I rarely disagree all that much with Rebecca Traister, but she had a piece in Salon last week about the new crop of young-woman memoirs (Sloane Crosley, Emily Gould, Meghan Daum) that kind of irked me. Traister’s thesis is that while these books may not be perfect, they are important because they do document some part of the female experience. To wit:
The literary records of this newly carved out period of female life approach it from different angles and vary in quality. But they serve as magnifying glasses for women eager to examine not only their navels but also the opportunities and anxieties presented to them as they embark on a road that sharply diverges from the one traveled by most of their mothers, and certainly by their grandmothers.
I was a bit surprised to see Traister praising this trend, as she was the one, I recall, who also wrote the following about Emily Gould, back in the day:
So rather than being troubled by the fact that Gould — or Bushnell, or Bradshaw, or whoever — has the spotlight, why not question why so few other versions of femininity are allowed to share it?
Which is not exactly a counterpoint, of course, but rather a way of illustrating what it is I find difficult to stomach about celebrating these new narratives uncritically.
To start out, I want to be clear that none of this has anything to do with the writers in question, some of whom I like and some of whom I don’t, but the point is not to make them emblematic, as people, of the Problem Facing Ladywriting Today. And it’s of course not the case that all writing has to be great or important. And it’s true that we have double standards for what women and men are allowed to write. Gould was quite right when she pointed out, in New York magazine, that, “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition.”
Nonetheless, I think it would be tragic to let the takeaway here be that narcissism is the way the revolution lies.
For example, Roth – I like picking on Roth, it’s a hobby of mine – has written enough novels about how sad his penis makes him to last me a lifetime. I realize that there are some people in the world who think of penis-gazing as “great literature,” but I would like to venture that those people could be incorrect. Obviously critics have suggested many different definitions of “great literature,” what it is and what it does. And obviously the answers may contain multitudes. But let’s take the one Gould posits – that good literature “describes the human condition.” I guess I am not sure if the literature there described – a man writing about himself – does that either. Certainly the modern penis-novel – which, it seems, is the main way men write about themselves, these days – does not accomplish this, in my view. It might describe the male condition, but then, it only probably describes the white Jewish mid-20th-century male condition, and that, let us all agree, can’t be all it means to be human. To me, anyway, reading Roth often feels like reading letters from another planet, and not one I’ve much interest in visiting.
It’s not so much that I’m calling for all literature to organize itself along the fault lines of my personal taste as I am noting that I see no reason why we ought to be praising Roth on the basis of his skill at “describing the human condition.” Or, in the feminine equivalent, speaking to “the truths of women’s lives,” as though there were only a few and we all have equal access to them. If that’s the value of the “narcissistic” personal narrative, how much it touches on the universal – well, I think we need to be honest and upfront about what kinds of people we view as eligible for “universal” status. Because that category is hardly universal.
But that’s a moral mode of reasoning, of course, and a way of thinking about literature as an ethical pursuit, and this, the narcissistic mode of writing about the self resists. Traister observes that these memoirs do not, generally, “present a terrible dilemma from which a larger moral truth – or even a larger narrative arc – may gracefully emerge.” I guess what I am trying to say is that I do not know that you can sidestep the duty one’s writing has to touch on what she calls “larger moral truths” and call it important writing. I also think that an explicit decision to step around “morality” and “truth” in your writing constitutes an ethic in and of itself, and it’s not one I feel I can get behind. Particularly in the guise of “supporting women.”
I’ve been reading way too many older essay writers, recently, maybe? Orwell said he wrote “because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” And I come back often to this paragraph of Sontag’s, in which she is praising what she calls Nadine Gordimer’s “lucidity and passion and eloquence and fidelity to the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society”:
By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
I realize I’m eliding some lines between fiction and non-fiction here, but it seems to me the principle’s quite extensible. So if your writing doesn’t evoke some of those standards of justice and truthfulness – some of those pesky “larger moral truths”? I don’t know that I’ve any obligation to praise it, no matter who or what kind of person is writing it.
Some would respond, one imagines, that one can only report one’s own experience. But maybe the rub is in how you define your own experience.
See, here is the thing. This morning, I woke up as a white woman in Brooklyn, a single, college-educated “professional” one. In other words, I fit the paradigm of the women Traister is discussing. Sometime after noon, I left my house to go to the gym (a bourgeois extravagance). On the way, I walked by, as I always do, an older woman in a hijab, sitting on a stoop. Every day this woman asks me for money. I’ve given it to her once or twice but usually I just shake my head at her and go on my way. When I arrived at the gym, which is staffed pretty much exclusively by people of colour, they went through the ritual of wishing me a good workout, as if they should care. When I left I stopped at Rite Aid to buy some stuff, which was again staffed pretty much exclusively from people of colour. I was daydreaming through most of it, about a man, about where my life was going. The usual kinds of things one writes about in autobiographical essays, for example, that don’t lay claim to “larger moral truths,” but simply articulate the preoccupations of young single women in the big city in the “aughts.”
What I am trying to say is that to write about my life as though those underlying details – the superstructure of other people’s backs that even allows me to daydream my way through life – didn’t exist, to be among those, as someone I admire wrote recently, “who live in a city with some of the poorest folks in America, and don’t care to know it” – well, it wouldn’t quite be truth-telling, would it? It might be narcissism, it might be a kind of self-assertion that’s even admirable in a way. But it isn’t, strictly speaking, “describing the human condition,” either.
And the more that a certain subset of women – a subset to which I most probably belong – insist, as Traister does, that that kind of memoir-writing is “part of a quiet but revolutionary effort,” the more invisible the woman on the stoop becomes, because, in that definition, the revolution never really was about her. The revolution was about giving voice to privilege, somehow, about the dialogue inside my head rather than the material circumstances of her life. Can that possibly be right?