Links That Devolve, As Usual, Into Thoughts on Representativeness in Literature

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Every week lately Saturday sneaks up on me. I’ll be sauntering along happily through the week and then suddenly I’m waking up on the weekend and I’m to post here. Some weeks I have a history lesson near-finished; other weeks, like this one, it’s gonna take another week to ferment and rise. (J.M. Barrie and Virginia Woolf are in the slow-cooker.) So this week you are getting links.

Sheila Heti posted Marion Harris’ version of “It Had to Be You” to her tumblr this morning and I listened to it three times in a row before realizing my neighbours could probably hear that it was on repeat and think I was readying to off myself. So I held myself back from tapping play a fourth time.

Then I returned to Marc Maron’s podcast with Fiona Apple, which was recommended to me recently. Apple is having a rough time right now. Just this morning, a spokesperson for the Texas sherriff’s office who arresting her for drug possession wrote some bizarre open-letter thing to her that opens “Look, Honey” and descends from there. But I love the way she talks, and the intensity of the way she just is, in the world, and the Maron podcast is a pretty good example of why. If only because of the way she talks about hummingbirds.

There was this interview with Jeffrey Eugenides at Salon this week in which he made some ill-advised comments about sexism. Possibly you heard about it. Linda Holmes, at NPR, put together a very nice point-by-point deconstruction about what was frustrating about his remarks, to which I only really want to add one thing. Half the problem with this debate is the reactions women, or people of color, get when they raise issues of representation. There is a critical mass of people out there who are like Eugenides. They’ve “heard of” these problems, and they’re not so much opposed to solving them as they are for some reason (usually idiosyncratic and personal) stubborn about admitting that the problem exists.

And I’ll just say it: spending a lot of time arguing with these men on an individual basis is killing me, killing us. It’s taking up too much of my time, and mental space. There are other things one wants to do in life than explain things patiently over and over. To explain facts over and over, and receive, for the privilege, accusations of being mean and angry and single-minded.

One thing I wish people would understand is that in this endless bout of archery one makes a deliberate choice of targets. Engagement is not equivalent to disrespect. The Virgin Suicides was the first book of contemporary literary fiction I ever read. A dark-and-stormy English teacher, one who decorated his portable classroom with dot-matrix printouts of e.e. cummings poems, told me to go out and buy it. I will never know how I might have read that book had I done so after That Feminist Theory Class. All I know is that a person who loved books I loved it. Even today I just ignore the nagging little voice in my head that says it dramatizes a male gaze. Middlesex is gorgeous. I’ll come clean as not liking big swaths of The Marriage Plot, though the part the New Yorker excerpted, about Madeleine and semiotics and early romance, is still the piece that a strange woman interrupted me on the subway to say, “Oh, I just read that, it’s so great.” (I agreed.) Blame high expectations.

That, the respect, the knowledge that Eugenides and all the great novelists can not just deploy words in great ways but really notice things, really understand them, is what frustrates people when he doesn’t get something as basic as this problem. When he is not just confused about its terms, but spends time actively arguing against it despite his stated haziness on the subject. People will listen to him because he is right about a lot of things. If only he could bring himself to learn a bit more about this one.

 


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →