for, yes, defining women as human. Yeah.

Right, right. And the title of that was “Wild Is Actually Macho.” He talked about how—his focus was “It’s a macho—it’s something that guys can get, too, because the emotions she expresses aren’t just lady emotions. It’s crazy! It’s nuts!” 

I actually—so, the person who did that screenplay was Nick Hornby, and I saw him speak a couple of years ago in New York. And he—someone asked him about—well, actually I think he was telling a story about someone who’d asked him how he was able to kind of “get inside the mind of a woman.” And he was like, “…She wrote a memoir. I read her book, and I adapted her book to the movie…” Yeah. Not that hard.

Yeah. It’s crazy. So then, I guess you kind of addressed this, the next question, of the differences that you notice between the ways that the publishing industry markets books written by men versus by women. Is there anything else—any other points on that you want to make before we move on?

Yeah, um, a couple things. So, I guess one of the most obvious differences is book covers. You know, women’s book covers have a lot of flowers, and horizons, and makeup, and hearts, and wedding dresses, and pink. Basically anything stereotypically feminine. You know, things that imply that they’re not worth taking seriously, in a lot of cases.

And then men’s book covers are usually darker and edgier. Less cluttered. Less domestic. Less frivolous. And this is important, right? Because a book’s cover contributes to our perception of its quality, along with other things like the blurbs, and the comparisons to other novels, and where we shelve it in a store, and that kind of thing. 

So, yeah, I think book covers are a big one. Oh, I just read this article about a woman who wrote a memoir about the years that she spent working as a war photographer in Afghanistan. And her publisher—I think it was Random House—changed the title, without asking her, to Shutterbabe—

Ew.

I know. Ew, right? And then their initial design for the cover was a naked cartoon torso with the camera covering the crotch, all set against a pink background. Yeah, her war photographer memoir, right?

Wow.

So she had to explain to Random House that it is “usually her eye behind the camera, and not her vagina.”

Isn’t that how they work?

Yeah. Oh, she also said that almost all of the publications that reviewed her book—which wasn’t very many, even though this went on to become a bestseller and has been taught in journalism schools—almost all of those reviews called her a stay-at-home mom. Like, when is the last time a male author was called a stay-at-home dad? That never—that never happens.

Wow. No. 

So book reviews are also a problem. I’ve heard it’s getting better, so that’s good news, but still I think most of the major review publications have mostly male reviewers, and the reviewees are less likely to be women. So, basically, what ends up happening is that men are the kind of “literary gatekeepers,” and then they’re more likely to open the gates to other men.

Which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you look at book sales. There was an, I think it was an Atlantic article, out maybe this summer, that pointed out that women buy more books than men, and we read more fiction. And, in the U.S., there are more women than men who have degrees in literature. So, if anything, we should probably be considered the default readers. Like, we are the greater part of the literary audience. Women are not a niche market.

Yeah. So, now, let’s talk about—I guess this actually branches off on what you were saying earlier about children’s books, and what we learn about how to value female stories and male stories and female authors and male authors when we’re young. And you and I had spoken a little bit—I talked about, I mentioned to you how I, as I got older, I realized that I sort of internalized these ideas accidentally, that male literature is insightful and says powerful things, and female literature tends to be more niche. So let’s talk about the classics, and required reading in high school. Of the classics that are frequently assigned to high school students, where are overlooked instances of sexism or misogyny in those stories?

Um, yeah, like—well, everywhere, first of all. Yeah, when we talked about this before—well, on my blog I’ve talked about how rape happens all the time in the classics. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having classroom discussions about male entitlement, and how that leads to sexual assault. Even though it’s this, like, meta-theme that ties a lot of the classics together. You know, English—English teachers love that shit, right?

I think part of the problem is how rarely we’re willing to call rape rape. Right? Anything to victim-blame, right? The example that shocked me the most, actually, was Lolita. Because it’s hailed as this, like, great love story, even though it’s, you know, it’s about a middle-aged man who kidnaps his twelve-year-old step-daughter and rapes her repeatedly over the next two years. Which is the complete opposite of a love story. And it’s not even ambiguous, even in the book. Nabokov says in the preface to the book that Humbert is a monster. He calls him a—he calls him a “moral leper.” And then I turn my book cover over—my book over to the back cover—and I see a quote from Vanity Fair that says that the book is “the only convincing love story of our century.”

Oh my God.

Isn’t that horrifying?

I just threw up a little bit.

Yeah. So rape is definitely one. But there are broader issues, too. I mean, in my experience, literary curriculum in general overlooks female authors and protagonists. I can—I can only think of three books assigned in my high school that were by or about women. I mean, out of dozens, right? Meaning I spent entire semesters—and even entire years—reading books by men about men. And that was just normal, right? But if I’d wanted to take a class that featured only female writers, I would’ve had to wait until college, and I would’ve had to sign up for some specialized class in the Women’s Studies Department. Again, as if we’re this, like, niche offering.

Yeah. Yeah.

And while—yeah. And it is true that, historically, men have dominated literary culture, but most of the novels that exist today have been written in the last couple of centuries. So there are plenty of women to choose from.

And I’m not sure that being a man has ever been an excuse to dismiss or exclude women. I’ve criticized Tolkien on my blog before for underrepresentation of women, and some guy was like, “Well, what do you expect? He was a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century.” And I was like, Tolstoy. Thackeray. Flaubert. Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy… All men. Some Catholic (probably). Some conservative (probably). All born well before Tolkien, and all of whom thought women were, at least, like, minimally interesting. Interesting enough to write novels about, apparently.

And yeah, the last thing I was going to say is that there are, um, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for discussion around intersectional feminism in the classics—like, this idea that the various forms of oppression intersect. So, for example, a poor black woman is going to experience oppression differently than a rich white woman. I just finished Native Son in September. It’s this book, set in the ’40s, about this 20-year-old black boy who accidentally kills a white girl—who’s his boss’s daughter—and then deliberately murders his black girlfriend. But when he’s captured and put on trial, it’s only for killing the white girl—and the black girl’s body is brought in as evidence.

Whoa.

Yeah. Evidence of his, like, inclination toward violence. And as he’s sitting there, in court, he thinks to himself that even though she’s dead, and even though he killed her, he knows that she would resent her body being used that way. You know, in a way that essentially erases her personhood.

Yeah. Yeah. So what—yeah, sounds like an intense read. I have not read that one.

Yeah, it is an intense read for sure.

So what women authors or woman-centric books do you think should be added to high school curriculum to help teenagers now get the experiences and perspectives that you and I didn’t get when we were in high school?

Well, I guess in the case of my high school, like, any would be a good start. Because there were so few. I—I looked up a list recently of the most frequently assigned books in U.S. high schools, and it was all Shakespeare and the Greeks and Steinbeck. And, you know, us ladies, we get, like, The Scarlet Letter. Which is so boring we all wish it never existed in the first place, right? And it was written by a man.

But some of my favorites—and this is definitely subjective—but I would say of the books that actually do justice to female characters, probably Jane Eyre or anything by Jane Austen. Margaret Atwood’s books. Toni Morrison’s books. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote wonderful, complex women. I know some high school curriculum does include some of their books, but mine definitely didn’t. I wasn’t assigned any of those authors, at least not until college. Which is such a shame.

Yeah. My best friend from college, I always really envied. We had a few—we would have, like, maybe two female authors a year when I was in high school, so there was a little bit. But my best friend in college went to an all-girls Catholic school, and the nuns very deliberately made sure that fifty percent of the authors they read were women. And I was so jealous when I first met her—I was like, “I’ve gotta catch up to you!” Cuz there were these books I didn’t even really know existed, or had a vague sense of—but no one was saying, “You need to go out and read these,” so I didn’t prioritize them.

Right. Right. So, like, for example, why did I have to read both 1984 and Brave New World, but didn’t get to read The Handmaid’s Tale in school—you know? And why did I have to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had to find Jane Austen and Toni Morrison on my own? There’s just such a huge imbalance.

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation.

Thank you so much.

Have a good day. 

Thanks, Abi.

Bye.

In listening to this after the fact, I realized I did not reciprocate Abi’s initial “How are you?”—like some kind of mannerless monster—and I did not wish her a good day in parting. Normally both are reflexes, so the evidence of this wanton incivility on my part fills me with shame. My only defense is that I was distracted by setting up the call, preparing my notes, checking the time (the call was set to cut off automatically after 15 minutes), and, of course, tuning out the roar of my neighbor’s chainsaw.

Anyway, there you have it. This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic, but it’s probably the last you’ll hear from me about it today. Feel free to return to your spreadsheet, or your surgery, or your stocks, as the case may be. I’ll be here, as always—reading and writing and banging my head against the wall on behalf of women everywhere.

Quick Reviews, Part III

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#72 Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

On the back cover of my Signet Classics edition of Sons and Lovers, E. M. Forster declares D. H. Lawrence to be “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.”

This is ironic for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing imaginative at all in Sons and Lovers. The book is known, in fact, to be largely autobiographical.
  2. E. M. Forster himself—a fellow member of Lawrence’s generation—is more imaginative. And even that isn’t saying much.

Sons and Lovers is no more than a protracted look at the Oedipus complex—and not a very insightful one, IMHO. At the head of the Morel family stand an alcoholic miner hated by his children and an anguished housewife adored by them. Eventually, the sons grow up and fall in love/lust, and the shit hits the fam. All of them spew a steady stream of verbal abuse at each other—father and mother and sons and lovers—from start to finish.

Apparently the “sex scenes”—by which I mean vaguely sensual forest romps—were considered obscene back in 1913. To the modern reader, they are too ambiguous to be sexy and too boring to advertise.

I am pleased to say Lawrence and I can call it quits now that I’ve put Sons and Lovers and Women in Love behind me. I fail to see how his work is in any way outstanding, well-crafted, or entertaining.

And that’s putting it nicely.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

May I quote Bart Simpson? “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”

Favorite Quotes:

She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be.

Then Dawes made a remark which caused Paul to throw half a glass of beer in his face.
“Oh, Mr. Morel!” cried the barmaid, and she rang the bell for the “chucker-out.”
Dawes spat and rushed for the young man. At that minute a brawny fellow with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his trousers tight over his haunches intervened.

He loved her. There was a big tenderness, as after a strong emotion they had known together, but it was not she who could keep his soul steady.

Read: 2015


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#28 Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, sayings things she didn’t mean…

writes Virginia Woolf of her genteel heroine. That, and PTSD, provide the outline for this modernist masterpiece.

Modernism describes the literary period from around 1900 to the end of World War II—a period marked by dramatic experimentation with traditional narrative forms. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and pretty much everything written by Joyce and Faulkner fall squarely into this category.

Woolf toys with both style and substance in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The novel takes place over a single day, largely inside the minds of its two protagonists (the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway and a World War I veteran by the name of Septimus Warren Smith). Major themes include isolation and oppression, memory and madness, and the trauma inflicted on an entire generation by war and its aftermath.

I say give it a chance. Mrs. Dalloway will walk you through the streets of Westminster, buy you flowers, and throw you a party. And even if you hate London, and flowers, and parties, hey-o… this book is super short.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s hard to pull off a meaningful “day in the life” portrait, but Woolf manages it with seeming ease.

Favorite Quotes:

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

She had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying — what one felt.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

Read: 2013


#95 King Lear, William Shakespeare

Like I always say (or said, at least, that one time): If you’re going to write a tragedy, make it the TRAGEDY TO END ALL TRAGEDIES.

The problem with this advice is that only Shakespeare can write a truly sensational tragedy. And only Shakespeare can top Shakespeare.

So… yeah. Good luck with your tragedies, and all.

Here we go:

King Lear wants to retire. But first, he has to divide up his kingdom. Easy, he thinks. I’ll just slice it into thirds and pass one wedge to each daughter. I’ll even put a little whipped cream on top. That’ll be easy, too, because it comes in this handy aerosol can.

But it’s not easy. Nothing is easy for idiots. King Lear decides to give the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him the most.

The ass-kissing that follows is exquisite.

But, soon, everything starts to suck. Daughters are disowned. Earls are fired. Kings run naked across stormy heaths. Eyeballs get torn out. And then everyone dies.

In other words: King Lear is your family Thanksgiving.

Here’s hoping y’all skip the pie.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Duh.

Favorite Quotes:

The rain it raineth every day.

But his flawed heart—/Alack, too weak the conflict to support—/’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief/Burst smilingly. 

If Fortune brag of two she loved and hated/One of them we behold. 

Read: 2015


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#35 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Noteworthy features of the so-called “World State” in Aldous Huxley’s famous (and infamous) 1932 novel include:

With this in mind, we get to know Bernard Marx. Bernard is an Alpha but feels like an outcast, which is hardly fair. So on his trip to a “Savage Reservation” (similar to the Native American reservations of today), he picks up a souvenir that will catapult him to celebrity: his boss’s son, John, raised by his mother and Shakespeare’s collected works among the villagers there.

Bernard decides to take John back to London as a kind of social experiment. The experiment, as you could probably guess, is a disaster, rife with shame, drug abuse, self-flagellation, and exile (in that order, or almost).

Thirty years after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley revisited his vision of the future to assess its accuracy. In what was hardly a class act, he gave a smirk and announced, “Haha, told you so.” But he probably wasn’t referring to the public orgies… unless he caught a glimpse of MTV.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s got something—I’m just not sure if it has enough of that something.

Favorite Quotes:

Wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way. 

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty — how can they tend the wheels? And if they cannot tend the wheels… The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Lying in bed, he would think of Heaven and London.

Read: 2014


#55 Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

WTF, Beckett.

WTF.

Like, what is this? I can’t even.

In the words of the great Wikipedia Britannica:

One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel.

Oh no—no, of course not, because that would be preposterous. That would result in a book, whereas this is meant to be…

Well, I don’t know, really. You’d have to ask Samuel Beckett, if he’s not too busy listening to Fleetwood Mac. All we’ve been able to make of this postmodernist mess (yes, we’re into post-modernism now) is that it largely records the rambling interior monologue of Malone, an old man lying naked in a hospital OR insane asylum (we can’t be sure, because Malone isn’t). Highlights of this meditation include a nurse with a crucifix carved into her tooth, a bearded giant (aren’t they all?), a boat and a picnic, a dropped pencil, and a boy named Sapo, who is later renamed Macmann because Malone can’t “stomach” the name Sapo anymore.

Beckett translated Malone Dies from French to English himself and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969…

…which just goes to show how easy it is to confuse lunacy with genius.

I kid, I kid! Although now that I mention it, history is teeming with examples. Hmm.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Your guess is as good as mine. EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER READ IT.

Favorite Quotes:

There is naturally another possibility that does not escape me, though it would be a great disappointment to have it confirmed, and that is that I am dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not.

It is because it is no longer I, I must have said so long ago, but another whose life is just beginning. It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old all down the unchanging days and die one day like any other day, only shorter.

Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell.

Read: 2015

If you missed Quick Reviews, Part I, or Quick Reviews, Part II, you can find them here and here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.