Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.

Alix Olin’s “Reader, You Married Him: Male Writers, Female Readers, and the Marriage Plot” in the L.A. Review of Books

Novelist Alix Olin, under the guise of a paired book review (The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan) for the L.A. Review of Books, examines the way in which male authors portray and address the female reader of novels, and that phenomenon–the woman with book–in general.

Both novels apply the marriage plot that propels the works of Austen and Wharton and innumerable others, but marriage is not what it once was to the female identity, so what then does the plot offer the modern woman? In McEwan’s novel, Olin describes the true plot as “a writer creating a reader, educating her, and falling in love with her, Pygmalion-style.”

As for Eugenides, who has become something of a punching bag of late in the discourse of gender and writing (see here and here), Olin writes: “Obviously, Eugenides is not under any obligation to write a college novel that is faithful to my personal experiences. However, I couldn’t help but notice that for Mitchell and Leonard, intellectual and emotional development — one might also say, the professional and the personal, in that intellectual life is the professional sphere of the college student — do go hand in hand. It’s only Madeleine who is confined to the tunnel vision of the romantic The book makes clever connections between semiotics and the marriage plot, but Madeleine doesn’t; so the female reader is sidelined from the book’s own intellectual metaplay.” In this super-smart analysis, Olin not only critiques the uncritical woman reader portrayed by both books, but, in so doing, proves it wrong.

Hilary Mantel’s “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books

My mother gave birth to my brother on the day of the wedding of Charles and Diana. This was excellent luck, or, quite possibly, expert planning on my mother’s part, because she and my father were back-to-the-land hippies without a television. Had labor not induced her to get she to a hospital, she would not have seen Diana “hatch” dress first, “like a flow of liquid, like ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of a medium.” But she did see it, and I am sure if the scheduling of the birth had interfered with a good view of that dress, she would have made the baby wait.

This is all to say that I was raised to both eschew royalty, and to follow it in secret. It follows then that I have not eschewed the magnificent and addictive work of two-time Mann Booker prize-winner, Hilary Mantel. Perhaps to further induce salivation, Mantel has just published an essay called “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books about the present royal fetish, Kate of Cambridge (and yes I will cling to my willful American ignorance of titles) and her well-dressed predecessors. Unsurprisingly, given her mastery of plot, Mantel considers the royal narrative, Diana’s and Kate’s (as well as Anne Boleyn’s and Marie Antoinette’s while she’s at it), and the royal bodies that narrative acts upon–the dressed and undressed parts (the weave and weft of cloth and clothed), the appendages and slots, the spillage of blood.

Mantel writes also of books, or readers and writers: “Sue Townsend said of Diana that she was ‘a fatal non-reader’. She didn’t know the end of her own story. She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after. Diana didn’t see the possible twists in the narrative. What does Kate read? It’s a question.”

But why the compulsive fascination with these bodies and their stories–my mother’s adoration for Diana in such stark contrast with the spare life she chose for herself (a $5o dress off a rack at Saks), my own thirst for Mantel’s next installment? What effect has it on us consumers of the story?

“It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow,” remarks Mantel, who has made a career of it. “But that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.” But as usual Mantel’s prettily stitched discourse is hardly empty of content–there is such body beneath.–Molly

Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”

This “vintage” Didion essay got reposted and tweeted about last week (a phenomenon an expat is grateful for). It’s classic eagle-eyed, unflinching Didion and it’s about more than just a murder. It’s about California, a certain kind of California that doesn’t always get written about or talked about or even really looked at squarely: the kind of rotten aridity of the California Dream, the way people come with these dreams and visions that end up consuming them, slowly, in this paradise of wildfires and earthquakes, undertows and skin cancer. Fante captured it; Bukowski captured it; and it’s nice to see a woman capture it, the female side of it. Oddly, the piece made me homesick. (Warning: it’s poorly formatted and riddled with typos.)

Roxane Gay’s “‘Identity Theif’ and Hollywood’s Narrow Road for Overweight Actresses” on BuzzFeed

This unapologetic analysis of the actress Melissa McCarthy’s recent role in “Identity Thief” cut straight to the bone of gender and body-type standards in Hollywood. Gay does more than lament a cliche movie with stereotypical characters; she does more than blame the actress for participating in a system that perpetuates the idea that overweight women are unhappy and obnoxious. Gay points to the limited options for overweight actresses– “…if McCarthy had more comedic respect for herself, she likely wouldn’t work”–and connects this issue with other derogatory stereotypes in Hollywood: “As I watched ‘Identity Thief’, I couldn’t help but think that the fat, hypersexual buffoon is the equivalent, for overweight actresses, of the maid or nanny for black actresses.”

It’s that kind of big-picture nuanced thinking that keeps me reading pretty much everything Roxane Gay writes.–Lauren


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