Monday, January 5, 2015

Starting Off the Year with an Illegal Squeeze Play


I know we agreed to read The Sandman in January, and I have ordered mine on Amazon and they will be delivered on Wednesday. I was hoping my library would have them, but they didn't. It happens. It's not like I'm sad to buy books.

Anyhoo, when I was making this year's list, I was thinking of adding the book Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. I was sure I'd had it for a year. It has to do with the Mexican drug wars, and I teach a book called House of the Scorpion every January. It made perfect sense in my brain that I would have been especially interested in Prayers for the Stolen last January when I was reading HotS (That's what I call it on all my handouts, because Lol.) with my kids. Although I can't really use adult novels with my students, any wider reading I do helps me teach with a bigger lens. But, as it was released on February 11, 2014, so no dice on the list.

Oh, you mean some things never change!? Quelle shock!
That means I did a little switch-up to my final list, and I ended up adding a book called How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. This is trim little book, maybe only 150 pages. I've had it for a while, but it came to my attention again last summer when it was used by Mallory Ortberg as the basis of deliciously aggressive attack on a New Yorker article profile of poet Patricia Lockwood.  To clarify, Mallory was attacking the male writer of the piece, who basically concern trolls Lockwood for 5000 words.

Anyways, I started reading How to Suppress Women's Writing a few days ago, thinking I'd just squeeze it in this weekend before The Sandman books arrived. But once I realized I needed to swap out a TBR book, I figured I'd just squeeze it in here, too.

Basically, How to Suppress Women's Writing is totally fucking infuriating in basically every way, magnified by the fact that it is 30 years old, and so little has changed. It's funny, because I remember reading the New Yorker article above, and being bothered by its tone, but unable to put my finger exactly on the problem. I also got distracted by its mention of this harrowing, and yet fantastic poem. So when I read the critique in The Toast a few days later, it was like an epiphany.

Oh, yes. This.

I apologize now, because I bet this ends up being really long, because even though the book is short, it is packed with powerful ideas. How have I not read this before?

Basically, Russ lays out a series of moves that can be made that denigrate, downplay, and demoralize artists that aren't in the dominant group of white men. And although she focuses very specifically on women, she's very clearly including people of color, too. Which, given that she wrote this thing in 1983 was kind of surprising. (The problem of white feminists is well-documented on the internet, but it's like a fucking rabbit hole. Down you go!)

I like what she says in the prologue: "What follows is not intended as a history. Rather it is a sketch of an analytic tool: patterns in the suppression of women's writing" (5). Each strategy is outlined in a brief chapter with examples, both from female authors themselves, from men who wrote about those women, or from data. Here's a not-so brief tour. Interestingly, we have talked about some of these ideas before, either on the blog or in person. Without having this specific vocabulary, we've both seen these ideas in action before. One more interesting thing, Russ describes these ideas as a chain of events, where if one doesn't work to suppress the non-desired artist, then move on to the next. Eventually, you'll get somewhere.

Prohibitions: Control access to fields and materials women or POC need to create art. One interesting thing that Russ discusses here specifically related to women is the burden of housework and managing families. She quotes a writer Kate Wilhelm, "I realized the world, everyone in it practically, will give more and more responsibility to any woman who will continue to accept it. And when the other responsibilities are too great, her responsibility to herself must go. Or she has to take the thoroughly selfish position to refuse the world, and then accept whatever guilt there is" (9).  Ouch. Who doesn't recognize those feelings? I mean, it's 2014 and we still live in a time when you get a hard time for not having kids, and I get a hard time for only having one! She writes about how women are discouraged from pursuing higher education degrees, their commitment to their art is questioned, and their family responsibilities are used against them.

Needless to say, this also made me think a lot about the situation of our public schools. My son is lucky enough to go to a school where he gets instruction in visual arts, drama, dance, and music. But think about how many public school children get NO funding for the arts. I'm not sure if you saw it, but I was talking in December about a friend who's a first year art teacher at a public school here in Chicago. She literally had *one* bottle of glue for her 400 students. I mean, what the ever loving fuck? She created an Amazon wish list, and managed to get a lot of donations to her classroom, but that's not sustainable. It is infuriating. I actually wrote a whole thing on FB about it: I've been thinking a lot about why I find myself so moved by this----and I think it's this: My grandfather was an artist, mostly self-taught from what I understand, but he loved to paint. I passed many, many childhood hours painting with him in his basement studio. I don't think I quite realize the impact it had on me until recently---not only was my grandfather a painter, my grandmother was sewed and crocheted, my brother is an architect, my sister-in-law is a writer, my best friend makes beautiful and amazing arts and crafts of every kind, my friend at work is a photographer, there are lots of musicians in my life, and my favorite teacher in college was a poet...the list goes on and on. These are people who are actually making the world a more beautiful place, who are revealing what it means to be human, and who have enriched my life in countless ways. My son attends a wonderful school where he is lucky enough to take band, visual art, dance, AND drama. I just want those kids to have what he has, what I had, and what all children should have. 

Bad Faith: When prohibition fails, and those pesky people keep on making art anyways, other ways of suppressing that art must be deployed. But social systems--all of the -isms you can think of, basically--will come to the rescue. The text shown in the picture above is the main thrust of the bad faith argument, and it follows with this, "To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realize that one's making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what these are..., cooking one's mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behavior as if were actively moral prefer not to know...this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith" (19). After all, when thinking about it logically, why would have a different body make someone less of an artist? Why would have different shades of skin color prevent someone from being an artist. Why would someone's age, or religion, or any number of things prevent one from being an artist? It literally makes NO logical sense, and yet, humans have created entire societies based on the premise----and the brilliance of the system is that it's so hidden from view, many people run around denying racism, sexism, or whatever even exist! It's enough to make my head spin.

Denial of Agency: Pretty straightforward idea: deny that a woman wrote it. This plays out in obvious ways, for example, I teach The Diary of Anne Frank every year, and explain how the Netherlands Institute for War Research did extensive analysis of her papers to prove that Anne herself wrote the diary, and not her father, as many people claimed. "There's no way a fifteen year old girl could have written that!" Except she did, so fuck off.

Denial of agency has an interesting twist, though, which is the idea that the writing somehow wrote itself, or that the writing was channeled by an inner masculine self.  As an example, Russ cites women who are said to write like a man, or with a masculine eye or wit. Finally, denial of agency calls female authors more than a woman. For example, the poet Robert Lowell says of Sylvia Plath,
"[She] becomes...something imaginary, newly, wildly created--hardly a person at all or a woman, certainly not a poetess" (23). This reminds me of that stupid song Bee Gee's song More Than a Woman, I mean, WTF? You must really value me if I'm more than a woman? What do I become if I'm more than a woman? A man? Similarly, what does it mean if a black person has "transcended" race? That they are white?

Pollution of Agency: The idea here is that for women to write or create art is "immodest" or inappropriate. Russ explains that throughout history, "women who were virtuous could not know enough about life to write well, while those who knew enough about life to write well could not be virtuous" (25). Obviously, this isn't quite the case anymore. Times in fact have changed, so Russ makes the claim that pollution of agency now combines two ideas that "what has been written is not art and that such writing is...too personal" (29). For example, if a man is to write a confessional novel about his time during war, that is seen as gritty and real; but for a woman to write about her life is confessional. "Plath's work is confessional; Allen Ginsberg's is not" (31). A woman must disavow all things feminine in order to create art, but men are never asked to choose between a fulfilling family life and their art. Probably my favorite book from last year was a short novel called The Department of Speculation, which is about a woman who wanted to do nothing more than be "an art monster" but her family and marriage get in her way.

The Double Standard of Content: The double standard of content claims that one set of experiences is more valuable and important than the other. We have definitely talked about this idea before, maybe when discussing The Marriage Plot? Russ calls this "perhaps the most fundamental weapon in the armory" and I still see this one all the time. The author quotes Virginia Woolf, "Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial.' And those values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book...because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room" (41).  The other way this materializes, of course, is that when a man writes about marriage and family, it's serious literature. When a woman does the same, it's often labeled chick-lit. This is an argument that Jennifer Weiner makes often; and although she gets a lot of shit for it, I respect her for tirelessly making the case that women authors aren't treated as seriously as their male counterparts. This means, obviously, that much of women's writing is labeled and packaged as non-important "chick lit" that is not real art.

False Categorizing: This is an interesting one. Here, women artists and authors are "belittled by assigning them to the 'wrong' category, denying them entry into the 'right' category, or arranging the categories" (49). One of the major ways to make this move is to always discuss a woman as a sister, mother, wife, or lover. Even better is if you can make the woman's art or writing subservient to a male artist she is affiliated with. In this way, Marie Curie becomes her husband's laboratory assistant; Frieda Kahlo is Diego Rivera's wife; Alma Mahler, wife of composer Gustav, was a composer before their marriage and after he forbade her to write music. Another way this plays out is to assign women to a separate category. Hence, Kate Chopin and Willa Cather are "regionalists" while Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner are most certainly American greats, even though their work was just as firmly tied to a small slice of America. In another example, James Baldwin is not a novelist, but George Orwell is.

Russ points out the categories that female authors, especially those of the nineteenth century, are identified by: Whore [today's corollary is the sexually liberated woman], Lady, Wife, Spinster, and Madcap. Men are also categorized, but usually their categories, such as Self-destructive Visionary, Tough Jock, or Sage are flattering to the men. As she points out, "What male writer has been transformed by critics into the sad, reclusive, timid bachelor, or devoted submissive husband [seen as an exemplary figure]? T.S. Eliot did not become the bank clerk instead of The Poet" (57).

Of course, this pops up today all the time. Remember the famous case of the New York Times obituary of a female scientist that led with a description of her best casserole dishes?

[PS. I took a many hour break right at this place. This shit is exhausting. Feel free to take a break yourself!]

Isolation:  An artist that is a woman or person of color can be undermined when you claim that they have only produced one good work. For example, did you know that Charlotte Bronte wrote works other than Jane Eyre, none of which are in print? Russ spends a great deal of time discussing a novel of hers, Villette. Luckily, now with the Kindle, it is easier to get hold of women's work. For example, I downloaded the complete works of Virginia Woolf today for $2.99. However, that doesn't change the fact that many women produced multiple works, but we only know a fraction of them because only a fraction of them are codified. We think of Mary Shelly as only have written Frankenstein, or Elizabeth Barrett Browing as only have written Sonnets from the Portuguese. Russ argues that "it is no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers' less good work as their best work" (66). She argues persuasively that women are underrepresented because male critics and readers misunderstand the work of women, calling it either strident or simple. Perhaps my favorite line in a book filled with punchy, pithy phrases came in this section. She writes,  "It is surely uncomfortable for a patriarch to see patriarchy as a central problem" (73). I was annotating again, and I wrote "!!ha!!" in the margins.

Anomalousness: This is the claim that perhaps a woman may have wrote something, but there are hardly any women like her. The obvious outcome of this belief is that few women writers are actually worth reading. You've actually seen me identify this problem, back when I was reading James Wood's How Fiction Works. In How to Suppress Women's Writing, Russ points out that no matter where an anthology is from or when it was published, women's writing is often only represented by about 7-8% of the authors. I wish I was making this shit up, but I pointed out that Wood discusses only 8 female authors out of 68---thirty years later and we've only really made a tiny amount of progress, with women representing about 12% of the author's Wood discusses. Every year, someone counts up the number of book reviewers in the media. The numbers are grim. These percentages make women and people of color (who fare even worse) only tokens. Russ quotes a psychologist who explains that "tokenism is...found whenever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power...with a group that is excluded...tokenism advertises a promise of mobility which is severely restricted in quantity...the token does not become assimilated...but is destined for permanent marginality" (84).

Lack of Models: Because women's writing has been so successfully repressed, each successive generation of women believes that they are starting fresh and creating a literary canon of their own work. In this section, Russ discusses how literature is taught, the lack of representation of women in university faculties (I would be curious to see if women are still underrepresented) and how women's work is often published in incomplete, bowdlerized editions. For example, a complete edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry was not available until the late 1950s. (Russ points out that it is unlikely, for example, that Virginia Woolf would have read Dickinson's poetry. I actually had to sit and let that wash over me for a few minutes. Damn.) In writing programs, the work of women and people of color is deemed less-worthy and not as serious. This, of course is still true. Only only need look at the GamerGate situation to see that women are not taken seriously, and are in fact actively told they are inferior, in the realm of all kinds of artistic endeavors.

[I am literally exhausted writing this. Ironically, This Woman's Work by Kate Bush just came up in iTunes shuffle. This must be a sign for me to go on.]

Responses: This one is a little bit backwards, instead of what is done to women, it explains that a common reaction of women is to renounce their femininity/womanhood in order to be accepted as artists. Women who wish to be writers know the game is rigged and they will never be accepted as "real artists" and therefore choose to work in other genres, such as romance, fantasy, or science fiction. Of course, this is also why women choose pseudonyms, knowing their work may be judged more fairly if they are not identified as female: JK Rowling, anyone? Russ says the only way for a woman to be celebrated or "pre-eminent" in a field is if she "invents it...and locates it in an area that is so badly paid or of such low status that men don't want it' (101). In the margin of that little gem, I wrote "Twitter!"

This is an interesting section, and it's one I struggled with perhaps the most. I don't think Russ is blaming women, but she points out that is we collectively cede the right to belong, then we are complicit. It reminds me of that line from Crazy, Stupid, Love, where one man says to another, "The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started pole dancing for exercise." That's a funny line, but this book was written far before the internet, which most days just feels like a teeming cesspool of hate. In the photo above, Russ says that "active bigotry is rare" but this was pre-social media. Women who have the temerity to have a voice or identity on the internet are routinely met with the most blatant and vicious attacks. Can anyone truly blame women who just refuse to fight in the face of actual threats to their physical safety?

Aesthetics: Finally, the most popular, well-known, and respected literature will demean and women and their concerns. Here, Russ argues that "a mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not 'incomplete'; it is distorted through and through" (111). Here, Russ points out that male authors do a poor job of writing female characters because they don't bother to try and genuinely understand them. For example, Russ says that many male authors create female characters who are convinced of their own beauty. She tartly--and rightly--says, "I have yet to find her is women's books or women's memoirs or in life" (111). Again, this is a tricky moment for me. I don't think you can only write what you know---I believe in the ability of a good writer to  imagine and portray the life of the other. However, I must admit that the bar seems to be lower for male authors. I often find myself reading women characters from male authors and wondering, who thinks like this? What I don't know is if men feel the same way when they write books by women. Of course, the problem might be that so few men actually bother to read books by women. As I've told you before, even in middle school, my male students are more skeptical of female authors and less likely to read books with female main characters.

I also wanted to point out one other part in this section which I think will be of particular interest to you, which is a discussion of art vs. decoration. She quotes another author who says, "The prejudice against the decorative has a long art history and is based on hierarchies: fine art above decorative art, Western art above non-Western art, men's art above women's art...high art means man, mankind, the individual man, [etc]" (114). I also think about this a lot. I know compliments are hard to take, but your home to be one of my favorite places in the world. Why is it that your talents for decoration, for crafts, for making a place feel both comfortable and interesting, for marrying the serious and the whimsical not more highly valued? Last week, I saw an article someone posted on Facebook reviewing a book that promotes the radical idea that quilts are art. I felt so silly---I assumed they were all along. I didn't realize it was up for debate.

Finally, and I swear I'm ending soon, she talks about why women's art, or black art, or Latin@ [I changed that from Chicano, I'll admit it] is seen as threatening and in need of suppression. I mean, why all this bother? She says, "What is that it calls into question the very idea of objectivity and absolute standards: This is a good novel. Good for what? Good for whom? One side of the nightmare is that the privileged group will not recognize that 'other' art, will not be able to judge it, that the superiority of taste and training by the privileged critic and the privileged artist will suddenly vanish" (118). This seems, on it's face, a silly thing to be afraid of, but the ability to control the narrative is powerful. I guess that would be hard to give up.

After all that reading, so much of which is still sadly so true today, it's hard not to feel a bit maudlin and melancholy. The author died a few years ago, and I'm actually pretty curious to read more of her work. It seems to me that the work of women and people of color is less able to be clearly or cleanly suppressed---there is no greater democratizing force than the internet! And so the anger, vitriol, and hatred aimed at women and people of color is even more intense. In fact, just yesterday, I saw the following tweet on this very subject.

How far have we really come? How much more will we have to fight? I will say, for being such a short read, I found this to be the most thought-provoking and provocative things I have read in a long time. I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about this one.

Also, if we're being honest, this is the kind of work I can produce before the start-up of work and grad school. Hah! Thank God I read this when I did!

As for The Sandman and our other shared books for 2015, I am looking forward to reading them. Onwards, 2015!


1 comment:

  1. I read this book in college. Your write up makes me want to dig up my 24 year old Mac Classic (yes, I still have it!), see if I can actually get it to fire up, and then read what I wrote at the time when I read it. :)

    I remember feeling many of the same feelings that you write about here, but I can see where I would be even angrier now than I was then, after *actually experiencing this BS* for 20+ years and realizing... all of this (except for comfortable use of the word "Chicano") is the same, same, SAME. Arrrgh!

    Or, as you point out... in many ways, even worse. Social media/Internet anonymity has not done this cause any favors. But here's a theory: things are always darkest before the dawn. Perhaps this is our "cleansing" time of venting the worst people's BS, but after that is all done (because, for as many attackers as there are on the Internet, there are people attacking *them*), maybe we can get to a point where this is no longer an issue? I dunno. It's late. Just theorizing here. (And hoping...)

    Aaand... awww. I am honored by your words. You wrote that "compliments are hard to take" but I am totally flattered to know that my home is one of comfort for you. I often wonder (especially when I am uncomfortable in someone else's home) if I only find my own home comfortable because it is *mine* or if it actually a comfortable place. So I am happy to know that you, too, feel comfortable in it. Regarding the respect that that gets/does not get, I'm not sure -- the design blog industry and Pinterest do seem to be thriving, so maybe there is now more to be said for the validity of that artistry than in times past?

    And finally.... that whole "Whoa -- quilts are art?!" thing. I read that article and here's my question: is that the article writer's ignorance, or is that actually the stance of the book itself? Cause... I've seen Amish quilts at the Met and the Gee's Bend exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, so.... I don't think this idea is new or shocking for anyone actually *paying attention* to the world of quilting. In that case, it's the article writer's problem and, to be honest, I *still* hear the "Is photography 'art?'" debate come up from time to time so I think there are always going to be some people who want to minimize whatever they think is "easy" as "not art."