three reviews, a poem, and a rant

January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.

I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:

  1. Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
  2. Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
  3. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloffthis is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.

Also, I have a poem out in Aesthetix issue #5, “The Morning”.

*

Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.

I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:

Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.

“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character?  Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?

“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).

I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.

Not just a secret, but dirty, too.

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§ 5 Responses to three reviews, a poem, and a rant

  • kaash says:

    THANK YOU for the Free Man review! I felt acutely uncomfortable while reading the book myself; a. because of the tone, which just seemed so self-congratulatory at parts and b. because it was so valorized in reviews (and in fact, the review at LARB was the first one I encountered that actually picked out the faults in the book) that the holes in it felt more gaping to me in the silence around them. That bit about the end of the Calcutta chapter stuck out in my head as well, especially because as you say, we are not told how Sethi grapples with this sort of ‘oh i lent him agency to make his story happen and my sister saved his friend and then i had my first real coffee in ages thank god’ trickery. He writes about phonecalls that Ashraf makes in the middle of the night to him (because Ashraf obviously doesn’t follow Sethi’s “code of conduct”), and about how he was offered a joint but he refused and later about Ashraf saying he’s so close to Sethi and values him so much: the decisions to keep these anecdotes in makes me wonder, because they say more about Sethi than they do about Ashraf. Too often, the “distance” from ethnography is made out to be some kind of ‘first world true journalism’ quality, as a signifier of professionalism but honestly, you have to be blind to context to see that stories are made just as much by the careful silence maintained on ‘emotion’ as by their critical engagement with them. So glad you pointed that out.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound so righteous and long-winded! But kudos, basically, to that review. And this, essentially:

    I am disturbed—by my well-trained ability to consume this story as just another story among stories and by the way in which this book is received and praised as a triumph for Sethi instead of an indictment of our complicity in a society that allows this to happen.

    Adding Luloff’s book to my wishlist, what a find that is. I really liked the poem too but I do wish it had been longer!

    • Subashini says:

      Thank you so much for chiming in. I completely agree, of course, those bits really gave me pause. There’s something about Sethi’s tone in the Calcutta section that really grates, doesn’t it? It disavows any sort of connection or sentiment to poor people yet it seems to imply self-importance by sheer fact of proximity to poverty. “stories are made just as much by the careful silence maintained on ‘emotion’ as by their critical engagement with them”–you’re so, so right (and this is completely unrelated, but now that I think about it, I realise this is the problem with Sheila Heti’s book, or rather, my problem with it … and why I loathed it).

      I avoided the reviews of it but I did fave the LARB one to read after I had finished mine–and realised the guy did a much better job of explaining what he felt were the slippery parts of the book. (Dang.) I don’t know if I actually agree with the reviewer’s conclusion–more judgment needed–but there is a sense that the ever-present but rarely-present narrator gets away with something, and I have a strong suspicion that something is basically the ability to appropriate a story and reap the rewards. And I don’t mean this to be an indictment of Sethi, who for all I know may very well be a lovely guy and wonderful journalist who wrestled with these exact concerns–but I do think reviewers have an obligation to be a lot more critical of narratives of poverty written by people of the educated, middle/upper class instead of merely celebrating its existence and its “beautiful writing”.

      Maybe this is a bigger argument about forms of judgment that value the aesthetic over the political … paging Walter Benjamin.

    • Subashini says:

      Oh and thanks by the way, for reading the poem. :) I can’t seem to write poetry that’s longer than a tweet these days–which is probably to the benefit of this entire planet.

  • Susan Malter says:

    Love your blog! Hey, am I getting the wrong impression if I think that the musical you might prefer is the animated Disney film Mulan? I am smiling as I write this, as I doubt it would please you. Nevertheless, the female character in that film fights alongside the man who would be the Marius.

    • Subashini says:

      Haha, no–spot on. I have watched Mulan and it’s interesting that you bring it up in this context; in terms of female agency it certainly does better. I hate to talk about “female agency” as an abstract concept, though, and from what I’ve read I’m getting the sense that Hugo’s novel is a more careful (nuanced? sensitive?) treatment/portrayal of women than the Hollywoodised musical.

      Also, thank you!

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