Ladies of Habit Book Club: Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion

Ladies of Habit Book club has recently been surveying the genre of lady essayists—Lena Dunham, Joan Didion etc.—who explore both autobiography and cultural criticism simultaneously.

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Daum not only is a central figure in this genre, but also a theorist of it when she distinguishes between “letting it all hang out” and “putting yourself out there.” She writes:

Letting it all hang out is indiscriminate and frequently gratuitous. It’s the stuff of paint flung mindlessly at a canvas and words brought up via reverse peristalsis, never to be revised or thought better of, always to be mystically discounted as “a gift from above.” Letting it all hang out is an inherently needy gesture. It asks the audience to do the heavy lifting. It dares the audience to “confront the material” without necessarily making that material worth anyone’s while.

Putting yourself out there is another matter entirely. It’s an inherently generous gesture, a gift from artist to listener or viewer or reader. The artist who puts herself out there is not foisting a confession on her audience as much as letting it in on a secret, which she then turns into a story.

This distinction comes from Daum’s essay on Joni Mitchell, or the “Joni Mitchell Problem”, and it makes perfect sense that Joni would become the patron philosopher of lady essaydom—being a lady essayist herself, as Daum argues. But this distinction is a little cruel and I have indeed heard it being used cruelly to critique Lena Dunham. Unlike Daum and Joni (and Didion), Dunham does not take every personal story and wrap it in the aura of a larger narrative that speaks to the conditions of ladies everywhere. I worry that Daum’s rejection of women’s writing that assaults the reader with its lack of a “so what” is a bit of self hatred, because some of her best writing is also firmly in “the letting it all hang out” category.

Amongst very pleasurable essays on her lack of interest in good food, what it is like to interview your hero, how straight women identify with butchness, there are two essays that slayed me—and both I think fit into the category of “letting it all hang out.” The first is “Matricide,” which explores her lack of sadness when her mother died, and the second is “Difference Maker,” an essay about the decision to not have children. These essays are not tear-jearkers so much as tragedies that never build to any kind of crescendo. There is no cathartic moment, just a kind of constant buzz of complex sadness. They are also page-turners. I kept thinking “but is she going to have a baby?” or “is this the moment when she will cry about her mother’s death?” But I also think that these essays are so powerful because they do not turn to any larger cultural touchstones. They explain nothing but themselves and thus they are “needy” “gifts from above.”

Daum is such a good writer that I am pretty sure I would enjoy her thoughts on ANYTHING. If Daum wrote an essay on her feelings about yogurt, Downton Abbey, or even crockery, I know that I would read it eagerly and love it. But there is something about the essays that explain nothing—that simply explore why certain options in life become completely impossible—that I loved the most.

Finally, reading Daum confirmed a nagging suspicion I have had about an emerging form of feminism represented by Daum, Cheryl Strayed and Lena Dunham. I’m going to call it competence feminism. While watching Wild, which I looooved, I kept thinking, “am I this competent?” Could I figure out the proper backpack for this kind of trip? Could I not die? I also have this question with Lena Dunham all the time. Could I write a book of essays while show-running and writing my own tv show, and would I have interesting stories to tell? Ironically this is not a “can I have it all” question. It is a question of whether I have the competence to choose worthwhile projects and complete them. In some ways the selection of projects is actually more important than the follow-through issue.

This was brought to the fore by Daum’s discussion of her decision to become a foster care advocate. I think it is so indicative of how I understand my own gendered power in the world that this idea resonated with me profoundly. I am a very competent person. I am very well educated and I could do a lot of different things. Should I thus put this competent energy towards helping kids who are totally screwed by the system, should I just go write to a public about that system, or should I have my own baby and make sure it never goes into that system? It is a credit to Daum’s embodiment of competence feminism that I completely trust her to do any of these options with total and utter skill. I both relate to the anxiety that this kind of competence entails, because it requires choice, and I relate to the sense of blustering can-do that women like Daum embody.

-D

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One thought on “Ladies of Habit Book Club: Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion

  1. This is so smart, and I like how you fit her into the broader context of Dunham, Strayed, et al.

    As we discussed yesterday, I’m still having a difficult time processing “Difference Maker,” which by the end (the part about Matthew) had absolutely gutted me. I think your idea about competence is so interesting here, but for me it sort of makes the whole thing sadder because even her competence (and I guess by extension the competence of women like us) can do very little for kids like Matthew.

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