Monthly Archives: January 2014

Spiotta on mothers and daughters

“Mama, it is just your diabetes meds are making you paranoid. Leslie’s good.” I squeezed my mother’s hand. I had to blame everything on the diabetes. This didn’t sound as scary to either of us, and maybe it would make her less willing to try and sneak sweets. Her hand squeezed mine. I put my other hand on top of hers and stroked it lightly. She seemed to relax slightly. I held her hand, and she didn’t pull back. It made sense. We started out with all this body intimacy when I was a baby and then a child. After that there were years when we hardly touched. We would give a hug or a kiss on the cheek but it would be perfunctory. We would already be pulling away as we did it. It was just how adults behave. And now we were hugging, holding hands. I helped her at the doctor, I did her nails for her, I knew all about her body. It made sense–we retreated from the mind. The body remained. We lost the memories, and so the past collapsed and disappeared. We were back to the intimacy of our two bodies. And I realized that the intimacy was never gone, not completely. It hummed just below our surfaces, held down by our array of vanities and privacies. It felt very simple, very comforting, that our bodies get returned to each other in the end. It was almost as if the mind had to disappear to get back to the elemental. To our pure mother-daughter love. It felt better when I thought of it like this, when I felt how good my touch made her feel. How it eased her fears.

Dana Spiotta on mothers and daughters and bodies and minds in Stone Arabia. What a phenomenal book!

The Goldfinch

When people ask me what I thought about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, here’s what I’ll tell them: I finished the book on a white knuckle cross country plane ride buffeted by 165 mile-per-hour headwinds while sandwiched between a cranky four-year-old and my 6’4 husband, with my four-month old baby lashed to my chest. If you ask me, this qualifies as some kind of miracle–a miracle that Tartt deserves all the credit for. That the book was brought on the trip at all is a testament to her mastery. From a practical standpoint, hefting this 771-page brick back and forth from Portland to Connecticut made about as much sense as loading up my backpack full of rocks. But I was already 150 pages in when we started packing and I just couldn’t help myself.

Tartt once said that the “first duty of the novelist is to entertain.” “The journey that I want to take the reader on always is the journey I loved most when I was reading as a child–just this galloping, gleeful [adventure],” Tartt told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. Judged by this standard The Goldfinch is a spectacular success. I can’t think of book I’ve read in recent years that can match it for sheer, propulsive readability. Tartt is the kind of transfixing storyteller to whom you will sacrifice hours of your life even when doing so makes no sense whatsoever. And this kind of talent deserves a lot of praise in a time when the quiet pleasures of reading are constantly in danger of being drowned out by louder, more frenetic mediums. I’ve heard The Goldfinch described as “Harry Potter for grownups” and it’s a pretty apt description of the book, which, at its heart, is a love letter to Dickens–a sprawling, unbridled bildungsroman featuring a bewildered orphan who hurtles along through life on the coattails of a host of deeply lovable outcasts, always missing disaster by inches. It’s a book that’s hard not to love. And yet, I didn’t quite love it.

Reading The Goldfinch, I spent a lot of time trying to separate my responses to the book as writer and as a reader. Tartt, like a musical prodigy, is such a virtuoso she can perform technical feats that would prove impossible for the merely talented. Ask most writers to build a compelling narrative around a terrorist attack, a dead mother, a stolen painting, New York high society, a no-goodnick, gambling addict dad, a ghostly suburban cul de sac in Las Vegas, a good natured Russian expat teenager turned low level mobster, pill popping, a broken engagement and unrequited love and they would laugh in your face. For the vast majority of us, the chances of doing even half of this convincingly would be near nil. Not for Tartt; she can do it all. And she does it so well, and with such obvious pleasure, that even when she strains credibility to the buckling point, most readers will still happily go along for the ride, me included. All the way through the book, I felt the echo of the joy I experienced reading Great Expectations in high school—a book that I feared would be an epic slog that instead turned out to be a kind of gateway drug into Victorian literature. As a writer, my response was different.

The Goldfinch is such an elaborately constructed book that it read to me almost like the answer to a bet. That Tartt clearly won the bet is almost beside the point. Why accept it at all, I kept wondering. Just because you can? The best writers, in my mind, don’t set out to wow the reader with their prodigious gifts, but instead use these gifts in service of a deeper purpose–to give voice to the invisible currents of feeling that animate our inner lives. By allowing her own talent to run away with her as she sometimes does in this book, Tartt races past opportunities to confront more profound truths. Is this self indulgence on her part or a deliberate choice to dazzle rather than challenge the reader? My sense is it’s probably a little bit of both. In a book about something else this wouldn’t be so distracting. But in a book that is, purportedly, about the transcendent, enduring nature of art, it’s harder not to notice. Art’s real power is its ability to wrestle with the unanswerable and, in the end, The Goldfinch feels too manufactured and easily digestible to do its subject real justice.

In his review of The Goldfinch, The New Yorker’s James Wood wrote, reading the book:

I kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’etre and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction . . . a novel with no stolen painting, no inexplicable theft and unlikely explosion, no shoot-outs, no sudden death and fatal abandonments, and fewer Dickensian or Nesbittian shops . . . [I wondered] does Tartt have any idea of the very different writer she might still choose to be?

I still think it’s not anyone’s place to tell Tartt what kind of writer she should be. She is clearly not a member of the high church of realist fiction and that’s just fine. But much as I enjoyed The Goldfinch, I came away from the book understanding what Wood was getting at. Tartt certainly fulfilled her mission to entertain, but I’m convinced she can do so much more. I can’t help hoping that with the next book she’ll decide to speak to the adult in us rather than try to reawaken the child.


Fed up with many of her favorite writers going unsung, writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh started the new year off by drawing a series of bookmark-shaped New Year’s cards featuring a few of her favorite female authors. On the backs of the bookmarks, Walsh included the names of some 250 women writers–names which, after some deliberation, she decided to individually tweet along with the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014. The exercise, which she initially worried would “seem polemical, even boring” sparked a flurry of activity, with more and more people tweeting their favorites in response. As Walsh writes in The Guardian, “[the] meme was passed on until the list of names doubled, then trebled.”

I love this idea. Here is just a small sampling of some of my favorite female writers. I plan to tweet a few of the names I don’t see often enough. Care to join me?

Claire Messud
Edith Wharton
George Eliot
Charlotte Bronte
Kate Christensen
Mary Karr
Dana Spiotta
Lydia Millet
Mavis Gallant
Heather Havrilesky
Deborah Eisenberg
Tana French
Margaret Atwood
Joan Didion
Janet Malcolm
Larissa Macfarquhar
Zoe Heller
Scarlett Thomas
Nancy Mitford
Lindy West
Jhumpa Lahiri

The Mead Treatment–The New Yorker Profiles Jennifer Weiner

I’m feeling pretty exercised about Rebecca Mead’s piece in this week’s New Yorker. The article, “Written Off”, which is, ostensibly, a profile of reigning commercial fiction queen Jennifer Weiner clearly has an underlying agenda: to subtly discredit the notion that the publishing industry is guilty of sexism.

Lit world insiders will already know that over the last several years Weiner has become the de facto spokesperson for a growing group of writers looking to address the institutional sexism of the literary world. She has been a vocal critic of the industry, strategically wielding her influence on social media to bring attention to instances when she believes female writers are getting short shrift. The most famous example of this occurred in 2010 when both she and writer Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to denounce the torrent of coverage directed at Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both Weiner and Picoult pointed out that white male literary darlings, such as Franzen, were getting bombarded with attention while many of their female counterparts were getting all but ignored by critics. While not everyone agreed with Weiner’s assertion that commercial fiction such as hers deserved a better seat at the table, many of us recognized the truth of her basic premise: that the literary world was rigged in favor of male writers of a certain ilk.

I, for one, admired Weiner’s very public stand, which effectively forced people to confront some of the entrenched assumptions about women’s work. This is an issue I feel passionately about both as a writer and a reader. Too often I’ve seen the female authors I admire shunted off to the margins while middlebrow work by their male counterparts gets star treatment. Of course, it’s complicated. Attempting to objectively evaluate literature is a pretty fraught business and there will always be someone who disagrees with you about the merits of a given work. But organizations, like VIDA, dedicated to collecting information about the treatment of women writers by mainstream outlets have born out the idea that women are still, largely, treated as second class citizens in this arena. And, as far as I’m concerned, it was high time that someone with a captive audience shined a light on this issue.

All that said, in the years since Weiner has stepped up to the podium I’ve found myself wincing over and over again at the way this argument is being framed in the press. Rather than dealing with the real issue head on, too many conversations about sexism in the industry seem to devolve into a kind of pissing contest between Franzen and Weiner. People are encouraged to be either Team Franzen or Team Weiner. Those on the first team are characterized as old guard elitists who uniformly agree that the industry is a meritocracy and that the women crying sexism are simply being bad sports. Those on Team Weiner are populists who believe that the distinction between high brow and low brow is totally artificial and that Franzen, and those like him, are puffed up hacks.

Obviously this is pure nonsense.

You can believe that Franzen is an extraordinarily gifted writer and still recognize that talented women are getting marginalized. You can understand that literary work deserves a different level of critical scrutiny than mass market fiction and still think Weiner has a point about the devaluation of women’s work. But thanks in part to Weiner’s rather relentless self promotion and the feud-happy mainstream media, this false dichotomy keeps getting trotted out, obscuring the central issues and reducing both writers to caricatures of themselves. The New Yorker did nothing to unmuddy the argument.

Few people familiar with the backstory would dispute that The New Yorker’s decision to run a profile of Weiner had very little to do with her work and very much to do with her vocal criticism of the cultural establishment. The question underpinning Mead’s piece is not “Who is Jennifer Weiner?,” as is the case with most profiles, but “Who does Jennifer Weiner think she is?” This is Olympic-level undermining, which will leave many readers cringing whether or not they are Weiner fans. The entire enterprise–from the ridiculous portrait of Weiner dandling her dog, mouth agape as if caught mid-sentence, to the snide dismissal of her work (which Mead characterizes as uneven, uninteresting and unsavory in its attention to its audience), to the repeated anecdotes designed to reveal the “strident” and “aggressive” aspect of Weiner’s humor–seems calculated to steal Weiner’s credibility as a cultural authority. Mead’s article sets up Weiner as a strawman and then cleverly dispatches her by making her–and, by extention, the cause she’s associated with–look like a joke. In Mead’s world, discrediting Weiner is enough to discredit all of our complaints about sexism. She can’t be bothered to expend more than a couple of paragraphs on delineating the criticisms leveled by Weiner and other female writers, dismissing the entire issue thusly:

A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,: and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and the realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, my likeness.”

You don’t have to be an admirer of Weiner’s work to recognize the high-handed, reductive tilt of this passage. Mead is guilty here of employing a series of logical fallacies, cherry picking evidence to buttress her point. Two well-reviewed novels by women and a classic published in1847 are enough to banish all arguments of bias? Spend two minutes on VIDA’s website and you will have a mountain of data demonstrating otherwise. Read Francine Prose’ stellar Harper’s article “Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” Take a second to check out The New Yorker’s own stats, because Mead isn’t about to list them here. They don’t fit with the picture of pure meritocracy she’s trying to paint for us. (Then there’s the lazy reporting: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is not, as Mead states, about a protagonist who becomes “obsessively involved with her neighbors.” The couple are the parents of a child in her class). This is a takedown, pure and simple. I don’t happen to be a reader of Weiner’s, but Mead’s blatant snobbery made me want to run out to Barnes and Noble and stock up. If this is how the other side behaves, Team Weiner is looking pretty good.

Rebecca Mead is one of the lucky, talented writers who has managed to secure a perch at the nation’s foremost culture magazine. This is a position of privilege, and like all such positions, it brings with it certain dangers–one of which is assuming that because you, as a woman, have managed to achieve prominence in the literary world that you are the rule, not the exception–that there are no real barriers to entry for the truly deserving. But if you take the time to look at the numbers you’ll see that the vast underrepresentation of women’s voices in critical outlets, both as writers and reviewers, makes this explanation hard to accept. Yes, there are women who rise to the top. There are Rachel Kushners and Sheila Hetis and Rebecca Meads, but ask the average reader who these people are and they will give you a blank stare. Ask them who Claire Messud and Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis and Adelle Waldman and Kate Christensen and Jamie Attenberg are, and they very likely won’t have a clue. But they will all know Jonathan Franzen; they will all know Jeffrey Eugenides and Malcolm Gladwell and, probably, John McPhee. Chalking this difference up to talent alone is impossible. Until more prominent women writers are willing to wrestle with the complexities of this issue, until they are willing to countenance the idea that they may be the beneficiaries of luck as much as talent, the vast majority of women will continue to be marginalized by the critical establishment. You can believe this without being a Weiner disciple, just as you can acknowledge the limited goals of commercial fiction while still respecting the people who write it.

Guarding Our Aloneness

I crave technology, connectivity. But I crave solitude too. As we enter the cyborg era, as we begin the physical shift to human-machine hybrid, there will be those who embrace this epochal change, happily swapping cranial space for built-in processors. There will be others who reject the new ways entirely, perhaps even waging holy war against them, with little chance . . . of success. And there will be people like me, with our powered exoskeletons left in the closet, able to leap over buildings when the mood strikes us, but also prone to wandering naked and feeling the sand of a beach between our puny toes . . . In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction . . . The closed network of a printed book . . . harks back to a pre-jacked in age . . . They guard our aloneness. This is why I love them, and why I read printed books still.

Mohsin Hamid, Bookends, How do e-books change the reading experience?