We are very excited that this has come to fruition and are excited to share it with our community. We encourage you to check it out, and if possible, request your institutional libraries to purchase a copy.
Also, keep an eye out in the weeks to come for interviews with many of the authors included in this volume.
Here is the book’s description and also the table of contents.
“We immerse ourselves daily in expressions of popular culture—YouTube videos, hip hop music, movies, adverts, greeting cards, videogames, and comics, to name just a few possibilities—and far too often we pay only scant critical attention to them. The…
We have a habit in this world of only giving women their due when they become old and their “eccentricities” remind us of our grandmothers. That Varda became a meme (as so many obituaries liked to describe her) seems an example of this. I’m uncertain how much of the image she cultivated herself–she certainly was willing to play into the role to a point. But how much of this was just Varda existing? I don’t believe her image to be constructed for a public audience–her films are too personal, cutting too deep.
I’ve always admired Varda’s films for the ability to move between documentary and fiction; set-pieces and improvisation. One knows the direction one is moving in but not necessarily what will be placed in the frame. I can remark on the same beauty everyone else has and speak of Cleo from 5 to 7 as her masterwork, but even though it is a masterpiece, I still think Le Bonheur is the more interesting film. Both come from a world in the process of change. (The world is always changing; sometimes more-so than others.) Le Bonheur feels like Varda opening up, becoming color-struck, taking new paints to the canvas and daring herself to disrupt the domestic cliches of films: falling in love, having children, falling out of love, falling into adultery, having a territory to claim in the upcoming war of the sexes. I admire Le Bonheur for the reason I admire all of Varda’s work–I never know exactly where it’s going.
When Varda said that Beaches of Agnes would probably be her last film, I wondered where exactly she could go from there. Her art and life stretched out in other directions to other mediums. She recreated herself. And then she collaborated with the artist JR on Faces Places. This film has it all–the intertexuality, the sense of personal history as world history, the colors, the light, the insistence on viewing reality as something that can be played with, moved about, revisited, and recontextualized. Her work is divided in the handy Wikipedia bar between fiction and documentary films, but I find the line harder to draw than that.
Godard still gets funding for his works, even if the quality remains highly uneven and does not stand up to re-viewing. Varda, when receiving a lifetime achievement award, remarked that she could not secure financing for another film, even as she was being touted as a legend with the usual phrases. (She opened the door for women in cinema! She changed the way movies are made!–but no one rushes to open their wallet to let her do it again.) Legendary status can have its pitfalls–everyone thinks they know you when they know an idea of you. How much of any artist’s persona is really them? It varies by degrees with each one. But there is an honesty in Varda’s moments of inspiration, the happy accidents, fictive and the real coming together in ways no artist could plan that makes me believe her films offer a truer self than almost any other in cinema history.
Of course the news was all #FacebookDown on the day that I found out that my article “Tackling the Femme” will be available in the anthology Pop Culture Matters, soon to be out at Cambridge Scholars Publishing. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon. You can also check out the publisher’s webpage for the book here, where my name is misspelled.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a film where a woman was so explicitly engaged in thinking before Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent Passion of Joan of Arc seems to be a close contender. Joan’s face is, in the inquiry sequences, constantly evaluating, probing, overwhelming search to explain the unexplained—her visions, her actions in battle, her faith and the gap of understanding. Hannah Arendt is, then, the first secular historical woman shown thinking seriously. There are previous glimpses to this land—almost any of Isabelle Huppert performances (including Elle), and many of Charlotte Rampling’s best moments in Swimming Pool show her thinking, rather than responding on the basis of emotion. But this is the first time that I have seen thinking given over to women in full, in the same way that men have been represented as thinkers. Von Trotta’s direction connects with Barbara Sukowa’s performance to magnify Arendt’s interior life—the life (and function) of the mind.
Yet in Joan of Arc, Joan’s thought is also portrayed as fearful, the anxiety of the person trying to give an answer to a question that will not lead to their further torment. She answers the questions thrown at her knowing the mad Monk played by Antonin Artaud will be able to make every answer a wrong one; regardless of its truth. Hannah Arendt is the woman thinker without overt emotional pull in her performance of thought. She could be thinking of the vague ideal forms of truth and justice, but she is still having to confront the “nobody” assigned to carry out a genocide.
I keep rewatching Hannah Arendt not only for its brilliant characterization of a woman thinking but also for the relationship between Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer). The two bounce off of each other, not only in ideas but sensibility and even language. McCarthy’s limited German is a recurring joke through the film, and yet she continues to try to learn in order to be closer to Hannah. Their private disagreements don’t boil into their public defense of one another. Ambiguous as both of them were to feminism, they occupy a territory of sisterhood, both committed to their roles, in different ways, as thinkers.
A feature article about the contest Grove Atlantic ran for responses to theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh has been published at Literary Hub. I placed third in the contest, and my short story, “Resolve,” is linked to in the article. You can find it here.
You can directly link to “Resolve” at LitHub by clicking here.
This past week I received a signed copy of theMystery.doc in the mail. I’m looking forward to sitting down with my partner to look through it again. We’re reading House of Leaves (he’s already finished it and I’m working my way through) and I want to see how/if these two books can talk to each other. Maybe something will come of it.
I’m pleased to announce that a story I wrote about Matthew McIntosh’s novel TheMystery.doc was awarded third place in a contest sponsored by Grove Atlantic. “Resolve” has since been published on Literary Hub. You can read “Resolve” here.
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Grove Press, 2018, $26.00)
How far writers are allowed to shape what they are writing about in order to make a satisfactory narrative? There is always a need to leave things out, especially when one is juggling multiple, complicated lives. At the same time, what is left out should not outweigh what is left in, and what is left in should not be fluff. A handful of books published in the dawn of the Trump administration, as well as a general desire to focus the attention of the book reading public on authors who are not white men (acts of both discovery and recovery) have forced me to realize that a line needs to be drawn in the sand. There is a difference (and the fact that it must be stated concerns me) between leaving information out of a finalized piece with the purpose of creating a narrative and blurring a subject’s biography in order to have a great closing sentence. The style and structure of a work should not result in cut corners in accuracy and citation, especially when the work is concerned with righting an imbalance.
When you’re interested in writers who did not receive, by and large, the Jonathan Franzen-level of attention they rightfully deserved, you tend to glob on to any document that offers a look into the lives you admire. I came to admire critics with an edge—particularly female critics, who could manage barbs so intense that they continue to ring on after their deaths. The publication of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean should be a joy, given that I’ve looked up to almost all of the writers in this book. I’ve been looking forward to sitting down with it for several months. Unfortunately, I found the book maddening for reasons mentioned above—and more. There are a few women critics in this book whose lives and work I do not know particularly well, and so I am focusing instead on those whose work I have actively studied.
I have been a devotee of Renata Adler since the 2013 reprint of Speedboat and Pitch Dark. I consider “The Perils of Pauline,” her notorious “take down” of film reviewer Pauline Kael, to be one of the landmark pieces of criticism in an amazing career, even if it is focused on too often in writing on Adler. Adler’s inclusion in Sharp should be a moment of joy for her fans. The joy slips away, slowly. Reading such sharp women, one admires and hopes to develop their eye for detail, close study of a text, and intense commitment to truthful, serious work. One hopes that the biographers will live up to the lives they are writing about. They often do not.
“The critical consensus on the excellence of her novels had given her a newfound prominence. But the analytical viewpoint, the fierce ability to critique someone else’s argument, hasn’t found a similar home. Adler hasn’t published a new essay since 1999” (283). This blanket statement about a lack of new essay material would make an upsetting and powerful ending for a chapter if it was accurate. Dean’s look at Adler’s career does not include, apparently, “Brontosaurs Whistling in the Dark,” a small essay on the German response to the refugee crisis available as a Kindle publication released in 2016, her collection After the Tall Timber, which serves as a retrospective to her life and career with a new introduction to the Kael essay published in 2015, her review of a biography of Saul Steinberg published in Town and Country in 2013, an introductory essay to Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power published in 2008, or the publication of her collection Canaries in the Mineshaft in 2001. This also does not include the honorable mention of the publication of “Irreparable Harm,” Adler’s long essay about the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which could not have been written before the Court’s decision in December, 2000 and was published by Melville House as a small book in 2004. That such a clean denouement to a chapter can be derailed with about three Google searches does not inspire faith in a text.
There is, perhaps, a certain playfulness in finding fault with this chapter given the fact that Renata Adler is known for being very detail-focused with her own reviews and critical essays—things that Dean seems to admire from Adler’s “analytical” I. I am quite certain she would find reason enough to do battle here. The claims of finality made by Dean appear to be a recurring issue in this chapter. Earlier, of Adler’s fiction output, Dean writes: “It then took her another seven years to produce Pitch Dark, and after that she seemed to give up on fiction altogether” (276). Like J. D. Salinger, there have been several claims of unfinished (or at least unpublished) manuscripts by Adler. Adler herself has said on multiple occasions—primarily in interviews after her republication by the NYRB Classics line—that she wrote a third novel, but that she has, as stated in a 2013 reading and interview at the Center for Fiction currently on YouTube, “turning-it-in-block” as opposed to writer’s block. Like Eve Babitz (who, as of this writing, actually has not published any new work since a freak accident in the 1990s), the word is that Adler is working, but no one quite knows on what. In a 2016 conversation at the Strand printed in Upstairs at the Strand, also available on YouTube, Adler says, “I just finished what I think is another novel, and I hope this one is more what I was hoping to do with the first one” (183). No mention is made by Dean of Adler’s cancelled book on the Bilderberg Group, or Adler’s remarks that she’s written several pieces that never wound up being published after repeated delays. Indeed, the most recent part of her career—the one that, one assumes, was Dean’s way of finding Adler a timely subject—is cut down to the point that it does not exist. This results in Dean inadvertently engaging in a similar erasure that male critics have engaged in towards women writers—an erasure that books like Sharp are trying to correct.
Studying the work of Janet Malcolm has been my guilty pleasure for the last year or so. I refer to the “guilty pleasure” aspect of her work because I love her writing almost as much as I love the fury and feuds that surround it. Malcolm, who is the last full profile of the book, has been the subject of several critical lawsuits which have shaped the way we discuss literary non-fiction and the question of truth in non-fiction writing. Like Adler’s critique of Kael, it appears that most people have not actually read Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer beyond its most iconic sentence. The opening sentence: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From that point on, the reader is aware of the journalist as character within the story, wondering about the meta-narratives of the news we read every day.
The Malcolm chapter fascinates me for its ability to be both interesting and sloppy. Whether or not one agrees with Dean’s interpretation of Malcolm’s work, there can be little doubt that Dean comes across as careless when she reflects on Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath and her biographers, The Silent Woman. Described as “a book-length New Yorker article on the life of Sylvia Plath, her husband Ted Hughes, and the biographers who tried to understand the truth of their history together” (305), the reader is confused. Does this mean it’s a book-length piece that appeared in the New Yorker, like Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or does this mean that it’s a book in the New Yorker “fact piece” style that Malcolm excels at? (A look at The Silent Woman’s title page states “Originally published, in different form, in the New Yorker”—just like The Journalist and the Murderer.) This mangled sentence is followed by Dean’s remark “Her novel, The Bell Jar, also posthumously published, became a classic too” (305). This is at best a misleading remark. The Bell Jar, as any obsessive teenage would-be poet/reader of Plath will tell you, was published during Plath’s lifetime under the very soap-opera name “Victoria Lucas” before being republished under Plath’s name (and published for the first time in America) in 1967—two years after the Hughes-edited version of Ariel appeared.
In the Freud Archive was, in many ways, the most controversial of Malcolm’s books, given the series of lawsuits it launched regarding the accuracy of quotations from Jeffery Masson. The question of Masson’s discovery of new letters by Freud reviewing the “seduction theory” Freud abandoned leads to a claim that again raises an eyebrow. Dean writes:
Masson’s “dynamite” was in the unpublished letters between Freud and Wilhelm Fliess, one of Freud’s disciples. Masson promptly told newspapers that in these letters he’d discovered that Freud had not really abandoned what was known as the “seduction thesis.” The seduction thesis in its original form had held that childhood sexual experiences, often seduction by a parent, were the source of most patient neuroses. When Freud dropped it in 1925, he explained that he had come to understand that when patients described such experiences, they were often describing not a literal truth, but a psychic one. If Masson was correct, it meant Freud originally had been correct to suspect that child sexual abuse—as contemporary mores would recognize it—had been at the heart of most psychological disorders. (297, italics mine).
This explanation of the events that lead to Masson’s ousting as Director of the Freud Archive is intriguing because this contradicts the timeline laid out by both Masson in the New York Times and in Malcolm’s own book. Malcolm writes: “The ‘key theory’ was the seduction theory, which Freud held between 1895 and 1897 and then dropped” (16). Freud discussed the theory in his An Autobiographical Study, published in 1925, which is where Dean’s date might come from. The difference of thirty years in Dean’s summation is no small matter, given that it was claims of discrepancy that resulted in Malcolm being sued multiple times. That the key to the “key” claim appears less than 20 pages into Malcolm’s book concerns me as a reader and fellow writer: how did a mistake of thirty years get this far without (seemingly) anyone fixing it?
In a chapter about both Rebecca West and Zora Neale Hurston, Dean makes one of the most confusing and seemingly irrelevant transitions I have ever read. The Hurston section, which is the shortest at six pages (two-and-a-half of which pass by before Hurston’s name appears), does a disservice to the only woman of color in the book. The chapter focuses (for the last two pages) on the Ruby McCollum trial, which Hurston covered for the Pittsburgh Courier. While admitting that the coverage was “not Hurston’s best work” (64), Dean makes the claim that Hurston could have been “in another life, under other circumstances” a great journalist of the New Journalism school exemplified by other women in this book—rather than focusing on what Hurston actually wrote. Dean’s thoughts about Hurston seem almost exclusively focused through what-could-have-been: “In a more perfect world, for example, a black writer like Zora Neale Hurston would have been widely recognized as part of this cohort, but racism kept her writings at the margin of it” (xii). Dean’s problem with Hurston is one of the reasons I’m ambivalent about group biographies—someone always comes up short; it’s almost always the most interesting person. The brevity of the chapter, the lack of coherent focus, lack of sustained engagement with Hurston’s writing, and the recurrent “What if?” attitude Dean presents to the reader comes across as insulting to Hurston’s critical work—which was thorough, intelligent, and still holds great value to critics, historians, and anthropologists—as well as an insult to the intelligence of the readers of Sharp.
The jarring transition from Rebecca West to Zora Neale Hurston is made all the more awkward by the fact that it’s followed by one of the better sections of the book, focusing on Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. The chapters on these two women and the ways they mingled in personal and professional controversies prove that Dean is able to do research and write well—which makes the rest of the book all the more disappointing.
There are at least two moments where Dean makes claims that she does not back up with references in the Notes section of the book. First, there is no note to back the claim that “Philip Roth has repeatedly said” critic Melvin Tumin “inspired the character of Coleman Silk in his later novel The Human Stain” (129). This piece of information does not really have any relevance to the larger issue of Arendt’s position on segregation, unless we are to assume that the average reader of Sharp has also read The Human Stain and knows that it’s about (in part) a black man passing as a white Jewish man. Read in the context of Tumin’s rebuttal to Hannah Arendt’s partial defense of school segregation (and her series of walk-backs from her original position), what is the reader supposed to take from this? Roth’s outlining of his inspiration for The Human Stain was made clear in his 2012 New Yorker piece, “An Open Letter to Wikipedia”—easily cited enough; yet it is not cited here. Roth states that it was an incident of Tumin being accused of racist speech that was the inspiration for the novel as opposed to a question of racial passing. How is this relevant to the question at hand? It does very little good to bring this up if it has nothing to back it up in the cited sources and no direct relation to the segregation issue. (Here, as well, one senses another missed opportunity: Why does Dean not analyze Zora Neale Hurston’s famous defense of school segregation to more directly connect her to the issues in the text? As far as I know, Hurston did not write directly to or in response to Arendt on the issue. But what would be the problem with a side-story that expands on the complicated whole?)
Second, in a chapter on Susan Sontag, there is again a question of words being placed in an author’s mouth without citation. Sontag and her (then) husband, Philip Rieff, “began working together on his Freud book; Sontag would eventually claim that she had written every word of it” (153). The lack of citation here is deeply troubling given that Dean is making the claim, via Sontag, that Rieff did not write Freud: The Mind of the Moralist—the book on which much of his reputation rested. I recall reading in Sontag’s diaries of the time, published as Reborn, that she does write about helping Rieff research and write the book, but there is no claim that the authorship is totally hers. This is a problem. A claim to Sontag’s co-authorship can be found in Susan Sontag: The Making of An Icon: “Although Susan was not officially a coauthor, the work had become their baby every bit as much as little David” (40) and “[Irv] Jaffe knew they had been working on a book together—in fact, he remembers Sontag picking up the galleys of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist at the American Express office in Paris” (46). But direct and total authorship claim is harder to pin down. If a writer is to make a claim about what was or was not said by their subject, there needs to be something other than the writer’s personal argument and narrative direction backing it up.
I’m aware that some of these complaints could be viewed as my being bogged down in the small details of a larger work. I’m aware that there are plenty of problems with things that I’ve written myself—reviews that missed the point, reviews that were poor judgments of a work, critical essays that never fully came together for varying reasons. Every person reading this who has ever written critically knows that they have done this as well because all writers have faltered. As far as I can swear to it, I have never sent work out without checking line-by-line that the claims made there-in could be backed up by textual evidence and rudimentary research. There is nothing worse than to have a claim picked over via a web search. It is like picking at a scab, with nagging doubts potentially infecting the whole project. Yet here we are.
There is no such thing as a perfect text. Every author makes mistakes in their writing and to deny it is to present oneself as an insufferable fool. There is, however, a difference between small errors that can be cleaned up with revision and errors and omissions that change the meaning of a life and facts of a career. If there is an ultimate value to Sharp, it is that its short-comings force an active reader (a devoted reader) into the work of these writers. When alarm bells rang in my mind, I returned to the writers I admired to see what was or was not reflected there. The women included in this book are extremely relevant to our current moment (Arendt especially), even as they are often misread and misrepresented in popular representations. A good book should not force the reader to choose between supporting a text that brings important subjects to larger public notice and questions of accuracy. As we tumble around truth in the “post-truth” era of the Trump administration, those of us who respect such sharp women must also respect their own drive for accuracy and critical reflection. If any of these women were the measuring stick against which all writers have to be judged, very few would be viewed as writers of talent. However, I can’t help but feel that these women deserve better than what is on offer here.
Walking through the snake line to get into the gallery, a viewer has the opportunity to muse on what is inside. There is no way to explain exactly how much beauty is inside, or how overwhelming it can be. I wanted to find patterns—sometimes I could find them and sometimes I could not. There may be patterns or there might not. The patter might just be the interior of the curator’s mind. Not to mention the potential for fun little jokes—placing a pair of scissors over a painting, as if you could cut it down. The guiding principle I follow in any museum: look where no one else is looking.
There is a statue in the center of a room no one looked at. Discomfort is something I do not understand in museums even as I experience it. Why are people making an effort not to see this piece? People-watching is a game. And a piece of art itself. It becomes a game for a few minutes in an afternoon. The act of the game, enacted. Ready set go. Sit and observe. Walk around the case, not through it. The coolness of temperature betrays the discomfort of the viewer, when their internal thermostat rises. I turn to the painting by Courbet that also made people nervous—the extent to which I was afraid to photograph it. The painting is not obscene in terms of what is depicted, only what is imagined where it is not—the vagina never gets its spotlight. The physical reality of a model is different from other paintings—other collections of nudes in other rooms. People are afraid to look too much at these two pieces. I only photograph the one no one looks at.
I hold the box of a camera
always in my pocket
removed by impression and instant.
Take the paintings with you!
They’ve been in storage for too long.
I’ve been reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo because it’s due back at the library this week. The collage of voices is not dissimilar to the walls of this house. The paintings on the museum walls double in on each other just as voices do in the novel; just as voices do in the gallery space. Which of these voices are historical figures and which of them are inventions in the mind of the writer, the painter, the figurist, the fantasist? Earlier I called him a curator, the one who places things on the walls. Instead, I think collector is more appropriate, one who distinguishes, values, and gathers.
There’s one room I particularly loved. Butting up against the door were a series of images ranging from ancient relief carvings and small horses to a mask-like theatrical face to a representation of the Madonna and child and a French picture ripped from the Saturday evening bar. It is the replication of Barnes’ interior space. I love the intrusion of new technology into the space–particularly given the controversies surrounding the movement of the collection since Barnes’ death. I love the way in which this space is a time machine, a means of moving through the past until someone’s cell phone rings or we see the digital flash of a small button on the wall. The Barnes Museum is, in many ways, a vision of a museum changing over time—the paradox of a place to preserve the achievements of the past having to address the changing means of preserving the work on the wall.
Seeing an image that I’ve never seen before: two sphinxes on top of each other by Lenna Glackens. The images are feline, two women—one with a white dress; the other nude. Both are colored gold. Both have hair coming straight down their back. One rests on a rock; the other grasps air. Both embody the figure of the spirit world. Where the biography goes, I’m not sure. She’s buried in Connecticut according to one website; she died in Buenos Aires according to another. She was the daughter of William Glackens and he painted her, including a painting of her while she painted. As the ratios of value circle outward, we lose more and more biographies. The little I know now is pieced together almost literally sentence by sentence
Now and then I think about breathing in the air that surrounds the paintings. It’s a return to an elemental wonder of childhood that crops up when I am in a gallery space looking at a work I’ve only ever seen in picture books and old films and slide-shows. I am standing across from a canvas that was touched by the artist. I am looking through the eyes of Van Gogh. I could touch the same fibers that Picasso has taken and painted and shifted from emptiness to fullness. I could, but I must stay behind the thin brown line on the floor, as the guards take care to remind me and others wandering the gallery. And so I look closely at the reality of the image: the image that is closer to me than ever before.