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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Power Politics, by Arundhati Roy

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Arundhati Roy, author of the novel The God of Small Things, is an activist as well as a writer. In this collection of essays published in 2001, Roy bestows her vast knowledge about the many problems that have come of contemporary India’s struggle toward rapid development with casual wit and a healthy dose of sarcasm. Whether it’s the takeover of U.S.-funded energy companies, the power of the written word and the role of writers in a country with soaring rates of illiteracy, or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, Roy is at ease playing offense.

The “modernization” of India has not effected all Indians equally. In fact, most of the country’s population still live in extreme poverty and might as well be worlds away from the small elite that benefits from the country’s development. What Roy sees is not one country at all, but “two Indias” completely at the mercy of an all encompassing tech-divide. She’s highly critical of so-called “experts”, whose particularized knowledge is unfairly deemed superior to all other forms of knowing–like experiential–and I really appreciate that.

Her writing is catchy, but a little unfocused at times. If I let my mind wander even the slightest, I’d find myself lost. And the two essays about 9/11 and America’s War on Terror were good, but did feel dated. At this point, you’ve read them, even if you haven’t read them. Many times. It makes me wonder about the rest, for which I have very little personal context within which to determine their relevancy as I know so little about India. In any case, these essays are an interesting window into India and global power relations…at least as they existed at the turn of the twenty first century.

I haven’t been particularly blown away by either The God of Small Things or Power Politics, but I have enjoyed them both, would recommend them, and look forward to reading more of Roy’s work.

Written by Emily Jane

January 11, 2012 at 5:55 am

Posted in Essays, Non-fiction

Catching Up, Part 2

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In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde 🙂

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation 🙂 I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

Catching Up, Part 1

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So, life has been real chaotic these past few months, and unfortunately this has led to a bit of blog neglect. I got behind in my reviews last spring break and have only continued to fall farther behind. Now that this semester is finally over, it’s time to put what’s passed in the past with some mini-reviews.

Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class is a collection of stories/essays compiled by Michelle Tea, who writes in the introduction that she was fed up with reading about the working class from the upper-class perspective of popular journalists and the like. These first-hand accounts tell frightening, vindicating, difficult tales of what it’s like to grow up a poor girl in the United States. Inadequate access to healthcare, domestic violence, alienating educational institutions–these stories cover all that and so much more. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and give voice to a host of sexual and gender identities as well as callings; they are activists, mothers, poets, teachers, and many things besides. As is true of all collections, some of the stories/essays are better than others. But what I might consider the weakest in this collection sets the bar quite high. Haunting and powerful. Highly recommended to those interested in gender studies and social justice.

In fifth grade, I dressed as Amelia Earhart and gave a monologue to my classmates about my flying adventures to fulfill a project requirement. Like many others, I have remained fascinated with her into adulthood. Mary S. Lovell, who wrote the book about the Mitfords that I loved so much, is a skilled biographer and I was thrilled to find that she chose Earhart as one of her subjects. What she adds to the wealth of information about Earhart’s career in The Sound of Wings, she says, is an investigation into the role that her husband–publisher, writer, and one-man-media-machine–George Putnam played in making Amelia Earhart a household name. Earhart was courageous, stubborn, and determined as hell, but even her closest friends and biggest supporters readily admitted that she was not a “natural” flier in the way that many of her competitors were, both male and female (and there were a lot of women aviators at the time, I learned). She had the personality, but Putnam had the media in the palm of his hand. Together, they were an unstoppable force. I was a bit miffed at first that Putnam was getting so much credit for Earhart’s success, but eventually I was persuaded as to the impact of his work on her behalf. My only complaint, then, is that his name should have been included in the title. Without that inclusion, it did at first seem a little unfair to give so attention to him. I also wish that Lovell had spent more than half a page on Earhart’s friendship with fellow pilot Jackie Cochran, which seems to have consisted of psychic-seance type meetings in which they (correctly!!!) identified the locations of three crashed airplanes. Because, whoa. And yes, Jackie did make a detailed prediction about what happened to Amelia, and where…!

I owe the blogosphere a huge favor for this one, because I wouldn’t have tried it without a host of blogger recommendations. And I loved it. I’ve been on a scary movie kick for months now, but have always avoided scary stories in book form out of some misguided idea that scary stories in books are all hokey, or something (I know, I know…what a ridiculous prejudice for a book-lover to have!). Well, this book was downright creepy. It takes place in a crumbling post-war Mansion called Hundreds Hall in the English countryside (um, what more do you need to know?). The Ayres family is used to a bougeoise way of life which is becoming impossible as the make up of the country’s class structure starts to shift. They are haunted by their imcompetence to keep up the house without the aid of dozens of servants, and their past prestige…increasingly, though, it seems they must be haunted by something else, too. Something more sinister. I figured out what was going on about three-fourths of the way through the book and admit that I was expecting a bit more of a twist, or something, but I still had a great time racing straight through to the end of this one!

This book is incredibly hard to talk about. I’ve seen comparisons made between this book and works by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges but as I haven’t actually read either of them, I can’t comment on that (I do have a huge collection of Borge’s works though which I really want to delve into this summer). This book is a Library of Tangents, and each “story” exhibits some marvelous thing, history, idea, or paradox that exists in the imaginative universe that Rose has created. It’s filled with small but detailed diagrams, charts, paintings, and maps that tell of all things from “Languages of Hidden Islands” to “Lost Horologies and Systems of Measures”. Sounds obscure, yes, and it is…but what’s so captivating about these fantastical tangents–whole societies incapable of forgetting anything, and who are therefore unable to reflect; isolated communities of people who see color on a spectrum only visible to them–is that they seem almost too strange and unlikely to be made up. Part of us wants to believe that they are true, that things we know to be real fill the void between fact and the imaginary. These bizarre fables, if you can call them that, are fun in that they challenge you to pick out the fact from the fiction, and a bit disconcerting in that you find you can’t always do it. A neat little book.

That’s it for now, but expect a second installment of catch-up reviews in the next few days 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

May 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Essays by Sloane Crosley

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There is a quote on the cover of this book from Jonathan Lethem: “Soane Crosley is another mordant and mercurial wit from the realm of Sedaris and Vowell.” And he’s right. Her style is very similar to those of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. I should have taken Lethem’s word for it and stuck these essays back on the shelf, as I’m really not partial either of those authors. But I didn’t, because I was craving essays and I found the book for only a dollar.

Sloane’s writing is polished and tight. Her essays are well planned out and executed, and she can be funny. There’s little doubt about it; she can write a good essay. The problem? Well, I had a few.

The first problem: many of the essays are about living in New York City (by which she clearly means Manhattan). The kinds of experiences she has in The City are experiences that anyone who has lived in The City has had, and that anyone who hasn’t lived in The City has seen happen countless times in movies about The City or can easily imagine happening in them. The exaggerated difficulty of moving to an apartment only blocks away? Check. Leaving wallets in cabs and the surprising kindness of strangers? Check. Of course, the stuff of everyday experience often makes for incredible writing, but Sloane lacks the originality to pull it off. She gets close, at times, to something special, but never quite close enough.

The second problem: The essays that aren’t about The City are about her “typical, suburban” upbringing. She frequently refers to her childhood as “normal”, “boring”, and lacking culture, and, I get it–that is how white, middle class suburbia is depicted in mainstream U.S. discourse–but she doesn’t really take into account that maybe her reader ISN’T from the same background, or that her experience is not, in fact, the “default” growing up experience.

These problems are really the same problem: In these essays, Crosley repeatedly stresses the things about her city life that she  thinks are unique to her experience while mistakenly assuming the universality of the experiences who made her who she is before she came to New York. This leaves her with a very specific audience of readers that may not feel somewhat alienated by this collection of essays; readers who are demographically similar to herself. I think this is a shame, as I don’t think there’s any reason that a suburbs-to-city sort of narrative like this one needs to come across that way.

The final problem: Without passing judgment on Crosley herself, the voice she employed in this collection really turned me off through occasional self-centeredness, immaturity, and a seeming sense of entitlement. It’s clear that we don’t share a sense of humor, and probably wouldn’t get along that well if we met in real life.

I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does. I do think that Crosley is quite an accomplished writer and I did actually feel pleasure at times while reading her essays. I just don’t think she has all that much to say, really. Perhaps that will change with time and experience, in which case I’m sure she will be able to properly dazzle us with her wit and her fine way with words. On the other hand, if you like David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell you might enjoy I Was Told There’d Be Cake more than I did, and be more forgiving of its flaws.

Written by Emily Jane

March 17, 2011 at 4:59 am

The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor*

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This was the February pick for the Year of Feminist Classics read-a-long.

Sometimes it’s hard to really get into an essay like this one, because so much of what made it original and startling when published is now largely taken for granted. We don’t usually feel the need to justify our assertions that men and women should have equal access to the workplace, or that equal partnership in marriage is a good thing. Well, sometimes we are pushed to, but we don’t need to work as hard to make our point as Mill did in the mid-19th century.

Mills argues for women’s liberation from subjugation through politics, education, marriage, and family. He does so clearly, cleverly and, in my opinion, with a fine sense of humor. He tackles the claim that Victorian-era ideas about women and their roles in society follow simply what has been proven by “nature”. Claiming that we can not truly understand the nature of either men or women in any meaningful sense as long as the binary system through which they are related is one which unfairly favors men, he assures his contemporaries that there is no reason to fear allowing women more freedom of opportunity in the workplace. If his detractors are correct, he says, and women are naturally not as good as men at certain jobs, then the competition of the free market will ensure that a more qualified man is hired anyway. If women prove capable of the same jobs, then the idea that they are naturally inferior at certain tasks will be debunked and knowledge will be furthered. Heavily influenced by the thinking of the Enlightenment, he makes the point impersonally (which it is his privilege to be), stressing that reason alone can determine truth, and that assumptions about the way society works and has always worked are completely unreasonable: they have not been properly challenged as no large-scale experimentation has been allowed.

Furthermore, he makes examples of women like Joan of Arc and English queens who have excelled in non-traditional roles, whom more women could emulate if given the chance. Let them prove themselves at writing, music, leadership, etc. Why intentionally limit the possibility of greatness?

He notes that most prejudicial complaints about women–their neediness, their emotionality, their frivolity–stem from socialization, and that equal education of the sexes would result in a greater sense of self and bearing for women. Not only would this be to the benefit of women, but it would also benefit men to be able to relate intellectually to the women in their lives, and would contribute to a greater culture of intellect in society in general. Shared responsibility in both the private and public spheres would relieve the specific burdens placed on both parties and would lead to happier marriages.

Finally, he breaches the subject of suffrage. Though absent from politics, he says, women are by no means unaffected and should be able to vote for their own interests.

So, okay. I yawned myself while typing this and hope no one reading has fallen asleep. I did a terrible job at backing up my claim that Mill is actually pretty funny. He is! I promise! He makes jokes and employs sarcastic witticisms! :/ Even so, though, it’s true: The Subjection of Women is not particularly riveting. If it wasn’t for my commitment to the Feminist Classics project, I probably would have tossed it aside after twenty pages and taken for granted that I agree with all of Mill’s contentions and that he had nothing new to say to me. However, once I got into the swing of things, I found Mill pleasant company enough and am satisfied with being able to comfortably use his essay as a reference for more complicated arguments in the future, if need be.

*You won’t likely find her officially credited as author anywhere, but after our discussion at the Feminist Classics blog about how she’s been widely demonized and written out of history, I wanted to both make a point and pay her respect.

Written by Emily Jane

March 5, 2011 at 2:18 am

Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison

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I’m a bit young to have any personal memory of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, but have heard it referred to as a significant turning point in popular U.S. discussions of race and sex. So it was with great curiosity that I picked up Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.

For those of you who don’t follow U.S. politics, or just need a quick refresher, Clarence Thomas was the second African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991. His appointment was extremely controversial, not only because of his super-conservative, anti-civil rights politics, or because he was clearly under-qualified, but because Anita Hill, a black woman who had once worked for him, testified in his confirmation hearings that he had sexually harassed her in the workplace on a regular basis.

The essays in this book, edited and introduced by Toni Morrison, focus not so much on what happened, but how the issues were framed by the media and what the whole thing meant in the context of the deeply entrenched racial and sexual tropes that form easily recognizable cultural narratives about race, sex, and power.

The first few essays focus on Clarence Thomas’s conservative ideology and the paradox and hypocrisy of an African-American man condoning the racist policies put forth by the Republican party. African-American leadership was divided on the issue: support Thomas in a bid for symbolic representation, or oppose him on the grounds that his politics are, in fact, detrimental to the black community? What is the value of tokenism?

Things were further complicated by Anita Hill’s testimony. Historically, U.S. African-American women have been marginalized by both feminist movements on account of their race, and black civil rights movements on account of their sex. Many felt that Anita Hill was a race-traitor for bringing intraracial sexual oppression to the attention of the white mainstream. She was simultaneously accused of being a man-hating lesbian and jealous of Thomas’s wife; she was criticized for her careerism and her attempt at “keeping a good man down”. She was thought to be only a pawn for liberal white feminist groups, and was not taken seriously in her own right.

In coming forth with allegations of sexual harassment, with calm and composure, Anita Hill defied many stereotypes about black women: specifically the assumption that they are sexually lascivious and and always willing, that therefore it is not possible to rape or sexually assault them (this is an old assumption which was actually once written into U.S. law). She didn’t fit any easily recognizable roles for black women (think mammy, jezebel, welfare queen) and therefore, she was confounding. People were at a loss as to how to place her. In a sense, she was “de-raced”. By bringing up an issue that was both racial and sexual, she was “made white”…intersectionality was not yet a popular approach to thinking about oppression, and when pressed, people were more comfortable dealing with her as a woman (coded white) because of her sexual victimization than as a black person (coded male). This was not to her benefit.

Conversely, Clarence Thomas invoked symbols of blackness that are negative, but in this case were helpful to him. When he declared himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching” during his trial, he both de-legitimized Anita Hill’s blackness and subverted the issue of sexual harassment. However inappropriate and inaccurate the claim, Thomas effectively drew a connection in the minds of his listeners between the allegations he faced and the racist history of treating black men as brutes, sexual predators unable to control their animalistic urges, beaten by mobs and lynched for the smallest (or completely fabricated) infractions. In doing so, he was able to make himself the victim of racism rooted in sex and authenticate his own blackness.

Each essay in this collection is strong, and covers a much wider terrain than I possibly can in this single post. The ideas noted above are only a small, simplified sample of the essays’ contents. They were all written by academics and noted intellectuals, so the tone and writing of all of them is…academic and extremely intellectual. This is not a complaint, as I quite like that sort of thing, but I know not everyone does. Unfortunately, as is the case for many such collections, the essays do get repetitive and a bit tedious. Worth it, since I do feel I learned a lot by reading them all. I feel I now have a much better understanding of how and why the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought discussions of sex and race to the forefront of U.S. politics and how they forced widening thought about the particular oppression of black women and recognition of the existence and importance of black feminism. So I might just suggest reading the essays over time instead of all at once, so as not to get frustrated with the repetition.

A few of my favorite essays included, I think, were Hill, Thomas, and the Use of Racial Stereotype, by Nell Irvin Painter, White Feminists and Black Realities: The Politics of Authenticity, by Christine Stansell, and Whose Story is it, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill, by Kimberle Crenshaw, a woman whose work I’ve encountered a few times in different capacities and never failed to be impressed by.

If those titles interest you, this book is right up your alley.

Written by Emily Jane

August 16, 2010 at 12:06 am

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

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Finally got around to reading the classic essay. I was familiar with Virginia Woolf’s basic assertion that to write, a woman requires her own income and, well, a room of one’s own–the privilege of leisure, the space to think independently and freely–but the essay is really about so much more than that. It is, among other things, also about (white, mid-to-upper class, western) women’s socioeconomic allotment throughout history and how this affects their presence in literature, and relative absence as authors until fairly recently.

Adapted from two speeches on the subject of “Women and Fiction”, Woolf begins her investigation by asking:

Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

What is most interesting about this essay are not Virginia Woolf’s answers to these questions, but the meandering ways in which she thinks about the problem she sees. For at the time of her writing it, let’s not forget, this kind of broad based sex-and-gender philosophizing was still lots of uncharted territory. This is obvious when reading, as her focus consistently alternates between observations of concrete conditions and more abstract, almost existential thought about the relationship between the sexes. There really is a lot to untangle here and there so many different parts of this essay I could talk about. I’m going to try and pick just a few. Even a few seems hard to write about, so if it seems muddled, stick with me! (Woolf might have said the same of her essay)!

Firstly, Woolf attributes the feminization of poverty to the roles women play as wives and mothers in a patriarchal household and society for which they are rewarded no economic or property incentive. The vote was great and all, she says, but it’s not enough: women’s oppression is vastly more complicated than that. Women must be economically independent if they are to achieve the independence of thought and influence that is necessary to the art of creation.

Natural genius must be nurtured if it is to be properly communicated through art–I believe that this is what she means in stating that genius has always been (and always will be?) borne of the wealthy and the educated. Hence her (fictional) tale of Shakespeare’s sister, who shares equally his poetic talents and ambitions, yet is doomed to a life of non-productivity and misery. Where Shakespeare found encouragement and support, his sister found only barriers and admonitions. Her genius is squandered, her creativity scorned. She is not taught the same things he is, and is not offered the same opportunities.

In thinking about the general ways in which she believes men think about women, she begins to examine fictional women in literature created by men and finds that contrary to women’s limited options in real life, literary women have been allowed all sorts of multi-dimensional roles and personalities from the start. Interestingly, she proposes that men are not interested in the inferiority of women–on the contrary, they are simply interested in maintaining their own superiority, for therein lies their means to self-confidence, the most prized of humanity’s jewels. For that reason, the inferiority of women is constructed as a societal mirror of sorts, in which the image of woman is meant to reflect and enlarge the doings of man.

Which is super interesting. So far, so good. But it’s when she begins her discussion of women novelists that she begins to lose me. She loves Jane Austen, and though Austen actually did not have her own work room, she believes that Austen is able to exemplify writing that is uniquely female both in style and subject, and that she is able to do this by not looking at herself in relation to men, but simply as a woman in relationship to herself. Somehow, she is able to subvert typical male values as they appear in literature (by focusing on and valuing domestic issues as opposed to those of war, for example) while remaining “unconscious” of her sex–writing as herself, not as a woman, which she just happens to be. This is what she admires most in Austen.

In comparison, she finds fault with Charlotte Bronte. The flow of prose in Jane Eyre is disrupted, she seems to think, because Bronte is aware of the limitations imposed upon her as a woman, she’s unhappy with this, and it affects her work. Woolf suggests that because she is not able to transcend this aspect of her identity and just write as a person unawares of sex, that her book and story suffer. This is completely ridiculous. To be fair, I was also totally confused by this part and so I’m not sure I understand it quite as Woolf meant me to. In any case, my reactions are:

I know that The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir had not been written yet, but the idea that men have historically been considered the default human and women are considered only in relationship to men (which Woolf does acknowledge), popularized by that book, lead me to conclude the opposite of Woolf: writing unawares of ones sex, and therefore unaware of the privileges, limitations, and questions that may apply to ones’ writing because of it, is something that men have been doing in their writing since the beginning of time. It is a typical male value that is not necessarily subverted by a woman who does the same.

And anyway, I don’t believe that Jane Austen WAS unconscious of her sex to begin with. At all. Jane Austen was a biting social critic, who clearly understood the specific spheres and gender roles assigned to men and women and the way this plays out in the lives of the individuals of her class and society. That’s what she writes about. That’s her whole thing! Just because Woolf didn’t sense that Austen was angry about this by reading her novels doesn’t mean that she was unconscious of being a woman while writing.

But what OF anger in women’s writing? Why does the anger that Woolf senses in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and attributes to consciousness of her sex in relation to men make her writing any less womanly? Why is this considered an adaptation of male literary values? Why should she be expected to start from scratch, as though she and her work are not already located somewhere on the map of sexist oppression? Why does Woolf seem to value sex-transcendence over all else?

My brain hurts. Am I misunderstanding something? Missing something completely?

And the stuff that followed, about everyone’s minds containing elements of maleness and femaleness that must be united to produce balanced writing? Well, I’m not really going to get into all that. It would only lead to a total sex-and-gender meltdown for me, I think. Suffice it to say, my reaction was one big WHAAAT?!

I realize this all sounds pretty negative, but I actually really enjoyed this essay. Really, I did! It moved swiftly along at a nice place, and has maintained an impressive freshness over many decades. I am a huge fan of Virginia Woolf’s airy, windy, spiraling style and I had quite a pleasant time reading it. And it’s obviously given me a lot to think about! It’s just in typing all this out that I’m having a hard time making sense of what  I didn’t like about it. Which, sorry for this disorganization, brings me back to the beginning, the bit about Shakespeare’s sister.

By this imaginary anecdote, it is clear that Woolf believes there is genius even where it goes unrecognized; that wealth and privilege merely nurture it. Which, true enough. However, it’s not really enough, in my mind, to offset the general classicism of the premise that women must have their own rooms and incomes to create. I mean, that excludes the vast majority of the world’s women, who create beautiful/awesome/shocking/inspiring/terrible things every day without those things. Whether or not we recognize their expressions of creativity–or why we might not–is really a different question than any Woolf asks, and I think it’s ultimately a more productive one.

Of course, I agree that economic and social oppression of women shouldn’t exist and that all women should have access to the means to have their own rooms and incomes, and agree that these privileges make it vastly easier and more practical to do one’s work. But let’s not ignore all the women who have done, and continue to do, without.

Ahh! What do you all think? Did you share any of these reactions? Am I just nitpicking? Is this the longest post I’ve ever written, about the shortest book? (I think so!) Is my head going to explode if I don’t chill out with a hot cup of tea pronto? (Seems likely!)

Written by Emily Jane

August 6, 2010 at 11:20 pm