Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over By Nell Painter
Berkeley, CA; Counterpoint, 2018, 352 pages with color illustrations, $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Who can talk about the rock star historian Nell Irvin Painter without explicitly addressing the obvious, which is that her last name is Painter? This is her last name. Painter’s beloved husband has a different last name. When I was briefly a fleck of crystal in Nell Painter ’s orbit, when I taught Creative Writing at Princeton, where Nell Painter was permanently endowed, I could tell Nell was a painter by her palette—skin to hair to coat to shoes to portable accoutrements. Of course, Nell Painter, with her portentous name, would use the freedom of retirement from History as a first career, and choose to launch a second career by going to Art School.
Nell Painter goes to Art School with gusto, and while there, she rediscovers an appreciation for her own hand. Art school awakens her long-held affinity for drawing. Painter possesses sketches she made in her early twenties, in the early 1960s, when her color-sight was awakened in Ghana, where she moved with her parents during the early days of the Black Liberation era. Looking back, Painter recalls how Ghana changed her, before her career in history, but in a patently artistic way:
In Ghana I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was Venetian red, the trees and grass Hooker ’s green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Cadmium red bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions barricading the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.
Painter ’s keenly trained eye and intellect prompt her to recognize the specific and the theoretical. Painter brings these strengths to her Art Education. Strong and spry and expectant, Painter finishes six years of Art School, completing two brand new degrees, by the striding age of seventy. An alert observer, Painter renders her experience with humor, with skepticism, with anxiety, and in many voices.
Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. Even though Painter’s prodigious accomplishments in History do not make People magazine, her status in American History has for decades been neon to academic faculty, feminists, historians, and cultural critics. After a huge career, her decision to attend Art School reads in some ways like turning away from a well-traveled road and into the wilderness. Painter is pointedly clear about her attraction to engagement with art: “Art stopped time. Art exiled hunger. Art held off fatigue for what would have been hours as if hours had not really passed.”
Writing deftly about the work of switching gears, and how to rev up to making art, Old in Art School decodes and details the substantive study and artistic processes Painter had to master in her sequence of studios, first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, in Newark, and finally, at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Old in Art School succeeds as a story of a budding artist, and also as guidebook: you can design your own art education by following along with Painter ’s readings and reflections on artists in the canon; women artists who Painter appreciates, and elevates, and sometimes befriends; artists who become important to Painter’s interests and to her cultivated eye. From Rembrandt to Faith Ringgold, from Matisse to Alice Neel. Painter also enumerates inspirations and omnipresent impressions. She is in Art School encountering “art works” addressing Barack and Michelle Obama, some of them simply, duly noted, and others worthy of pause and commentary. Most artists also engage with other artists to create a fertile and inspiring context in which to work, and keep time: for Painter, Cassandra Wilson and Abbey Lincoln help create ambience—both women crooners and philosophers who speak to artists and writers and intellectuals of a certain type, like Nell Painter.
At the very beginning of Nell Painter’s Art School career, a fellow student asks her how old she is. Painter, then 64, remarks that there was no hello, no other leading questions, no “Are you a teacher?”, no preliminaries. Just: “how old are you?” Blunt interrogation. It’s no surprise; Art School is known as a cauldron of interrogation—and critique. Painter also approaches her Self and the experience of Art School as a process of interrogation. She describes how she did not quite see herself as old—she was, in fact, starting anew—and yet throughout the narrative, which contains a number of dips and turns, Painter is (mildly) plagued by questions about her age. Painter ’s experience of seeing herself as other people saw her, namely as “old,” relates to DuBois’ assertion that we see ourselves as other people see us, as well as how we see ourselves.
Nell Painter cuts no corners in Art School; she is as thorough as she has been in history. She makes volumes of art work; she tries to fit in. She finishes all her assignments and exercises with gusto and consistency and expectation. She even sits on the floor, and commends herself heartily for being “old,” yet being able to get up and down off the floor at will.
Painter prides herself on diligence and vigor, even as other Art School students, and Teacher Him and Her, and Visiting Artist They and Them are telling Nell that she will never be “A Real Artist.” For one, they suggest she in fact is too old, and they also argue that she probably doesn’t have the talent or the sense of struggle to make the legendary sacrifices that making art demands. Budding Artist Nell listens to this drivel, and resists, and listens again. The degree to which Painter even temporarily succumbs to the wash in negativity her peers and teachers “offer” is probably the least compelling aspect of this otherwise nearly rollicking memoir. Enlivening it is a counter-chorus of many other voices, channeled through Nell Painter’s insight: Nell’s parents, their old friends, Nell’s history friends, Nell’s new artist acquaintances, Nell’s family with their roots in the Bay Area. Hilarious, the voices Nell hears; too funny, the Names she gives them.
Painter insists that her age elicited reactions during Art School that ranged from cool dismissal, to critique of her vision with insinuations of the antique. Painter experienced, and accepted, the self-doubt generated by the relatively harsh atmosphere of the Art School “critique.” Painter’s young classmates often looked at curiosity as if it were a relic, an artifact of a time to which they did not belong. In Art School, Painter is confronted by her 20th century-ness, and her stalwart curiosity, as dated conditions. At one point, Painter bluntly states that curiosity represents a great strength. She notes her frequent use of 20th century terms, and wonders whether her ideas were rejected as too 20th century. Painter explores her own attachment to meaning, and learning that’s very 20th century. In the 21st century, presumably, you can be unabashedly attached to just how things look; coherence be damned. Whether the painting or artwork exhibits substance, or skill, or coherence has become passé as a mode of analysis.
Describing one of the artists outside Art School with whom Nell Painter consulted, the narrative is driven by inquiry and curiosity:
Noting my interests in the world, he lent me R.B. Kitaj’s Second Diasporist Manifesto … its untamed monomania blew me back … I settled into its omnidirectional nuttiness … Kitaj knew his book was all mixed up, and he dove deeply into piebald obsession. Kitaj’s weirdness, even though it cost him his reputation as a painter for many years, inspired me.… I had known all along I wasn’t the only one juggling history, group identity, individual proclivities and visual art.
Fully aware that the artist is responsible for motivating herself to make work, Painter ’s intellectual strengths, deep knowledge, visual capacity, and determination all combine to give her wide access to all you have to pull together to make art from this chaotic, fractured world of disciplines and genres, histories and oppressions, travesties and triumphs.
Painter is ultimately able to arrange more situations of artistic discussion where she experiences nurture and gains motivation from critiques that are offered or that she can request, but these nurturing experiences are outside the Art School milieu. Particularly at the graduate level, Painter finds the most engagement and perception with outside artists. Perhaps people closer to her own age. Art School, in other words, is loathe to let go of its breakdown strategy. Speculation about the reasons and/or necessity for Art School cruelty have gone on since the advent of Art School. Perhaps the meanness is supposed to ensure that artists are tenacious enough to hold onto the very vision that Art School portends to critique out of them.
Nell Painter persists. She finishes graduate Art School, but the journey is complicated by a whole series of drama and grief, both quiet and startling. Which brings us to one of the most compelling voices in Old in Art School: Daughter Nell. For most of her six-year experience in undergraduate and then graduate Art Schools, Painter is caring for one or both of her parents.
The dissonance and tension between making art and tending aging parents could not be more stark, and is riveting as a storyline. In happier, more youthful times, Nell Painter and her parents were intellectual activists during a fomenting era in America. Especially among studied, Black, proud intellectuals, Painter and her parents have upright, ‘60s and ‘70s bona fides. They followed DuBois’ theorizing and lived for a time in Ghana, during the Liberation experiments. Nell Painter knew Maya Angelou in Ghana, when Angelou was young and had a last name not yet made famous. The Irvins moved from Ghana to the Bay Area, where La revolution continua, and where Budding Historian Nell went to undergrad at Berkeley. After Berkeley and a Master’s degree from UCLA, she relocated to the Ivied East, and in the ensuing decades there built an esteemed career as an innovative, incisive, and wry academic Historian.
In the book, the most intense period caring for her parents occurs after her mother has already transitioned. In his eighties, Nell’s father asks to be moved from the Bay Area where he had lived, been married, raised Nell, and been widowed—all pieces of a life over the course of seventy years. He wants to move to New Jersey, where Nell can watch over him as he begins his long transition away from this world. For much of the story, even before this last move, her father lay in what Painter describes as a “bitter bed.”
Her father’s depressive saga parallels woefully the (slightly) foreshortened life of Painter’s spunky and beautiful and resilient mother. Nell’s mother, Dona Irvin, predeceased Nell’s father. She published two books in her “old age,” one on the history of Black Methodist churches, called The Unsung Heart of Black America, and the other, I Hope I Look that Good When I Get Old, a guide for aging gracefully that Nell Painter references in the context of her motivations at her own age.
In part because her parents are characters in her memoir, “old” seems too final a choice of word for this determined, intentional adventure in the present tense. Painter is not convincing as an “old” person. Since there is nothing after “old” in our culture—except silent and immutable death—“old” must be defined differently than the can-do years represented by a fit person in her sixties and early seventies even. The many men who keep themselves in power are that age. They do not question their fitness or their age. They do not question themselves at all.
How is “old” defined anyway? Over sixty? Over seventy? Retired? Slowed down? White hair? Can’t do this or that? Can’t sit on the floor, or can’t get up? Full career already done? Many aspects of “old” do not apply to Nell Painter, who has not slowed down. She has had one full career, and has embarked upon another. How old is that?
The memoir is touted as Nell Painter’s eighth book. The list of publications that makes this Painter’s eighth book does not include Soul Murder and Slavery, which has monograph intellectual heft, if not monograph length, and is my favorite example of Painter ’s daring. Most famously, Painter authored the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, which was a visual book. Authoritatively named and unassailably daring, The History of White People started with a question; it is worth reading the memoir just to learn about the stunning process that spawned the book. Creating Black America is another of Painter ’s sweeping, landscapechanging book projects. Old in Art School is subtitled, in a nod to academic form, a Memoir of Starting Over. Rock stars do not start over; they just turn up the amp.
Now, Nell Painter has two bodies of work: her hefty and scholarshipaltering oeuvre of conceptual histories—and, her art. For those perspicacious and hungry enough to follow her artistic progress, there will be the continuing progression of her inventions, including the presumably continuing Odalisque Atlas, or the visual volumes of Art History by Nell Painter, or the completion of her series One Hundred Drawings for Hanneline, or maybe more of her series of maps, torqued away from geography and into the pulsing heart of concept. Nell Painter lives and works and paints in a studio in Newark, NJ. She is a woman of an age, and a woman of strong will. The history will never disappear. And the paintings multiply.
In the end, Painter argues that visual art set her free. This is a bold, sweeping, and unequivocal statement for Painter to make. Although trained as an artist, Painter maintains the specificity and precision of a historian, and she does not speak of freedom lightly. Writing clearly and coherently, about a subject [Art] that cottons to chaos, Painter lets us watch as she tries to pin down aspects of her visionary freethinking. She translates that freedom into concrete invention: Painter now makes collage, and shape shifts, and projects, and paints, and grows exuberant in the infinity of color. It’s expression that is distinct from her visionary contributions to history, that practice of standing rigidly upright rediscovering and reinterpreting established facts. Nell Painter’s trained curiosity carries her through; her art knows no hindrance to crossing chronologies or continents, to shift and reshape time, all on one canvas.
Art takes vivid liberties, whereas history is tied to the archive, and exercises no freedoms therefrom. The connection, then, between art and art history and history did not accrue on the side of art. Freed from the archive, Painter communicates in language which is bodacious and, in moments, color-saturated. Real color, not race color—starts to blossom in the book early. Painter refers to our fantasy of democracy as viridian green, that dark shade of spring. She announces a “Pyrrole orange flash of insight.” The grief colors that come with the loss of a very close friend are “muddy gray mashing down” and “green-tinged brown on an unwashed palette.”
You almost have to go to Art School to let go of the binary of raceassociated black and white, but Old in Art School gracefully offers us that blessing. Colors are infinite and inspiring. If you read Old in Art School, you will learn, from Nell Painter, what it means to speak in color.
A.J. Verdelle is the author of The Good Negress. She teaches creative writing in the English Department of Morgan State University, and teaches fiction and revision in the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, MA.
Sick: A Memoir By Porochista Khakpour
New York, NY; Harper Perennial, 2018, 272 pages, $15.99, paperback
Reviewed by Julia Berner-Tobin
The best memoirs about trauma are never just about the injury itself. Ghostbelly (2014) is about stifling Western attitudes toward birth, death, and mourning told through Elizabeth Heineman’s struggle to grieve her stillborn son. When Breath Becomes Air (2016) ponders mortality and time explored through the story of Paul Kalanithi’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Jana Leo's Rape New York (2011) is about racialized city planning, architectural theory, and the criminal justice system anchored in the story of Leo’s own rape.
But Porochista Khakpour ’s new book, Sick, is about Porochista being sick. It details the mysterious and severe physical pain she endured after years of wrong calls before finally receiving a correct diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease. It’s about her body—where it went, who it slept with, what it felt when it came in contact with ecstasy, benzos, a cigarette; about her eyesight that comes and goes and creates “hyperglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDSgodknowswhatIhave” stars in her vision when she stands. How her spine goes into shocks when it’s at rest. Excerpts from emails to friends provide revealing details: “I have increased salivation and gum bleeding, weird heart rate and blood pressure and dizziness and disorientation ... if candida was detected in the blood, then is this sepsis?”
It’s feverish and frantic. Each chapter is just long enough to establish who she was dating, where she was living, and what she was taking. There’s New York, LA, Santa Fe, Germany, Chicago, Jacob, Alexander, Ryan, Jerry, Cameron, Xanax, Paxil, Celexa, Ambien, Neurotonin.
But each place, person, or drug fails to make her better. She has always been sick. She writes, “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in some sort of physical pain or mental pain, but usually both.” Khakpour was born in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War following just a few years later. To escape the turmoil, her parents moved their family to the US when she was five. They lived close to a suburb of LA nicknamed “Tehrangeles,” but she never felt at home in California and found her own escape in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. There, like so many New York liberal arts freshmen, she immediately started smoking cigarettes, dressing all in black, and using drugs.
“The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control.”
The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control. Here her writing is sharp and personal, switching to second person so there’s more space to enter into these moments. “Drugs make holes so they can fill them for you later,” she writes. Then, later “If you know a part of you is always dying, taking charge of that dying has a feeling of empowerment. My body goes against me often, so what if I put it through that myself?” Her descriptions of getting ahead of some of the inevitable pain—emotional or physical—is relatable.
The emotional pain caused from being sick is tied in with emotional pain caused by her many boyfriends, the characters who serve as witnesses to her body’s ups and downs. I’m a fan of romantic novels, so I was surprised at myself for wanting less of these lovers, with whom we rarely get beyond the surface-level. They bleed into each other, distinct more for the time they came into Khakpour ’s life than their own discernible characteristics. Though she does reflect on how her identity as a sick person defines these relationships and raises the stakes—“I liked that there was danger involved with me, that I was someone people could lose”—she could’ve delved deeper into the role of the caretaker: how those people can make and fill holes in a sick body just like drugs, and how caretakers can define themselves by the job of keeping their loved one from falling apart. Khakpour provokes many interesting questions like this throughout Sick, but they’re often asides, given a back seat to the details and facts of what happened, when.
I loved this book before I started it. I loved that the whole thing is dedicated to the story of her body. The premise is so brave, and I felt in awe of her fearlessness at the start. All these things happen to her physically, but there’s still a thinking person, a writer, attached to this body that is falling apart. So tell us, writer, what that’s like. I opened the book wanting—I knew my (often falling apart) body had never been given someone else’s story to find itself in; I wanted this to be it.
I found many points of connection. At thirteen, after months of feeling strange and horrible I, like Khakpour and many other women, was given a misdiagnosis of anorexia when there was much more wrong with me. Next, again like Khakpour and many other women, the diagnosis was psychological issues. Then finally, correctly, I was given a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease at fifteen. After the diagnosis there were years of medication, trying different combinations of steroids and immunosuppressants that gave me their own range of difficult-to-deal-with and at times nearly impossible symptoms. Like Khakpour, I felt my personality change with drugs, steroids giving me anxiety and strong mood swings, emotions I was confused by. But the drugs allowed me to go to school and graduate on time with grades that were good enough. Now, like Khakpour, after what I hope is the worst of it, I pretend my body isn’t sick at all, taking medicine only sporadically, drinking, smoking, and eating what I want. And this behavior does make me sick, but sometimes the indulgence is worth the sickness.
I know it’s an unfair thing to bring to a memoir, my desire to unlock or loosen the disassociation I feel with my own sickness, to read a book in the hope it will make me take better care of myself after some enlightenment brought about by connecting to someone else’s story. But it only feels so unfair to me because she was so sick, because she wasn’t taken seriously or listened to, I feel I have to. I don’t want to critique her because women are critiqued for their pain too much.
I worry that it’s also unfair to ask for a narrative arc from a body that’s defined by holes and stops and starts and wrongness. Khakpour addresses it herself in the epilogue, she explains that Sick “didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my petty arcs, my character development.” But what was there was not enough to hold onto or dive into or find myself in.
I left Sick on the table when I was out with a guy friend and he said, “God, we need to get you something else to read, not this depressing stuff.” I felt immediately defensive. “Everyone loves reading about depressing stuff,” thinking of A Little Life; Sing, Unburied, Sing; H Is for Hawk—all enormously bleak and critically acclaimed. “What do you mean?” And he looked down at the cover with the pills and her face with an oxygen tube in her nose, and said, “not this kind of depressing.” He meant physical pain and disability aren’t the kind of stories people want to hear. But I did.
This book reads like she worked through real personal trauma in its writing. I felt her catharsis at its finish, and that is the payoff. And it’s not unsubstantial after seeing her go through what she did in these pages. A section of self-analysis spoke to the feel and intention of the memoir itself. “I wrote ... as a person who could not be helped, who knew this, who could live with just being heard, a sign of being alive somehow, perhaps.” Her individual suffering is now out there in the world, and that changes it, and I’d argue (from the way the writing speeds up at the end) releases it. So reading this was never about me and my sickness, it was about me as a witness to what happened to Khakpour and her body. Sick was her catharsis. Her individual suffering is now out in the world. I can feel that release, and the satisfaction of unburdening some of her pain.
In the spring 2014 issue of VQR, Leslie Jamison wrote a much-discussed essay called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, she argues that a “cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?” And that is what Sick is. It’s an account of pain for the gift of an audience. She didn’t have a listening audience throughout her illness—instead, she faced consistent deafness from the medical community, and often her friends and family—so she found her listeners by writing this memoir.
Women aren’t supposed to write about their pain unless it’s sexy. Pain because of a lover is sexy, madness-pain can be intoxicating—but pain because of an illness is unwelcome, perceived as imagined, irritating, gross. Khakpour wrote about it anyway. And in a publishing landscape that says no to many stories about this other, unsexy kind of pain, the existence of Sick is a really big deal.
Julia Berner-Tobin is the managing editor of Grove Atlantic.
Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory By Griselda Pollock
New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 2018, $60.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
What desire shapes our scholarship?” Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock poses this question in the preface to her tour de force study of Berlin-born artist Charlotte Salomon’s masterpiece, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Salomon, who was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1917, exiled to France in 1938, and gassed to death in Auschwitz in October 1943, when she was five months pregnant, created her uncategorizable magnum opus—ultimately consisting of 769 paintings and fifteen additional pages of painted words selected from over 1,000 gouaches—from late 1940 to early 1942. Pollock describes Salomon’s work as “one of the most challenging, enigmatic and demanding artworks of the twentieth century”; her record of sitting for years with the incredible story told in words and images proves it. As she explains in a note appended to the preface, “A Word of Personal Explanation,” she spent more than fifteen years preparing to write this book, lecturing, researching, and touring, interviewing and discussing, thinking and writing. After two earlier failed attempts at addressing, in a full-length monograph, an artwork that “transgresses our existing categories of knowledge” and an undertaking that “calls for another mode of writing,” Pollock has finally completed Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory.
Pollock is not the first to find herself taken in for prolonged periods by Salomon’s legacy. As her contemporary, Jacqueline Rose, writes in Women in Dark Times, “You do not exactly look at, or read, Life? or Theatre? You enter into its world.” Other critics, scholars, and historians to submerge themselves in this incredible work, and its attendant, eventually annihilating, historical moment, include the historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. Her influential 1994 biography, To Paint Her Life—what she describes as a “personified history”—was the culmination of over ten years of research. Felstiner ’s book itself was partly made possible by Judith Belinfante (director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam from 1976 to 1998), and her assistant, Eva Orenstein. Having acquired Salomon’s archive for the museum in 1971, the pair spent almost two months laying out all of Salomon’s pages on the floors of an empty house and trying to make sense and order of the hundreds of paintings, some double-sided and many including overlays. While the exact structure of the visual narrative will always remain indefinite (and, to make things more unwieldy still, particularly when it comes to exhibitions, many of the images reference suggested musical accompaniments), it is largely due to these women’s efforts that scholars, artists, novelists, filmmakers, and lay-audiences can find themselves in proximity to the work.
In 2017, in the wake of its burgeoning accessibility, Overlook Press published the full narrative in English, and Salomon’s achievement has spawned a number of inspired texts. These include movies (two by Dutch director Frans Weisz), plays, art and literary criticism, additional historical inquiries, and a 2014 prize-winning novel, titled, simply, Charlotte, by French writer David Foenkinos. But Pollock does not regard all afterlives of Life? or Theatre? to be worthy of her analysis. (“I couldn’t read it,” she says of Foenkinos’s book.) Partway through the novel, Foenkinos’s narrator encounters Salomon’s artwork in Berlin, and he experiences “the feeling of having finally found what I was looking for. The unexpected climax to all my vague longings.” Pollock’s intervention is a direct response to those, like Foenkinos, via his narrator, who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis”—those readers, in other words, that confuse artistry for confession, that overlay Salomon’s life—and death—upon her art, obscuring its constitution, the exceptional coordination of philosophies, constructed affects, and aesthetics that is Life? or Theatre?
Pollock insists that “Life? or Theatre? is not a narrative of what happened.” She connects this slippage between biography and work, a common and often gendered blunder that, for instance, leads many to refer to women authors and artists by their first names and to read their works primarily through the lens of biography. “I can see why it is so much easier to ask and then imagine
“Pollock's intervention is a direct response to those who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis.”
‘who Charlotte Salomon is’ than it is to seek to know ‘what Leben? oder Theater? is,’” Pollack concedes. How then does one approach this complicated and important work that is so entrenched in its own history, a great artwork whose existence is as improbable as its craft is astonishing?
Pollock’s rich, provocative, and complicated study is built from a prologue and introduction followed by twelve chapters, each of which employs an individual image as a starting point to tackle this important modernist work from different but connective angles. She looks not only to the individual pieces in themselves, the works of art, music, philosophy, film, and literature that they dexterously reference, the architecture of each word-image construction, but also to the way the narrative as a whole coheres, the different visual and lyrical rhymes and rhythms that cycle throughout the prodigious, densely packed text.
One chapter, for example, opens with a spectacularly bright and fluid image depicting Salomon’s protagonist, Charlotte Knarre, painted in several different configurations while working at her easel. Pollock notes the signifiers referenced in these images—Van Gogh’s boots and sunflowers, Cézanne’s fruit and water jugs—and she draws parallels to a series of images depicting Knarre doing artwork at a desk, details culled from a variety of scenes. The images are brought together in service of this exploration of becoming an artist in these particular circumstances, of a Jew coming of age and diving into her calling, first during the Weimar years and then in the midst of the rise of the National Socialist Party. “What was it to be Jewish and a woman entering the field of art at the moment at which modernist art—identified with Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Modigliani, Chagall, Nolde and Picasso ... would be outlawed?” Beginning with these investigations into the work itself, Pollock is able to extend outward, to examine, in this case, the two famous art exhibitions, one opening in Munich in 1937, the next opening a day later in Berlin, that set the stage for what the Nazis hoped would be an “aesthetic revolution.” Pollock turns to mirror a Vincent Van Gogh painting alongside a detail from one of Salomon’s paintings, allowing us to see, in this conjunction, not only the ways that the referenced works of art can help us read Salomon, but, perhaps more compellingly, how Salomon can help us reread these canonical figures of art history. As Pollock describes,
That an artist ... could appropriate as a possible position for her own creative defiance not only the inventiveness of Van Gogh’s psychologization of space but also the tenacious restaging of remembered places figured through an untrained but intuitively creative freedom with color and drawing helps us create different questions to ask of modernist painting and to map out different pathways through its many possibilities.
In Pollock’s hands, Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? becomes more than a work of Holocaust memorialization, or a testament to Jewish life in Germany during those troubled times (what Pollock calls “before Auschwitz”), or a personal history put down on paper. Instead, she unframes the work, to unmask its dynamism, to call attention to its force as an uncategorizable, deeply complicated construction. “The artist invented a form of art,” she persuasively argues.
Salomon’s work is built around an uncannily disastrous narrative. The text is the story of Charlotte Knarre’s learning, in the wake of witnessing firsthand her grandmother’s death by suicide, that a number of deaths in her family history also happened in this way. Though she had been told as a child that her mother died of influenza, she finds out, while living in exile in France with her grandparents, that her mother and the aunt that she was named after both also died by suicide, among others in the family. In fact, the work opens with the young painter imagining these early scenes for herself. “Salomon invented a theatre of memory,” Pollock writes, explaining that these were “not memories of, but memory for, those otherwise unremembered.” Pollock sees the work, in the end, as situated somewhere between what she calls “the Event and the Everyday,” bounded by “a philosophy of life-affirmation through creativity and music and an interrogation of the fragility of gendered subjectivities within the domestic realm.” The two are inextricably entwined, and Pollock imagines this interrogation as the occasion through which Salomon-the-artist potentially learns to see through the cracks of a henceforth mysterious, and disguised, family history, a space where it becomes possible to grasp the ways in which individual stories conjoin (in complex and often difficult-to-bear ways) with broader familial, political, and cultural narratives and networks.
About halfway through Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, in the space of a chapter focused on what Pollock describes as “after affects,” a chapter focused on the images in Life? or Theatre? in which the artist reimagines, in graphic detail, her own mother’s death by suicide, Pollock suddenly and unexpectedly engages with the desires behind her own scholarly endeavor. “I have been drawn to Leben? oder Theatre? for many reasons,” she writes. “One compelling factor is a long-standing personal and scholarly interest in maternal loss.” Though seemingly buried in her meticulous and painstaking analysis of the text, Pollock’s admission, once revealed, echoes back through the book; it seems she has been reading, just like the artist had once been painting, in order to know what she can never fully know, to explore the inexplicable absences haunting her world. In Darcy C. Buerkle’s vast and similarly affecting book of scholarship, Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide, published in 2013, a work that reads Life? or Theatre? in the context of the history of suicide in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buerkle connects survivors of suicide with those more generally who immerse themselves in what has passed. “Implicit in the question of suicide and the study of the past,” Buerkle writes, “is a desire to answer the question ‘why,’ to identify cause.” Can exploring a particular artwork fulfill our need to approach the persistent unknowing that ultimately haunts us, whether or not we acknowledge its power over us? Pollock’s book suggests that in the attempt we can find a way not out of, but perhaps beyond, our longing to know.
Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor, with Seamus O’Malley, of the forthcoming anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
Intoxication and Its Aftermath By Leslie Jamison
New York, NY; Little, Brown; 2018, 544 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Ariel Gore
Imagine an AA meeting crowded with all the famously drunk living and dead scribes you’ve ever romanticized:
Hunter S Thompson
And on and on . . .
Hello, My Name is Raymond Carver, and I’m an alcoholic. Hi Raymond!
This is the experience of reading The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s sweeping new research-based memoir. Ambitious and scholarly (there are more than 50 pages of notes following the text), The Recovering grapples with that tangled relationship between writers and their drinks. It’s part memoir, part literary biography, and part profile of the enduring power and somehow transcendent properties of “the program.”
The book begins with Jamison’s own decent into alcoholism. At 21, after graduating from Harvard, an insecure Jamison (with a heart condition and a penchant for cutting) moves to Iowa City to attend the famed writers workshop. “In Iowa,” she writes, “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones. I love-groped my way through the future canon. I was drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos that had animated the old legends. I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather, volatile and authentic.”
“Iowa” culture, we learn, is intergenerational and alcohol-fueled—there is the fiction bar (a double-wide trailer), not to be confused with the poetry bar (neon Schlitz sign) and many, many pot-lucks with whiskey and wine. The promise of drugs and alcohol for the writer is that inebriation will put us in touch with the truth—even bleak truths—and keep us enthralled enough to write significant prose. Writers drink, at least in part, with the idea that drinking is going to help our work: We’ll be able to go deeper, write faster, stay up later, and maybe—that last shot promises— reach some kind of mystical breakthrough. (The cultural connection between drinking and writing is so deeply ingrained that the alt country band Freakwater felt it necessary to issue a public service announcement in the mid 1990s: “Everyone who gets drunk,” they twanged, “will not write a good book.”) After five years, it becomes clear even to Jamison that drinking-until-sheblacks- out-every-night-even-when-it-clashes-withher- heart-medication isn’t exactly sustainable—and might not even yield her a good book. At this point, Jamison turns, like millions before her, to Alcoholics Anonymous.
And so it is that the tension of the narrative comes to includes the narrative itself: “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” she writes. While the scope of The Recovering is broad—and ambitious—enough to include all kinds of experiences with addiction, the book focuses on the connection between “whisky and ink”—on the subset of alcoholics whose drinking has been wrapped up in some way with their creativity, so that the terror of sobriety includes the fear that they’ll never work again. In some ways, that tension becomes the thread of suspense, too. We know going into The Recovering that Jamison has survived, and that, at 35, she must be secure enough in her sobriety to tempt the fates with a 544-page tome about it, but ... Will it be any good?
Evidence of this very anxiety riddles the literary landscape, as Jamison makes clear with deep profiles on various famous and obscure writers. For example, when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was drinking beer and snorting coke like a fiend. It was, Jamison points out, “a nightmare written by an addict terrified of sobriety.” “I was afraid,” King acknowledged years later, “that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging.” Denis Johnson, another drunk writer Jamison brings into her AA-meeting-of-a-book, remarks it is “typical of people who feel artistic” to dread sobriety.
The picture Jamison paints of herself at her most addicted is less evocative of the romantic, truthfacing scribe capturing unhinged sparks of luminous chaos than it is, well, a portrait of someone clearly gifted, but kind of self-absorbed and irritating. During a particularly drunken summer in Bolivia, Jamison’s then-boyfriend comes to visit her. She unceremoniously dumps him in a humid motel in a small Amazonian village. When he gets back home, he writes to say he got sick on the way. She responds with an email “that spent about three sentences saying, I hope you are okay. Drink water. I am imagining your fever, and about twenty-three sentences saying, I really think I have a botfly maggot living in me.”
Maybe she didn’t have so much to lose, either. But the creative results weren’t instantly inspiring. Midbook, Jamison laments, “Sobriety was shaping up to hold precisely the blankness I’d feared it would.” Not a nightmare so much as a bore. And this dullness, this common feeling, was her nightmare.
As an aspiring author, Jamison had been taught uniqueness that made her stories interesting. “Cliché” is not a word any writer wants to see scrawled in the margins of her prose, thus AA is a sort of hell for the editor or writer. It’s full of clichés:
“Every recovery begins with one sober hour.”
“Let go and let God.”
“My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking.”
“You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
“Have an attitude of gratitude.”
It’s enough to make your head explode—or send you running straight from the metal folding chair of the church basement to the cracked barstool in the brick-walled tavern at the end of the alley. “The insistence on simplicity seemed like part of AA’s larger insistence that we were all the same,” Jamison writes, “which was basically a way of saying fuck you to my entire value system.” It’s almost unbearable to sit through those clichés and those endless stories, but (amazingly) you can bear it and, eventually, it works. In recovery, Jamison slowly learns the value of the “we.” Because unlike literary theory, part of recovery theory rests in helping us see that we’re just like everybody else.
The Recovering is impressively and deeply reported. It’s expansive. If you start reading on the first day of your sobriety, you’ll likely be through the hard part when you reach the end. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise when, towards the end of the book, Jamison mentions that “creativity and sobriety” are the topic of her doctorate research. She submitted her Yale dissertation, “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature” in May of 2016. Given her capacity for rigor, I was surprised at how little of the narrative focused on gender, but Jamison’s portrait of the writer Jean Rhys—drunk even when her infant son died in the hospital—does remind us that our romantic cultural image of the soused writer is indeed gendered. Jamison writes, “If the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon— the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth—his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care.”
Jamison’s analysis of race and socio-economic standing goes deeper. As an intellectual-class white female, Jamison can see that the culture treats her as a victim while women of color and poor women— and men of color and poor men—are feared, demonized, and brutally punished. But when she writes about a woman named Marcia Powell who, as “prisoner 109416,” was literally cooked alive in a cage in the desert where she had been sent for a minor disciplinary infraction, the implied empathy and solidarity doesn’t quite land. Marcia Powell had been originally sent to jail for solicitation— prostitution that had been supporting her meth addiction. Powell died in 2009, the same year Jamison got sober for the first time. Jamison writes,
While she was in a cage in the middle of the desert, I was getting welcomed into church basements, handed poker chips, bombarded with phone numbers … in the world where Marcia Powell died in the desert, where Melanie Green faced a grand jury for being a pregnant addict, where Jennifer Johnson was initially convicted of delivering a controlled substance to her own child, where George Cain got a gun pulled on him in a doctor’s office, where Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed—in this world, the story of my drinking is not a private story.... My story included a woman who died in a cage in the desert, or her story included me, and not just because of my guilt—the guilt of my privilege, or my survival—but because we both put things in our bodies to change how we felt.
It’s easy to forget that Prisoner 109416 and I are part of the same story, because we have been granted the right to tell very different tales about our pain.
She is more successful in her gorgeous recovering of many of those fabled blitzed scribes who’ve spent time in Iowa City. In her hands, Raymond Carver becomes one higher power that redeems the cliché of the drunken writer, for Jamison and, by extension, for the reader. She reveals that after that most famous denizen of the Iowa Writers Workshop world got sober, Carver viewed his own writing as something that happened despite—not because of—the chaos of his addiction. Her stories of another star of Iowa, Denis Johnson—she calls Jesus Son “our bible of beauty and damage”—also points to the inevitability of alcoholism and recovery. “It seems there are two kinds of American writers,” a young fan wrote to the author Denis Johnson in 1996, “Those who drink, and those who used to.” In this book, though, we learn that Johnson had only written a couple of stories and a handful of poems in his decade-long bender; Jesus Son itself was written after he stopped drinking.
Jamison has looked at being an author from both sides now. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, written before she got sober for good, tells the story of a young New Yorker who goes looking for an estranged aunt and finds the woman drinking herself to death in a trailer in Nevada. The Gin Closet was well reviewed, but it was her second book, The Empathy Exams, essays largely written after her sobriety, that established Jamison as a rising literary star. Her special brilliance wasn’t linked to the alchemical transformations of booze.
As for fearing repetition and clichés, in recovery Jamison ultimately posits that, “our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” This “we,” after all, unplugs us from the narcissism and the self-loathing of being a drunk— as well as that of being a writer. Throughout all of the scenes in Iowa, we see writers who thought that they were connecting when they drank, but it was in waking up from their delusions of grandeur and failure that they recognize a true “we.”
Herein lies the brilliance of The Recovering: By braiding multiple experiences and teasing out the differences between them as well as allowing for the chorus of their similarities, Jamison creates, astonishingly, a story we really haven’t heard before. One in which we come to understand that our stories are valuable both because we’re unique, and because we’re just like everybody else.
Ariel Gore is the author of ten books including, most recently, We Were Witches.
The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer
New York, NY; Riverhead, 2018, 464 pp., $28, hardcoverr
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
In March of 2012, novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” The title, of course, is a nod to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the essay itself calls out the literary establishment for the sexism inherent in everything from book covers to word count. Wolitzer opens with a pointed question: “If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
As evidence, she pointed to “the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book.” Further in, Wolitzer contrasts wistful “women’s fiction” book covers featuring “a pair of shoes on the beach” with “the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, or the jumbo lettering on The Corrections.” These latter covers, according to a book publicist Wolitzer spoke with, “tell the readers, ‘This book is an event.’”
The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer’s eleventh novel, is an event, with the jumbo lettering and bright, bold cover (nesting triangles that look somewhat like a Judy Chicago place setting) that a novelist like Wolitzer covets—and deserves. Female protagonist? Check. Graceful, nostalgic tone? Sure. Relation-heavy nature? Yes. Ambitious, sprawling, somewhat problematic attempt to incorporate the past six decades of the tumult and triumph of American feminism? Indeed. (Try that, Eugenides!)
The Female Persuasion is a kind of 21st century bildungsroman. We begin in 2006 and observe our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, a determined, bookish freshperson at an average East Coast liberal arts institution, as she transitions through her twenties: that complicated phase that many psychologists refer to as “emerging adulthood.” Greer and her best friend Zee have a chance encounter with Faith Frank, a famous seventies feminist, in a public restroom. Faith gives Greer her business card, and the trajectory for Greer ’s post-college life, and a complex mentor/mentee relationship, is set in motion. This small transaction and its ripple effect is something that Wolitzer does a great job with, as the book regularly comes back to the small encounters, actions, and choices that have outsized impacts on our lives. The book is at its best when exploring the power of these relationships, clicks, and connections: The “small realizations leading you first toward an important understanding and then toward doing something about it” and the “people you would meet who would affect you and turn you ever so slightly in a different direction.”
Faith Frank is that person for Greer—a glamorous figurehead, a publisher, a writer, and a public speaker. Faith’s now-classic feminist text is called, in fact, The Female Persuasion. Greer is enamored of Faith, and after graduation, she heads to New York City to work for her—but not for Faith’s long-suffering-but-beloved feminist magazine Bloomer (for Amelia Bloomer) as she’d anticipated. Bloomer has lost funding, going the way of so many print publications in a digital age. Faith is starting a new foundation, one that puts women’s issues at the forefront, and seeks to address everything from workplace harassment to pay inequity to gender-based violence by way of pricey “summits.” It’s called Loci (as in “the center”) and the devil isn’t just in the details—it’s in the funding. In one of many shrewdly contemporary plot developments that Wolitzer employs, we learn that Emmet Shrader, a widely loathed VC millionaire (billionaire?) is underwriting this new feminist enterprise. Though Shrader assures Faith—they go way back, we discover—that he supports her wildest feminist dreams, strings are attached.
Their relationship frames a core reality: the ways in which women must constantly compromise in order to get what they want—and need. Which compromises are O.K.—and which are betrayals? Faith is no stranger to hustling for good. In the 1970s she was trying to convince businessmen at Nabisco to buy ad space in Bloomer; in 2016 she’s getting rich white ladies to buy pricey tickets to luncheons where celebrities speak about equality. What, Wolitzer suggests, is really the difference? Under capitalism and under patriarchy, the tradeoffs and negotiations are constant. This may be old hat for Faith, but it’s new territory for the idealistic, wide-eyed Greer.
Another key question that the book examines— but doesn’t necessarily answer—concerns these intergenerational feminist dynamics. How women like Faith, who is a “strong, appealing, dignified, older feminist,” grapple with “the galloping changes in feminism” as they strive to work in the present. In the early 1970s, a journalist once asked Faith what she stands for, and she answered, “I stand for women.” This was a good enough answer back then, but “later it sometimes wouldn’t be.” At Loci, her young employees harbor a “sweet nostalgia” for those bygone days, but they—and many others—are also full of criticism for an approach that many see as dated at best, and racist, transphobic, and classist at worst. Greer is concerned about the judgments that Faith receives on “the newer feminist blogs” that call her out for “Corporate Feminism”—but these qualms are not enough to make her leave. Faith deflects, choosing not to look at the critiques and laying the burden on Greer, saying, “I hope you’ll tell me if I start being anachronistic.”
Instead, the quietly ambitious Greer studies Faith closely, and Faith rewards her with increased responsibility at Loci. Greer is an excellent listener and writer, so she is tasked with conducting interviews with women who’ve experienced workplace harassment, and then writing speeches for them to deliver at high-profile events. It is satisfying, energizing work for Greer—for a time. The bulk of the book tracks Greer’s growth both as an employee of Loci and also as a young woman who navigates challenging personal relationships— with her best friend Zee, with her high school boyfriend Cory, and of course, with Faith. As Greer grows more and more into her adult self, she navigates what it means to be seen by someone you admire, and how ambition, desire, and purpose can fluctuate over time.
Wolitzer is a confident writer, and readers will likely find it easy to get swept into the worlds she creates. The book feels light rather than labored, even when grappling with difficult topics. There is an effortlessness to the way she moves through story, casually dropping back several decades before returning to a present moment. Yet she is also precise, a master of closely observed detail as she explores everything from how history repeats, to how misogyny and power replicate and perpetuate. Wolitzer understands that women may make great strides and significant gains, only to be thrown backwards—sometimes by a single election.
And Wolitzer nails the zeitgeist: pop cultural markers ground the reader as we shift back and forth across the decades. A flashback to Zee’s early 90s Bat Mitzvah references her MySpace page, and the gifts of “Lucite picture frames and Barnes and Noble gift certificates.” A section on Faith’s upbringing marks 1965 with White Rain, Bobby Darin, and illegal abortion. A 21st century sandwich has a “stiff Elizabethan ruffle of kale.” We also get hashtags, both real and imagined: Faith’s efforts with Loci get called out on Twitter with the real-life hashtag #whiteladyfeminism as well as the delightfully made-up #fingersandwichfeminisms.
But hashtags develop overnight—novels develop over the course of years. Conspicuously missing is #Metoo, which while initiated more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke, came to social media prominence in October 2017, mere months before the book’s release. One can’t help but wonder how the book would’ve differed had it been written during, or just after, #metoo exploded on the scene, bringing with it the takedowns of high-powered men, as well as the complex and often brutal intrafeminist exchanges. The election of Donald Trump isn’t mentioned, but a doomed energy hangs over the book.
Wolitzer isn’t here to offer easy answers, nor is she trying to make a case for a particular kind of feminism. Her ideas don’t feel new, but the format does, and while I didn’t love the book, I love that the book is. This big mainstream novel is taking on the ideas, phrases, and concerns that have always felt isolated to feminist twitter, women’s studies courses, and contentious comment threads on feminist blogs. There were moments, while reading, when I felt a certain thrill at seeing a name or reference pop up. Because of this, I felt conflicted during the moments when I felt less than thrilled— the moments when, like contemporary feminism itself, the book is flawed. It makes missteps precisely because of its ambition—and isn’t that, well, a familiar feeling? It’s as if The Female Persuasion reached its long, charming arms into those siloed realms, and swept it all together, in one big, messy book. All of it—abortion, equal pay, celebrity feminism, GamerGate, the Women’s March, diversity, workplace harassment, pronouns, #whitefeminism. The end result is often exciting, but frustrating.
This is especially true in the way Wolitzer tries to navigate race, privilege, and whiteness. The book nods to the struggles and limitations of a feminism that is not “keeping up with the times”—but it does not go beyond peppered references to racism, classism, and trans inclusion. In fact, these complex realities are often treated dismissively or jokingly as narrative foils for white characters who are trying to do the right thing. Non-white characters exist peripherally, as do their valid, justified, and ultimately unexplored concerns. Just as Faith is not going to question her own sense of white superiority, Wolitzer is not here to interrogate white supremacy, to really examine the ways in which it’s operating either in her characters or in contemporary feminism.
Characters repeatedly get defensive when called out: neophyte teacher Zee completely misses signs of a serious issue with one of her troubled students, and then gets prickly when her older African- American coworker challenges her idealism. Faith seems exhausted at having to prove her “racial bonafides” and getting “gender pronouns right” during college visits. Both Faith and Greer are surprised when Loci doesn’t turn out to be as magnanimous as they both thought. As a reader, I wasn’t surprised by any of these twists—I saw them coming, and I also saw Wolitzer falling prey to the same naiveté that she develops in her characters. None of the characters truly have to reconcile with their privilege—they acknowledge it, but in a frustrated “I can’t help that I’m privileged!” way, or in the sly, ironic manner that allows one to name the bad thing without having to own the bad thing. Greer’s easy glide into post-college New York life (her Brooklyn apartment, her stylish wardrobe) goes wholly unexamined (especially since Greer ’s parents’ financial ineptitude is a major point of contention early on in the plot). Greer’s disdain for her standard-issue liberal arts college reeks of unexamined privilege, as does Zee’s indulgent anger at Greer for not helping her get a job at Loci.
In the unsatisfying end, it is 2019. Greer has achieved immense financial, professional, and domestic success (we’re clued in to this early on, so this is not a spoiler) when, at 31, she becomes the bestselling author of a “well-meaning feminist rallying cry” that “was not, she knew, original or brilliant.” Despite its enormous financial success, the book “was frequently criticized, of course” for failing to “speak for all women” who exist “so much farther outside of privilege and access than Greer Kadetsky.”
I clocked the dismissiveness of that of course, and how, in the next sentence, we are assured that “many others bought the book and loved it.” While not every book need be brilliant, it felt icky to end on this note of inherited white mediocrity. Greer has become Faith, and has nothing changed? How many Black and Brown women are brilliant, original, firebrands deserving of the spotlight? How many marginalized writers dream of getting published, let alone becoming bestsellers who buy Brooklyn brownstones with their enormous advances (as Greer predictably does)?
In a scene toward the very end, Greer is taken to task by her infant’s teenage babysitter (Kay Chung, 16, who is “small and fireplug-fierce”) who points out the outdated ideas in her brand new book—but it doesn’t feel like enough. Kay admits that she’s “a skeptic about feminism” and rejects “the white, cisgender, binary view of everything.” While this moment briefly decentralizes Greer ’s white feminist mediocrity and offers Greer a mildly destabilizing glimpse into a new generation of young feminists, Kay becomes just another fleeting moment of critique. Her youthful energy is used to undermine her potency: she offers her opinions “as if they were entirely new” and lines like “[a]nd anyway, Kay went on in a chatty voice of amazing confidence, it wasn’t so much about people as it was about ideas” feel condescending. The exchange between Greer and Kay can also be read as Wolitzer’s attempt to preempt this very criticism, by demonstrating the inevitability of tear-downs and call-outs that virtually all feminist writers face. True as this may be, I expected much more from Greer—and from Wolitzer as well.
The Female Persuasion is engaging. It’s compelling. It addresses power, histories, and the complexities of platonic female relationships in a way that is rarely, if ever, presented in mainstream fiction. Like Faith, it manages to feel a bit outdated, a bit lacking, but also warm, and engaging. I hesitated to even share my critique, worried about taking down a fellow female writer whom I truly respect, and who, like her characters, is clearly trying. Like Greer, I am younger, ambitious, and admiring of my feminist heroes. But like the often-dismissed critical voices in the book, I’m not interested in silence-as-solidarity. I can critique without condemning—this is a good novel, and Wolitzer fully deserves a top spot in the literary realm. But she—and other white women writers— can do better. Must do better.
Toward the end of her 2012 essay, Wolitzer quotes the novelist Mary Gordon, who told her “As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.” By that logic, what happens if you include the word ‘female’ in the title? Wolitzer is about to find out. I like to think that Gordon’s quote stuck with her as she settled on calling it The Female Persuasion—it feels like a strategic challenge to those who would try to deprive her a place in the “top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation.” This space, Wolitzer writes, “tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” The Female Persuasion is anything but, and I feel certain it will enter current and future cultural conversations. I hope those conversations can be as honest and nuanced as the ideas in the book deserve.
Kate Schatz is the New York Times bestselling author of author of Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide, and Rad Girls Can.