Women We Read This Week

Miriam Markowitz’s “Here Comes Everybody” in The Nation

So I know we’ve all read more articles on gender in publishing than we can count, BUT. This one does something different, I swear. Markowitz deftly paints the picture with which many of us are familiar–byline gaps, book publishing, those terribly cheesy book covers they give to works by female writers–but instead of getting tangled up there, she takes her discussion a step further: into the complacency and consumerism that fuels the literary culture that creates such disparities. She ends the piece on what to me, at least, is a really hopeful note, the what-is-it-that-we’re-actually-all-here-for:

And while publishing is an industry, writing is not. The extent to which it has become one today is literature’s loss and capitalism’s gain, because writing is, at its best, at once an exploration and a performance—a high-wire act. Writers are supposed to fail, and then perhaps fail better, and then perhaps even to do something great: create something that is rare and true, that tells us what we did not know; something, most likely, that the writer learned only in the writing, a process that is terrifying and gloomy and, above all, without guarantees.

God, I need to hear that. — Lauren

Gina Troisi’s “Wrapped Up in Skin, Hidden behind Eyes” in The Gettysburg Review

At one point in Troisi’s essay, the narrator “rehearses”—her word—a speech she plans to make to her father and stepmother telling them she wants to quit visiting them. Her rehearsal is that of an actor taking on a part:

I study the curves of my lips in the mirror as I release them in whispers. I widen my eyes, narrow my eyes, try to release the furrow in between my brows, but it won’t go away. I close my mouth, frown, half smile. I stand up and make gestures with my hands: rest them on my hips, close them into fists, clasp them and let them hang down in front of me. The serious daughter. The assertive daughter. The sad daughter.

Troisi’s piece is a harrowing read. Her father abuses her verbally and her stepmother tortures her psychologically. Threaded throughout are references to film, TV, books, and the news—Fatal Attraction, Mommie Dearest, Small Sacrifices, and The Shining—examples of the horror-show underside of the American family. These references wouldn’t be remarkable in themselves, except that Troisi uses them as a narrative mode: she refers to her interaction with her stepmother as a “script,” sees her father playing “roles,” talks about a conversation with her father as “a dramatic moment between the two of us,” and spends much time looking in mirrors.

The real interest for me in this essay, though, is Troisi’s choice to write in first person present tense. I recently taught Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss to a group of graduate students and we discussed her choice of first person present tense, its sense of immediacy and urgency. We wondered if the immediacy and urgency of this particular point of view works best when the author is writing about something so horrifying, so haunting that it’s painful for her to reflect, to summon a past self. I wondered the same thing about Troisi’s essay. And yet she does reflect in her poignant conclusion. “The difference between watching [The Shining] now, as opposed to then, is that I know what to expect,” she says. “I am able to distance myself in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.”

D.J.

Rebecca Mead’s “Written Off” in The New Yorker

I’ve followed Jennifer Weiner’s cultural battles with figures like Jonathan Franzen and Andrew Goldman with that fist-pump sense of solidarity, and I began Rebecca Mead’s article with the assumption that my instinctual support for Weiner would be deepened and validated. And in certain ways, it was – I admire Weiner’s ability to risk being known as “a gadfly, or a crank, even—somebody who won’t shut up, somebody who is persistent and abrasive,” a role she rightfully claims a more “literary woman” won’t take on. And I admire the way in which she’s contributed to a critical and important discussion about the marginalization of “women’s work” in literary criticism, and the way in which said criticism tends to assume that literature must be bleak and populated with unlikeable, tortured characters in order to be characterized as such.

That said, the categorization of “chick lit” – or the type of book Weiner writes about a plucky woman dogged by troubles in love, shopping, and self-esteem, who is ultimately rewarded with a happy ending – as “women’s work” makes me queasy, as does Weiner’s assumption that the lack of critical respect her books receive is because she is a woman and not because of, as Mead writes, “the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches.”

I’m frustrated by the ways in which I see fiction written by women being categorized, depicted, and treated differently than fiction written by men – book covers are only one example – but I’m wary of assuming that all writing by women, even books that have been plotted specifically for a commercial audience, with characters crafted into likable girlfriends and sparkling endings meant to build self-esteem, should be equally championed as worthy of critical respect.

Mead’s piece covers a lot of familiar territory in the ongoing conversation about the cultural and critical reception of writing by women, but it also complicates that conversation with questions about the nature and role of literature. For anyone invested in the way in which women writers often struggle for critical respect, it’s a worthy and crucial read.

–Sarah

Margaret McCartney’s “Patients Deserve the Truth: Health Screening Can Do More Harm Than Good” on The Guardian’s Science Blog

Here’s an article that I think all women should read. It gives context to a growing number of senior health specialists in the UK who are coming clean on why they are choosing not to have health screenings – basically because many cancers found through testing are cancers that are not mortally harmful — and also makes the important point that the psychological damage of ‘false positives’ can seriously undermine a person’s (man or woman) wellbeing for the rest of their life. — Helen

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