A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.
Janet Steen’s “Is the Personal Essay Hipper than Thou?” in The Weeklings
In this response to a recent piece in The New Republic lamenting the state of the essay, Janet Steen doesn’t exactly argue with its writer, Adam Kirch, but rather asks, “so what?” Maybe today’s essayists are humorists, and maybe some of them are just writing first-person narratives, but Steen doesn’t necessarily see this as “cause for alarm.”
“‘Essay,'” she says, “may be overused as a sort of catch-all term for any sort of short nonfiction, but it’s also, inherently, a form that is elastic and open and beautifully absorbent to the culture around it.” Social media has made us a world of voyeurists these days, and it makes sense that personal essays have become, well, more personal. Why shouldn’t the form evolve — and sometimes, unfortunately, devolve — with the rest of culture? Steen gives some great examples of writers who still use the self in work that is “expansive and universal”: John Jeremiah Sullivan, Geoff Dyer, Jo Ann Beard. Leaving out the wonderfully original Eula Biss, who has been called Joan Didion’s heiress apparent, seems like a bit of an oversight, but I’ll forgive Steen — this is a smart, well-argued, and very much needed response.
Albeit a few steps’ separation from the artist herself, I was fascinated by this excerpt from the new book Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist and interview with biographer Diane Radycki showcased on Bookslut this week (all compiled by the ever-impressive Jessa Crispin). I’m not an art expert, but Modersohn-Becker’s story (1876-1907) revealed to me very quickly that she is one of those artistic grandmothers whose name I hadn’t known—one of those pioneers who broke road and died young doing it so that the rest of us could get a little farther. Modersohn-Becker was an innovator; “She painted women’s bodies. Not in the way that her male contemporaries did, but in the way the women like Frida Kahlo would, and she created art in the way that Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta and Claude Cahun would, by exploring the self and the female figure and using her own image to examine the place of women in the world and society.”
“Before Modersohn-Becker,” writes Diane Radycki; “no woman artist painted herself nude, or mothers nude, or girls nude. Not only did she reconfigure the nude, but she also resituated still-life painting. She arranged it in the kitchen as a site of domestic practice and the tasks of meal preparation.”
Claiming the gaze, creating art via the female lens (to apply the literary terms appropriated from visual art), claiming her own body as subject and object, was too radical in Modersohn-Becker’s time (Kahlo was born the year Modersohn-Becker died), and this new book is credited with depicting the artist’s intense struggle as a woman in the art world, including her fear that having children would interrupt her work (and indeed, she died three weeks after giving birth to her first child).
No doubt it’s a fine book, but given the avalanche tendencies of my bedside mountain, I’m glad for this Bookslut primer. —Molly
Julia Fierro’s “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer” on The Millions.
When I first saw this link tweeted, I thought, “Meh, I don’t like reading about sex.” But I’m really glad I followed the link, because Fierro’s essay may focus on sex in literature but really it expands into broader territory of what is valued in the literary world.
Fierro relates how as a young writer eager to please in the collegiate world, she honed her voice to write what that world valued:
“After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in ‘trim’ prose, I was converted to an more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote ‘stories about women for women,’ and that I was lucky, because, ‘maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.’”
Oh, how painfully accurate it is. Through the lens of sex writing, Fierro depicts her journey away from, and back towards, her own voice: “I asked myself, shouldn’t she, the girl in my story, be feeling more? Shouldn’t I be feeling more?” Finally she arrives at a place that is neither condemning nor lauding of the literary establishment: “It took me years of post-MFA retrospection to sort through the assumptions I’d adopted on what makes writing good or bad.” This is what I perhaps appreciated most about the piece–it felt really honest and accurate.
Lauren A White’s “How To Be The Black Person Reading How To Be Black” on Guernica.
White’s piece has a pretty simple premise: relating her interactions with strangers on mass transit, prompted by her reading of the satirical memoir How To Be Black. White tosses in some comic relief early in the essays, depicting her own uncertainty with how to relate to Black History Month, which eases us in to the main point of the piece: so many of us are uncertain with how to interact with Black History Month, with the idea of “blackness” and with race in general. What White excels at in this piece is capturing the loaded exchanges we have about race, without condemning or criticizing. She simply presents what happened–the characters she met, the things they said, and the feelings evoked in herself–and in this way creates a far more compelling and nuanced picture. These interactions feel very real, like ones I’ve had, and by capturing them, White points to the assumptions, contradictions and complexities we all carry about race. —Lauren
Amy Boesky’s The Ghost Writes Back on The Kenyon Review.
I confess: I was addicted to Sweet Valley High. The Baby-Sitters Club books were my true favorite, but Sweet Valley came in a close second, especially as I neared middle school. I never would have imagined that Jessica and Elizabeth’s pastel, saccharine California dramas were spun by a PhD student “reading sermon after sermon in the collected prose of John Donne.” So that’s the first thrill of this piece: the behind-the-scenes look at what, for so many women I know, was a childhood institution, and at the larger world of ghostwriting.
But the piece goes so far beyond that: it deals with the dualities of responsibility/recklessness and good girl/bad girl(Elizabeth vs. Jessica Wakefield); of reality and fantasy; of teacher/student and ghostwriter/author. Boesky pits her own life against that constructed in the Sweet Valley series: while she struggled through graduate school, feeling invisible and ghost-like, absorbing the lectures of her professors and eking her way through a dissertation that her thesis advisor mandated be “original,” she was also conjuring up “an ersatz southern California landscape (pan shot of beach, ocean, red-tiled roofs)” and a narrative in which “difference [went] in one side, and out the other side came the reassurance of sameness.” A narrative in which everything was curable, resolvable; a place that provided relief from proving herself, making a name for herself in those awful uncertain spaces of grad school, relief from “the darkest of dark secrets: how much I hadn’t read, and didn’t know. How little I felt I had to say that was different, or new, or mattered.”
Ultimately, Boesky stops ghostwriting the series. But,
“…every once in a while, sitting in the library or working upstairs in my study, tussling with a footnote, checking and re-checking a source, struggling to make a contribution in a field crowded with smart people, I would sit back and remember the ease of Sweet Valley High. The words that came so easily, and gave me so much combined pleasure and guilt.”
Sweet Valley offered, in other words, ease and pleasure. And this is where her piece really gets me: I am so torn between what I used to feel writing, the immediate ease and the pleasure, and the immense pressure I feel now to make a contribution in a field crammed with smart people, to go deeper, think harder, revise more, push further. This is the paradox of graduate school, of becoming a “professional” writer: in aiming to make this craft you’ve loved into a career, you struggle for something more than the ease and pleasure, more than sheer entertainment; you aim for a name for yourself, and you often drift in a space more gray than pastel. —Sarah