Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Women's Art and "Women's Work"

Nothing else I have to say here is as important as this request: Watch this.



*

What you watched--if you watched--is a vid, a fan-made music video which sets edited clips from a live-action source like a film or a TV series to music. Vids explore characters, make arguments, illustrate themes, explore fictional worlds, tell jokes, or evoke emotions -- that is, they do all the things that stories can do, in all the media we use to tell them. What makes vidding of particular interest to Aqueduct readers is that it is an almost entirely female art form: it was invented by women and continues to be dominated by women artists. Vividcon, an annual convention for vidders founded in 2002, has around 110 members attending each year; the largest number of men ever to attend in a single year has been five. Laura Shapiro, the vidding curator for the DIY Video Summit, reports that no other involved community has a similarly gendered tradition: "[A]s a community of women media makers, we are startlingly rare, maybe even unique."

Vidding was invented in 1975 by a woman named Kandy Fong at a Star Trek convention: She put production stills from the show into a slide carousel and played them on a screen to music to demonstrate just how much Kirk and Spock were meant for each other. Slash--fan-written homosexual relationships between characters who are usually not canonically romantically involved--is still one of the main vidding subgenres, inspiring both delight and technical innovation in vidders and vidfans. If you're not involved with vidding but have heard of the practice before, it's probably because you've seen one of the slash vids distributed on YouTube to fifteen minutes of fame. This re-distribution is often without the vidder's desire or consent, because vidding, even more than other fan creative activities, takes place in a legal grey space; vidders fear, often with good reason, that wide exposure and attention from the television, film, or music owners will mean cease-and-desist orders. A lot of recent debate among the vidding community has focused on the conflict between the desire for greater recognition and the fear of the dangers that recognition might bring.

The dangers aren't simply legal. Vidding, like a lot of women's art, exists in the chinks of the world-machine; and the world-machine will crush it out of indifference as much as malice. Recent academic work on fan films has left out the history of female vidding: at the Harvard Signal to Noise Conference at the Birkman Center, a machinima paper claimed that fans had been making videos since 1996, only missing the date by two decades; at a Buffy conference, where vidders gave a vid presentation and panel, academics in the audience dismissed the form as unworthy of attention without male participants. More typically, the minimizing and misrepresentation of vidding is exemplified by the outsider obsession with slash as the only and omnipresent form of vidding and fanfiction, vidding's older, better-established relative. Both academics and journalists tend to cast this expression of female desire as a pathology or a joke, at the same time erasing desires that don't fit into the easily fashioned and very comfortable story of women indulging in an excess of heteronormativity ("the normal female interest in men boinking"): you will not find, in most of these discussions of slash, even the favorable ones, any acknowledgement that not all slash is male/male -or pornographic, or that not all fiction or vidding is slash, or that not all fan writers or vidders are straight, even among m/m slashers.

Erasure, legal threats, and misrepresentation are one set of of dangers; another is co-option. Vids' closest aesthetic kin are probably anime music videos, a tradition and community which grew up slightly later and almost entirely separately. AMV-making is as male-dominated as other forms of DIY video-making. Unlike vidding, it's accepted and to some extent controlled by the professional animation production companies in Japan and the US, who run contests at conventions and frequently pick up new editing/animating talent from them. The benefits of this cooperation for the fan community are obvious; what's less obvious is the extent to which the contest guidelines constrain and limit fannish activity, or indeed the extent to which they reward and reinforce comfortably mainstream readings of the source.

What I'd like to talk about today are fan videos whose readings are anything but comfortable, videos whose resistant readings of the source material--and in some ways of our culture at large--offer a profound feminist critique of popular culture.

*

Did you watch this yet?

*

"Women's Work" is a fan video for Supernatural, a television series about two ghosthunting brothers. The series makes extensive, loving, sometimes innovative and sometimes cliched use of urban legends and horror movie tropes and conventions. "Women's Work" was made by Sisabet and Luminosity, two vidders whose works are extremely popular and well-respected among the vidding community. Like most vids, "Women's Work" gains power from contextual knowledge; but in this case, the context is not so much the television show Supernatural as Western culture. Knowing Supernatural sure doesn't hurt; one fan finds it particularly instructive to watch the vid in conjunction with the video that won a promo contest sponsered by the show's creators ("I could be wrong, but I think the subtitle of this promo is supposed to be 'Women are scary'"). But both Sisabet and Luminosity have emphasized that "Women's Work" is a meta-critique not limited to Supernatural; in her vid announcement, Sisabet says,

I do want to preface the vid (and I've debated saying even this) that I have a crazy, fierce, total madlove for Supernatural. The shit I deal with every day, the crap we watch every day, the goddamn Captivity trailers/billboards, the fucking torture-porn-a-thon of a new movie every week this spring, the woman of the week on EVERY GODDAMN SHOW I love, the fact that only mommies burn on the ceiling and daddies get to fall down dead, the freaking exploitative crap I have to wade through to read even my *favorite* comic books, and I could go on, but hell, all of it leads to just sitting down and wanting to at least point some of it out. I don't even think it is so much a popular-media thing, or even a cultural thing so much as... just people? Maybe? Even at the Art Institute today, it was rape, rape, rape in almost every other room (but no rape in the gift-shop. I looked) and I am done talking now.


"Women's Work" is a doctoral thesis in the misogyny of basic, unexamined story structures--structures which are more obvious because they are more literal in horror, but which are present in every genre and every variation of style, from pop culture to high art. The vid explicitly and viscerally demonstrates how SO MANY of the stories we know and tell and re-tell depend on the suffering of women, the death or dismemberment or otherwise disposing of; the story depends on the suffering of women, but the suffering of women isn't the story; the suffering of women just propels the story. The suffering of men is the story, and that's one (though not the only) big way suffering is gendered: men suffering are subjects on a quest, but women suffering are objects of pity or desire.

The vid starts off with the eroticization of women's fear, an eroticization instilled very early (rape rape rape, child saying prayers in bed, the particular sexual fear for the girl-child in the opening), an eroticization applied to practically every guest-starring or single-scene female victim of the week: the women's fear isn't the story, it's just the engine that makes the story go. These women are mostly nameless, or even if named we don't see them on the show more than once: they're all the same woman, as far as the story's concerned.

And then we get the section starting at 1:16, sex instead of violence, tits and ass, the cleavage parade, the blonde women taped to the ceiling and set on fire: this is, it's helpful to know, the central image of the television show, the opening and closing image of the pilot episode, the tragic loss that sets the show's protagonists on their heroic quest. Women's deaths aren't important in themselves; they are important for their effect on men. The sequence closes with kisses, with women standing sadly but at least still alive, watching the heroes go: but once again, the woman has no story. She's just an excuse for the story. The story is the men's story.

Women do have a role besides victim or lost happiness, of course: we can also be monsters. We may even get a brief, deceptive rush of invigoration, of joy in choosing power if power or death's the only choice we've got: but this is a hero story and sooner or later, no matter how powerful, the monsters end up dead, dead, dead. The vid closes with a character named Ava, who is significantly paralleled to one of the protagonists in her first and last appearance; in her second and final episode, we learn that she's chosen to cooperate with a demon because it was the only way for her to survive. Before that reveal, she was unexpectedly timid, weak, cowering with feminine helplessness in the arms of one of the show's heroes--until she dropped the mask and revealed that her vulnerability as an act used to trick the men around her into underestimating her. The trick only goes so far, and so does what it hides: in the final clip, she's killed, too.

So far, I've focused on interpretation of the visuals, but of course the audio component is equally important: Hole's feminist rage, Courtney Love parroting women's advice and conventional wisdom with bitterness and loathing and rage: "Once they get what they want, they never want it again," with its definition of sex as something taken from women mapping all too well onto the eroticized violence on the screen; "You should learn how to say 'No'" means as little to the women here as it ever does to any woman overpowered, and it means as little to us, as the female audience of the show. Because the additional, extra layer of the video is its address to an audience of women, of fans, of people who are so used to this story and this kind of story construction that we become complicit to it: "Take everything," Courtney Love screams, and we do, too, deeply in love with stories that depend on our own erasure.

And what if we aren't that lovesick? What if we learn how to say no?

Much good it does us: the stories are everywhere. Contemporary media fandom consists of a profound emotional attachment to sources made by men, usually for men; and women are so used to denying our own subjectivity we don't even notice we're doing it anymore. Much of the fan reaction to "Women's Work" in the comments to the vid announcements has focused on the women's own resistance to the vid's messages:

Part of my head, the part that adores Supernatural and the boys was (is) sputtering, "but there's so much more there!" However, as time passes, the calmer part of my head reminds me -- just because there's more there, doesn't mean that that negates the violent and brutal images and scenes showcased in Women's Work. It doesn't. It can't.

Thank you for reminding me of that. Even if it was a painful reminder.


In one instructive comment thread, Sisabet takes a protesting viewer through example after example of how female victims are routinely sexualized by the camerawork while comparable male ones aren't. Reaction to the vid remains divisive and sharply polarized among the women of vidding fandom.


*

The ending of "Women's Work" is powerful and troubling--troubling in ways both intentional and not. The vidders clearly intended the despairing rage and shock we feel with the snap of Ava's neck; we end not with female empowerment, however compromised and monstrous, but with more death, death, death. What is unintentional, I believe, is the repercussions of the final image: the man who kills Ava is black, and the clip takes on a disturbing resemblance to the racist imagery used to justify lynchings. I don't mean to suggest that this is in any way a deliberate reference, but the failure to notice it points to one of the major current limitations of vidding as a means for feminist critique.

Like the rest of media and sf fandom, vidding fandom is predominantly white and middle-class. Vividcon, the vidding convention, is not an explicitly feminist space, but in some ways it acts as an enabler and incubator for feminism; Club Vivid, the con's dance party, is the largest and most public female safe space I've encountered outside Take Back the Night marches, and that includes similar events at Wiscon. It is, however, a very white feminism. I'd estimate that of the hundred-odd women attending, somewhere between six and twelve are women of color, though I may be misidentifying women who are not visibly racial minorities.

US television notoriously underrepresents racial minorities, and those characters of color who appear are further underrepresented in vids. Vids like Mimesere's "Jesus Walks" (streaming version), a powerful reclamation of Gunn on Angel (made, unsurprisingly, by a woman of color) or Barkley's character study of Stargate SG-1's Teal'c in "Gortoz A' Ran" (streaming), are still few and far between. An exception to the trend, and an example of vidders' ability to shape new feminist and antiracist stories from profoundly flawed sources, is here's luck's "People Get Ready" (streaming), a re-envisioning of the first season of Heroes that rewrites the show's problematic representation of race and gender. Where the show repeatedly introduced black men as threatening figures, here's luck first presents them as loving and concerned: the (nameless) Haitian is part of an effort for the greater good, the ex-con D.L. is first shown as a loving father. Charles Devaux, on the show a Magical Negro more concerned with the emotional drama of a strange white boy than with his own daughter's death, here is re-figured as more central, more effective, the only parent who looks at children as other parents look away: rather than remaing the mystical adjunct to the young white hero, the middle-aged black man becomes hidden heart of the show. The Petrelli and Sylar storylines are reduced to threads in an ensemble tapestry instead of the climactic struggle between titanic white men, complete with women literally pushed aside into the smaller concerns of family; the conclusion instead becomes focused on the agency and strength achieved by Hiro and Claire, the Asian man and the teenage girl. Nikki doesn't wear hooker clothes; Claire isn't introduced with or defined by sexual assault. Children and the working-class characters like telepathic Matt and nuclear Ted are given a larger role to play; where the show emphasized the heroic agency of individual white men, here's luck emphasizes communal action and the power gained by the formerly powerless working together.

*

At Wiscon 31 (2007), vidfans who seized an spontaneous programming block for an impromptu vidshow put up posters advertising "Women invented YouTube!" As with women's contributions to the theater and the novel, it's still all too easy for women's contributions to other artforms to be written out of history, and for fandom to be reduced to simple, uncritical consumption. It's difficult to indicate the scope, richness, and variety of vidding in a short space, but here's a brief list of vids that might be of particular interest to Aqueduct readers:


  • Keely's "Martina" is a powerful critique of the treatment of rape on Veronica Mars, situating rape not simply as an isolated act of violence but as a threat used to control women's behavior and sexuality; it is remarkably sympathetic to the show's central character while being scathing of the show's facile and exploitative treatment of rape's impact and aftereffects.

  • Laura Shapiro specializes in character portraits of female characters, often unpopular ones judged by unfair and misogynist double standards. You can download her vids or watch them streaming. I particularly recommend "I Put You There," a collaboration with Lithium Doll that celebrates one of the most basic impulses behind vidding and media fandom.

  • Charmax's "Boom Boom Ba" (Xena: Warrior Princess) is a gorgeous and sensual exploration of female sexuality, marred by a seductive but troubling Orientalism. (Streaming | Download)

  • SDWolfpup's "Woman-King" (Deadwood) explores the limitations and triumphs of a woman in the 19th-century American West. (Download)

  • Shati's "Boulevard of Broken Songs" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) defines Slayers and sisterhood. (Streaming | Download)

  • Destina's "Want" is instructive in conjunction with "Women's Work": It's a Supernatural vid about the desire of the series nemesis for the heroes, which can also plausibly be read as a metacommentary on media fandom's reaction to the show. Notably, although the series protagonists are here treated as the objects of desire, they are not visually objectified in the same way as the female characters in "Women's Work." (Download)

  • Gwyneth R.'s "No Way Out" is a multifandom vid illustrating similarities between Buffy, Scully, and Nikita (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X Files, La Femme Nikita); despite the clear limitations on even these extraordinary female protagonists, the vid manages to be inspirational rather than disheartening. (Streaming | Download)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Great Divide

By Nancy Jane Moore

Gwyneth Jones, ruminating on feminist SF and related subjects, wrote the following in a post on her blog called "Shora":

Meanwhile, my personal investigation kept coming up against the wall, the real problem. Speaking bitterness in a society that oppresses women, but doesn’t know it (such as the sf community, as addressed by “seventies feminism”), is brave, but it’s easy. Celebrating the feminine, the womb above the penis, motherhood, lesbian starship captains, sexy cyberbabes, is easy too. Though if you miss out the rip-roaring adventure fantasy you won’t catch many punters, and if [you] don’t, it’s hard to see how the story differs from any old sf, (where the feminine has always been celebrated, ask Robert Heinlein). It’s all easy, as long as la lutte continue. The wall is when economically liberated women, readers and writers, have to face the fact that when patriarchy goes, we all go.

No one is born a woman. No one is born a man. You can have an evil patriarchy that is secretly an evil matriarchy (which is too damn close to the situation in our world right now, IMO). You can have a corrupt liberation, informed by the “Spirit of the Beehive”, as Guevara says (cf Joanna Russ’s chilling, prescient, The Two Of Them). You can have a matriarchy that secretly, shamefully oppresses men, and denies it, and lies about it with every breath (cf The Gate Into Women’s Country, Divine Endurance etc etc). You can’t have the goals of feminism, if you want to keep the Great Divide. And we, we in the editorial and every other sense: everyone, including myself, we do not want to lose the Great Divide. [emphasis added]

(I recommend reading the whole post, and also her follow up "Shora Revisited" to get the full sense of Gwyneth's point.)

I hesitate to proclaim myself as different, to set myself apart from this we, and yet -- and yet -- every fiber of my being tells me that I would love to be rid of the Great Divide.

Oh, I'm not without qualms. Even the smallest change is hard and this one is a mind blower. While I've had no problems putting women into roles once reserved for men (starship captains and other rip-roaring adventures), I find that I run into limits when I try to put men in women's shoes -- literally: I cannot imagine men in high heels except as art or parody. (I am sure this is in part because I have so much personal contempt for high heels and the roles they represent.)

I came of age in a world of feminist change and have spent a lot of years doing things (practicing law, studying martial arts) once reserved for men. But I also live in a world in which calling a man a "girl" remains one of the worst possible insults. Shifting women into roles traditionally called male comes easy; opening the door the other way is trickier.

These days there's a lot of pseudoscience "explaining" brain differences between men and women, pushed of late by a book by a female author, Louann Brizendine, called The Female Brain. I have not read the book -- it sounded so absurd in the reviews I was unwilling to read it -- but the linguistic scholars on Language Log have critiqued the significant errors in the underlying research and the whole different brain movement very effectively. Their most recent post is here and a list of links on the subject is here.

That even women scientists are trying to build a career around the differences between the sexes presents a strong argument for Gwyneth's point that none of us welcome an end to the Great Divide.

The other night I was watching the new Doctor Who. Earth was being invaded by Cybermen, who proclaimed that they would solve all of Earth's inequities by making everyone a Cyberman -- no race, no gender, no difference.

I think people are afraid if we give up the Great Divide, we'll become Cybermen. And Cybermen are not only neuter; they're automatons.

I don't want to be a Cyberman, either, not because it would mean the end of the gender divide, but because Cyberman aren't individuals. And -- in this way I'm very much a product of my US upbringing -- I'm a great believer in individuality.

I don't think the core individual -- the person at the heart of each of us -- is male or female. When I'm dealing directly with my friends both male and female, I don't think of them as one thing or the other. But at a little more remove, I tend to make sex-linked distinctions. It's easier; it's an old habit.

In Timmi's interview with Chip Delany in the WisCon Chronicles, Chip puts it like this:

In my ideal world, there is one gender with infinite variations; not two with the variations limited to what lies between them.

That isn't Cybermen. That's a world of infinite individualism. I'm sure that frightens some people as much as the Cybermen do, but it appeals to me. Of course, in such a world, it would be very difficult to pigeonhole people by gender. Or, in fact, to pigeonhole them at all.

Personally, I am very tired of being pigeonholed. Today at least, when I'm sick of a world in which over-the-top myths about masculinity dominate international relations and corporate structures while equally overblown myths about female nurturing are used to limit the participation of women, I welcome the revolution.

To hell with la lutte. Vive le manque de difference.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Marian Roscoe Sussex (1916-2007)

A EULOGY

By Lucy Sussex

My mother Marian Roscoe Sussex died on 13 July 2007. She was an artist and lifelong feminist, mother, unconventional Christian, charity worker, wife and writer—in no particular order. Like many older women, she was gifted at anecdote, and told stories of her life. And from her words I draw a portrait; as she drew me.

Everybody is a product of their nature and nurture, time and place. From the hindsight of the 21st century, we think those born 90 years ago lived in interesting times, in the Chinese sense of a curse: 2 world wars, the depression, then the cold war. Yet Marian was part of an extraordinary generation, who were interesting, tough, adaptive people precisely because of those times.

James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) was her contemporary, and there were similarities and also differences in their lives. They both came late to their true careers, both suffered greatly from depression and prescription medicine, and also from the roles that society had mapped out for them. Intelligent, gifted girls had a tough deal in the early 20th century, both in the US and my mother’s Australia.

Marian Roscoe Wilson, b. 1916 in Melbourne, Australia to a father, Alfred, who would be a major force in Melbourne Anglican (in the US Episcopalian) Church, ending as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a mother, Florence Hearn, from a large country family, a woman of determined character. Marian was the 2nd daughter, which was very important. As a small child, overhearing her mother lamenting her lack of sons had a profound effect on her. At the very least it radicalized her in terms of gender politics: she would use the term ‘second-class citizen’. Thus she couldn’t, because of her sex, follow in her father’s footsteps. Had she been male, she might have made a somewhat heretical Vicar. [At this point the Vicar conducting the funeral service smiled in agreement--the Rev. Janet Turpie-Johnstone is not only female but of Australian aboriginal descent]. Gender also meant that she didn’t, as was the case with young men of her generation, fight in World War II, from which so many came home scarred or not at all.

Vignette 1: a young Australian woman finds herself in Salisbury, and from there walks to Stonehenge, in high heels. She has the monument entirely to herself. Because, on that day, World War II is declared.

That’s very novelistic, but it’s real life, true.

She knew before then that she wanted to be an artist. But the life of art is never easy, and certainly no way to earn a living in the midst of the Great Depression. Vicar’s daughters do not have independent incomes. One of her art tutors told her, decades later: ‘You could have been a Grace Cossington-Smith’—a major Australian stylist, now highly collectable. It was not something about which she was bitter. She appreciated her children, and the art she belatedly did.

Instead of following her natural inclination, she excelled academically, winning a scholarship to Melbourne University. She might have been a Don—or she might have been a Vicar’s wife, like her mother, for she got engaged to a Divinity student. The two occupations were probably not compatible. In any case they ceased to be options in her final degree year. Broken engagements do not make for high marks.

Vignette 2: a young woman, who is desperately unhappy, visits a Fortune teller—who tells her she will marry at 25 and never have to worry about money. Which turns out to be a perfectly accurate prediction. More novelistic but true stuff.

Back in Melbourne, she meets Ronald Sussex at a dance and they marry. She becomes an academic wife, a hard-working and supportive sector of womanhood. It means: going anywhere the jobs are, entertaining the vice-chancellor to tea, and in the days of year-long sabbatical leave, managing a household with children, overseas and on the road in foreign countries. I don’t know how she did it.

She had children, which she approached in a similar supportive but also creative spirit. She wanted to make something special for her first-born, my brother Roland, but it was wartime and fabric was rationed. The only fine woolen fabric she could get was khaki. So my brother ended up resplendent in khaki smocked in bright yellow and red—showing her sense of colour. Whatever we wanted to do, vocation-wise, she was there for us. Not many mothers would let a sixteen-year-old girl, my sister Polly, go to Prague to study cello. With me she corrected my grammar when I started writing, and told me my sentences were too staccato. None of this: that’s nice dear, if it plainly wasn’t. She knew when to criticize, and when to hold back.

It wasn’t until we moved to the tropics that she got what Virginia Woolf described as essential for a creative woman: a room of her own. It was a studio for her, where she worked first alone, then with a tutor, David Rainford. He told her when her art was too pretty-pretty, and encouraged her to draw with strength. Only when my father retired did she achieve her ambition of going to art school. Not many people do that at 60. She graduated, and became a printmaker, exhibiting locally and overseas.

She also did what many people think is very easy but is in fact very hard: wrote and illustrated a children’s book for her eldest granddaughter, Nicola, which was of professional standard and got published: The Magic Billy.

The unpleasant irony is that after 8 years printmaking chemicals gave her cancer of the throat. But though she gave up her printmaking, she made something positive of it. She always did that. She turned to using pastels, instead.

Last vignette. A woman artist in her 70s is invited to a church celebration, where her first love, an Anglican cleric, will be officiating. Also present is a famous former parishioner, later one of Australia’s best poets: Gwen Harwood. They are quite remarkably alike, these two women, and the cleric tells the poet’s biographer, who is present: ‘I loved them both!’ It is the first and only time the three corners of this old love triangle meet.

Again, another moment that is almost too novelistic to be true.

Novels are hard to end, and so are lives. Another Tiptree comparison—they both, at the end of their lives, found themselves caring for older husband with dementia, and in different ways it killed them. Ten months after my father died, my mother followed, worn out and suffering the belated effects of her cancer treatment. ‘Death is the price we pay for life and for all life,’ Ursula Le Guin wrote in a book my mother loved, THE FARTHEST SHORE. She paid it peacefully.

The mind replays memories, sometimes in creative ways. As a writer, I don’t like ghostly visitations in dreams as a plot device. Dreams are more inevitably more about the dreamer than what they dream about. Nonetheless several nights ago I dreamt I saw Marian. She stood in a half-open doorway, an interior scene. What was in the room behind her was uncertain. She looked out from behind her big glasses, then slowly closed the door. I woke at that point, so retained the dream, and mulled over it. “In my father’s house are many mansions?”—to be Biblical. ‘A room of one’s own?’—to be feminist. In either case, an artist’s studio.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley (1922-2007)


Speaking of writers who don’t write novels: Grace Paley is dead. Sad news for many of us. A friend with whom I constantly exchanged books back in the early 1980s introduced me to her stories by lending me The Little Disturbances of Man. Because she was the only one I knew who knew Paley’s work, I mentally placed her among the many little-known writers only oddballs like me appreciated.

A few years later, I discovered how wrong I was. Paley gave a reading in a large auditorium in Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus, and it was lucky for me that my party arrived fairly early, for adoring fans packed the room. As is often the case when I attend the readings of authors I’ve never before seen in the flesh, everything about her surprised meher physical smallness, her age, her wisecracking manner, the high pitch of her voice, and her energetic gum chewing of what sounded like a big wad of gum. The latter, combined with the wisecracking style, kept making me thinking of her as a mid-century adolescent, even as the sharpness of her responses to questions from the audience continually forced me to revise that impression. (But what did I know then, in my late thirties, about the reasons a post menopausal woman might have for chewing gum.)

Since I was struggling with my first efforts at writing short fiction at the time, I was particularly struck with her replying (impatiently!) to a question from the audience about how of course every story is really two stories. I’d been paying close attention to Isak Dinesen’s stories at the time, and this matter-of-fact assertion confirmed my own thoughts on short-fiction structure. And to my delight, Paley talked also of political issues, particularly about the malign effects of US policy in Latin America and the US’s complicity in the atrocities of the Pinochet regime on the lives of particular individuals. Paley always insisted that the political perfuses daily life, art, and indeed every aspect of our lives. I felt great pleasure when I heard Ursula K. Le Guin read a poem by Paley at a political rally in Portland a few years ago; her choice couldn’t have been more fitting.

After attending Paley's reading, I heard her so-distinctive voice in my head every time I read a story or poem of hers or an interview, imagining they rhythm of her sentences and the intonations of her voice as I read her words on the page. Today, paging through Conversations with Grace Paley (1997), edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine Hall, I heard her voice again. Here are a couple of excerpts from her interview with Barry Silesky, Robin Hemley, and Sharon Solwitz for Another Chicago Magazine in 1985:

RH: In the story “Somewhere Else” in Later the Same Day and in other stories in this book, the politics seem like this nice gentle undercurrent informed by your wit, and that seems to me to be what makes it so digestible in a way. That you’re not strident about any political message.

GP: What I’m trying to write about is ordinary life as I know it, which involves politics. But it also involves ordinary life. So I tend to show politics as part of ordinary life. I tend to show it as arguments between the son and the mother, you know in the last story (“Listening”). Or among the women in the way they talk about that while they’re also talking about the kids. And I guess one of the things you try to do when you write is to write the story you feel like reading somehow. So when I began to write about women early on it was because they seemed to be missing from what I was reading. In lots of literature, it’s like unless someone’s working with very specifically heavily political people like Marge Piercy does, it’s as though nobody does any politics, as though nobody think at all, and it’s not true. I mean in many ways a lot of that stuff enters people’s thoughts.

++++++

BS: What do you think about the contemporary state of feminism? One of my colleagues at work, a woman from Italy who teaches mathematics, said when the word came up, “I’m not a feminist.” She made an effort to dissociate herself form that. And I was struck by that. Here’s a woman who is single, and heavily engaged in a professional career, and it seemed to me she’s only able to be what she is, in large part, because of the women’s movement.

GP: Here again, I think it’s an American effort, despite her being European, to refuse the politics of history and the history of politicsthe way in which their own lives are influenced by political currents. They say, “I’m not part of this wave, it has nothing to do with me,” and I think it’s painful. It’s terrible when it’s with older people because they really should know better. But with the kids, it’s understandable because kids don’t have a strong sense of history.

BS: I think part of it in her case, as well as with others is a reaction to what they see as the stridency of the more visible aspects of the feminist movement.

GP: Well, any movement is strident if it’s a movement. That is to say, since there are so many noises around it in the society, it’s got to talk louder or it wouldn’t be heard.

BS: Are you actively involved in any feminist work now?

GP: I’m really involved in a lot of feminist anti-militarist work. I’ve linked things together with my anti-war stuff. Many feminists don’t see it that way, by the way. There are a lot of divisions. Women say that’s not feminism; feminism is equal rights, day care, battered women, abortion. But they don’t see the connection between the patriarchy of militarism and the patriarchy of ordinary daily life. They don’t like that patriarchy but they don’t seem to mind so much the patriarchy of intervention in Central America.

I think the women’s movement has done a lot for young men. I’m not telling you that because you’re young or anything. Do you think so? What do you think?

SS: I had a boy friend once who was an ardent feminist. He thought that women did see men as economic objects and that was one of the things that sullied male-female relationships. He was an abstract thinker and put everything in terms of polemic. He clearly thought that feminism had done a lot to benefit men.

GP: I just see among my son’s friends. I see the men with their kids, they’re all guys in their thirties, and they really are a wholly different bunch. And I think it’s wonderful for them too. I don’t think it’s just nice for Mommy.

BS: Different in the sense that they’re much more involved with the kids?

GP: They’re really interested. It’s not just that they’re doing it out of duty. They’ve really gotten into that process, which is a process of extreme patience that does them a lot of good.

BS: So you don’t necessarily agree with Nora Ephron’s comment that the one tangible achievement of the women’s movement in the sixties was the Dutch Treat?

GP: That’s a smart ass reply. I would have said, doing dishes. You can have really a very serious dinner party and not to your amazement any more, three guys will get up and do the dishes.

SS: We’ve been talking about politics and your interest which is more organic than intellectual; was there a time when you didn’t think much about politics and there was a sort of an awakening or were you from a family where it was part of the dinner table conversation?

GP: My parents didn’t do any politics. They did when they were young. They’d done a lot of stuff in Russia but when they got here, they just paid attention to business. They tried to figure out how to make a good living, raise kids, buy a house, but they always retained their interest in what was happening in the world. There were always a lot of political discussions.

++++++

Hillel Italie’s obituary of Paley for the AP quotes from a 1994 interview with her: "I thought being Jewish meant you were a Socialist," Paley said. "Everyone on my block was a Socialist or a Communist. ... People would have serious, insane arguments, and it was nice. It makes you think the rest of the world is pretty bland."

What she said.

What Is A "Real" Writer?

As I was browsing the table of contents of the 25th anniversary issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, the title of Susan Staves’ essay, “Women Writers≠Women Novelists," fairly leaped off the page and danced a tango as it snagged my attention. I’ve had many a conversation over the years with people who don’t write novels (or even fiction) who are either anxious and insecure about whether they’re really “writers” or frustrated with people who insist that only novelists merit the designation. The unspoken assumption that being a writer means being a novelist is pervasive; but I can’t recall ever having read a refutation of the equation before now.

Staves begins by declaring her love of curling up with a good novel. Preparing for a trip to Oklahoma to attend an academic conference, she decided to read Edna Ferber’s 1930 Cimarron, which chronicles “the opening of Oklahoma” in 1889. According to Staves, in her Foreward to the novel, Ferber says that although she did a lot of research for the novel, she didn’t attempt to “set down a literal history of Oklahoma” for she had to discard a lot of material “as unfit for use because it was so melodramatic, so absurd as to be too strange for the realm of fiction.” The stories that the novel can tell, in other words, are limited. In the world of “true history,” Ferber writes, “Anything can have happened in Oklahoma. Practically everything has.”

This observation will be nothing new to novelists. Even novels that attempt to grapple with the world as it is must bow to the strictures of the narrative models that determine what is plausible and meaningful. Fiction that bears the banner of “Realism” is as artificial as a 1950s sit-com: “realism” is a style, not an accurate description of a novel’s content.

Staves uses Ferber’s observation to reflect on her own period of expertise, eighteenth-century Britain, and on

the still-present temptation to make our history of women’s writing a history of women writing novels and the temptation to use novels as the primary source of our imaginative contact with the lives and minds of eighteenth-century women.

I say “our” here speaking as a literary scholar, my original role and one to which I am always happy to return despite occasional excursions into other disciplines. Feminist scholars in other disciplines usually do not succumb to this temptation. Indeed, one advantage of the interdisciplinary character of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies is that at these meetings we can—and should—seize opportunities to listen to our colleagues in other disciplines. I have found that the impression of eighteenth-century women’s lives that one gets from current work in textile studies or musicology or economic history is remote indeed form the impression one gets from novels. Outside of novels, eighteen-century women often seem considerably less abject, more aware of adult sexuality, less sentimental, and more knowledgeable about money. This is certainly true, for example, of the women letter writers we meet in Elaine Chalus’s Elite Women in English Political Life (2005).

Later in the essay, she reminds us that

novels, especially novels written by women, were relentlessly judged in terms of whether they were suitable surrogate conduct books for adolescent girls. The conventions of the novel that developed under those circumstances were generic conventions that were not equivalent even to the social conventions that applied to women in polite society, and certainly not the same as conventions thought appropriate to contemporary historical writing, philosophical writing—or even stage comedy.

The more detailed studies of women intellectuals who wrote in forms other than the novel that we have, the more we will appreciate the great range and variety of women’s experience and thought.

Hmm. I wonder what anyone could possibly make of our world today by reading the novels now being published. Anyone involved with writing, reviewing, or publishing fiction knows well that that the narrative forms available to fiction writers represent a fairly narrow range of experience and values and a limited number of stories that don’t represent most of the people living in the world (much less much about their lives). (The same, certainly, could be said about television and movies.)

Staves’ main point is that the “literary landscape” (as it used to be called) of the eighteenth-century Anglophone world encompassed a good deal more than novels. And so she urges the importance of bringing into print and studying the mostly ignored nonfiction produced by Anglophone women writers in the early modern period. Women who wrote essays and history and biography and philosophy and theology, she emphasizes, were writers. And should be recognized and respected as such.

Her reflections prompt me to wish that our current notion of Writer were as broad. Scholarly and intellectual writing can be a pleasure to readbut often isn’t. Much nonfiction writing has perhaps come to be seen as utilitarian and thus of no aesthetic interest. But why not? Consider the talented writers of nonfiction that make an art of their thoughtful articulations: writers like Joanna Russ (who would still be a “real” writer even if she’d only written nonfiction), or Rachel Blau DuPlessis (oh the pleasures of the Pink Guitar!), or Claudia Ranikine, whose Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is unquestionably an eloquent work of art, even if it isn’t a novel.

Here’s to fine writers who happen to write in forms other than fiction: may they win the respect and admiration they deserveand above all, keep writing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Living in the Future

A few months back, Gwyneth Jones published
“We have the technology”
in the Guardian. She concluded:

Our gadgets are just like our children. They have the potential to be marvellous, to surpass all expectations. But children (and robots) don't grow up intelligent, affectionate, helpful and good-willed all by themselves. They need to be nurtured. The technology, however fantastic, is neutral. It's up to us to decide whether that dazzling new robot brain powers a caring hand, or a speedy fist highly accurate at throwing grenades.

A couple of months after Gwyneth’s article appeared, I read that California State Senator Joe Simitian had introduced a measure in an Assembly committee “that would prohibit an employer from implanting tiny ID chips in workers, block RFID technology from being embedded in driver's licenses, prohibit schools from issuing ID cards to track student attendance, and make it a misdemeanour to skim identification cards.” Despite Simitian’s efforts, likely, the fairly recent technology of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), used to track packages and shipments, will become yet another nail in the coffin of individual privacy in the United States.

A few years ago, Maureen McHugh actually wrote a story, "In the Air," in which a woman, anxious for her loved ones’ safety and with the best intentions, implants tracking chips in her teen-aged daughter as well as her mother (who has Alzheimer’s); the story confronts the personal consequences of the use of such technology.

Living as we do in a society governed by the marketplace without reference to ethical questions or the general welfare, we know all too well that the applications of new technologies will never be limited to the benign and practical. One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to believe that every technology invented will be abused. If a technology can be used to control and exploit people (on both a small and a large scale), businesses will happily pursue the resulting profit and thus Make It So.

Still, until recently, certain uses of surveillance technology were considered impermissible in the US and thus were politically unfeasible. Very few politicians have shown any interest in challenging the NSA’s access to every email sent and phone call made by US citizens, nor to secretly accessing citizens’ computers and tracking their book purchasing an library records at will. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Demian Bulwa writes that the ACLU’s 19-page report “Under the Watchful Eye,”

argues that the cameras have proven ineffective in decreasing violent crime and recommends that cities replace them with less invasive measures. Short of that, the report calls for “intense public scrutiny” of surveillance systems…. The report comes after a week of renewed debate over cameras in San Francisco. Since 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has spent about $500,000 on 70 cameras placed at 25 high-crime hot spots, and the Housing Authority has spent $200,000 on 178 cameras for its sites.

Police have defended the 70 city cameras, saying they deterred crime, while acknowledging they have contributed to just one arrest in two years. City cameras are not monitored in real time due to privacy concerns. Investigators have ordered copies of footage about once every three weeks, police said.

Although the US Government is unwilling to help the many impoverished people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild in the wake of Katrina, it is happy to dole out funds for to keep streets and parks under surveillance. In a Boston Globe article last week, “US Doles Out Millions for Street Cameras: Local Efforts Raise Privacy Alarms,” Charlie Savage writes:

The department will not say how much of its taxpayer-funded grants have gone to cameras. But a Globe search of local newspapers and congressional press releases shows that a large number of new surveillance systems, costing at least tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars, are being simultaneously installed around the country as part of homeland security grants.

In the last month, cities that have moved forward on plans for surveillance networks financed by the Homeland Security Department include St. Paul, which got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for downtown; Madison, Wis., which is buying a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh, which is adding 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.

Small towns are also getting their share of the federal money for surveillance to thwart crime and terrorism.

Recent examples include Liberty, Kan. (population 95), which accepted a federal grant to install a $5,000 G2 Sentinel camera in its park, and Scottsbluff, Neb. (population 14,000), where police used a $180,000 Homeland Security Department grant to purchase four closed-circuit digital cameras and two monitors, a system originally designed for Times Square in New York City.

Why in the world would a town with a population of 95 would want a camera in its park? Savage notes that

[Pr]ivacy rights advocates say that the technology is putting at risk something that is hard to define but is core to personal autonomy. The proliferation of cameras could mean that Americans will feel less free because legal public behavior — attending a political rally, entering a doctor’s office, or even joking with friends in a park — will leave a permanent record, retrievable by authorities at any time.

Businesses and government buildings have used closed-circuit cameras for decades, so it is nothing new to be videotaped at an ATM machine. But technology specialists say the growing surveillance networks are potentially more powerful than anything the public has experienced.

Until recently, most surveillance cameras produced only grainy analog feeds and had to be stored on bulky videotape cassettes. But the new, cutting-edge cameras produce clearer, more detailed images. Moreover, because these videos are digital, they can be easily transmitted, copied, and stored indefinitely on ever-cheaper hard-drive space.

In addition, police officers cannot be everywhere at once, and in the past someone had to watch a monitor, limiting how large or powerful a surveillance network could be.

But technicians are developing ways to use computers to process real-time and stored digital video, including license-plate readers, face-recognition scanners, and software that detects “anomalous behavior.” Although still primitive, these technologies are improving, some with help from research grants by the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“Being able to collect this much data on people is going to be very powerful, and it opens people up for abuses of power,” said Jennifer King, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies privacy and technology. “The problem with explaining this scenario is that today it’s a little futuristic. [A major loss of privacy] is a low risk today, but five years from now it will present a higher risk.”

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person’s movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.

Yesterday’s Baltimore Sun has an editorial about the US Government’s plan to use satellites to spy on its citizens:

Once the federal government had rationalized its authority to violate the privacy of Americans by tapping their phones, reading their e-mail, surveying their library selections and poking through their bank records, it was only a matter of time before the Department of Homeland Security would point spy satellite cameras intended for foreign enemies into the private lives of Americans as well.

Indeed, the country is becoming so inured to the Big Brother tactics of the Bush administration, news of this intrusive new eye in domestic skies has provoked little outrage. Congress has apparently given the plan its blessing, totally abdicating its oversight role.

The Bush Administration has repeatedly used the al-Qaeda threat to make the case that a population under surveillance is Safe (though obviously in no way a “Safe Space” for anyone). I’m wondering how much my response of visceral horror is a legacy of growing up during the Cold War. Propaganda in the US took a two-pronged approach: celebrating materialism (availability of consumer goods) on the one hand and fear of police-state culture stripping individuals of the right to privacy and due process on the other. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so inculcated with a horror of the Stasi way of life, I wouldn’t now find the politicians’ foisting a police state on us so intolerable.

On the panel “Thinking About the World” at the Locus Awards weekend last June, Charles Brown, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, and Greg Bear discussed, among other things, changing attitudes about surveillance. Mark Kelly noted on his blog, Views from Medina Road:

The discussion veered into the virtual realm; Brown noted how much people want to be watched these days, in an inversion to 1984; Vinge sensed a sea change about what young people are willing to give away; and Stephenson cited the guy on a government watch-list who's put his entire life on the web, as a defense. Most people don't have anything to lose, he said; for most, it's a net gain to put their personal stories out there for everyone to see.

I took a few notes myself:

CB: Orwell’s 1984 was one of the most important sf books of the 20th century. Some of his predictions came true. But Orwell never imagined the webcam—the idea of wanting to be watched 24 hours a day. Predictions can never be strange enough.

VV: One of the strengths of sf is that we talk about possiblities—particularly “scenario planning”—think about extreme versions of what could happen and hen play them out. SF is performing a sociological function that dreaming has for human beings. I wonder about people who are 13-23 years old. Maybe young people don’t understand that there will be consequences in the future [for sacrificing their privacy].

CB: We’re heading toward Chinese attitudes toward privacy—what happens on the outside doesn’t matter.

NS: I’m horrified by what people are willing to put up on their blogs. The downtrodden value getting their stories out (unlike people at the top, who value their privacy). [NS cites the case of a guy who uses a 24-hour-a-day webcam to let the world know about his persecution by US authorities; when he’s stopped at airports, he tells TSA to look at his webcam as proof that he hasn’t committed any acts of terrorsm.]

Unidentified Audience Member: Children have been conditioned to be watched all the time—so that they don’t feel safe unless they are always being watched.

Jay Lake: Indirect surveillance is really total—most people are unaware of that [Sprint records, credit card slips, etc]

GB: In the past, we had judicial safeguards.

I’m not sure that the men on that panel are correct about the generational difference. But I’ll give the last word to Gwyneth:

It's hardly surprising if the children of the 21st century find it difficult to distinguish between a scientific discovery, this year's new gadget, and utterly fantastic concepts such as the man with the 50s 'do, who wears his pants over his tights and flies faster than a speeding bullet. After decades of stalling, it seems that science fiction is finally, rapidly, becoming fact - just as the first pulp writers and movie-makers were convinced it would, back in the 1920s.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Spot the Liar!

One of these things is not like the other,
One of these things is not the same...

Can you guess which one?







Oh, I take it back. They're all hilarious.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Distinguishing the Boys from the Girls

By Nancy Jane Moore

I wrote a story awhile back in which people were arrested if they presented themselves as one gender when they were "really" the other (as defined by a genetic test). In my story, New Orleans set up a separate section of the jail for those charged with gender crimes, rather than putting those people in with either men or women.

Perhaps Washington, D.C., needs to set aside a similar jail section. According to The Washington Post, three corrections officers have been fired for classifying a woman as a man and putting her in the male section of the jail.

She told the corrections officers she was female. So did at least one other inmate. She even showered with men. The story says the officers also made fun of her and called her a "thing."

The Post story is short on details. The story says she looks "androgynous," though I must say that I thought "female" when I saw the picture that accompanied the story. Her name -- which was apparently on her ID -- is Virginia Grace Soto. There's something about her covering her genitals with her hands, apparently making it impossible for the guards to tell she wasn't male. On one arrest (she was arrested twice, once for prostitution and once for crack cocaine), the gay and lesbian liaison officer classified her as a transgendered male, and the corrections officers put her in the male section. On her second arrest, she was apparently classified as a man because of the first arrest. A doctor eventually confirmed that she is female.

I confess I'd like to know what she really looks like. Is she really so androgynous in the nude? Is she one of those persons born with vague genitalia -- not clearly one sex or the other? I feel a little guilty about wanting more facts, because more detail would violate her privacy even more than it's been violated already by the publicity -- not to mention her treatment at the jail. I hope to God she sues, because this is a slam dunk case for significant damages.

But the interesting thing about a story like this is how it challenges all our assumptions on gender. If someone's gender isn't obvious when they're stark naked, then gender isn't cut and dried.

And if gender isn't cut and dried, then we either need more distinctions than male and female or fewer.

Setting aside the far from insignificant problem of rape -- rape being the first thing that occurred to me when I heard a woman had been locked up with men -- I'm for fewer distinctions. And given that rape is a significant problem in jail, it occurs to me that perhaps that we need to come up with ways to prevent it besides simply locking men and women up separately. Rape is no less terrible just because the victim is male.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy Independence Day, India and Pakistan!


Today and yesterday, sixty years ago, India and Pakistan became free of two centuries of British rule. Yay! I wish I were in New Delhi over-indulging in milk-sweets like everyone else. But celebrations aside, there is also need for reflection. India is home to an increasingly affluent middle class (a tiny percentage of the total population) capitalizing on the liberalization of the economy, while that same liberalization has farmer suicides on the rise in village India. What is the state of the environment? What news from the front lines of women’s movements? The struggle for freedom is not history but current events for India’s dispossessed. And the decolonization of the mind takes far longer than the decolonization of the country.

I remember assuming long ago that feminism and the idea of equality for women was the West’s gift to the world. This was back when I was a teenager. I had studied Indian history and knew all about how Indian women participated in the freedom movement, filling jails in the tens of thousands. Yet this notion persisted until my teens, when I went up into the Himalayas with an environment group to study a grassroots environment movement called Chipko. Seeing village women in remote valleys of the Himalayas making speeches at gatherings, hearing about their peaceful resistance against loggers who threatened their lives and livelihoods, I saw for the first time an indigenous, homegrown feminism. Many years later I heard about the way women in rural Andhra Pradesh, inspired by a literacy movement, spontaneously organized a campaign against government-sponsored alcoholism.

One of the disappointments I have with modern India is that we have not brought to the forefront an alternative, sustainable socio-economic system based on social justice and equity for all. Instead we seem to be determined to ape the West in its excesses and follies. With out-of-the-box thinkers like Gandhi we had a chance, but Gandhi is mostly given lip-service now by those who control the shots. But my experiences of the past as well as current struggles around India tell of a quiet, beneath-the-radar persistence of a variety of alternate ways of being in the world. To get a quick glimpse of some of the issues, here is a link for interested readers. The organization is a mostly student-run body based broadly on a Gandhian grassroots approach. http://aidindia.org/main/.

So here’s to the continuing freedom movement!

On Writing, Life and Gender

Recently I was on a panel at a con. The panel discussion topic (as described in the program notes) was about the intersection of writing, family obligations and day job, and how the conflict interferes with and/or enriches and changes one’s writing, and how we as writers negotiate these various demands on our time and energy. This is a topic close to my heart and has an obvious gender aspect to it that I hoped would come up. Instead the discussion was a mixture of the panel’s intent and something rather different.

Before I elaborate I want to mention, without naming names, that there were three women and three men on the panel, and one of the women was moderator. We began in the usual way by introducing ourselves and mentioning what our non-writing responsibilities are: kids, partners, jobs, etc. One of the male writers had stayed home for many years while his wife worked, in order to be there for his kids, and I had the same experience, leaving academia for 9 years to raise and home-school my daughter. Another panelist described the experience of her partner’s serious illness and how it brought home to her how much more important her partner was than her writing, which she willingly gave up for a long time. One woman mentioned how she could not write much at all while her sons were small, and finally, after they were old enough, she had the time to do so. I talked about how my being home for my daughter simultaneously frustrated my attempts to write but also made the writing richer and different. We exchanged some strategies we had come up with to manage children and writing without doing a bad job with either. Some time in the first part of the discussion, one of the panelists, who I will refer to as Mr. X, who is male and a senior veteran of the field, interjected that his reading of the panel topic was different from ours; that he was emphatically not interested in “Hints from Heloise” about managing children, but instead was interested in the relationship between the writer and Life. He said he and his wife had raised two children and he had probably done a bad job as far as his part in that endeavor, but he wasn’t interested in talking about that. He wanted to talk about how (as he said) a good writer has to necessarily be a rather unpleasant person --- a cold-hearted note-taker of humanity’s sufferings and foibles, a solipsist who willingly gives up closeness in relationships or fraternizing with people so that he can pursue his Art in peace. [Now these are my impressions, not direct quotes (other than the phrase Hints from Heloise, which I recall as spoken with a great deal of condescension)]. All this resulted in what was probably a shocked silence on the part of the panelists, and I could see one or two people in the audience nodding in agreement, at which point I could not keep shut any longer. So I said that I respectfully disagree, and that the model of the writer suggested by Mr. X was perhaps accurate for people like Ernest Hemingway, but that I knew plenty of fine writers who were fully engaged in life, family, jobs and so on, who wrote from a position of compassion for and engagement with the world. At some point somebody (I don’t remember who) brought forth an example. If your child was crying, and it was your sacred time to write, would you shut your door on the child and write? The obvious answer seems to me that if your spouse can take care of the child, then you can go ahead and write, otherwise of course you must take care of the child first. Why it was even an issue was beyond me (a view shared by at least one male writer and presumably all the women), but for some reason this took more than a few minutes to discuss. The discussion swung back and forth between the original intent of the panel and Mr. X’s topic, but never took the logical turn toward the issue of gender embedded in both. I take responsibility for my part in not introducing it overtly, but I think part of the reason was that a) about halfway through the panel my cell-phone buzzed --- it was my daughter’s pediatrician calling back about a test result (ironic, eh?). Since my daughter was otherwise OK and my husband was home with her, I could afford to wait and call the doctor back at the end of the panel discussion, but the whole thing really distracted me for the rest of the panel because I kept wondering about the call. And b) I was shell-shocked that I could sit in a panel in this day and age in America and hear someone be so openly and unashamedly reactionary about a gender issue as well as the process of writing. But also something interesting happened that contributed to avoiding the issue.

A woman in the audience mentioned how difficult it was to get her husband to help her with household responsibilities, and that this was why she found it very difficult to get any writing done. In response, one of the male panelists spoke up. This was the guy who had stayed home for many years to be with his kids, who, by the way, is a person whose works I fervently admire. He said: “Well, why can’t your husband cook dinner?” At which point the poor woman had nothing to say.

The discussion wrapped up soon after that, and I was left fuming and profoundly dissatisfied. It took me some time to process my thoughts on the subject; here they are now, at least semi-processed.

A quick note: I don’t name names involved in this panel discussion partly because I don’t want to get into a pointless debate with Mr. X (although it is unlikely he’ll read this post), but mostly because I want to use my impressions of the panel as a jump-off point to cogitate on some thoughts about writing and gender. But also I have to say I feel sorry and embarrassed for Mr. X, being so old and so not-having-gotten-it in front of a vast room-full of people, and part of it is my Indian upbringing about disagreeing politely rather than lashing out --- much --- (especially at the elderly). So here goes.

(Break to fix lunch for hungry child and self).

First, if there is any doubt at all that feminism is a done deal in America, the attitudes revealed in the panel discussion tell me that it just ain’t so. Here are my impressions about attitudes that still prevail, that I’ve come across in other places as well (and therefore are not limited to or entirely drawn from the panel discussion). I’d be interested in impressions from other people as to how widespread these attitudes are, since I can’t really make generalizations from my limited experience. So these are in the nature of educated guesses about attitudes I’ve encountered personally that might prevail beyond the boundaries of my experience.


(1) Since child-rearing and cooking and taking care of spouses are women’s work they are not worth having a panel discussion about, so let’s talk about something more interesting.


(2) If you are a good writer you put your art above such mundane things as relationships and crying children; you lock yourself in your room with your Art and your unpleasant, egocentric self; if you don’t do these things how can you really be devoted to your art? It’s all or nothing, isn’t it? And by the way your attempt to gauge what life is all about is nothing to do with raising children and housework responsibilities, because of course these are incidental things unrelated to the Big Questions.


(3) If you are an enlightened male who has done his share of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, you can dismiss the concerns of women who don’t have husbands like you by asking why they can’t get their husbands to help, like it ought to be so easy.


Here are brief thoughts about each.

(1) On Domesticity being Women’s Work and therefore not important: Even thought things might have changed from 1950’s America, I suspect that domesticity is still largely the responsibility of women. Domestic work, when it has to be done as a pre-assigned role, where one has no choice and is given no respect, when the role is taken for granted by others around you and society at large --- such domestic work can be degrading and soul-destroying. When it is done as a partnership, when it is not a requirement for being female, when it is done with mutual respect and sharing, domesticity can be a joy for some and (if nothing else) at least a less taxing experience. Men who believe that domesticity is women’s work will not understand why discussing the intersection of writing and life’s other obligations is important. Simply put, without help on the home front, women can’t write, or can’t write as much as they would have. I wouldn’t have been able to attend the con if my husband couldn’t have stayed home with daughter and dog.

Privilege (and I’m talking gender privilege) makes it easy for men to ignore or dismiss domestic responsibilities, because, simply put, they can. It takes a rare man, plus a lot of training and negotiating, to go against the patriarchal grain and shoulder his part of the responsibility.

For god’s sake, does all this still have to be spelled out in the bloody twenty-first century?

(2) On how you’ve got to be an unpleasant egotist above mere mundane concerns in order to be a good writer: I am reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” in the collection The Language of the Night. I write this from memory since I can never find the book --- it is in a perpetual state of being lent out. But if I remember correctly the essay talks about the different ways some men and women approach writing. There’s the Hemingway/ Joseph Conrad school, where the guy shuts himself up and takes no interest in the doings of the household, and where his wife is a mere presence not even worth naming who takes care of his physical needs (this is from a quote from Conrad). The act of writing is described by Conrad as wrestling with the Lord, as though the Lord is clutching to His lordly chest all of Conrad’s brilliant work and the two must duel it out like the men they both are. Then Le Guin quotes a number of women writers, starting with Louisa May Alcott in the voice of Jo March, talking about writing as a vortex into which she willingly falls --- writing as a participatory process. I know some male writers will also identify with this. Le Guin notes that various women writers attribute their work to the supportive community of family and friends who help out with domestic work and thus enable the writer to write. I wish I remembered enough about the essay to do it justice. But if you can find it, read it.

My personal experience has been that having a child and a family (and, in the last four years, a job outside the home) has been limiting, exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating and enriching all at once. I’m not saying that you have to have children to be a good writer, or even that I’m a good writer; what I’m saying is that being intimately involved with life and people gives you a kind of perspective that can inform your writing. To dismiss domesticity in its joys and horrors is to miss a large chunk of experience.

I know writers whose writing touches me deeply, who are open and vulnerable to the world, who live in a complex web of relationships, whose vision is rooted in compassion. I suspect there are all kinds of good writers who approach their art in a myriad different ways. To lump all good writing into one school is downright ridiculous.

(3) On how women who have trouble balancing writing and household work should simply get their husbands to cook dinner: Ah, enlightened males! They are few and far between. There is an excellent book by sociologist Allan Johnson (I think) called The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, which talks about how men and women are both trapped by the unseen and invisible bonds of patriarchy. While clearly women are the ones who suffer the most, men also are caught in a bind --- after all, a power relationship entraps both victim and perpetrator. From what I’ve heard and experienced, the invisible nature of patriarchy to men (it is painfully obvious to many women) makes it incredibly difficult for men to acknowledge that there is a problem. I’ve heard more men than women declare that feminism is no longer necessary, as though they have any authority or credibility to make such a statement. (Ask the women, damn you!). It seems to me that because patriarchy is the air we breathe, whether in America or elsewhere, enlightened men are made, not born (in general). Women have to negotiate with and train their male partners, or consciously bring up their male children to go against the grain (both of which can take years); and men have to shed their blinders and their arrogance and acquire enough humility to actually listen and do, in order to become true partners. (And from what I’ve seen/heard/read, men are generally happier being enlightened than not. Is that so? Enlightened males please enlighten me on this).

So, kudos to enlightened males. But even such men must watch out for a condition I dub “enlightened male syndrome.” This is where you assume that because you’ve seen the light, it is trivial or easy for other women to get their husbands to cook the dinner. Relationships between men and women are so complex --- there’s that whole mix of emotions, love, guilt, fear, as well as people’s upbringing and societal expectations. The panelist who is the enlightened male in question is a writer I greatly respect and admire. But he, too, fell into the trap (unconsciously I suspect) of telling a woman what to do and thereby denying her experience and her pain.

It was a strange panel all round because the attempt (conscious or otherwise) to shut women up was being made by two opposite kinds of men: Mr. X the chauvinist and Mr. Enlightened Male.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we haven’t yet come a long way, baby.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Syntax Police Are on the Move: Equal Must Be Separate

What does it mean when a right-wing ideologue slings the rebarbative infamous epithets of “girly” and “sissified” at those who use a syntactical structure he’s declared anathema?

It is not easy to write with dispassion of the odious semicolon, but let me try: Except for its function in one copy-editing circumstance, the semicolon is worthless. It is the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented. Sensitive editors should abolish it forthwith. Forthwith!

So begins James Kilpatrick’s attack on the very idea of allowing two equal, independent clauses to be joined within the marriage of a single sentence. (God forbid that three equal, independent clauses be joined in one sentence: this idea is so unthinkable that Kilpatrick doesn’t even mention it.)

The semicolon is a belly-up guppie in a tank of glorious Siamese fighting fish. It's girly. It is not just probably the most useless of all forms of punctuation. It is absolutely, positively the most useless of all such marks ever invented….Why is the semicolon so obnoxious? For one thing, it serves no useful purpose not already abundantly served by the period and the colon. For another, this pathetic hybrid is so shy, so bashful, so gutless, so easily overlooked, that a reader runs right over it. We stumble. We backtrack. What happened to the sentence that was there a minute ago? Now you see the semi, now you don't.


Pathetic, bashful, gutless, easily overlooked… Oh yeah, that’s “girly” for you. I scent an ideological agenda here: equal, for Kilpatrick, must, it seems, be separate and held apart, such that two ideas lacking a proper hierarchical relationship are never allowed to be part of the same thought. He is willing, after all, to allow two unequal clauses to exist within the same sentence. A sentence made of two unequal clauses will not be “run right over” or overlooked; a sentence made of two unequal clauses will, rather, be “a glorious Siamese fighting fish,” manly, a veritable warrior of a sentence.

Okay, so I understand that Kilpatrick is a reactionary right-wing ideologue: naturally he hates even the faintest whiff of egalitarian practices and attitudes. But why is he so worried about everyone else’s manhood? Presumably he’s not just worried about the manhood of the men he’s addressing in his column, but of the women, as well. (If that weren’t the case, then he’d be directing his remarks to a minority population, speaking for and to a Special Interest Group, viz., literate males, and of course James Kilpatrick would never do that.)

See, I’m one of those “creative writers” he mentions in his column who embrace the semicolon with both arms. Is he calling me “girly” and “sissified”? Since I was a girl for the first couple of decades of life, being called “girly” is, I suppose, meant to infantilize me. And yes, babies are bashful, shy, and gutless. Maybe even pathetic. But “sissified”? Last time I heard, that was one of those homophobic epithets meant to terrorize boys and men into becoming mean bastards and support the party line. (Siamese fighting fish?)

Do I want my sentences to be Siamese fighting fish? Sometimes. But why must every sentence I produce constitute a vector for aggression? Is discourse merely a tank of Siamese fighting fish?

I don’t get it. But I suppose that's because when I was a girl, of all the fish in my parent's aquarium, I preferred the guppies. It bothered me, of course, that they ate their young, but their grace and beauty fascinated me. I haven't laid eyes on a guppy in years. Maybe they'd strike me as bland now. Or even pathetic and gutless. But even so, it would never occur to me to put them in the same tank with Siamese fighting fish.

I guess that's because I'm just a girl.