three reviews

December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.

A blog is a much-maligned thing.

Hug your blog today.

Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.

Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?

Let’s not.

I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)

Three reviews:

1)      Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam

This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?

aisha's cushion_blog

How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.

2)      Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.

3)      Kate Zambreno, Heroines

 This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.

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“I’m afraid the masquerade is over and so is love, and so is love”

February 3, 2012 § 12 Comments

When I read about the “Marie Calloway” thing, I wrote a series of tweets and didn’t post them. I saved them, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole thing. Also, because blogs are where tweets go to die:

  • + so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the internet.”
  • “I was hoping he would say something to the effect of how my looks made it so he was already impressed by me,
  • which would ease the immense pressure I felt to be interesting and witty, (which is what I always hope for from men) but he didn’t.”
  • Regimented artifices underlies heterosexuality. Obligatory games, tricks, shenanigans. At last, it all makes sense. Actually no, it does not.
  • It’s interesting to me how Calloway’s piece is constantly referring to her social manipulations (what we all do) & her reactions to it.
  • What’s depressing to me, of course, is the way the Observer piece frames it. Also, maybe, how female Youth & Beauty is always
  • pitted against male Braininess & Power, and one part of me really, really wishes for another kind of story.
  • Smart, talented, ugly young girl and beautiful older man, for example. But who wants to listen to this story?
  • “Dignified, cerebral” straight men respond to youthful female beauty in the vein of Sir Rushdie: “You look so gorgeous & hottt.”
  • “I am intrigued by your proposal that we sleep with each other, as I have a girlfriend, by which I mean, yes, yes, yes, okay.” – Cerebral Man
  • I’ve heard/read/seen this version of the story so often that I cannot help but feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion.

There you have it. A series of emo-tweets, perhaps a little mean-spirited (that dig at Rushdie comes from the Observer piece). I couldn’t put this thing out of my mind because as I was reading numerous reactions to her piece, I felt unsettled. There was both a subtle and overt need to decide if what Calloway did was feminist or not. Which seemed to me beside the point – surely the point is to be able to look at a woman’s writing and consider it, engage with it, critique it, without first having to decide if her writing is an act of Feminism™ or not-Feminism™?

So I went back to Calloway’s story:

“It then seemed really strange and unfair to me that the possibility of sex relies on just the one thing, the man’s ability to get an erection.”

[…]

“I feel so vulnerable,” he said, his voice shaking.

I felt annoyed he was only focused on his own feelings, after he had just shot a load on my face.”

[…]

We talked more about Gramsci, and then our feelings.

My face felt tight as his cum started to dry on my face. I wondered how he could respect me, have this intelligent conversation with me, when I was laying there with his cum all over my face.

[…]

“I talked about how mean I felt I had been treated throughout my life for my looks. And how I felt like people judged me less now that I was attractive. How even though it’s not true, I can’t get the idea out of my head that I feel safer when I look pretty. How I felt like the defining theme of my life has always, always been the way I look.

“It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive. And even men who are attracted to me, I feel like they have all the power because they get less emotionally invested in me than I am in them. But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,” I said.”

I think these passages, consciously or not, explore sex and power play and heterosexual gender performance – and for that reason I find it hard to dismiss the story with an offhand comment like “we all like sex”. Do we all really like sex? Especially when we’re looking at heterosexual relations between strangers; or almost-strangers (Calloway and “Adrien Brody” were aware of each other’s digital existence, and perhaps obsessively so, in that way in which online crushes develop). Especially between partners with a significant age difference. Especially in the ways in which narrating a story about sex in such detail, with the interiority of the female protagonist as the thrust of the narrative, is so unsexy.

As such, these passages, consciously or not, attempt to articulate the power matrices that produce murky, messy heterosexual relations – all at once establishing the idea that beauty is a form of privilege, especially for a woman, especially for a young woman. But at the same time it destabilises and undermines that idea of beauty as privilege by demonstrating that the currency of female beauty circulates within the manufactured straight male gaze. If you have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze, and if you do not have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze.

I’m thinking of many women as I write this, and one of them is Janis Joplin, and this particularly line from Autumn’s piece screams out at me because I read it as true:

Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness.

The outrage over Marie Calloway’s story, the moralistic posturing of how she’s a bad girl or how fail-y her “values” are (because she still slept with the guy after finding out he had a girlfriend – “Think of the children and the future of all humankind, you harlot!”, etc.) are countered by some thoughtful responses, but it still seems important to emphasise that our capital-driven, heteronormative society prizes female beauty beyond all other female attributes or accomplishments. What? You mean like, after we decided that women are still human and whatever and feminism CHANGED THE WORLD, after all that… STILL? Yeah. In fact, I tentatively put forward this notion: shit is still fucked up and patriarchal.

Being young and comely is a privilege, and it’s an awareness that Marie Calloway herself seems to demonstrate – though, certainly she also embodies the insecurities that riddle a significant number of women: that she’s not pretty enough. “’But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,’ I said”, she writes. I don’t want to make the mistake of reading this piece of writing as a memoir, or a confessional, but certainly the fact that it blurs boundaries is what makes it messy, irregular, and compelling.

Kate Zambreno writes:

We’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl, and if she’s only an image, and never given a voice, even a flawed, imperfect, bad-faithed perspective, this is a huge fucking problem.

And this is true, we’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl who’s a blank slate, but this necessarily acknowledges the reverse: we’re not bombarded with images of a not-pretty young girl, ever. That is, a not-pretty smart girl who is not a freak, the boring sidekick, or the ugly duckling who must be transformed into some form of princess. The Hollywood-Disney industrial complex cannot bear an ugly young girl. Think of an ugly young girl wearing her ugliness with pride, like say, a female Sartre, pug-faced and fucking whomever she wants to fuck because she’s attracted to them, and enjoying it, and people swarming around her because she’s brilliant in ways that don’t involve her face and body; ways that don’t involve her glowing, iridescent skin and invisible pores and sun-kissed hair and smooth underarms and shaved pussy and stomach so flat you can eat sushi off it and naturally-bouncy-sticking-straight-out-and-up boobs. Think of this girl portrayed as just another somebody, no big deal, just another human living her life-

YOUR BRAIN JUST EXPLODED AMIRITE LIKE, OMG DO GIRLS LIKE THAT EVEN EXIST JESUS FUCK WHAT

Untitled, Jason Stillman

And so young, intelligent, pretty girls like Marie Calloway will sleep with an older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody, but will the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody be attracted to an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty woman? And let us then stretch this further and imagine the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking (white) Cerebral Adrien Brody desiring an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty (not-at-all-white) girl? Is there room to imagine this story without sort of LOSING OUR SHIT?

A hostage is freed, and on the radio she says, “I have finally been able to have a wax, and wear perfume. I am getting my femininity back.” Or in any case that was the part they chose to broadcast. She doesn’t want to go into town, see her friends, read the papers. She wants to get a wax? Fine, that’s her business. Just don’t tell me I should think it’s normal. Monique Wittig says, “Here we are, back in the same trap, the familiar cul-de-sac of ‘it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman.’” Frequently uttered by men. And relayed by their personal assistants, always eager to defend the master’s interests. Men of a certain age love to tell us this. Neglecting to mention the specificity of their “it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman”: young, thin, and pleasing to men. Otherwise, there’s nothing wonderful about it. You’re just doubly alienated.

-          Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory (emphasis mine)

The “power” that men love to bestow upon women – these must be of a certain sort, must rigidly adhere to certain codes. Young, thin, and pleasing to men. Again, I quote Marie Calloway, and this time with feeling: “It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive.”

Young or old, ugly or pretty, women who want to belong to the social order and earn its “rewards” must assent to what Despentes calls the “system of forced masquerade”. Can we read stories like “Adrien Brody” as attempts by women, who in the words of Joan Riviere in 1927, “wish for masculinity” and “put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men”? And not because masculinity is “better”, but because opportunities to transcend identity appear to be possible within the realm of masculinity?

Jacqueline Rose has this to say in the chapter “George Eliot and the Spectacle of Woman” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision:

We seem to sanitise the very concept of fantasy when allow to the woman who writes only two positions – subordination to the stereotype or release into the freedom of writing from its weight. Yet could it not also be – and at the risk of troubling the concept of an écriture feminine – that, suspending her relation to the very fact of sexual identity, the woman equally uses writing to masquerade?

This seems to be what is occurring in all the responses to the Marie Calloway story; there is a need to determine whether it’s a feminist piece or not, to allow the woman who writes only two positions. But the piece is compelling to many, I think, because it exists in the indeterminate space in-between. Even people who want to mock her writing or her style have to admit that they actually sat down and read the whole thing. Again, I turn to Rose, and her reminder that “the question of our own implication as readers in a structure and images which we challenge even as they bear down upon, and at moments seduce, us all.” We’re seduced by the Marie Calloway story, most especially, I think, when we’re denouncing it and everyone involved.

But it’s equally important that challenging (what seems to be largely spurious, a performance of outrage in defence of some idea of Moral Values) outrage/condemnation of Calloway’s story is not the equivalent of necessarily succumbing to the universal, trite adage that says, “It’s tough to be a woman”, and to leave it at that. It is tough to be a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s tougher – “doubly alienating” – to not be a certain kind of woman. Not-young, not-thin, not-pretty, not-straight, not-cis, not-white, not-pleasing to men? Well.

“Does woman exist if she isn’t desired?” might be the question to ask.

I return to Despentes: “I like myself as I am, more desiring than desirable.” Though it’s not so simple, as Nina Power reminds us in One Dimensional Woman: “What if there’s no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”

If the image is the reality then what happens to people who don’t fit the socially-constructed ideal image?

Towards the end of King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes asks, “How long do we have to wait, for male emancipation?” Cis, straight men like the “Adrien Brodys”[i] of the world, who no doubt consider themselves feminist or feminist allies, still can’t say no to the pleasures afforded and made possible by cis, straight (white) male privilege: when these men are awkward and dorky and not-so-attractive but in possession of internet “microfame” or some form of socially-acceptable talent/intelligence/whathaveyou, they can and they will have access to pretty girls to fuck even while having a girlfriend. And when everyone finds out about it (like, say, the pretty girl writes a story for Thought Catalog), the outrage will still largely be directed toward the pretty girl. And back to the pretty girl/woman – people seem happy to think about her reasons for sleeping with an older, more intellectually-authoritative figure because she wants the attention or has nursed a crush. But in wanting what “Adrien Brody” has, and in an attempt to master it and maintain the virtues of womanliness or feminine fuckability, Marie Calloway seems to demonstrate (to me, at least, in my reading) exactly what Riviere suggested: a wish for masculinity.

Meanwhile, what’s the male masquerade? There needn’t be any, amirite, not when you possess the phallus that is the yardstick for, well, everything. But what if sleeping with young, pretty girls when you’re an older man with a girlfriend is a form of masculine masquerade; what if, for the cis, straight man, heterosexual fucking is masquerade in an attempt to fulfill the codes of masculinity that so many cis, straight men seem reluctant to question, critique, demolish?

(DEMOLISH MANLINESS)[ii]

(DESTROY MANLINESS)

(JUST SAY NO TO MANLINESS)

It’s rarely ever “just sex”, when you’re an internet thinker/celebrity who writes about the self and social media and microfame, and one of you is an internet writer/celebrity who writes about the self and sex and microfame, and one of you is in a supposedly committed relationship, and one of you is prettier than the other, and one of you is an older man, and one of you is a young woman.

It’s rarely ever “just sex” when the conversation is largely about the young woman in question, and rarely about the man in question and how heterosexual sex is produced, used, performed.

Women are masquerading so hard all the time that they fall into fits of hysteria and take off their clothes and fuck anything that moves – yes, we’ve heard this story before.

I’d just rather spend some thinking about manliness as masquerade.

(*Art by Jason Stillman)


[i] Keeping in mind that “Adrien Brody” is as much fictional construct, if we read it this piece as fiction, as he is “real”, (if we read this as memoir/essay). How much of what is said and thought in this piece, how much of what is attributed to “Adrien Brody” and “Marie Calloway” real/authentic or imagined? Precisely the point, and also beside the point.

[ii] I’m hoping that inserting random comments into a blog post works on the subconscious of the Twitter generation the same way that Satanic chants inserted into all forms of rock music worked on the subconscious on the 80s generation.

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How to doubt your writing

December 19, 2011 § 19 Comments

Use Twitter, for one. Use Twitter, and then;

  1. Assume that the best blogs need to be written in the Grad Student Voice because you follow a lot of grad students on Twitter and quite a number of them follow you, and so you to try to write like they write their blogs, because other grad students like it, and retweet those blogs, and;
  2. Assume that retweets mean something, and assign GRAVE IMPORT to those retweets, and become convinced that they not only create meaning about your worthiness as a writer but also assume that retweets are an indication of your worthiness AS A HUMAN BEING AND IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN RETWEETED YOU’RE JUST A FUCKING FAILURE, OH JUST GIVE UP ON LIFE ALREADY and then realising, in essence, sometimes retweets, i.e. attention, is like bird shit, sometimes you get splattered, and most days you don’t, really, because;
  3. Quite a bit hangs on spheres of influence, networks, and who knows you, who really knows you, and whether or not they’re influential in the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, and how;
  4. One day, if they decide to like what you write and say, “THIS IS AWESOME”, then all the people who are their friends and who want to be their friends or who are merely influenced by their tastes or opinions will also retweet what you wrote and say, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER, I LOVE HER BLOG”;
  5. And promptly forget about you or your blog the next time you link to a post or to something you wrote;
  6. Which you, being silly and foolish, will see as a sign of your failure as a writer or a blogger, and perhaps it is a sign of your failure of a blogger, if being a blogger means garnering page views and “hits”;
  7. After which you try to repeat your style, your writing, whatever it is that brought about that first bout of attention, and slowly realising:
  8. The influential grad students of Twitter have probably stopped paying attention to your blog, and they’ve stopped talking to you anyhow, and you’ve stopped talking to them, and the previous compliments and attention had really nothing to do with what you wrote, it just had something to do with you being there at the right moment, i.e. it’s all about whether the BIRD HAD TO SHIT AT THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT;
  9. And you realise that you’ve wasted a lot of time on really stupid self doubt and you’ve been a fool for not actually using your blog the way you promised yourself a year or so ago when you started it – to test out ideas, to write bullshit, to think through things, to write, to write in any way that comes to you without being hemmed in by the “right style” or the “right form”, and realising that maybe, just maybe, the grad-student style was never your thing because;
  10. You’re not a fucking grad student, and;
  11. You remind yourself that the things you write should not be contingent on retweets and attention, or maybe-
  12. In the digital economy and online spaces where you publish, retweets, links, and attention are exactly the factors that make or break a writer, except with the volume of writing that is online these days, you either get noticed or you don’t, and then you remember the people who have noticed you and who have taken the time to consistently remind you, even through emails and private DMs, that they read what you write, and that you tend to forget about them thinking about the people who don’t pay attention to you;
  13. And there is really no particular explanation or reason as to what makes people consider you good one day and meh the next, but then you realise this isn’t true, that there are perhaps complex factors about your “audience” and where you live and where they live, and that the politics of space, race, gender, sexuality, and class will also have a role to play online, both in the type of attention you get and don’t get, and the type of attention and validation you seek, and then realise you’re beginning to have a headache;
  14. Because does it, and if so, how?
  15. And you entertain the idea that far from erasing boundaries and limitations and constraints, Twitter really does reinforce “the power of place” and that maybe, politics aside, because you don’t know how to deal with the politics of digital attention at the moment, but you can deal with your Individual Feelings, so you deal with your feelings and decide that this is what they meant when they said be fearless and fail in your writing, when they said that if it mattered to you, you really should not care who else cares or who else does not care, and maybe this lack of attention allows you to fail spectacularly, in front of an audience, an audience that is present and aware but does not really care either way whether you write or you don’t, an audience that does not really pay attention to you unless you say something at the right moment, when circumstances are right, when people see what you say and feel moved enough to want to read what you wrote, which is essentially Twitter in a nutshell;
  16. And you learn to show up and write, regardless of who’s paying attention to your fucking tweets, grad students or no, and you suddenly think of Rilke, who will be shocked, and then embarrassed, at this woman who is sitting here writing, nay BLOGGING, about retweets and page views, a woman who will then comfort herself by imagining him repeat these words: “I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.”*
  17. (And to ignore the little voice that won’t shut up, that wants to ask Rilke how to ignore the outside when the outside seeps into the inside, and the inside exists in the outside?)

* From Letters to a Young Poet

 

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Published poem

May 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

A poem of mine appears in the April edition of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. It’s my first poem to be published, as such, if I don’t count the poem that appeared in the now (sadly) non-active Poetika zine. I remember it was the ‘Women’s Issue’ of Poetika, and instead of the usual editor (and founder) Jerome Kugan, that edition of Poetika featured two female guest editors, one of whom was Sharanya Manivannan.

Poetika was a great effort… I remember picking up copies at Silverfish Bookstore in Bangsar with all the excited anticipation of a teenage girl. Which I was, sort of.

My writing attempts, till this point, have always been done in fits and starts. But this year, although I seem to be having a generally shit year in terms of people and “career”, I can’t seem to be able to stop writing.  I think that’s a good thing, obviously, and I almost wept with joy when I was told my poem was accepted by QLRS.

It almost feels like if I could just keep going with my writing, the cliché that “everything will be alright” will come to be true. Despite the general shittiness of life this year.

Being a good writer

April 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

I heard about the death of a children’s books author named William Mayne today. It was also the first time I heard of him. I read an obituary on him over at the Kaleidoglide blog here, and wondered why the hell I didn’t know who it was or even have an inkling that these books even existed – books that appear, from its descriptions, to be just the kind of books with which I’ll instantly fall in love.

I suppose the fact that he wrote for kids, and was found guilty of sexually abusing young girls, rendered him virtually obsolete from the annals of children’s literary history. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately; whether knowing about an author’s supposed ‘evil’ doings should necessarily affect how the reader perceives the author’s work. I would say no, but I’ve been known for harbouring strange prejudices myself. For instance, after hearing about the way V.S. Naipaul treated the people (and especially the women) in his life, I’ve not been able to pick up any of his books. And I think it’s incredibly sad, because I’ve not read a single one of his works except for Mimic Men (which I found rather unsettling and brilliant). It seems wrong that I can’t seem to get past my own emotional and hypocritical moral hypothesising to pick up A House for Mr. Biswas, which is one of those books that apparently all English-reading people must read.

I read this article a few days ago, and it seemed pertinent in light of the William Mayne issue. Also, the article explains in detail the reactions that have been elicited by Naipaul’s behaviour as a person in his private life, as opposed to the reactions to his work as a much-lauded, Nobel Prize-winning public writer. This one paragraph caught my attention in particular:

“A great majority of us have done discreditable, even cruel things in our lives, even after we have ceased to be children.  And the great majority of that majority find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, and to think more about how we have been injured than the injuries we have made.  But it seems to matter more when a writer or artist behaves badly.  Why should it?  If my dentist loves one of his daughters more than any of his other children, or a Boeing engineer is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, it is cruel.  But their cruelties don’t impair the quality of my bridgework or disturb my tendency to sleep peacefully through take-offs and landings.  Why does the bad character of a writer or artist matters so much more?  And how does ‘mattering’ work?”

It’s a valid question, and one to which I have no reasonable answer. But I suspect, and here I may speak for myself, that a writer’s work (or any ‘creative’ work of the arts – films, songs, paintings, etc.) is considered to have come from the deepest reaches of one’s self. What the hell does that mean, you ask? Well, the wellspring of writing – imagination, creation, thought –is deeply related to the self and the type of person you are. Indeed, that’s what makes us revere artists for producing something that seems wholly original, or creative, or particularly thoughtful, astute, and relevant. Rightly or wrongly, writers who write good books are thought to be putting a tiny bit of themselves out there as well. It’s not the same as being a dentist. One can be very passionate about making other people’s teeth clean, but the ability to do a great scaling job does not necessarily have to come about from the deepest recesses of your dreams, thoughts, fears, and hopes. Dental work is not an extension of the dentist; yet, writing is an extension of the writer.

I have no idea if this is the right response. Also, I’ve no idea if this is the rational response. People respond to art emotionally as well as rationally; but you can’t really be comforted to sleep by a Boeing engineer’s impeccable handiwork. You can, of course, take a book to bed with you and be transported out of your own sorry life into one that is absolutely magical, or watch a film and live inside the skin of a person of the likes you’ll never meet in your actual life.

Possibly, this is why some people have difficulties getting over an author’s ‘personality’ if it turns out that he or she is morally reprehensible by society’s standards. It’s a shame, of course. And it’s also largely random, as I’ve found out. I do still want to read Mayne’s works, even if he made some vile mistakes in his personal life.

I do agree with the writer of the above-quoted article when he says this:

“This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others.   But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it.  And if we readers are complicitous – well, that’s not a bad thing either.  So I intend to read Naipaul’s “Mimic Men” next, as an exercise in shedding my own more superfluous illusions.”

There is that. If we’re all fucked up – and some of us to a greater degree than others (again, deemed by society’s standards) – then if we try to make sense of ourselves and our inadequacies and failures through our art, even if it’s not apparent in the work itself, that should be enough for the rest of us. Regrettably, though, it doesn’t always mean that it is.

I think Aishwarya resolves the issue the best way possible when she writes in that Mayne obituary I linked to above that you can’t separate the issues; one must acknowledge that a writer molested young girls, and one must also acknowledge that he wrote outstanding works of literature that mattered, and continue to matter. It’s probably the only way I’ve resolved the Michael Jackson issue. Yes, I loved his music and his performances – and while he was never proven guilty, you still can’t run away from the fact that something strange was going on. I’ve come to terms with the fact that he might have done some horrible things to young boys – but I was 5 when I first heard ‘Thriller’ and thought it was the best thing ever, and I still do think it’s one of the best things, ever. One aspect of his life does not, and should not, erase the other – even if they are, as it were, at odds with each other.

Don’t just sit there! Read something.

February 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have issues with books. I salivate and drool and buy WAY beyond my budget, and often beyond my capacity to read. It’s this massive need to consume every damn thing that was ever written (well,maybe not every damn thing) and to keep them close to me. Hence, row upon row of books, lovely books,unread books. I look at them and feel a sense of great wellbeing and joy.

I know there are other freaks like me out there. I know you, and I see you. You are safe here.

Anyhow, the other day I decided to finally read my copy of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, given to me by an ex-boss, strangely enough. Despite his rather obvious personality setbacks, this boss knew how to pick books for people. It’s a gift, really, to know how to gift givingly. I really, really wanted the Prose book when it came out. I was utterly chuffed when I got it. But as is the case with me, I loved it by staring at it through the glass windows of my bookshelf every so often. I had other books to read, you see.

Finally, though, I crack it open. And… well. The general conclusion is that I read the beginning bit with enthusiasm, kind of lost interest somewhere in the middle, and then read the final bits again with some interest. Prose obviously loves books, and she writes from the viewpoint of someone who thinks that not only is literature necessary, it’s a saving grace. There were moments when I recognised her as a kindred spirit – a fellow obsessive reader and lover of words – and I wanted to reach through the pages and give her a hug.

Yet somehow, something seemed lacking. It’s quite possibly due to the many examples she cited. Prose never gushes or exclaims about the stuff she loves. She liberally and quietly cites examples from a variety of books, and more often than not allows those examples to speak for itself. The problem is: some of these examples of great literature are a great big snore.

Prose unabashedly adores much of what constitutes the canon of Western Literature, and that’s fine. But I can’t share her enthusiasm for some of the usual suspects like Hemingway, Carver, and Hemingway. And did I mention Hemingway? Also, some snore-worthy passages from John Cheever, Henry Green, and Scott Spencer. To be fair, I’ve not read any novels from these particular three writers. I’ve never been compelled to, and Prose’s close reading and explication of certain passages from their work did not make me change my mind.

One of the highlights was the passages she cited from Heinrich Von Kleist, whom I had previously only heard about in vague terms. Prose cites some examples from his stories, like ‘The Marquise of O – ‘ that I found riveting and full of life. As opposed to some of the tepid offerings we had from such masters of fiction like Hemingway. Blah. She draws on this Von Kleist story liberally for the chapter on ‘Character.’ Prose writes that Von Kleist creates his characters so deftly that readers are “constantly being challenged to weigh the evidence and consider what is likely, probably, and impossible.”

Much of this book is an homage to the literature Prose finds worthy of emulation – or rather, not direct emulation, as such, but worthy of study and deeper analysis by anyone who calls him or herself a writer.

Her chapter on Chekhov is incisive and particularly moving:

“Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus.”

I guess now we need to qualify that statement with – “regardless of whether that book comes in the form of bound paper, or a Kindle or an iPad.”

Prose’s book is not a how-to for writers, but it is a book-length elaboration on the single most important thing writers need to do: read widely, and voraciously. I would have enjoyed it more had she turned to books and writers that I found more exciting, but taste is subjective. Ultimately, Prose teaches you how to extract the best possible literary nutrients from the books that you love best, by learning to read closely. You can do that by mining literary gold from the novels of Austen, Hemingway, or Tove Jannson, Scarlett Thomas, or Chinua Achebe. Anyone, really. You don’t have to stick to Prose’s reading list, but it does help to consider her plea to read widely, AND to consider dipping into the Canon. Her argument is that those works have stood the test of time because they’re clearly very good. I find that doubtful, because cultural, historical, and socio-political factors can help works of literature stay in circulation for reasons other than its pleasing aesthetic qualities. Despite that, I think it helps to read what you’re denouncing before you denounce it.

Most of all, Prose exhorts us (and writers, in particular) to read for courage. The world is crap enough as it is. It’s not going to give you a standing ovation for writing a pitch-perfect short story that blends Gothic elements with magical realism with a dash of Renaissance drama. However, people continue to write, create, and produce art because they must, and people will continue to savour art because they must.

Do as Prose says, then: “If we want to write, it makes sense to read – and to read like a writer.”

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