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

Reading in 2014 and looking forward to 2015

Boy I sure enjoyed reading with you guys this year. Well, actually the Alice Munro just made me sad, but I feel more intelligent for having read it. So thanks C. and J. for forcing me!

But really I actually enjoyed:

Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl –I guess we haven’t actually talked about this book on LoH. But IRL it is all we talk about.

Emily Gould, Friendship

Women in Clothes

Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell, Attachments –for adults, like the very best Jennifer Wiener

Lev Grossman, The Magicians –A smart homage and critique of C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter fantasy

Nicola Griffith, Hild  –for the lady who is still not over the Mists of Avalon

 

In 2015 I will be reading:

Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion–it’s the next book on the LoH bookclub, so if you want to participate in our exploration of female interiority/exteriority, pick it up!

Meg Wolitizer, Belzhar–it’s Wolitizer’s young adult novel inspired by Plath’s The Bell Jar. I never met a mopey teenager I didn’t like. Sign me up!

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests–Interwar boarding house lesbians!

Akhil Sharma, Family Life–Because you have to read one “serious” novel a year.

C. Sharp–The Elementalists–all the 14 year olds are raving about this new dragons-at-high school book.

Marie Lu’s “Legend” from the “Young Elites” series–I am having my mom preview this dystopian young adult series for me, she says it is pretty good so far.

 

-D

Ladies of Habit Book Club –Fangirl

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Rainbow Rowell is my new favorite YA author. I much prefer her to the much lauded John Green. Like Eleanor & Park, which broke all kinds of YA boundaries by a having non-white protagonist, Fangirl improves the genre of YA while reverently utilizing its best tropes.

Fangirl is also groundbreaking because it focuses on a girl named Cath who writes very successful slash fanfiction and has a robust online life. Young people have entire online identities that I have never seen depicted in literature and I love that Rowell wrestles with the implications of living in both online and offline worlds. Rowell also completely updates the idea of a nerd by showing how “fandom” creates epic communities that link people through conventions, web comics and fan fiction. And maybe most importantly, Rowell actually produces her own fake slash fiction based off a Harry Potter-like story that demonstrates for old people like me what is so essentially awesome about fan fiction. Cath’s fan fiction weaves throughout the book and accomplishes the near impossible feat of actually proving why Cath is the #1 best fan fiction writer of her era. Rowell basically wrote two different books in tandem, and both are exceptional.

Finally, this is a bad ass teen romance. I squealed audibly when Cath got some action. But following the lead of slash fiction, Rowell plays with the idea of putting the romance between unlikely lovers front and center and not waiting until the last chapter to deliver the make outs.

 

-D

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