Saturday, February 23, 2013
Well. I was wondering: is it ok for Hall & Kenyon to do some variation on the "men write like this . . . " thing, but not Roiphe? If so, is it because they're writers talking about their own work? Because they were jokey about it? Or just because they're not Katie Roiphe, what with her whole history of using the "women do this" thing to make empirical claims about the world that have had a real, harmful effect?
Probably a little of all of these. And I think Francine Prose's 1998 piece stands as just about the clearest reason of why you should probably stay away from such things all together.
And then, just as I was thinking about all of this, I came across this article by Zadie Smith about Joni Mitchell. What an article! I've mentioned before the program I taught in when I was in grad school, how they wanted our students to write personal essays and tried to get them there by having them write this sequence of exercises with images, scenes, and reflections. It didn't usually work, and the other departments really hated us, but I liked the effort to kill the five paragraph beast. Every now and then, I come across an essay, or a piece of a memoir, and I think, ah, that's it: what we were trying to do. From Joni Mitchell to Kierkegaard and Tintern Abbey . . it shouldn't work, and yet.
I was thinking was that all the things that made it such a great piece - how she's talking about the necessary limitations on how much art we can love in one life, how she had gotten it wrong before, how she's probably still getting so much wrong. Even after this revelation, she says, I'm still mostly talking about Blue: the album "any fool" owns. It doesn't argue for why Mitchell is great; instead it helps you experience it anew through someone else's ears.
And then it occurred to me that the piece was just about the exact opposite of one the New Yorker had recently run about the Grateful Dead, which was all about completists and the lost tapes and techno-fetishism - in other words, just about every stereotypical "male" way of looking at music sent up in High Fidelity. Prose brilliantly takes down the common tropes of those who think they favor "strong" "male" writing. But I have to admit, looking at these two pieces side by side, there's something that makes me think women are more likely to achieve something I value in writing. Lots of men achieve it - but they tend to be men who have been 'outsiders' in some way, however you define that. But that's so subjective! Well, yes. The acknowledgment of one's own subjectivity - and limitations - is part of why Smith's piece transports me in a way a "my band is the best!" piece never could. More writers of all genders should take it out for a spin.