What Women Write about Other Women’s Writing

The Huffington Post isn’t known for publishing the most well-considered commentary, at least in terms of literature. One Anis Shivani, for example, had quite a mouthful to say about the Best American Poetry Series, calling it “incestuous,” and suggesting that only a closed cadre of writers ever appear in BAP (my friend Caleb Barber, a phenomenal, blue-collar poet who works in a machine shop by day, would find it news that he is counted among “the quaint artifacts and robust machinations of the Old Masters” because he appeared in BAP).

Shivani seems very unaware of how the series is actually put together (he appears to believe that David Lehman personally edits every year’s collection–a quick check of the cover would show the guest editor changes yearly), and goes so far as to say that poets like WS Merwin have contributed “little unwanted turds” to the collection. When my mentor, David Wagoner, was the guest editor of the series, I was the beneficiary not only of many a literary magazine he’d culled through in search of his picks for the anthology, but also of his thoughts on the purpose and methodology of compiling such a group of work (in short, he told me he thought it ought to be called “some of the good poems published this year,” rather than “Best American Poetry.”) When he showed me some of the poems he’d selected–I think I may have known some of his picks before the poets did–on several occasions, he’d hand me a poem, then say with great pleasure, “I don’t know anything about this poet. But isn’t this a remarkable poem?” (Not my idea of an incestuous coterie.)

To me, Shivani has always seemed like an angry, bitter sort of guy who couldn’t be bothered to investigate his topic before writing about it–just a poorly vetted one-off of a columnist for whom I’d have to forgive HuffPo.

But The Huffington Post went even farther afield in their recent piece about this year’s Orange Prize winner, Tea Obreht, for her novel The Tiger’s Wife. Ruth Fowler, whose biographical information describes her as an “author, screenwriter, and journalist,” appears to have been on call for HuffPo when Obreht was named the winner.

Rather than bore you with a play-by-play of Fowler’s article, let me hit the highlights: she takes a jab at Obreht for being “plump” and blonde. Well, to be fair, Fowler’s sentence contains a misplaced modifier. So, in a strictly grammatical sense, the sentence states that Obreht’s novel itself is plump and blonde…nah. Who am I kidding? Let’s put it out there: she’s insulting Obreht’s appearance. (By way of a side-note, I’ve seen Ms. Obreht, in person, at AWP. She’s very lovely, and not the least bit plump.) Fowler also seems to have misunderstood some facts when she insults Zadie Smith in the same article. (Unless I’m missing something big, Smith’s collection of essays is entitled Changing My Mind, and On Beauty is her latest novel, not a group of essays “like being forcibly strapped into a Cambridge lecture theater and waterboarded by some bratty, egotistical over-read teen’s pompous thesis on art.”) Finally, in a truly bad show of sense, Fowler admits she read only the first 50 pages of The Tiger’s Wife before declaring it tripe.

Okay, then.

Now, I’ve never called myself level-headed, especially when it comes to debates about literature. But calling another writer fat, saying you’ve read all they have to give after 50 pages, and declaring the MFA degree at large an inherent evil in modern society? That’s beyond being chalked up to passionate interest in books. That’s just strange.

But what I’m having a hard time figuring out, given the recklessness of this piece (a Facebook friend asked for “eyeball bleach” after reading it) is why Fowler’s editorial is drawing far less ire from the literary community than Jennifer Egan’s recent  interview in The Wall Street Journal, in which she said women writers should “shoot high and not cower.”

In the interview, Egan referenced Kaavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student who blatantly plagiarized authors such as Meg Cabot in her debut novel, and was later exposed and disgraced for having lifted a large part of her prose. Egan called the sources from which Vishwanathan stole “very derivative and banal.” And then an online firestorm was born.

In a piece at The Millions, Deena Drewis does a very thorough job of cataloguing the backlash against Egan’s comments, citing bloggers who’ve declared Egan’s statements a “girl-on-girl crime” and others who’ve stated that Egan should be kinder to writers like Meg Cabot, because of Cabot’s inherent niceness.

Why is it that women writers are rallying against Egan and not against Fowler? How is it that the most substantive rebukes I’ve found of Fowler’s work have been “yuck” and “bleck” comments on Facebook? Why are other women choosing to focus criticism on Egan, who simply called another work–not a writer–derivative and banal? She wasn’t the one who read 50 pages of a new novelist’s work and then proceed to insult her personally.

Readers, I’m looking to you for insight into this one. What’s going on here? Why is criticism such as calling something “derivative” so much worse than calling another writer fat and boring? Have we as women stooped so low that we find it commonplace to call one another fat and boring in a professional context, but we can’t criticize people if they are nice?

Furthermore, I have to wonder why I, as a woman writer, am more inflamed by Ms. Fowler than Mr. Shivani. What do I expect from fellow women writers that I’ve come not to expect from men? That’s one I’ll have to answer for myself.

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6 Replies to “What Women Write about Other Women’s Writing”

  1. You tell it sistah. One of the huge pieces of unfinished feminist business (it may be at the top of the to-do list) is somehow confronting, acknowledging and moving on from the ways that women sabotage other women in the family, in the workplace, and very much in the creative space. “We” only like certain female artists — artists whom “we” find comforting or like “us.” Lillian Behrendt writes passionately about the importance of the “unacceptable body” and I think that notion applies equally well to the “unacceptable body of work” that an artist makes. And this also goes for whatever legitimate critique a writer makes of another. How does a reasonable and reasoned attempt to help the writer become a clearer more lucid writer and an attempt to help readers understand what they are looking for connect with bashing? I think we all need to think about this deeply and talk about it more. Thanks for opening the conversation!

  2. Thank you, Stephanie! You’ve touched on something that’s been bothering me a great deal lately–the false “we”/”they” dichotomy that seems to pervade contemporary feminism. I couldn’t have said it better–” ‘We’ only like certain female artists — artists whom “we” find comforting or like ‘us.'” I’ve been wondering lately what kind of movement feminism is that it’s so easily hijacked by bullies, and that it fragments women into the initiated/uninitiated, the acceptable/unacceptable. Surely we can do better…

  3. I am not a devotee of Huffpo, so I may not be well qualified to comment, but it sure seems like the web site’s approach, at least in this case, isn’t that far from some other commentators we love to hate: Limbaugh, Beck, et al—controversy trumps informed and measured opinion because it sells. Doesn’t matter if it’s responsible or even true. Get readers riled up and hits go up and we can sell more ads on the site. That’s the bottom line, and sometimes it appears to be the only line.

    What? Could dear Arianna Huffington really stoop so low as to allow this? Those of us who remember her from the 90s (when her sleazeball husband tried to buy the senatorship from California, btw), know that she started out as a far right commentator, regularly bashing “liberals” and employing the sort of arguments most rational folks find offensive. But apparently that political stance didn’t generate enough traction (too much competition I suppose), so late in the decade she simply switched sides. As with most public figures she was counting on people’s remarkably short memories. But she never had, and still doesn’t have any cred with me. It’s hard for me to take the opinions on her site seriously when I know what’s behind them.

  4. Part of it, I have to believe is that HuffPo’s literary site simply cannot be taken seriously. The Egan backlash was absurd. I wrote about it actually. There was also a lively conversation about Fowler’s nonsense on HTMLGIANT where Fowler was fairly excoriated. I cannot begin to make sense of why the rest o the literary community is giving her a pass but bigger writers make better targets and I get the sense (unscientifically) that more people liked Egan’s book and therefore were disappointed in her comments while some people are on the fence about Obreht’s book and therefore maybe okay with her unfair treatment by Huffpo. I thought Fowler’s nonsense was infinitely more troubling and wrongheaded than anything Egan said.

  5. Jennifer Egan is more famous than Ruth Fowler, and a WSJ interview is more high-profile than a HuffPo editorial. I think that explains the greater backlash. The HuffPo has NO editorial standards. I refuse to get worked up about what appears there — much easier to refuse to read it at all.

  6. Joe, Roxane, and egabbert, thank you for the reminder that HuffPo cannot be taken seriously. This calms me significantly. Hopefully, that’s what the silence from the literary community has been all about (regarding the HTMLGIANT conversation, that was fantastic! I cannot believe I missed it before. It, too, calmed me.)

    But I’m still bothered that HuffPo can’t seem to make any better use of its literary section. There aren’t all that many accessible venues for readers (I’m thinking specifically of the non-writing reader who may not be as invested as the writer in seeking out alternative sources) to hear what’s going on in the book world. Mr. Franzen on the cover of TIME and an interview with a National Book Award winner in a New York paper every now and then…it’s not enough. I shudder to think that a reader would come across people like Fowler writing in HuffPo and think, “Holy cow. *That’s* what’s going on in literature today? No thanks.”

    But even forgetting about Fowler, I’m still perplexed by the Egan kerfuffle. Why can’t she call “chick lit”–a genre whose very name is pretty degrading–banal? Isn’t that a conversation that Egan should be able to start without being accused of being a traitor to women? I am not yet calmed about this.

    On a different note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Roxane, who commented above, has done a very interesting interview with the previously mentioned Mr. Shivani: http://htmlgiant.com/feature/a-conversation-with-anis-shivani/

    I’ve got to give it to Roxane for being able to engage with this dude in a calm and orderly manner.

    (Now, can someone tell me what’s going on in his author photo at the top of the page? Is he in front of a large stack of towels? Reams of paper? White undershirts? I’m very perplexed.)

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