Read in 2016: Top Five

Here we go, ya’ll. Twenty sixteen is over, and while it was raucous to say the least, we’ve made it through. Yes, it can be hard to look beyond the dire fear that 2016 has effectively ushered in the end of the world, but, we did get Lemonade out of it. That has to count for something.

In any case, despite the insane political shit show we’ve all been forced to endure, I hope you’ve all managed to get some decent reading time in. But who am I kidding, we hit 129 degrees this year. What else were you going to do?

As I like to do every year, I’ve taken a look back at the books I read over the last twelve months (never as many as I would’ve liked) and meditate on which ones I liked, which ones I loved, and which ones I will never, ever pick up again. This post won’t go through all of that, but I will share with you my top five books that I read this year. If you recall, I decided earlier this year that I wouldn’t be reading white male authors if I didn’t have to (and I had to, twice, for book club, neither of which made the top five cut, and one that I’m particularly annoyed was even published). That trend will stay mostly in effect next year, but less because I’m over the white male perspective (though, still true) and more because so many other writers, particularly women, are kicking ass. This year, as many years before, continued to prove that fact. 

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#5 The Bricks That Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

I discovered Kate Tempest for the first time this year, and I’m so very glad that I did. As her bio tells you, this girl is a wriiiiiter. She’s a poet, playwright, rapper, recording artist, and novelist, and this debut did not disappoint. Set in gritty southeast London, the story follows a group of young city dwellers connected through love, drugs, friendships, and their own desperation. Tempest sets up a not-your-typical love triangle that is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and yet completely satisfying. Unlike similar premises before it (think Tao Lin’s Taipei, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero) Tempest does not bore us with long scenes of aimless, drug-addled youth. Instead, she weaves beauty and empathy into every character’s interaction, and when she shows us somewhat aimless, drug-addled youth, it is not to show off, but to demonstrate humanity. And while the novel’s form could do well with a break from its formulaic structure, lines like, “she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount” are enough to have us look past that. You’ll read for the story but stay for the writing.

#4 M Train – Patti Smith

I was first introduced to Patti Smith’s indelible writing not through 1975’s poetry and rock-infused Horses, but through her 2010 memoir Just Kids, that chronicled her time as a young 20-something in New York with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you read and loved Just Kids, her next book M Train was not part two (which is okay, we don’t need to add to perfection). M Train was the perfect meditative read that I needed for the syrupy days of summer, the right book for a rainy day (or any day). Part essay, part poetry, part memoir, part cultural critique, M Train infuses New York post-Hurricane Sandy, TV crime shows, Japanese literature, Frida Kahlo, an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, black coffee, brown bread, olive oil, death, love, and loss. Lovely, moving, honest, we can only hope Patti Smith never, ever stops. 

#3 A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

The only male writer to make the list, and very near the best book I read this year, goes to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. (“Brief” is ironic, the book boasts close to 700 pages). When I finished this book, I was on a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere Maryland, staring out over a lake. I was stuck, for several minutes, wondering how on earth I could return to my own novel when things like this existed in the literary world. The novel is no short of explosive, switching from a plethora of characters–young gang members, older Dons, drug dealers, The Singer (Bob Marley), a woman who loved him, CIA agents, even ghosts–over the course of thirty years. Officially, there are 77 characters, not all who get a voice, but all who exist in some way throughout the book. The setting is mostly the streets of West Kingston, eventually moving to Miami and New York. Not for the weak of heart, the writing and language is intense, violent, at times assaulting (I couldn’t read this one in long stretches), but absolutely mesmerizing. My only critique: the book could do with more women. The few female perspectives are a refreshing reprieve from the intensity of the male perspective. And James’s writing comes alive the most through the female characters. For example, we first meet the character Nina Burgess she’s waiting outside the house of The Singer, the man she loves, lingering, waiting for him to appear. James perfectly captures her heartache with the final line of her section: “The white man takes the first bus that comes. I don’t and I’m telling myself that it’s because I don’t want to be on the same bus with him. But I know I’ll miss the next one. And the one after that too.”

#2 Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

I first discovered Claudia Rankine with 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and realized then what poetry could do. Fusing politics, poetry, prose, and images, Claudia Rankine powerfully sums up the times (at that time, the George Bush Administration) with lines that punch. Citizen does exactly that for our current times. In the era of Trayvon, the cover is a solitary black hood cut from a sweatshirt, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the politicization of a simple garment. Moving from personal to the political (the pages on Serena Williams are incredible), Citizen chronicles the frustration of our times with lines like, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” In relating Serena and Venus to Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Rankine writes, “This appropriated line […] seemed to be ad copy for aspect of life for all black bodies.” And, when Rankine tells the story of a [white] woman she works with mistaking her for another [black] woman she works with, she jokes, “who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.” And yet, following an apology by the woman who refers to “our mistake,” Rankine writes, “Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply its meaning.”

Rankine cuts. Her words put a microscope on the subtle and large injustices that our country continues to allow. In its biting brilliance, Citizen is the smack-in-the-face cultural critique we all need.

#1 Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Of all the great books I read this year, there was only one that made me want to stop everything and write. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus stopped me in my tracks. Who writes like this? Who uses adjectives like this? In a world where California has gone completely dry and the rest of the country is fighting for scarce resources, Luz and Ray are trying to survive in a barren state. When Watkins described insatiable thirst, I felt it in my throat. When she described the omnipresent sand, I felt it pass my skin.The caustic heat on my body. Line by line, her language is intoxicating: “for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscope universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that[…]” The story, for some, is strange. Watkins breaks the rules on what a novel should be by infusing short story into a straight forward third-person narrative, which do not always make sense at the time of reading (I think, however, it all works on reflection). But her willingness to push boundaries, to write like a bullet train dipped in modern art, makes this the best novel I read this year.

Other close runners-up: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Leah Hagar Cohen’s The Grief of Others.

So, 2016 wasn’t all so bad. Great art has always been there to help us through the toughest times. As we move into uncharted territory, writers will be there to document, empathize, and take us to new worlds when we most need it. Here’s to 2017 and another year of great literature.

Favorite Females Friday: The Goddess Herself

This #FavoriteFemalesFriday is dedicated to the goddess herself, Patti Smith.

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I recently (this morning) finished M Train, her 2015 follow up to the National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids, the gorgeous story of Patti’s life while moving to New York in her early 20s, meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, and becoming the rockstar/poetess we know her as today.

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If you’re looking for a reprise of that book, you won’t necessarily find it in M Train, which is a slow, quiet meditation on Patti’s life now, with reflections back to a time living with her two children and late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. The book floats between memory and the present as we travel with her to places around the world and around her home city of New York, become engrossed in Jean Genet and Haruki Murakami right along side her, feel the sting of things lost in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, dissect many TV crime shows, and drink plenty of coffee at corner tables. Set amongst Smith’s melodic passages and subtle black and white photographs, we consider objects and people lost, the lassitude of melancholy, the passage of time, and our own concept of age and death.

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Smith’s words on the page have always done something to me. They are calm, soothing, meandering, poetic. I marked two passages that were particularly beautiful to me:

Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind. 

The image of the faceless clock comes back again at the end, as we follow Smith through a dreamscape where Fred appears to her, racing next to a clock with no hands, as though always impervious to time.

Smith is open and unassuming about the loneliness that comes with being a writer, and especially the frustration of being alone but still unable to produce the words you want to say. While spending time in Japan and trying to conjure her muse at the time, Osuma Dazai, Smith writes:

I returned to my station and gazed at my notebook. I was determined to produce something despite an inescapable lassitude, no doubt due to the deeper effect of travel. I could not resist closing my eyes for just a moment and was instantaneously greeted with an expanding lattice that shook soundly, blanketing the edge of an impeccable maze with a torrent of petals. Horizontal clouds formed above a distant mountain: the floating lips of Lee Miller. Now now, I said half aloud, for I was not about to get lost in some surreal labyrinth. I was not thinking about mazes and muses. I was thinking about writers. 

M Train is lovely in the way of a long conversation with a friend, or a first sip of hot coffee, or the first crack of a new book. Read it, enjoy it, and keep it on your shelf to come back to again and again.

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#FavoriteFemalesFriday: Celeste Ng

I’m dedicating this #FavoriteFemalesFriday post to one gal: Celeste Ng. Not only did she write the amazing Everything I Never Told You, the New York Times bestseller, New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, but she’s also super bad ass, discussing race boldly (the family in her book is mixed Asian-White in the 1970s Midwest, a time when biracial marriage had recently been illegal in some states. *Cough* Looking at you, Virginia) while invoking the feeling of isolation associated with being a person of color in a sea of white. (Which is also something that could be said of the U.S. publishing industry.)

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Ng had this to say about how Asian American fits into the conversation on race in America on NPR’s Code Switch: 

I think in the United States we talk about race as a black and white issue. … We’re generally talking about it as if it’s a binary equation whereas, in fact, there’s more than two races and in fact those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.

But race is a factor in Everything I Never Told You, not the full story. The novel is much more complicated than that. Throughout 300 pages of tightly woven family history, secrets, and unexpected twists, we learn the story of the Lee family, and the 15-year-old daughter who drowned in the lake near their house. The novel is air-tight; Ng knows exactly what she’s doing. Furthermore, we have a present tense omniscient narrator. Yes, present tense. And this is how good Ng is: I had to check to make sure I was right. I almost always tire of the present tense within a short story, let alone a novel. But Ng is so damn skilled that it is seamless. 

This is how the book opens:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

What? So bad ass.

Back to the issue of race, since it is a component of the novel. In an interview on Hippo Reads, when asked to dive into the choices for the characters’ racial identity and how true to life the racism is, Ng responded:

An early Goodreads commenter remarked that the racism in the book was unbelievable—she felt it might have been realistic “in the 1920s, maybe, but not in the 1970s.” And at one of the first readings I did, someone asked, “How did you research the racism?” The sad truth is that I didn’t need to do a lot of research on that front: with one exception, every racially-tinged encounter in the novel—from the more outright discrimination to the many microaggressions, intentional or not—is something that’s happened to me, to family, or to someone I know personally.

 

Here’s some research I did do: in 2001, the Anti-Defamation League, along with several other groups, conducted a landmark study on attitudes towards Asian Americans in the U.S. It found that 68% of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of Chinese Americans; that more Americans were uncomfortable supporting an Asian American for president than a black, Jewish, or woman candidate; and that 24% disapproved of intermarriage with an Asian American. A 2009 followup found numbers had improved, but only somewhat. I’ll note, also, that so far, the only people who’ve expressed surprise at any of the racial attitudes in the book have not been people of color. For the most part, readers who have been minorities—Asian or otherwise—have pretty much reacted, “Yup.”

And finally, I’ll end with this, my favorite quote that definitely resonated with me as a writer: 

I think many writers are drawn to write about their fears as a way of domesticating—or at least managing—them.

Yes. Feel that one. Deeply.

Thanks, Celeste Ng, for being a truly gifted, bold writer. The world needs more of you.

Favorite Females Friday: Gold, Babies, and Why We Can’t Hate Bey

Ughhhhh this rain. #overit

BUT, it’s Friday. Which means Favorite Females Friday. Which is something that I’m starting. Kind of. #favoritefemalesfriday

This week I finished Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus and I was so sad to see it end. It has been such a pleasant journey reading this book. CVW’s language is the type of gorgeous, sharp-eyed poeticism akin to Lauren Groff (who, you know, I also love). Just read this and tell me you’re not having a great time:

She chewed her root and watched his beautiful voice comet across the heaven of their dome. She lifted her hand before her face and made patient, shimmering contrails with her fingers. A little disappointed, for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscopic universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy all around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that–this was her thought when he asked her for something else.

I was reading a section aloud to my boyfriend when I came across this passage. He gave an admiring “Mmm,” and said, “Wait, read that again?” And I did. And we were both in awe. Amazing.

(I’ll have a full review soon, but let me just say that the last few lines killed me. Killed. Me.)

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This week’s recommended reading on Electric Literature (if you don’t subscribe to Electric Literature, do it now) was a story by Helen Phillips called Dopplegangers. I loved this story. I am not a mother, nor am I around many, but I still felt every tortured, blissful moment of motherhood through Phillips words. The story begins,

The Queen always looked profound when she pooped. Her eyes solemn, as though regarding the void. That was why they had taken to calling her The Queen, even though she was only a month old. Also, the way she sat enthroned in her car seat in the over-packed car as they drove to the new town. And the regal purple stars on her blanket, beneath which her absurdly tiny legs jerked this way and that.

Throughout the story is the ever-present nausea of heat, which for some reason is a weather description I cling to (I think for its inherent added intensity).

The house felt small, small and hot. Mimosa could smell herself more strongly by the minute. Her body odor had intensified since The Queen’s birth. Sam had read somewhere that newborns can recognize only one person in the entire world, and the way they recognize that person is by scent alone. She wondered when her stink would begin to offend The Queen, or if The Queen liked it more as it grew stronger.

And then, there’s the women she sees. The ones who are eerily exactly like her. The ones with the same “hair wilting in the heat,” the same “bodies at the same stage of post-birth flab.”

My favorite passage comes near the middle of the story, when the protagonist, Mimosa, (“My mom’s favorite drink”) finds herself in company with the new mothers, her dopplegangers.

They were lounging on blankets in the park, the doppelgängers and their babies; the mothers were eating grapes, they were tossing grapes, they were laughing, their minds were loose and hazy, their babies had awoken them at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and what could be more hilarious than that? Now the babies were crying, now pooping, now wanting milk, milk, milk, and out came the luminous breasts, and who wouldn’t want to place lips on breasts so full, and the mothers grinned at each other like a bunch of teenagers on the same high, and the heat wave painted an extra shimmer over it all, and the grapes were radiant in the grass and The Queen smiled her wide milky smile and motherhood (the doppelgängers agreed) was underrated, everything so dazzling, Mimosa had diamonds for eyes. A universe away from the grim dinner table in her quiet home, from the version of herself that had sat on a beat-up brown couch with Sam a decade back, both of them stock-still and united in secrecy when his ex-girlfriend entered the room; now it was she and The Queen who froze when he entered the room.

The story’s intensity remains consistent, with a wondering, satisfying end.

 

And, finally. This #FavoriteFemalesFriday (really trying to make it a thing, guys) would not be complete without Miss Queen Bee herself.

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Beyonce’s Lemonade has been the only thing in my ears since it came out last week. It has spurred countless think pieces. Facebook is a buzz. But what really amazes me about the album is the poetry, which was adapted from British poet Warsan Shire.  To hear Beyonce’s haunting voice state the lines that make it impossible for us to not dive into them to seek out facts (let us remember that artists often blend truth and fiction to create their art). The effect is incredibly compelling. Some of my favorite lines:

I tried to make a home out of you / but doors lead to trap doors / a stairway leads to nothing / unknown women wander the halls at night / Where do you go when you go quiet? / You remind me of my father / a magician / able to exist in two places at once / In the tradition of men in my blood / you come home at 3am / and lie to me / What are you hiding? / The past and the future merge / to meet us here / What luck / What a fucking curse.

From “Intuition” we move to “Denial” with Beyonce’s words coming out faster and sharper:

I tried to change / closed my mouth more / tried to be softer / prettier / less awake / fasted for sixty days / wore white / abstained from mirrors / abstained from sex / slowly did not speak another word / in that time my hair I grew past my ankles / I slept on a mat on the floor / I swallowed a sword / I levitated to the basement / confessed my sins and was baptized in a river / got on my knees and said ‘Amen’ / and said I mean / I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet / I threw myself into a volcano / I drank the blood and drank the wine / I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God / I crossed myself and thought / I saw the devil / I grew thickened skin on my feet / I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book / but still inside me coiled / deep was the need to know / Are you cheating on me?

Beyonce’s last line, “Are you cheating on me?” echoes while we see her submerged in water, her hair flowing all around.

Whether or not Beyonce is speaking from her own experience, the experience of all black women, or is just telling a really intense story, the feeling is the same as when I read any great poetry or fiction, or hear a great song, or view great art. It’s transformative. And we don’t need to look into it anymore than that. Thanks, Bey, for the feels.

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Favorite Females Friday

The title is catchy. I may keep it. 

Just a quick note to share two writerly womanly things that I’m super pumped about:

1) The Queen herself, my love in life, Ms. Zadie Smith, has a new book coming out this November. REJOICE! And now, here’s a photo of her looking gorgeous in Vogue:  

2) This essay by Claire Vaye Watkins spoke to me so much I wanted to scream and have it read by every female writer I know. I have been writing fiction seriously since 2012 (prior to that I wanted to be Joan Didion). Since I began writing fiction, I wanted to be Jonathan Franzen. And if I couldn’t be him, I wanted him to at least love every word I wrote. I’ve held similar feelings for David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, and Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m not lying when I say that It took up until this year in my literary career, for me to decide that I can write well without emulating their every word. But I have been so inundated with their maleness, their alleged “rightness” that I thought for an embarrassingly long time that that is what I should aspire to as a writer. I now know better. I am me. And Ms. Watkins has helped reaffirm that. 

Hidden Feminism in Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior

Mary Gaitskill’s 1998 short story collection Bad Behavior was so profound when it hit shelves, even Michiko Kuktani had something nice to say about it:

“She takes us on a meticulously observed documentary tour of [her characters’] inner and outer lives, giving us fierce portraits of individuals rather than a gallery of eccentric types.”

(This, despite after many of the short stories in the book had been rejected by the major literary publications.)

imgresGaitskill spares no expense, with each story feeling more shocking than the one before. To be sure, these are not horror stories, but they can certaintly be difficult to read and make one feel quite squeamish. (The second story, A Romantic Weekend had two characters so awful in their own ways—the woman seeking love and falls into the role of victimization while the man repeatedly dehumanizes her—that I admit it was difficult for me to get through, and if you’re sensitive to trigger warnings, this might be one to avoid.) But the situations and people that repulse us are precisely the ones Gaitskill is determined to humanize. By the end of each section, we do not necessarily empathize with a character who is sleeping with a prostitute but loves his wife, but we do hate him a little less.

I’ve waited a few weeks to write this review, mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the collection. With the exception of the final essay, Heaven, which is gorgeous and elegant yet painful all the same, each story had its own way of making me feel incredibly IMG_2799uncomfortable by its end. There are several themes and situations that are repeated but felt less of a way to carry the stories forward and more like circling back on the same characters and ideas again and again. There are a lot of submissive (straight, white) women and a lot of domineering (straight, white) men. Take the opening essay, Daisy’s Valentine. In it, a man (who also happens to be a functioning drug addict) decides he likes a woman in his office despite still living with his girlfriend, who we learn he repeatedly cheats on. The man’s character is awful, believing he can do and feel as he pleases, and he remains frustratingly unchanged in the end. In A Romantic Weekend, following a weekend away where the man repeatedly abuses and ridicules the woman, we’re left with an image of them cuddling in their car as they drive back to their lives in the city. Something Nice follows a married man who regularly sees the same prostitute. This story holds the sneakily feminist and perfect exchange:

“You shouldn’t come to prostitutes looking for honesty.”

“You’re not a prostitute. Don’t say that about yourself.”

“What do you think I am?”

“You just happen to be a pretty, sexy girl who, uh—”

“I have sex for money.”

“Well, all right.” He slapped her thigh nervously. “You’re right. You’re a prostitute.” It sounded so horrible. “But you’re still a wonderful girl.” He grabbed and snuggled her.

It’s a keen contradictory moment, when the man sees the woman for her humanity versus how he is expected to view her given her powerless position. To be fair, this story ends on a feminist note. By the end, the man sees the woman prostitute out in the day, and she politely ignores him, formalizing a power shift. An Affair, Edited is a brief piece vignette of a man who recalls a horrible affair with a woman after spotting her on the street, then engages in a relationship with a woman he also seems to hate:

“Why was he always attracted to these small, dramatic women?” moans the man.

Connection is where we see the first use of a repetitious female relationship, where the friends “broke up,” leaving one woman to wonder regularly about the other, while the other is viewed as hysterical and crazy, but, to be sure, more successful. In Trying to Be, we return to a prostitute (but now we are from her point of view as a regular woman just trying to make it in New York) and a man who visits her regularly. Secretary was a story of abuse and power and absolutely the most difficult to get through. It is a story of an older man and his sexual mortification and abuse of his young female employee. As we watch this abuse develop from nothing to something, we are reminded just how power inserts itself so easily between two human beings, based solely on status, age, gender, race, and economics. Following the first instance of abuse, there is delicately wrought pain in the lines:

“When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.”

Other Factors is our first introduction to a character who isn’t heterosexual, but again, the trope of the more successful friend comes in. The final essay, Heaven, pulls mercifully away from the themes of male and class privilege to spend some time with a family who has lost a child. It is tender and gorgeous and a welcome reprieve by the end of the collection.

On one hand, it was difficult, as a woman, to read story after story of images(white) men with power exercise their privilege over and over again at the expense of powerless women. On the other hand, are these stories written from the framework of a feminist exhausted by men who tramp all over women? Should it not be the case that women should feel brutally honest? Because, despite how painful they can be, the stories Gaitskill is creating are not made of characters and situations that feel false. Quite the contrary, everything feels true to the point of making us want to bury our heads in the sand (or, tear shit up.)

Gaitskill’s writing is sharp. What makes her stories so against the grain for any writer’s workshop (re: Short Story Writing 101) is that her characters, on the whole, remain unchanged by the end of the story. This is a whole new way of examining people and situations. Is it the case that we don’t always change when something happens to us? Is it more honest to say we are rarely confronted with our own privilege enough to make us empathize or stop what we’re doing? Is it true that things might just continue to stay as they are? For this, Gaitskill knows exactly what she’s doing.

Why I’m Taking a Break from White Male Writers

In January of 2015, I set myself a reading challenge. Last year my goal was to read 20 books. I read 14. One of those books was The Goldfinch and another was Purity, and those are each of lengths equal to two books, so that basically ups my count to at least 16 (but who’s counting?). In any case, I set the same goal for myself again this year, and maybe I’ll make it, and maybe I won’t, but I do try, even if my reading time these days is mostly relegated to the half an hour before I fall asleep each night.

This year I’m also setting myself another challenge. I’ve decided that I’m not going to read white male writers. Sure, there’s the occasional Saunders story that may pop up in my world, and of course I’m going to continue reading the work of my white male friends in my writing group, but for the most part, I’m taking a break. Every novel, short story collection, or chapbook that I read in 2016 will be written by a woman or person of color. Here’s why.

It’s easy not to read them.

Despite what popular reviews tell you, there are so many talented writers who are not (heterosexual) white men. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers (okay, maybe just my favorite, singular). Jennifer Egan is a close second. My favorite book of 2015 was written by a woman, Lauren Groff. I love Jenny Offill, Mary Miller, Chimamanda Adichie, Donna Tartt, Junot Diaz, Renata Adler, Teju Cole, Justin Torres. I’m so excited to explore more work by Mary Gaitskill, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, Helen Oyeyemi, and Celeste Ng.

Willingly and unwillingly, I’ve been reading them my entire life.

Many memories from my high school experience are patchy (it was over ten years ago!) but I do recall my English classes. In them, we read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, William Golding, J.D. Salinger, Alexandre Dumas. I think we talked about Lord of the Flies for six months. We did read Harper Lee, but that felt like a given. Notably, there was no Jane Austen or a Brontë sister, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. We didn’t read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, no Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf.

My undergraduate college experience was mercifully different. In it, I was exposed to writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Jean Rhys, bell hooks, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker, and poets Bernadette Mayer and Douglas Kearney. Sure, I still read my fair share of David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, but there was a balance that I was comfortable with.

I went away to graduate school for writing in Oxford, England. My first semester, I took a class called Narrative. It should have been called White Male Narrative. We received the full semester reading list a few weeks before classes began, and there, one right after the other, was J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and John Irving. When a student emailed the professor (who was a lovely British man and a great teacher, just one with an unfortunately narrow perspective) about this, he hastily swapped out two other male novelists for Marilynne Robinson and Kate Atkinson. (If you’re keeping score here, that’s five white males, two white females.)

And there are some white male writers whose books I love. I will happily read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot again and again. I like David Foster Wallace (nonfiction more than fiction, but I did push myself through Infinite Jest). John Irving is brilliant. I think Ben Lerner is frighteningly good. Up until recently, I loved everything Jonathan Franzen ever did. I even get down with some Leo Tolstoy.

But the truth is, I (and we, as a culture) have been so inundated with the white male (heterosexual) perspective that it can be easy to forget that there are so many other brilliant, worthy voices to be heard. We just need to seek them out, since they are so often not provided to us.

The market is already flooded.

This summer, Elisa Gabbert’s writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, became suddenly very popular with a question from a white male poet. The question was in earnest, a writer who admitted to being aware of his own privilege both within the larger context of life and the publishing world, wanting to know how to move forward as a writer. Should he write from the white male perspective even though the need for this is, in his words, “just not there anymore”? Should he write from the perspective of others, despite his position being one that inherently bars him from fully understanding that perspective?

Gabbert’s advice was simple: keep writing, keep seeking publishing, but do it less. She writes, “Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You – white men – have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves.” In this, Gabbert is referring to editors who claim the imbalances in publishing stems from the face that they receive far less submissions from women and POC than they do from white men. Some claim to have received submissions from white men who send another story immediately after being rejected.

The point here is clear. Each year, VIDA puts out their count of popular publishers and journals, and each year, while some publishers get steadily better, the counts stubbornly remain basically the same: more men are being published in major journals than women, and queer folk and POC are being published even less. Publication in major journals does not guarantee a writing career, but it certainly does help. And then there is the problem of when male writers become male novelists they’re reviewed more often.

They’re not in the best position to tell the stories of women, queer folk, and POC.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In , Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In The Willow Tree, Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

And this one, truthfully, gets controversial. We don’t always read fiction to read a perspective from the author. We do read to be taken to different places, with different people. I’m just saying that maybe there are other voices that would be better positioned to share those journeys than the white men who so often get to write them.

Finally, there are so many books out there, and so many authors waiting to be heard. Read as much as you can, actively seeking out new voices and styles and perspectives, not just the ones being reviewed in The Times. I’ll be right along with you for the journey.

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Week in Review: Giving Thanks Despite the Bullsh*t

Some days, it can be difficult not to look around at the world and feel exasperated, overwhelmed, or just plain sad. I feel this way semi-regularly in the U.S., where frequently there are new stories of mass shootings, or instances of … Continue reading

That Time I Cried in a Financial Advisor’s Office

I get stuck into phases. Mostly this happens to me with music, but it can happen with books and movies or even clothes. In 2001, you couldn’t stop me, my sister, or my best friend from incessantly singing and repeating whole paragraphs of dialogue from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Something similar happened when I discovered high waisted skinny black jeans. When I really like something, I don’t just like it. I seem to somehow traipse that border right away and fall into obsession mode.

This happened most recently with the video for Adele’s “Hello.” The song itself is amazing, but the video added an entirely new layer for me. In the first week of its release, I was watching the video easily three times a day. (How cute is her pretend ex-boyfriend?) I’d probably still be watching it if it weren’t for a new obsession to replace that one: The Weeknd. True, I did just see him live, and any time I see an artist live I tend to fall into a trap of only listening to them for a week or so after. But this feels a little different. I’d been listening to The Weeknd before I saw him live with pretty much daily regularity. My boyfriend and I fell hard for his first mixtape, 2011’s House of Balloons, and I’ve gone through phases of listening obsessively with each new album release.

But recently I’ve been pretty much unable to listen to anything else. With the choice of listening to no music or listening to only The Weeknd, I’ve chosen the latter every time. I’ve had buds in my ears even when it’s irresponsible to do so, like crowded grocery stores, or even (shh!) while riding my bike. Not even a night of dancing in a crowded sweaty club to Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj (full disclosure: this post is written in the space of a cloudy latent hangover) could make me switch. This morning, I waded through said hangover to beat the crowd at Trader Joe’s (and failed), but when it came time to choose my music for the journey, I only wanted to listen to the same 20 songs I’ve been listening to all damn week. It’s getting a little crazy.

Something else happened this week. At an after-work session with a financial advisor for first time homebuyers, I sat across from a man who offered me un-buffered hard truths about my ability to purchase the type of home I’d like to, and I cried. A stress cry, not a sad cry, but still, it was awful. There’s little worse than crying in front of strangers, but there’s something particularly shameful about being a woman and crying in front of a man she doesn’t know. It’s the shame of being fragile, of showing weakness. He was equally awkward, pushing a packet of tissues my way and using the phrase “water works” and “Oh, geez” more than once.

And why was I crying? And what on earth does this have to do with my current musical obsessions? (I’ll answer the former first; the latter we’ll get to.)

I was crying because I suddenly felt the pressures of time. This happens to me every now and again, usually without much warning. Everything can be right, the days moving along normally, or even better than normal, and then wham! I’m suddenly, totally in my head about what I’ve accomplished, what I haven’t accomplished, what I need to accomplish immediately because good god look at the seconds tick by! And while reviewing my options for home ownership and feeling completely overwhelmed by it, time hit me. There I was, in this man’s office, late on a rainy Thursday, and unexpectedly, sharply aware of time, of my place in it, of all of the things that American societal pressures tell me I need to accomplish in order to be taken seriously as an adult. Buying a home felt like one of those things. I came home from that meeting crying to my boyfriend (loving, understanding, and wholly freaked out) and managed to reveal another time I’m terrified of, the type of time adult women have come to be intimately connected with: that ticking biological clock that hangs over us whispering baby, baby, baby.

(Ladies, best way to quiet a conversation? Mention your biological clock! Men love it!)

I can’t be the only one that this happens to. Here we are, living our happy, productive lives, finding accomplishments in our art, in our careers, in our relationships, fighting for progress and equal pay and abortion rights, when it hits: Shouldn’t we have a 401(k)? Shouldn’t we buy homes? Get married? Have children? Don’t we have to do all of these things, suddenly, immediately? WHY HAVE WE BEEN WASTING OUR TIME DANCING TO BEYONCE IN CROWDED CLUBS? WHY???

When I mentioned my concerns to a coworker, she told me her anxiety about time got so bad she had to buy cats. She had her son three years later, but still, there had to first be cats. Another got so worried about her lack of homeownership that she bought a crack house for $8,000. A crack house

Which makes me think I now understand why I can’t stop listening to The Weeknd. At his concert, there were large screens set up to the sides of the stage that showed fans in the crowd dancing. Many were girls. All were doing the same slow, woozy, full body sway that his music induces, the same move I find myself doing when I listen to it. Watch any video of his live performances and you’ll see the same thing: these same girls, eyes closed, head lolling, body rocking slowly. Aside from his current chart hits, most of his music is, what the interviewer in a recent Rolling Stone article characterized as, “atmospheric and chilly” and “an addiction counselor’s worst nightmare.” And apparently I’m not the only girl who loves it. Is it that his music — syrupy, slow, beautifully piercing — is getting us out of our heads? Is it that for three minutes (or more like six minutes for the non-chart toppers) the (female) listener is taken on a trip away from time (biological or otherwise) and all its complications? Is this what really great art does for us?

I’m thinking that yes, this is the case.

As I write this, I wish I could go back to that girl sitting in the room with that advisor, and tell her this: Time is constantly moving. We can’t slow it down or speed it up, so let’s make a collective pact to allow it to happen around us instead of to us. Let’s all declare it now: we won’t let time choke us like a vice. Houses will come (or they won’t!), marriage and babies will happen (or they won’t!) and we’ll eventually see everywhere in the world and master the Spanish we’ve been studying since high school (or we won’t!) And that’s okay, because we can’t do it all. 

So, final thoughts: listen to music you love (repeatedly, if you must), dance raucously in clubs with your friends, eat chocolate, drink too much wine, be messy, have deep conversations with people you love, read great books, experience great art, take a nap, and chill out