The Category of Pretend: A Conversation with Makenna Goodman and Brian Gresko

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I’m generally a slow reader, but I devoured Makenna Goodman’s incisive debut novel, The Shame, over the course of a couple days. In exquisitely composed sentences, The Shame tells the story of Alma, a visual artist, mother of two, and wife of a professor living in rural Vermont, who leaves her family one night, running away to Brooklyn. Her goal: to meet a woman she discovers on the internet, who lives what seems to Alma to be a better, more authentic existence, closer to happiness. In under two hundred pages, The Shame illustrates the struggle of making art in the time of late capitalism and the isolation of at-home caregiving, among other themes.

Goodman’s book profoundly moved me. For the past eleven years, I’ve identified as my son’s primary caregiver, in between which I’ve been a writer, an at-times reticent presence on social media, and the partner of someone who struggled with untreated postpartum depression for almost a decade. Like Goodman’s narrator, I also fantasized about walking away from it all, and wondered how I could possibly make all these aspects of myself work in tandem instead of opposition.

So, I did what anyone might do these days—I took to Twitter and crowed about what a wonderful novel The Shame is. I centered my praise on one aspect of Goodman’s book in particular: how it dealt with motherhood. About six years ago I edited an anthology of essays on fatherhood called When I First Held You, and I wondered why so many books focus with sensitivity and granularity on women’s role as caregivers, while I can count the books centered around men as caregivers on the fingers of one hand. I suggested that the cis-heteropatriarchal norms of American society play a part in that imbalance, along with literary sexism that labels the domestic as feminine, with the implication that it’s unserious or unimportant, and the way the business of publishing often, knowingly or unknowingly, reinforces both of these things.

From her home in Vermont, Goodman replied to my tweet by email, which is where our conversation developed. In addition to The Shame, Goodman’s writing has been featured in the Paris Review, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Guernica, Catapult, the Adroit Journal, and other venues. Like her work, our discussion covered parenting, art, gender, the often unexamined power literary categories play in all of these things, the concept of “self” and power, and much more.

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Brian Gresko: In response to my tweet about novels and motherhood, you wrote to tell me about the BISAC code, the Book Industry Standards and Communications code to shelving and marketing books. I’d love to hear more about that. And, since your novel has been out a few weeks, has the discussion of your narrator, Alma, as a mother overtaken the many other topics you address in the novel (like social media, the performance of ethical living, and being a working artist)? 

Makenna Goodman: It’s easy for readers to think about The Shame as a book about motherhood, and I’m okay with that to some extent because, like so many other things, motherhood is a state of being human. But the assumption that because it is a book that deals in motherhood it is like the “other motherhood books” feels like a symptom of a larger problem: reducing characters who are mothers to a niche that so often disregards not only the concept of motherhood as political, but also the many differences in mothering experiences which are individual, uniquely socialized, and inextricable from class and race. And while there are some things inherent to biological motherhood that are constant, the moment one truism is established there is a trap door that opens underneath it.

In the same way, I think a lot about metadata—the digital tags which determine where a book will be shelved and what other books it will be searchable with—as a major influence on the larger discourse. My book, for example, is categorized in part as Women’s Divorce Fiction, which I asked to be changed to Psychological Fiction (no one gets divorced in my book, but whatever, I still love my publisher). Most people probably don’t know about the BISAC code, but I worked in publishing for years and have spent a lot of time in the weeds of metadata.

Anyway, if we look at “motherhood” as a generalized idea, we fail to see its complexity and continue to rely on a norm for which we base our definition—a norm that itself is rooted in heteropatriarchy and fraught. The word has little meaning to me, honestly. What is a mother? The person who takes care of the child? If a family has two female caregivers, are they both mothers? What if the child is raised by someone biologically unrelated to them; does that count as motherhood? What if the caregiver nurtures a child they are paid to take care of and leaves their own child without a mother, or with another family member; is that mothering? If it is a family with two male caregivers, are they both mothers, is only one of them the mother, or is that a family with no mothers? Etc. Certainly these roles have been worked out within families on an individual level, but have they been recognized by the mainstream as more than abnormal? How is the “mother” portrayed in classical Greek and Roman mythology versus other, matriarchal cultures? And which is the mainstream media more influenced by?

The one surprising thing I’ve discussed over and over again about The Shame is the idea of a search for happiness, of coming to terms with life as it is, both the joy and the pain. I think now, with heightened uncertainty along with the continuous attack on democracy, there is a feeling of individual crisis as well as societal. Who am I and where do I go from here?

Gresko: I love learning about the secret power of metadata, and thinking of it as not just a tool of categorization but one of hegemony, building borders and walls between books instead of bridges. No matter how much we may strive for logic, order, and clarity, all taxonomies are based in a time and culture, and so none are without human prejudice. For instance, I recently heard a podcast exploring the prejudices inherent in the Dewey Decimal System—like how religion consists of the subcategories “Christianity,” “Judaism,” and “Other”—and Melvil Dewey himself was antisemitic, racist, and a serial harasser of women.

As embarrassed as I am to admit it to a fellow writer, I wasn’t aware of metadata and the BISAC code, though I’ve seen and felt how they work. When the anthology I edited of essays on fatherhood came out, I was surprised to find it shelved as a parenting book, though most of the contributors are identified (and self-identify) as literary authors. The parenting section is usually self-help adjacent in bookstores, and contains a lot of reference books; the slim collection of memoirs shelved there can be hard to find among the numerous copies of The Happiest Baby on the Block. I don’t think many readers of narrative nonfiction would think to look in that section for something to actually read. There’s how the methodologies of the market infect our thinking: we’ve been trained to expect certain types of content from certain sections of a bookstore, and so books that blur those lines, or work in opposition to established norms, are hard to find.

More troublingly and apropos to what we’re discussing, the reverse is true, too. We don’t often think of literary nonfiction as including work in which the author writes about their role as a parent. Worse, critics sometimes exacerbate this by deeming it not as essential as topics like business or politics or a man’s quest for self-empowerment. I remember one review in particular which demonstrated this attitude. It was in a survey of books about fatherhood, and the reviewer lauded the handful of essays in my collection which tackled politics and said the rest were skippable because they focused solely on the domestic. I read that and was like, dude, that’s the point.

Goodman: This reminds me of something I read (I can’t remember where) about contemporary women novelists who have recently been regarded as over-engaging in writing as a narcissistic exercise cloaked in political-seeming language. And while not every book that appears to be political actually is, and one can overanalyze the self if there’s nothing more to it, I wonder what would happen if the finger pointed back at itself more often. Maybe it’s the categorization of the “self” that needs rethinking, and how it manifests not only in novels but in the institutions that prop them up. The best criticism does this—enlivening our experience of culture through an analysis of the analysis—but it’s rare. A lot of it is projection, I think—the power itself calling truth to power, like the mirror which responds to the Queen: you are the fairest of them all.

And yet revising categorization in the literary world is a dangerous thing to suggest, because categorization has been positive for many (those who want to identify with a norm, and that’s their right), and one could argue that we need it, as humans, in order to make sense of what might otherwise be chaos. But part of the way we categorize books (governed in part by the BISAC code) often serves to continually commodify them as straying from “normal” even while it may intend to do the opposite by calling something by its own name. The editor or marketing person who chooses the categories, like everyone, is coming from their own place of bias. And how they came to that position is based on inherent bias in the hiring process. (It’s interesting that metadata is often seen as the “boring” part of the editorial and marketing process—as mechanical, but necessary. Sort of like an algorithm that resists critique because it’s so hidden.)

In a recent conversation I had in response to my book, someone referred to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run as a story about a man running away from his family, but no one really talks about that book as one about fatherhood, do they? It’s categorized in the metadata as, among other things, Metaphysical/Visionary Fiction and Contemporary Literature. This same person said, about The Shame: mothers will love this. I thought, why just mothers?

Gresko: Oof—that response! I’m angry to hear it, and angrier still to think that he surely meant it as a compliment. I’m curious, what have you heard from other male readers?

Goodman: I have heard a fair amount from men, actually. One recently wrote to say the book was like reading the inside of his own mind. But, he added, “I know the book is not intended for me.” He was trying to make sense of why he felt so connected to it, the rage he felt while vacuuming! But why was it not for him, I asked? Because the narrator is a woman? Because the writer is a woman? Because there is a woman on the cover? The fact that he even picked it up is probably because he was curious, as he already knew me. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t have gravitated towards it, and no high school would have required him to read it in order to get a job (unlike so many young people who are forced by curriculums to read books from “the canon” and might wonder, who are these people; this is not my world).

Gresko: Perhaps he felt that because his perspective wasn’t centered in the narrative? Or maybe because your beautiful use of language resonated with something in him that he was uncomfortable facing?

The idea of speaking to a specific readership can be powerful for an author, I think, from a process perspective. Some books—like Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy—even make this literal, as the text itself is an open letter to a particular person (in Laymon’s case, his mother). Personally, I’ve found the concept a challenging one, based on my experience with my anthology and some of the pieces of memoir that I’ve written myself. The vast majority of readers who have responded seem to mostly identify as women; in fact, it just occurred to me now that so too has every editor I’ve worked with, whether I’m writing about my childhood, my identity, my life as a parent or, more often than not, the deep connection between them all.

And yet, I’m not a woman, and am socially outside the network of literary women who share and support one another’s work. I also understand how exhausted women in general are of hearing cis men exert their point of view, to the point that some say they avoid reading work written by them entirely. I find it most fruitful to imagine my son reading my essays as an adult later in life. I hope my explorations of myself and our family history might help him not have the same anxious and fraught experiences I did as a young man, and sometimes continue to have, and probably will always have.

I’m not sure how productive the concept of readership is for readers themselves. Does it matter as a reader whom the author might be addressing their work to? Either you find something of interest or value in the book or you put it down; the question of “is this intended for me” doesn’t strike me as relevant. In recent years, I’ve mostly read work by authors whose life and identity are very different from mine. I’m hoping to challenge and expand my perspective, not just see it reinforced. 

Goodman: I wonder about the concept of universality, too. Can anything speak to all readers? Is that the point of writing a book? Or is it like a buffet—no one expects you to take it all. It is likely true there are fundamental emotions that all humans share: rage, fear, grief, desire, etc. Yet there are piles and piles of social constructs that live on top of those universal emotions that are just as fundamental and just as inextricable.

The other day I heard the journalist Jean Guerrero discuss her book, Hatemonger, specifically the ideological development of Stephen Miller, one of the most influential advisors in the Trump White House. Guerrero talked about how Miller has systematically laundered hate speech and white supremacy through nationalist language that speaks about “safety” and “salvaging” American culture. It made me think about how propaganda has always been a powerful kind of storytelling, one that a sympathetic media digests and seeds in order to continue perpetuating a culture of indoctrination that it can profit from. This is obviously far more insidious than the idea of how mothering and womanhood can be essentialized in literary categories, but it is rooted in the same soil: that of dominant language determining cultural norms and imprinting ideologies in the collective unconscious.

It reminds me of Adrienne Rich, who described how feminist discourse is so often received as if it emerged out of nowhere, without a historical past or contextual present, and how it makes women’s work and thinking seem “sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own.” Angela Davis has written about this idea brilliantly, too, in different ways, as has Patricia Collins, deconstructing the idea of one kind of “motherhood” as a lens into the sociopolitical realities of class and oppression. And so while the media is, perhaps rightly, tired of certain women writers looking at themselves in the mirror, it’s as if the mirror itself has not been held up for these same women for ages by the same media that relies on their purchasing power.

At this moment I am reading a lot of female writers from many years ago who were writing against a literary and social oppression of their time. But in their important work they were obscuring other work that was not given airtime by other writers with even less access. I think about this and wonder, how can I fill in the gaps of my own literary library, of my own mind? What am I seeking, and how can I understand what books I am drawn to? What am I resisting, and why do I resist it? In many ways I read to revise my education. I’m also revising my childhood through reading books to my own children. And I’m revising my understanding of feminist discourse. It’s not enough to be a woman or to love women. One must be a person who understands the complexities of womanhood through the divergences that exist inside of it.

I know you are interested in domestic work. I wonder how you see your role as a father in the context of feminism, whatever that word means?

Gresko: I think that if we value equality, we should value men who play the role of caregivers. We should value caregivers full stop, no matter their gender identity or expression.

In terms of fatherhood and how it is represented in literary culture, I think about Karl Ove Knausgård, who takes care of the kids but still too cool for school and clearly not that into it, which doesn’t move me. I see this performed by authors on Twitter, too, the I’d rather be doing anything other than parenting. When my little guy was three and four, we spent hours on his bed with his Toy Story crew, taking them on pretend camping trips, and out for breakfast at the make-believe bagel shop. We would run over the same imaginary ground for hours. Sometimes, I got sick of it—who wouldn’t? But it was also so much fun to be silly, and goof around, and cuddle, and give funny voices and whacky personalities to his stuffed animals. To demonstrate the characters having conflicts and then resolving them. I still love building blocks and playing with action figures. When I admit this, I feel that especially educated, upper-class people are eye-rollingly judgmental, that it’s taken as a sign I’m immature, or unmotivated professionally, or just a weirdo. But playing is a part of parenting as it is in making art, and there’s a pleasure in make-believe, and I don’t shy away from that. (Perhaps authors are sensitive to this because essentially fiction is just another form of pretend, and since our culture doesn’t value it or art-making in general we do all we can to pump ourselves up about its seriousness.)

This conversation has me thinking deeply about the words we use to categorize not only books but ourselves, and the social and cultural pressures that play into both, and how when a narrative doesn’t fit an established form then people don’t know what to do with it—or worse, they deride it. For as broad the menu is right now in regards to sexual and gender identity and expression, it is still just that—a menu. These are generally terms and concepts which other people coined that we must fit ourselves within and around, and the language of the family is especially loaded. Mother, father, male, female, etc. There’s a static quality to this as well, as if our identities are fixed instead of constantly evolving. In my work, reading, and life, I hope to always be questioning what I think is true, and opening those trap doors you mentioned earlier, which lead to whatever lies beneath.

Goodman: “Make believe” is a confusing concept for me, maybe because I’m bad at playing. I see fiction—the category of pretend—as often a clearer representation of reality than a nonfiction work about the same ideas. Perhaps “autofiction” was created to make room for this dualism, but often so-called autofiction written by women writers is seen as indulgent self-reflection while the male equivalent is more likely to be regarded as political, or a philosophy of constructed truths. Is this because there’s a legitimate difference in the value of their approaches? Or is it because we are socially conditioned to mistrust women and undervalue their labor? (Maybe both, but even still, the latter doesn’t go both ways.)

Things have not always been this way. In many ways, they have been worse. In many ways, they have been better. Maybe we’re only just beginning to understand what’s possible in terms of partnership, power, and caring for children. I think of the recluse spider who lets her babies eat her after they’re born, or the praying mantis who consumes her mate once they’ve copulated. One could say, they’re both bugs. But this would be missing the point.

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Photograph of Makenna Goodman by Suzanne Opton. Photograph of Brian Gresko by Sara Epstein.


Brian Gresko is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, and the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. You can find him online hosting The Antibody, a virtual reading series started during quarantine, and at briangresko.com. More from this author →