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I was going to do a summer reading snazz, but being half-way through October, I’m a little late. Still, I’ve been wanting to

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

highlight a few of the awesome books I’ve read/been reading over the past couple of months:

Oh! A Novel of the Mono No Aware by Todd Shimoda- This is a perfect book for traveling though I can’t explain why. I don’t usually enjoy reading heavier things when I travel–well, while I’m in transit to be more precise–because I find the experience disorienting. Airplanes are the worst offenders. But there’s something about Oh! that works perfectly for traveling; perhaps it’s the way Shimoda captures his protagonist, Zack Hara’s, own sense of being out of sync with the world.

In Oh!, Hara, a technical writer from LA who is plagued by emotional numbness, goes to the part of Japan where his grandfather grew up in order to rediscover his ability to feel. Along this journey, he kindles a strange friendship with a psychology professor and embarks on a side quest (well, several, really, but they all are part of one thing): to understand the concept of mono no aware (literally: stuff of emotion or the emotional essence of objects.) To add to the story, Todd’s wife, Linda, created a series of gorgeous brush paintings inspired by the work that are interspersed through the text.

Though stories of people trying to find themselves in foreign countries or reconnect with their roots are everywhere, Shimoda really delivers something special in Oh!. I really enjoyed how so much in the novel was, well, displaced: emotions onto objects, one man’s search for his daughter onto another man’s search for himself. At first I found Zack’s inability to deal with the root of his problem, his depression (take that word however you wish,) frustrating. As I read on, it became fascinating, and I became impressed by Shimoda’s ability to blend literary aesthetic with human emotion and have it still feel authentic and real. That is, despite all the displacement going on in the novel, mono no aware never becomes an excuse or stand-in for the emotional core of the novel. The characters still feel real and not merely the means of enacting a metaphor or concept.

To top it off, Chin Music Press, which, as you all know, I greatly admire, published this book so it is, as you would expect: meticulously designed. What I really love about CMP is that when they publish a book you know the whole package has been thought out to the last detail: the design will never overshadow the content because they love what they publish, but it will work to enhance it. The only thing better than a good book is reading a book that has been designed in such a way that the text’s best elements have been enhanced to create a fantastic reading experience. Their work with Oh! is no exception.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- A Holocaust book narrated by Death? That description alone probably intrigues some of you, and some of you ready to skip to the next book on my list. Seriously, I find that Holocaust literature really divides people. I, for one, have a difficult time reading it because it depresses  me (and I typically can enjoy depressing literature.) Still, The Book Thief is one of the very best things I’ve read recently. Death is actually quite an engaging narrator, giving away just enough to heighten tension and delivering appropriate bits of wisdom. The book itself tells the story of a girl named Liesl who discovers for her own the power of words to change people, as all around her in Nazi Germany, words are destroying life for many German citizens.

In addition to having engaging characters and lovely prose, the novel’s strongest point is that it really drove home that it was German citizens (well, if they weren’t Polish or French or…) dying in death camps. That they were also Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, etc. was just another facet of this. I know many of you probably think that we don’t need another book explaining that we are all human and killing each other is bad, but, considering that people don’t listen, I guess we have to keep writing them. And if books this heart-wrenching, charming, and well-written come out of it, then by all means, continue writing.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan- Though technically a picture book–in fact, a wordless picture book–Shaun Tan’s little gem really takes the old “immigrant story” to a new level. With gorgeous, detailed illustrations, Tan has created “new world” full of technology, creatures, and foods as mysterious to us as it is to the man whose journey we follow. Despite the lack of words, the story is simple to follow. Tan’s artwork stands on its own, really, but what I do appreciate about his work here and in Tales from Outer Suburbia is the way he really makes issues surrounding multiculturalism, immigration, and empathy come alive so that they at once can make sense to children, and yet still feel fresh and relevant enough for an adult audience.

The Rabbi’s Cat (1 and 2) by Joann Sfar- A graphic novel about the life of a rabbi in 1930’s Algiers, as seen through the eyes of his subversive, opinionated cat. I checked out the first volume of this from the library on a whim, expecting it to be cute, but what I got instead was 100 times better. As a narrator, the cat is something between a snarky philosopher and a quintessential cat, by turns loyal and critical. His views on the world around him, from the sometimes shaky relations between the Algerian Jews and Muslims, to the difficulties of dealing with French rule are dealt with in a way that feels real while still mixed with a touch of humor.

One thing that this book really captures is the contradictions inherent in living every day. The rabbi at once is happy to see his daughter married, and yet saddened by what it means for his life: he is getting older; his daughter will no longer live with him. All of the Jewish characters struggle with their beliefs, the apparent realities of their situations, and their desires. The cat lies but sometimes understands the truth better than any of the other characters. The result is a fascinating glimpse at a group of people living a life that’s less dogmatic and more discovery.

Oh yes, and Volume 2 is worth reading for the Tintin cameo mockery alone. Because while I know those comics have their good points, Tintin is really kind of the quintessential Eurocentric character, and it’s funny to call our nostalgia out on that, even if it was a product of its time. Or, at least, I’m amused.

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson- I find Winterson’s books difficult to do write-ups on, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps its just the plethora of imagery and myth she manages to interweave into one story. Maybe it’s the way her prose is so amazingly quote-able. Who knows? In any case, though not quite Lighthousekeeping, Sexing the Cherry is a beautiful book. As hinted, Winterson’s prose is gorgeous and lyrical in the best sense.

However, though I really enjoyed both Jordan and the Dog Woman as characters (particularly the Dog Woman,) what really stands out about this book to me is the strange cast of characters who populate their journeys. There is a city where words pollute the air, and cleaners must fly up in balloons to clean it. The 12 Dancing Princesses of fairy tale fame all live together in one house after escaping their husbands in various dark or amusing ways. I found myself not so concerned with where the books was going and simply enjoyed the ride.

That being said, I’m still not sure how I feel about where the book ended up, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll leave that discussion to anyone who wishes to have it with me.

Of course, these are only a few of the books I’ve read recently, but these felt the most relevant to the blog. Plus, they’re all excellent and deserve your attention.

I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.

I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.

Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.

My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)

This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.

Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.

What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.

And a moving story?

In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.

This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.

Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.

Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.

I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.

Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”

At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.

Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.

(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)

[Ginny Maziarka] cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

I’ve always thought of the public library as being a safe place. Part of it is just the way I’ve always romanticized books in my head, but there’s also always been the liberating feeling that I am free from all judgment as to what I read and check out. I know this might not be everyone’s experience with the libraries in their area, but in my mind, the ideal public library would make media available, not tell people which media is culturally appropriate. Particularly with the price of books and database subscriptions being so high, it seems incredibly important to have a place where reading and information are free. If some materials do not meet people’s standards, well, even terrible trash can spawn valuable discussion. And sometimes I think all of us, regardless of our views, would benefit from at least reading the other side of the story (agreeing is a different matter.)

So when my friend, who’s working toward her MA in library science, sent me this article, it gave me a lot to think about. Here’s the long and short of it: After the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin included Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop (link goes to Powell’s) in a library display, several groups of locals were outraged, and the book found itself the target of blistering hate. City residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka demanded that the library segregate “sexually-explicit.” Another local filed a suit with the Christian Civil Liberties Union, asking for $120,000 in damages (seeing the book apparently damaged them emotionally,) and the resignation of the West Bend Mayor.

From a certain standpoint, this is nothing new–I mean, it’s old for reasons aside from the fact that the ALA article came out in June. Of course, books, particularly books for children and adolescents, face antagonism all the time. From Harry Potter to In the Night Kitchen (yes, the Sendak one,) people can come up with infinite reasons as to why a book is obscene. Nevertheless, the hatred this book in particular has aroused terrifies me:

…[T]he complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

[T]he plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.”

Other bloggers have talked about the sudden outrage over this book, but many of them hadn’t read it.  I had: I discovered it back in Jr. High, and read it over and over. I remember lying on the couch in the living room, sick with some sort of bug, re-reading it all in one sitting (Admittedly, this was not a huge feat—it’s only about 100 pages.). Over the years, I had forgotten about it; I had left it behind with most of my other Jr. High favorites, but it never left me.

So when I heard about the hubbub, my first reaction was: “Why now? [the book came out in 1995.] And why that one and not every other book Block has written?” (Of the books of hers that I’ve read, the majority I can think of at least contain gay or bisexual characters.) The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it. So I did. Re-reading it, I discovered two secrets: 1. Why the homosexuality was considered so much worse in that than any of her others and 2. Why it had been so important to me as an adolescent.

Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s the library’s place to judge or pry.  When it comes to the issue of book banning, particularly where libraries are concerned, I find content irrelevant. Still, in this case, Baby Be-Bop is such an interesting work that I feel it’s worth assessing what about it could cause such anger, and why I feel it needs our protection. I should note that follows will, eventually, contain what are technically spoilers. I do not believe that they actually spoil the book because it’s more about emotions than plot; the beauty is in the details.

Set in the early ‘90s, Baby Be-Bop is the story of a young man named Dirk McDonald, who lives in a beautiful cottage outside of Los Angeles, CA, with his grandmother Fifi. He has always known that he was gay and wishes he didn’t feel he had to hide it. He wants to be strong and unafraid. When he is attacked at a punk club (ostensibly for insulting a man’s swastika tattoo, but it soon turns into a gay bashing,) he almost gives up hope until he is visited by the spirits of his great grandmother and his father, both of whom had passed on before he was born. They tell him their stories about how they grew up and fell in love. Although they both were heterosexual, they assert that they see no difference between their loves and Dirk’s. As his great-grandmother says without pause or hesitation, “Any love that is love is right” (66).

I also think it’s important to understanding the outrage that this book inspires to keep in mind that by love, Block means sex as well. In Block’s fairy tale, masturbation, fantasy, and sex are just as natural and beautiful as “spiritual love.”

I wish I felt like there was more to analyze here, but I’m afraid that this is the whole dark secret of the book. There is violence, but it is never glorified. There is hate speech, but only from the mouths of despicable individuals. Some of the characters smoke, but I don’t think that’s what’s triggering people. On the whole, it is a book that says, “It’s okay to love how you love,” and I think that scares people.

Far from being damaging, Baby Be-Bop is a healing, empowering story. It encourages teens to speak up and tell their stories where they have felt silenced. It encourages teens not to be afraid of their sexual sides. I think that’s why I read it as a teen. Though my parents were as encouraging as Block, my school was run by a rather conservative religious group (despite the school being a secular school,) and their messages sometimes leaked past the positive ones I got. Although I was pretty sure that I was heterosexual, it just felt so good to hear someone else say that my body wasn’t dirty. I don’t want to pretend that this book single-handedly saved me, but I consider it part of the remedy. I like to think it’s helped other teens of all sexualities and genders in that way too.

Of course, the book has its problematic moments; in particular, I’ve never been comfortable with Block’s tendency to use LA’s minority populations to help exoticize the city and enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of her stories. There’s a lot to talk about in that aspect of Block’s work in general; Said would have a field day with her bohemian love of “the East.” Sadly, I do not think these were the racial problems the plaintiffs in this case were concerned about (not that I would advocate banning the book over them.).

Nevertheless, on the whole, if sharing Baby Be-Bop is obscene, then I will gladly be obscene. If encouraging love is damaging, then I will damage. And I will do all I can to support libraries so that any teen who has been taught that ze is dirty and wrong will check out this book and others like it and begin to feel clean.

(Cross-posted to Feministe.)

A professor once suggested that Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne would make excellent material for valentines. Yet what good does it do to use Keats as your Cyrano?

A professor once suggested that Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne would make excellent material for valentines. Yet what good does it do to use Keats as your Cyrano?

Of all the things in the heavily gendered world of self-help and advice that make me cringe, few things set me off more than a man who sets to explain to heterosexual women how to change themselves to suit them, and vice-versa. The suggestions tend to rely on the kinds of stereotypes that people tend to claim we know aren’t true but are free to use in “satire” anyhow, are based on the idea that one size fits all, tend to offer advice like “be more self-confident” that one should do for one’s own benefit and not to get into a relationship, and are rather hetero and cis-centric. I admittedly cannot write from a queer perspective, but I’m pretty sure people are just confusing in general and, regardless of gender, have confusing wants and needs.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when Marie Claire (the women’s magazine) ran this blog post,  I wanted to tear my hair out. This is about where my friend Rachel would ask me what else I would expect from them—and she’s right, you know, but I end up subjecting myself to these things anyhow.  The article is called “8 Ways to Use Books to Flirt (Even if You Don’t Read Much).” The parentheses kill any hope that I may have had for the article; if you don’t like reading, why use it as a flirtation tactic? Alas, this could have been the green light for women who are too afraid to flirt with their intelligence. Instead, it underestimates both our emotional and our intellectual maturity.

The article consists of an interview with academic and author Jack Murnighan, author of Beowulf on the Beach, a book which attempts to bring sexy back to the Canon of western literature by teaching people what was fun and wonderful about these books in the first place–a noble goal. Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly decided that his spirit of librosexualty (my friend’s and my term for bibliophilic) gave him the credentials to teach women to pretend they’ve read more than they actual have to get men. I suppose as far as these things go, the article is by no means the worst offender: it at least encourages reading and concludes that a woman talking about something she’s passionate about is the most sexy thing of all, which of course is something I can really get behind. But it made me furiously angry—I think I may have said, “Bite me,” out loud, which is not something I usually say (though I do occasionally say random things aloud when I read something particularly, erm, stirring.)

What made me so angry about it is that for all of Murnighan’s attempts to make literature accessable and Maura Kelly’s fawning over him (“If you have a crush on Jack after reading this, I understand,” she writes,) the article, whether intentionally or not, operates under the assumption that women don’t read the more “difficult” classics of literature. In fact, the very premise assumes that women do not read as often as men. I don’t want to blame Murnighan entirely for the condescending message of this article; though he agreed to the interview and played along with the premise, Kelly’s questions underestimate either her own potential or, perhaps worse, the potential of other women to be intellectual (or, for that matter, assume that a knowledge of the Western Canon is the only way to be smart, intellectual, or well-read, which is rather ridiculous in its own right.). But the worst part about this article is that it does not actually encourage women to read these books because they’re sexy books, which seems to be one of Murnighan’s goals as a writer, but instead he encourages us to use the sexiness inherent in these books as a veneer. Or, as Woolf would have it: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man [or, in this case, “male literature,” whatever that means] at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s Own, II).

Isn't there something a little creepy about reading Lolita just to attract a mate?

Isn't there something a little creepy about reading Lolita just to attract a mate?

This became abundantly clear to me when Kelly asked the unforgivable question: “Are there books that are more likely than others to make a guy start talking to a woman in the coffee shop? ” Of course, Murnighan’s first suggestion is Lolita, which he considers to be the literary equivalent of a short skirt (his phrasing, not mine) because women only wear short skirts for the male gaze and not because it’s hot outside, or they just happened to like the skirt.  I have to admit that I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable dating someone who was attracted to the fact that I was reading Lolita because he thought it was a suggestive, edgy book. It is, after all, about child rape. It’s written in some of the most incredible prose, yes, but, nevertheless, it’s about child rape.

Frankly, the whole notion of picking my reading material with the goal of attracting sexual attention is completely bizarre to me. I would never have considered it. It feels like an intrusion into a world where literature exists as a pleasure I can enjoy by myself, for the benefit of myself, and if it turns out that a friend, crush, or lover happens to enjoy it too, they may join me in my delight, but their entrance is natural and incidental. It is not a world set up for voyeurism, if that makes sense. So when Kelly and Murnighan add books to the list of things that I’m “supposed” to check for what signals they send to the male population, it feels like an unforgivable intrusion. It took long enough for me to train myself to dress for myself. But, alas, just as we are not supposed to drag men to chick flicks, expect them to drink cosmos, or watch “Sex in the City” (because ALL women do all of those things, and we do it because we don’t realize how torturous they are for men), we must monitor our taste in literature if we want to be intellectually sexy:

…if a woman is reading a book by an author who is considered a “guy’s writer”–like Cormac McCarthy–that’s likely to get her a lot more attention than if she were deep into Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, a woman reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the train would probably turn a few heads.

Firstly, I’d just like to note that I once attracted male attention in a coffee shop for discussing Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Granted, I don’t think that book actually gets heavily gendered in terms of its marketing, but it’s got a unicorn in the title, so I’m counting it anyhow. Reading Murakami on the MAX has gotten me none. This is fine, actually, because, well, I’m reading.

But okay, in all seriousness, the comparison here is so off the mark I don’t know where to begin. Jane Austen is an artist of plots. Some people wonder what’s so literary about her because she doesn’t use dense, heavy symbolism, but it’s important to keep in mind that that’s not what she was trying to do. At a time when so many of the novels out there were clumsily constructed, Austen had her plots so perfected that in Emma, every single twist in the novel is hinted at on the first page, and yet they still surprise you. That takes skill, control and craft–she definitely deserves her spot in the Canon.

In the context of this article, what Austen does is so different from Joyce that it comes off as making a woman reading Pride and Prejudice seem shallow and laughable. A person reading Joyce probably has a reference book or at least a notebook to mark stuff down nearby because Joyce is intentionally trying to confuse you. He doesn’t want his readers to have an easy time. Austen’s insistence on clarity does not make her fluff. Also, P&P has gotten the chick flick treatment in our cultural imagination, from TV shows like “Lost in Austen,” to the book Me and Mr. Darcy, from the recent film starring Kiera Knightley, and, my personal “favorite,” a chick-lit. edition complete with a “Why you should read this book” introduction by Meg Cabot. As much as I feel Austen deserves more respect than that, choosing P&P (Not even Persuasion or Mansfield Park,) to represent “women’s literature” (a distinction I dislike anyhow) as opposed to something by Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende or George Eliot—to rattle a few examples off the top of my head—he’s making us look shallow, lost in our little Georgian world and waiting for our Mr. Darcys to come.

I’m just glad he didn’t include Hemingway. That would have been insufferably cliché.

The gross insult in this article is that he’s trying to invite women to the table of flirty, sexy intellectuals, to the fold of people who enjoy using the word “swyve” instead of “fuck,” who talk about Milton’s portrayal of angel sex, who would rather proclaim their love with Donne than use stock quotes from Romeo and Juliet (not that Shakespeare isn’t wonderful), but he’s ignoring that there are plenty of women already there. It’s a gendered invitation, not a call for more readers (of the Western Canon.) He’s encouraging us to read more “masculine” authors if we want to turn heads (Which I actually find bizarre because in his book he does give women authors their due.) instead of reading what we like, or (and this is a criticism I have of Beowulf on the Beach as well) encouraging people to go out and read what they like. Between Kelly and him, I’m not sure who is worse: Kelly insists we want and need lines to parrot, and instead of saying, “that’s really a bad idea,” he gives them to us like some kind of Professor Higgins of the Western Canon.

Oh yes, speaking of the Canon, in both this and his book,  he’s also sticking to a very strict view of what the Canon is, which limits it to a distinctly white cross-section, and the he throws Márquez in as the sensual Latin American, which just bothers me, though I have to admit that 100 Years of Solitude is intentionally sensually written. Still.

The logic of the article reminds me me of that in articles written by men in the 1800’s who advocated for women’s education not because we’re human and deserve it but because it would make us more interesting for men. I’ll admit that this logic had its use back in the day because people were still unsure that women were human (and I guess you could say the same thing for now,) but it’s lost its edge. Completely.

And the worst thing about all of this is that I would love to get behind Murnighan’s message if he would just make it unisex (and be a little less condescending. Oh, and realize that “Time Passes” is one of the sexiest parts of To the Lighthouse, but I guess that’s not technically gospel fact as much as I like to pretend it is. Yes, I went to a bookstore today and looked up Beowulf on the Beach, why do you ask?). People teach classic literature as if it were boring, and that cheats everyone out of a lot of fun.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think books are sexy. I think reading is sexy. One of the best things I got out of being an English major—aside from the life-changing lessons of critical thinking, brain-expanding empathizing, and learning to analyze and  deconstruct—was a sense of just how human, in a beautiful, dirty, imperfect sort of way, literature can be. Tradition may hold it up on a pedestal, trapped in a glass case and surrounded by a halo of purity, but great literature was written by great authors, who were and are, just like us, humans, writing to work things out or share what they think they’ve worked out. I love Paradise Lost, for example, because its author was a person who, having lost everything, was still trying to justify the ways of G-d to man. Though I find about a million things to love about Milton, I’ve always loved the sense that he writes not from a position of authority, but as an “essay”-ist, in the sense of the French essayer, which means to try. I can never see it as a stuffy, boring work because it’s so human in the most wonderful of ways. Yes, it’s literature’s humanity that makes it divine.

One of the sins of how many people teach literature is that they make it sound like it was all written by asexual geniuses from heaven instead of, as Wilde would have it, in the gutter looking at the stars. Some teachers of literature become the people Yeats describes in his poem, “The Scholars:”

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

(Yes, yes, this poem also reminds me of just how white and male the Canon is too, but that’s an issue for another post.). Much of literature does come from love (though of what varies,) and so I would agree that literature is tailor-made for intellectual courtship between two librosexuals. I’m not going to deny that one of the things that hooked me about Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels was that his love for Harriet Vane only grew when he realized she could quote from and understand as many works of literature in as many different languages as he could. I’m not denying that I find Busman’s Honeymoon incredibly sexy at parts because they’re quoting John Donne at each other. But Wimsey didn’t have to urge Harriet to join the joust of intellectual wordplay; sensing he was game, she drew out her… I don’t remember what she first quotes in Strong Poison, probably because, admittedly, I haven’t read it, and I think it’s fallen out of favor whatever it was. But it was a classic, and it was probably very sexy.

So I ask again: What good is knowing a random snippet of Boccaccio’s Decameron if you can’t follow through? Why joke about the Wyf of Bath’s (they spelled it with a “y” back in the day) foul mouth if you don’t have fond memories of when you first realized what she meant that she wanted a husband with both the finest purse and “nether purse,” or are able to use it to trigger a discussion of your favorite Canterbury Tale, be it one of the really filthy ones like “The Miller’s Tale,” or one of the tamer ones like the courtly “Knight’s Tale,” or the ever-popular “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which is often simplified into children’s literature? If this kind of banter and discussion doesn’t scream “date night” to you, or you just don’t like literature (which is fine too), or you feel affected talking about it, then why pretend to it? Or, for that matter, if you want to flirt using books, why does it have to be limited to the Canon anyhow?

What is sexy about anyone of any gender pretending to be interested in something they’re not? Or, if they are interested in learning more about Canonical literature but haven’t read much yet, what’s sexy about pretending they’ve read more than they have? Honesty is always good (or at least it should be.)

Gratuitous Wimsey/Vane. Because that's what my pleasure reading has consisted of lately and because I can.

Gratuitous Vane/Wimsey. Because that's what my pleasure reading has consisted of lately and because I can.

I apologize for the rather obnoxious name-dropping in this entry, but I’m doing it to mock the very idea that women inclined to this sort of flirting need lines to parrot. Yes, I will admit that this kind of flirting sounds like fun if I were doing it naturally and my flirtation partner has a similar interest in literature (otherwise I’d just feel like I was showing off, and that would be gross.). I’ll also admit that I do admire Murnighan’s desire to show people just how fun literature can be, and it scares me that I’d probably get along with him if he didn’t seem to be such a condescending git.  Nevertheless, whether it was pressure from Kelly (“Girls, girls, what have we done to ourselves?” Okay, that one was Tori Amos at her most lucid.) or his subconscious longing to find his Harriot Vane (though I don’t know if he’s read Sayers), or a little of both, he has only succeeded in suggesting that female would-be-intellectuals (or, perhaps from both of their perspectives, women who would only read if it means a relationship) remake themselves in the image of male academia, and that, my friends, is no way to flirt.

In closing, I can only turn back to Woolf, as part of my not-so-secret goal in life to convince as many people as possible that Virginia Woolf is human, funny, and sexy:

Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. –from A Room of One’s Own, chapter II

Megan Abbott writes about female characters in a tradionally male-oriented genre. But does that make them different?

Megan Abbott writes about female characters in a traditionally male-oriented genre. But does that make her novels different from those of her peers?

When I need a bit of a feminist pick-me-up, I love watching Sarah Haskins’s “Target Women.” Because I do this for a pick-me-up, I always try and not commit the grave sin against my poor brain of reading the comments thread. But sometimes I’m a backslider. This week, when checking out the hilarious episode mocking VH1’s “Tough Love,” I came across this comment:

Feminism isn’t dead but it does get drunk and confuse itself with women doing things as poorly as men . A woman doing the same weak version of a job that men do isn’t a feminist, just a hack .

It should have been easy for me to dismiss this comment as someone engaging in the good old “This is objectively bad!” to make themselves feel better for disliking something.  It’s just easier to say, “I don’t like this because it’s bad,” than admitting that it’s just not to your taste (I think we all do this sometimes, when “well it’s just my opinion” seems far too weak to convey how truly bad we think something is. I’m certainly “guilty” of it, if it’s something to be guilty of. And on some days I’m not so sure it’s always a mere defense mechanism.). But the comment wouldn’t get out of my head. It rang and rang in there until I was forced to admit that it’s a thought I’ve had too, though not directed at Sarah Haskins.

I think back to my time as an English major, specifically my time sitting in Intro. to American Literature, slogging through the writings of the Puritans (who, admittedly, didn’t interest me anyhow). As the Great Canon of English Literature has fallen from grace (and rightfully so,) because of its rather homogeneous, white, male voice, English scholars have done their best to diversify the Canon. Some have called this method “Just add minorities and stir,” and it has made many people, progressive and conservative alike, wonder if some writers are now being taught for diversity’s and not quality’s sake. I never felt this more keenly in American Literature, when we discussed the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.

All through that reading assignment, I seethed. I hated her writing–I found it trite, boring. It included the line “My love is such that rivers cannot quench” for Pete’s sake! Why? I thought Why is her poetry so famous? I tried to share the enthusiasm of another feminist in the class to no avail. I felt that I was expected to look to Anne Bradstreet as an inspiration because she was a woman, a Puritan woman, who got published. Instead, I felt she got undue recognition because the Canon needed more women.

I felt terribly guilty for this. I redoubled my efforts to take Bradstreet seriously; I attempted to read her poetry aloud in a tone that wasn’t singsong (I failed miserably. See the aforementioned line.). But nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare her poetry to her contemporaries and find it lacking. I tried to justify my disdain by pointing out that other women wrote better poetry in the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for example, a Mexican nun who also lived in a culture that tended to see intellectualism in women as no better than witchcraft. But even as my gut feels justified, I know that the comparison is unfair: the women came from different cultures, and just because I think one is a better poet than the other doesn’t necessarily render Anne Bradstreet bad. Just because that, in addition to a few explicitly feminist pieces, Sor Juana writes about everything from the metaphysical, to love, to Greco-Roman mythology doesn’t make Anne Bradstreet automatically boring because, in addition to one incognito feminist piece, she writes about her devotion to her God, her husband, and her job as a Christian housewife (Granted, my problem with Bradstreet is more that I don’t think she wrote about them well, but it’s more thematically powerful in the context of this post if I leave that out.).

Nevertheless, this realization didn’t stop me from feeling self-righteous anger. “Adding women to the Canon because they are women doesn’t further feminism!” I would grumble to anyone who asked me my opinion on Bradstreet. People generally agreed with me. I still don’t necessarily think I’m wrong, and, to this day, I’ve yet to find anything interesting about Bradstreet. It’s the same argument many feminists use (fairly, in my opinion) to remind people that just because Sarah Palin runs for Vice President doesn’t mean we have to support her, and that just because Twilight was written by a woman about a woman (? arguable.) and then turned into a film directed by a woman doesn’t mean that we have to pledge our undying love. But I do think things are a little more complicated than I make it out to be sometimes.

One of the things I’ve written about many times before on this blog is that when women want to write, perform, or otherwise create media, society still sees them as women before it sees them as artists. But there’s more to this than just that: we (and I mean everyone) also judge women for what genre they choose to work in.

Traditional feminist wisdom holds that there are two ways women can make art: we can either appropriate male forms, or we can create our own. The difficulty with creating our own is that, because it deals with women’s issues, men and other women often don’t take it seriously. The difficulty of appropriating male language (…music, painting styles, comedy, etc.) is that audiences are quick to call femininity a gimmick. The problem with creating our own is that it forces us to buy into cultural definitions of what is feminine. The problem with appropriating “male” forms is that it supports the idea that masculine is somehow equivalent with unisex and devalues the feminine. Catch-22. What do we do?

When I first opened this blog, one of the articles I was eager to write was entitled “Writing for Women.” The thesis was to be, essentially, “I hate chick lit. I hate the very concept of chick lit. Any genre that shares its name with a type of gum isn’t literature!” When I was sharing my ideas with my friend, a fellow writer and armchair philosopher whom I respect very greatly, she asked me some rhetorical questions that complicated my very black and white view of the issue (Her favorite philosopher is Socrates. Is anyone surprised?). You see, this friend is a closeted devotee of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “It’s not that I think they’re great literature,” she told me, “They’re not. They’re just fun. But it made me realize that chick lit. is a genre used for women to speak to each other. The men in the books were caricatures, cardboard cutouts. They weren’t meant to be real, unlike the women of the book. It’s supposed to be a world men can’t inhabit.”

I thought about this a lot. I still objected to the idea that women’s writing had to be about romance and weight loss, but, at the same time, is it possible for women to write a book about family, sisterhood, and mothers and have it be taken seriously by the book world? I tried to think of a book of the sort that wasn’t treated as either chick lit. or “whiny feminist literature” (a genre that I don’t actually believe exists, but you try convincing some people that Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have the ability to appeal to everyone.)

Oh I argued with her. I mentioned that there’s no equivalent genre for men. I claimed that the existence of the genre makes it more difficult for women writers because we fear that whatever we write will be stuck in that genre (I still hold this as a possibility.) But I couldn’t shake a lingering doubt from my head that I was calling this writing trite because it dealt with what is the reality for many women who do follow current feminine norms. Maybe it does nothing to challenge it. Maybe it’s poorly written (I don’t know. I haven’t really read it.). But am I being unfair to dismiss it as a stain on all women’s writing?

One of the things we prize most in our artwork is universality–that everyone can relate to it. Shakespeare we hold to be the greatest of authors, and when we question why, the first answer people will give you is “universality” (Anthropologists will tell you otherwise. I don’t think this detracts from Shakespeare’s greatness.). Even as scholars argue whether universality is a myth or not, the reality is that as long as we hold “universal” to be a criteria of good art, art written by members of “minority” groups suffer because people tend to see their art as specific to their group. White, straight, cis, (I could go on…) men writing about men’s issues does not face the same “universality” penalty that others’ doesn’t (I think I’ve mentioned this before) . So one has to wonder that if well-written “chick lit” exists out there, is it dismissed as “chick lit.” for not being universal? Or does its unwillingness to be universal disqualify it from being literature?On the other side of genre fiction, I recently read the book Queenpin by Film Noir Scholar, Megan Abbott. If you want to read a straight-up, hard boiled as Sam Spade eating a hard boiled egg Noir book, I’d strongly recommend it. I, on the other hand, was disappointed.

I had been excited at the prospect of reading Noir from a feminine perspective because the genre is so masculine. Scholars widely regard the Eve-like (or is that Lilith?) figure of the femme fatale as an embodiment of the contemporary fear of female sexuality and “The new woman”: the women who had joined the workforce during WWII, taking over jobs that men once held. These women had both financial power and manipulative sexual power. They traversed into the public sphere with ease. The femme fatale provided a universal scapegoat and outlet. So, therefore, I was excited because Abbott writes from what seems the femme fatale’s perspective. I was excited to see how this would change and rearrange the genre. I was disappointed when it didn’t.

In a set-up so perfectly embeded in the Noir genre, I could see the diagrams my Noir professor drew on the board to describe the inner turmoil of Walter Neff, the main character of the classic film Double Indemity, who must choose between the male influence (a friend of his from the insurance agency) and the evil femme fatale (who convinced him to commit murder to win her sexual favor), the main character must choose between her female mentor, a gun moll who has taught her the art of surival in the masculine realm of the Las Vegas underworld, and the “homme fatal,” a failed gambler who encourages her to betray her mentor. I didn’t find the homme fatal’s charms alluring, but then again, the idea that a femme fatale could actually convince a man to go against his morals because of her beauty is a very strange idea when you look at it objectively. I mean, the old “men can’t control themselves when faced with breasts” is an excuse hurled at everything in our culture, so perhaps having a woman act the same about a man is radical in its own sense, but I’m grasping at straws here.

It’s interesting to take a critical look at my assumptions. Though Abbott is, in fact, a scholar, and particularly interested in gender, I had no reason to assume that just because she was a woman that she would somehow re-invent Noir. She set out to write Noir fiction; the fact that it blended so seamlessly into the genre is to her credit (now whether it makes sense to write pure noir as opposed to playing with the conventions of a really restrictive genre is a completely different, non-gender-related story.). Why should I expect her to stick in feminist commentary? In other words, why was I expecting her to write Noir as a woman? And why was I so disappointed when she didn’t?

When we see women working in genres or realms that are traditionally male-dominated, we still carry expectations of how they’ll approach their work, and that they’ll approach it differently from men because they are women (and not because they are individuals). I don’t know which male counterpart the commenter on “Target Women” thought s/he was comparing Sarah Haskins to. This is partially because I view “Target Women” as at once occupying a traditionally male realm and working within an explicitly female genre. While “Target Women” can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, it deals strictly with women’s issues, the messages we get, and the questions we hold about our own femininity. At the same time, its format is familiar to anyone who enjoys “The Daily Show.” Do we owe it to Sarah Haskins to ask ourselves whether we like her show just because no one else is doing it? I think so. That doesn’t mean I agree with the commenter–I think she does a good job, too (not that I’m the grand arbitor of what is funny or anything like that.)

I suppose you’re expecting me to write some grand proposal of how we should judge women working in gendered genres, but any proclamation I could possibly come up with would be filled with contradictions, problems and pitfalls. I’m certainly never going to become a huge fan of “chick-lit,” but I still mourn the fact that the trend in short story writing these days seems to be to emulate Hemingway as much as possible. I’m not going to suddenly cheer on Anne Bradstreet when I have Sor Juana to fawn over. But if we can learn anything from the way we look at women creating their own genres or trying to appropriate traditionally masculine ones, we learn that it’s still difficult for women to create without facing a lot of “political” questions of what it means for them to choose that particular method. Whew. You probably could have guessed that without reading the whole article. Sorry.

So how do we unisex genres? And do we even want to unisex genres?

To quote a 1950’s instructional video: What do you think?

Happy 127th, Ginny!

Happy 127th, Ginny!

(I really hate that I have to rush this post)

Oddly enough, so many people who (have) play(ed) an important roll in my life were born in January. Therefore, it was a serendipitous discovery, but not a huge surprise when I discovered that Virginia Woolf’s birthday was yesterday, January 25th. With its writer posthumously reaching the ripe old age of 127 (if my basic arithmatic serves me correctly), her work still is fresh, radical, and moving, and that is truly something to celebrate.

I admit that sometimes I feel a little embarassed about loving Virginia Woolf simply because whenever I say that I do I get a fairly irrational fear that people are writing me off as a walking cliché. I wrote my senior thesis on the relationship between gender and creativity in three of her novels. Telling people my topic usually resulted a bit in “Oh. Of course. What else there is to write about her?” (Captain Subtext translates this as: Oh great: here’s another woman writing about Woolf. Get the cheese to go with the whine.)

So now that I’m writing this mini-tribute, I have to figure out what to say. Believe me, I could go on and on (and on) about her novels. When read my first book by Woolf, To the Lighthouse, as a freshman in college, I was shocked by its power, its ability to change me. Literally– after reading a chapter, it would take a good half an hour to get me to stop myself from thinking in long, detailed monologues. But as this is a cultural criticism blog, I think the only fitting tribute for her right now would be to talk about her as a cultural critic.

If I now write as a cultural critic, it’s thanks to Virginia Woolf. I had always known cultural criticism was important. I had always known cultural criticism was interesting. But Woolf showed me. From the moment I read A Room of One’s Own, which I still think is one of the best and most relevant essays ever, I saw the kind of writer I wanted to be. Room, you see, is an essay about cultural privilege. It’s about how society crafts the idea of who can write. It’s also about Woolf poking fun at ridiculous the ridiculous assumptions men make about women–many people don’t realize that she had a marvelous sense of humor. What she realized is than in a society that spends all its time worrying about what differentiates a MAN from a WOMAN (all-caps to emphasize the silly binary thinking), a woman could be a woman writer, but she couldn’t be a writer. Her conclusion, that a woman needs space and an income to be able to craft fiction, seems shockingly materialistic, especially in contrast to the poetic meditations on where creativity comes from that you hear from most writers. But Woolf recognized the cultural climate. She recognized privilege. She recognized that woman’s education, though it existed, was so low on her culture’s priority list that even the food women’s schools served was inferior. Her conclusion is practical, but that’s what makes it radical. Spiritual, lyrical rhapsodies about the soul of art are irrelevant in an environment that is not condusive to creation in the first place. She taught me that understanding culture was vital to changing it.

But beyond her skilled writing, I will never cease to be impressed with how much bravery she had to have to write at all. How to explain? Well, let me tell you a strange story: The summer before I wrote my thesis, I spent a lot of time in the British Isles, volunteering on organic farms, and reading all the Woolf I possibly could. As I spent my days digging weeds and shoveling compost, I hoped that the spirit of place would help add some compost to the little seeds of my thesis that I was cultivating in my own brain. It did–but not in the way I was expecting.

In Surrey, my friends and I stayed with Emma and Peter (names have been changed to protect the British), helping out in their small organic garden. The day we arrived coincided with their annual village barbecue, and they offered to bring us along as cultural enrichment. I quickly learned that a British barbecue is not an American barbecue. Each family brought their own card table and rocking chairs; not to mention that the table cloths were neither plastic nor red-checked, and the plates and glasses were most definitely breakable. There was no barbecue grill. A band clad in red and white pinstriped suits and straw hats piped a selection of 1920’s-style jazz. As my friends and I sat with our hosts, drinking wine (a white entitled “Pisse D’oie,” which, yes, does in fact mean goose piss.) that had been brought back from a jaunt across the channel to France (thank you, Chunnel), we began to learn that village life in Southern England often has a very… novelistic feel to it. Well, novelistic is the word if we’re talking P.G. Wodehouse.

Attempting to write the reactions of our hosts’ friends to our motley barely-showered trio makes me feel like I’m oversimplifying the matter. I don’t believe anyone can be a walking stereotype, no matter how much of one a person may appear to be . I don’t and have never believed that British people actually were a part of a magical race with gorgeous accents who walked around with Burberry umbrellas, drinking tea, chatting about cricket scores, and worrying about class above all. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when our hosts and their friends started telling us the precise age of every building in the vicinity (The vulgar “new” buildings being a mere century old) and insisting that Britain had never wanted India anyhow. History apparently just dropped an entire nation in their lap (And, you know, one must take up the “white man’s burden” and all that.). I felt as if I had stepped into a farce, or at least an episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.”

When they asked us about ourselves, I mentioned that I was reading for my thesis on Woolf. Our hosts and their friends laughed amongst themselves remarking, “Ah! She would love to write about a party just like this one!”

I couldn’t tell how they meant it: if they were laughing at her, me, or themselves. I don’t know if they understood the depth of their remark, or if they just knew that Mrs. Dalloway was about a party. And I’ll never know.

What I do know is that their simple remark gained new significance when the gossip turned to the new village of the vicar who was, scandalously, a “lady vicar.” Her husband had moved to follow her job and was seeking employment in the area.

“Who ever heard of a husband moving for his wife’s job?” an older man remakred.

As if understanding that this did not seem particularly shocking to their guests, Emma was quick to explain, “It’s not that we don’t like it; it’s just so new.” She continued to explain this change in their community: “You just don’t get a proper British vicar these days; in fact, you never know what you’re going to get. You can get a lady vicar, or a black vicar, or… what’s the other one?”

“A gay vicar?” offered my friend Tom.

“Yes! That’s it! A gay vicar! Or all three–you just never know.”

Suddenly, everything Woolf had been up against, with her depression, her refusal to be herteronormative (her sexuality was tremendously complicated.), her strength, and her unapologetic radicalism, all of that became clearer to me. Though I do not use this strange moment of culture shock as a mental model for the gendered climate of all of England, the fact that this kind of attitude still exists there makes me truly understand just how amazing and shocking she was. She was truly awesome, both in the slang sense and the “awe” sense.

Woolf had her faults. I don’t believe in perfect heros. But nevertheless, I love her. I love her because she dared to be a cultural critic. I love her for her frankness. I love her for her sense of humor. And I love her for her excellent writing.

Happy Birthday, Ginny! We still love you!


From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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