Last night I went to a panel at The New School about the question of “what is particular about women’s depiction of sex and sexuality,” moderated by Sheila Heti with panelists Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman plus, because the event was partially supported by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, two French writers, Emilie Noteris and Wendy Delorme. Some aspects of this event were very cool. It was fascinating to hear, from Chris, about the beginnings of the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series. Those are some of my favorite books. I still feel stupid that it took me as long as it did — 5 or 6 years from when I first read Romy Ashby and Cookie Mueller and Eileen Myles to when I finally read I Love Dick — to realize that those books were all animated by the same sensibility, and that the sensibility was Chris’s. The idea that first-person narratives by women that weren’t therapeutic or apologetic-confessional could be published was and is revolutionary. But that this is still a revolutionary idea more than twenty years later seems like the kind of thing we should have a war crimes tribunal about, not a panel discussion.
And that wasn’t really what the panel discussion was about, anyway. To the extent that it was about anything, it was about how annoyed all the panelists were that despite the big differences in their work and career stages and cultures, they had been united by their biological femininity to deliver some kind of definitive conclusion about “what is particular” about “women’s depiction of sex.” The panel began with each writer reading a prepared statement, and the only theme that recurred in all of the statements was that there aren’t panels like this for male writers, because no one would think to make a distinction between “male writers” and “writers.” After the prepared statements were read aloud — copies were also distributed to the audience members so we could follow along — the panelists mostly complained about how their work had been misunderstood and insulted, and how frustrating this had been.
I sympathize with this frustration, having experienced it myself, but I am also sure that everyone in the audience of New School students and faculty and French cultural-embassy types and people who work at New York-based magazines and publishing houses already knew and sympathized with this issue, so it seemed extra silly that we were devoting an evening to complaining about it. What would be cool is if there was ever a solution posited, rather than a litany of grievances. I wanted all the writers to be free of having to talk about this shit so that they could get back to their work. I was also annoyed that no one mentioned money, making a living as a writer, and what that has to do with writing narratives with “unlikeable” ie fully human women narrators or protagonists. I mean, it was a panel of people whose work is not published by major publishers in the U.S. and later, when someone (ok it was me) asked about money some of the panelists laughed it off and made fun of themselves for being inept at making money with their writing. ”Whenever someone wants to pay me to write a book, I can’t finish it!” Wendy Delorme said. Lynne Tillman mentioned teaching, which is the dignified way for writers to make a living.
I don’t want it to be ridiculous to want to make a living at the thing you’re best at. And I think women who want to make a living as writers have to make compromises that women who’ve figured out how to make a living some other way have the luxury of never considering. Can we find a way for women to join the “big league” of writers, the Jonathans and Michaels and Pauls and Chads, without either unsexing themselves or playing to cuddly, maternal or sexpot-exotic sterotypes? This is what I should have asked a question about, if I was going to ask a question. Instead I was that terrible person who asks a statement-question that was all about myself. I started out trying to ask the money question but then I got distracted by the Bookforum banner covering the podium where Sheila stood.
I didn’t tell this story last night to complain, but it sounded like a complaint. I fucked up the telling. I was nervous and scared. I’m telling this story now to expose what happened, not to blame anyone or grind an axe. I can’t go back in time and change how my book was received or how my behavior and the way I’d led my life up until that point fed into that reception. But the fact is, when my book was published two years ago, Bookforum asked my publisher to provide my author photo. But when the review was published, it ran alongside a photo from two years earlier, the photo of me in a bathing suit giving the finger. It’s a cute photo. I’m not sad that I posed in a bathing suit giving the finger, and seriously fuck anyone who thinks I should be. But the review was negative, and negative in such a gendered, stupid way, and the combination of review and photo was so blantantly sexist, so ridiculously unfair, but there’s no way for me to talk about this that doesn’t involve me being an author whining about getting a bad review. Look, I’m not “okay with it” when people hate my book, and I’m not pretending to be. Despite its flaws, I love my book, in the same way that I love my most-despised parts of my own body: because they’re mine, because of what they’re capable of doing. There are valid reasons to dislike my book, and there are things about my book that make me cringe. But this review did not engage with the book as a book at all. The review was a review of my body, which illustrated the review, and of my personality, and more importantly, this happens to women
and it still happens in Bookforum, too. So kudos to Bookforum for helping the French people throw together this panel discussion, but I do not accept it as even a first step in the right direction. Corralling women into a pen together and feigning concern for them when they say they feel trapped is not helping anyone.
There are concerns more pressing right now than how people who aren’t heterosexual men are marginalized and condescended to in the literary world, like how someone who believes women should be forced to give birth against their will might be elected president of this country. But this is not an unrelated issue, or not as unrelated as we in our privileged panel-discussion-attending world might like to believe that it is. Books, words, stories are still at the heart of our culture, and we need to look right into that culture’s dark heart, rather than its most esoteric fringes, so that we can figure out how revolutionary ideas about real justice and freedom can exist and thrive in both places.
I felt humiliated after I told this whiny story last night, rightly so I think. It was inappropriate and selfish. I kept reliving it on the way home and wishing that I’d articulated my thoughts better, or not at all. When I got home I made myself some dinner and then we watched the latest episode of Homeland, which Keith had pirated from, I think, Russian Facebook? The video quality was very bad but we persisted in watching it anyway because we knew that this would be the episode when Carrie got to find out that she was right all along about Brody. Carrie, a disgraced and discredited former C.I.A. agent who was fired from the agency last season for being “crazy,” in part because she persisted in telling her male C.I.A. bosses about her suspicion that Brody, a heroic-seeming former P.O.W. had been turned by Al Qaeda during his years in captivity and is now a dangerous double agent. She kept believing this and telling them it was true until they fired her, and then she had to get electroshock therapy. (This is not a subtle show.)
But the scene of Carrie’s vindication was not very satisfying. Instead of a glorious return to her old job and apologies from the bosses who fired her, she watches the video that proves her right alongside her mentor Saul, who’s mostly been on her side all along, and now it’s not clear whether anyone will believe either of them, and it seems like maybe the evidence will be lost — she and Saul are still the only ones who know. And Carrie isn’t happy to be vindicated, either. She weeps as she says, “I was right … I was right.” She seems to be mourning everything she lost in order to be right.
Sometimes being right is not very satisfying in and of itself. It seems like, on the show, Carrie’s troubles are only just beginning.