A confession: the Guardian has repeatedly solicited pieces from me. It never works out. Journalism requires faithful adherence to formats, and I can’t bring myself to play the conformist for a paper on the left. It doesn’t seem like it ought to be necessary in the more perfect world that The Guardian still represents to me, even now, after having called me “The Cuckoo” in a headline because I compared myself to a cuckoo clock. I said I’m a primitive machine that speaks its piece when certain gears line up, and they called me insane and/or a promiscuous brood parasite, born cruel. I work hard on my pieces for them, most recently “My Writing Day,” included at the conclusion of this piece in its enormity. I made it (a) way too long and (b) not about my writing day.
Likewise, assigned a prestigious “The Greats” profile by T magazine, I couched my assent in terms that led the offer to be retracted. The open-ended assignment from Oprah’s sex issue: don’t even ask. (Aren’t her readers married? What could I possibly know about their husbands—a.k.a. “sex”—that they don’t? My unfortunate answer was to dissect the “little in the middle” caveat from “Baby Got Back.”) Esquire “loved” my scathing indictment of the garment industry for their fall fashion issue, but not enough to print it. The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s: yes, they laid out the welcome mats, and no, I didn’t raise the door latches. I had heard that their writers work hard for what sounds like a lot of money but isn’t, when you add up the hours. That’s so not my scene.
The Guardian even went so far as to commission a piece of any length on the topic of my choice. I wrote an essay about my reaction to reading Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, and I never turned it in.
Think about it: I could have put the last rhetorical nail in the coffin of global warming, or at least in the Montenegrin government’s plan to turn the Ulcinj nature reserve into a golf course, and instead I celebrated The Golden Notebook. Every time anybody asks me for anything, I ramble on about The Golden Notebook. This is surely an even more effective route to being labeled a crank than harping on the hydrogeology of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (I’ve learned that if you spend thirty seconds telling someone about the hydrogeology of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he remembers it as ten minutes.) Perhaps soon the requests will stop forever.
I admit, this is whining on a high level. But I need to get Doris Lessing out of my system if I’m ever going to publish anywhere but n+1, the New Republic, and the New York Times. (I don’t want Bosnia and Ulcinj out of my system. They need me!) Let freelancers make rent filling the insatiable maw of periodical journalism; for my thoughts on Lessing, give me the freedom of an obscure literary website. I don’t need a byline. I need an outlet.
For additional emphasis, I will disclose that I am currently under contract to direct a twenty-five-minute documentary about an activist friend in West Philly for Arte TV—my suggestion, but they’re paying me anyway. I am truly not looking for work. So here’s what I wanted to say about Doris Lessing, more or less.
I recently read The Golden Notebook for the first time, and though I can’t vouch for it entirely (it’s rather Sixties; though its problem bits ring true to me, it’s as old as I am and the world has changed), I don’t care. Its effect on me was unprecedented and tangible. Two hundred pages in, I shook off the last remnants of androgyny and openly affirmed my womanhood for the first time.
The tangible part was the purchase of a shawl—one of those wide ones you can drape over your arms and hug yourself with, like a delicate throw blanket—the polar opposite of tailored clothing, which was always my more feminine alternative when circumstances forbade baggy pants and fleece. (I was born too early to find spandex an adequate substitute.) The strange facts: an old friend of mine, a singer-songwriter named Tom Liwa, had invited me to a semi-private concert/garden party at a friend’s house on the north side of Berlin. Before I left home I put on a gauzy dress. On my way through Alexanderplatz, I stopped at a department store to buy the matching shawl.
But it wasn’t just the shawl.
I ALSO BOUGHT A STRAW HAT THAT LOOKED GOOD WITH THE DRESS AND THE SHAWL.
I can see my friends drawing back in an ironic pantomime of awe and skepticism, wanting to see the hat and tell me whether it really goes with the shawl. (It goes. I’m not blind.) Know this, doubters: Lessing made one of the basic functions of feminine existence—accessorizing like a middle-class babe who is never expected to do a lick of real work in her life—seem no longer stupid, pointless, weak, doomed, childlike, inartistic, a ritual overture to the duties of a party guest, nor even a burden imposed from beyond on naturally female nudity. It suddenly appeared a privilege, rather than a form of half-shameful submission. On this day, the mirror did not say to me, “Dude, you’re in drag,” and I did not say to the mirror, “May I help you?” (For decades, my impression of my well-groomed, pulled-together self was of a friendly stranger who hoped to sell me something.) I felt relaxed and cheerful in my becoming new outfit. I had a lovely day. It was a nice party, with a great concert by Tom, and I went home happy.
Of course I’ve owned feminine clothing all my life. But I wore it in public only as a gesture of deference toward my hosts or my audience—never as a way of being myself. For reasons I struggle to comprehend, The Golden Notebook made me feel that a woman can be as valuable as a man, as limitless in her potential, with the same right to drape her body in a lot of extra fabric. (Maybe you know Umberto Eco’s 1976 essay on the emasculating effect of putting on jeans when you’re used to a suit. He should see the jeans they have now.)
Baseline German health insurance is unique in financing two years of psychoanalysis, though they’re quick to assure you that the third year is obligatory and very expensive. Should I take advantage of it to figure this out? I’ve had plenty of therapeutic breakthroughs in my life, if only one in the presence of a therapist. This experience was unique. I found myself, at long last, willed to conform with internalized societal expectations, because society had finally given me a reason. Apparently the problem was never that I wasn’t good enough for society; it was that society wasn’t good enough for me. It had given me many fine works of art, from George Eliot to Claude Levi-Strauss and Sigalit Landau (an artist whose stuff always sticks in my mind), and amazing people to know and love, but not a role model. No woman writer to look up to from where I stand, knowing what I know.
For example, just last week I was reading bits of a latish Virginia Woolf essay to an intellectual friend, and we were both like “WTF is she 17?!” It was just plain dumb. The Prime Directive (never say anything negative about a living writer) permits me to say nothing negative about living writers, but the long-dead Woolf focused on the wrong things and loved tradition blindly. It wasn’t her fault; it was the male abusers and enablers who ran her world. But as Lessing puts it, “What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate.” Having a list of favorite writers that’s very short and almost exclusively male doesn’t make me a sexist. It’s our sexist world that limits women’s experiences, turning even a privileged and urbane Londoner like Woolf into a chronicler of party preparations and boat rides. (I’d give you better examples, but recall the Prime Directive.)
In Lessing I found no softened feminine world to nestle into, no glaring feminine omissions to overlook. I had thought aesthetic distance toward women, laced with tacit disdain (at least I hope it was tacit), was a part of me (a bad part), but it’s not. It’s a part of them—women, with their compulsive self-objectification. I don’t have to make allowances for Lessing’s being a former girl child with all that entails, a provincial autodidact, a lifelong exile from power, or even a woman in love. She doesn’t cut herself any slack; why should I? She comes across as hands-down better than men at what, in her hands, doesn’t seem like a man’s game at all: the 20th-century novel. She wins. It’s her game. She makes every other novelist I know seem shallow.
The best nonfiction postdates the best novels; the novel form now practiced worldwide had its heyday in the 19th century; science and knowledge, in the 20th—starting right about when literary modernism took up foregrounding sound and fragmentation as though words were paint. What a waste. One of my favorite remarks ever made about fiction comes from Keith Gessen in n+1 Number Ten (Fall 2010, p. 135):
Freedom should remind us that if realism was thought to be “in crisis” as an artistic form, this was only in the sense that nuclear weaponry might be said to be in crisis—the dangers are too great. A first-rate intellect should not deploy it, on humanitarian grounds.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, I like my intellectual horizons so close I can touch them. Gessen read The Golden Notebook at the same time I did—ask him whether he wasn’t blown away! Lessing redeploys the realist novel in service of the 20th century’s central intellectual project/sole redeeming feature: making the unconscious conscious with the ultimate aim of universal emancipation for all. She doesn’t name-check that goal, or tenderly satirize it; she shares it, with all the fire and irony of an existentialist philosopher. Her central characters know which systems of thought formed them; they read post-Marxists, post-Freudians, and the newspapers; they rebel against their own values, they embark on self-analysis when their lives stall from maturity into crisis—an event she seems to regard as desirable rather than normal or typical, an unavoidable consequence of thinking while sentient. They suffer nervous breakdowns, the great gift that doesn’t come to us all . . . I can’t tell you how reassuring I find that as I sit alone, far from home, crafting an essay titled “Writing for Rejection.”
Gessen notes that Freedom’s narrative “creates a kind of moral paralysis, this understanding-of-everyone.” Lessing trades understanding-as-sympathy for the other kind: understanding-as-comprehension. Franzen paralyzes readers with the knowledge that evil’s enemies are compromised and its proponents are people, too. Lessing’s characters freeze like bunnies because all their friends who chose to fight died in the first round. Absolute evil is thinkable for Lessing; it’s a position in the system. Should the ideology of exploitation and greed collapse, leaving individual humans more free, there will still be crimes left to punish, but its evil—the way it necessitates crime—will be gone. It won’t need anybody’s tolerance or forgiveness. So go ahead, hate fascist thugs with all your heart. They can change!
The Golden Notebook was published just before I was born into the postwar era, which I vaguely remember. If you weren’t there, you may know its literature: the aesthetics of Mad magazine, with Victorian moralists as foils; the life of men, a sensualist pigsty (Roth, Heller) and that of women, an inauthentic fraud (O’Connor, Tyler, Roth, Heller . . .). By the time I got to college, in the 1980s, straight women were reading Anaïs Nin to gain connoisseurship of the pigsty, and Camille “I Love Dick” Paglia was what passed for a feminist. Androgyny was everywhere in popular culture, from yin-yang and Jung to Prince, Annie Lennox, and six-foot supermodels. Men on the make twanged with “feminine” sensitivity, and it was assumed that every woman contained a man—a confident, well-paid alter ego poised to emerge under the right conditions, such as a junior executive position at a heavily female organization. Academics talked about Madonna all the damn time. It was unbelievable. She was seen as having “artistic control” of her career and an admirably unvarnished lust for money (“Material Girl”).
The gender landscape has changed beyond recognition since then. In a binary world, androgynous men and women weren’t considered sexually ambiguous; ambiguity was a mark of belonging to an elite economic class of pasty-faced, effeminate dweebs who didn’t work with their hands and outdoorsy sportswomen who did. Gender now is a sliding scale, making it a bit hard to conceptualize the dominance of men and the subordination of women as they are defined out of existence . . . or was that the intent? My advice: never trust a theory that tells you you’re free to choose. A theory like that will punish you for your choices.
When I left college in 1985 with a B.A. in philosophy, I was determined to avoid the trap of femininity (“May I help you give me some money?”), yet far from male. I wasn’t from the wrong side of the tracks, but I wasn’t from the right side, either. I was tied to the tracks—a privileged white person/subordinate female raised in a progressive, feminist household in the feudal South. I couldn’t win, because any victory was always, too obviously, someone else’s defeat.
Lessing grew up in Rhodesia, and like me, she drifted into left-wing partisan politics, voting communist (as I did when I lived in Israel in the 1990s) not because she hoped to be ruled by a working-class dictatorship, but for lack of an egalitarian alternative. She called herself a socialist, not a feminist; feminism in the postwar era was too often feminist nationalism, a Women First! movement, and she likes men too much for that. That’s another thing we have in common. She loves them. Not all men, and not forever; she loves a certain sort of thoughtful lefty engaged in an ongoing critique of his own privilege, and she puts a great deal of energy into portraying him before sending him on his way so she (or her character’s character) can write (and maybe get back to sleeping with somebody who’s a better fuck). To be separate (women will never be men; that’s not how dialectics works) and equal and fabulous, you need fabulous separate equals. Where’s the fun in equality if men are swine?
Her elaborately qualified claims of the possibility of true love remind me of Pierre Bourdieu’s controversial postscript to Masculine Domination: controversial because, at the close of a dry and sobering book about the impossibility of escape from our poisoned landscape, he does an about-face and posits love as a “closed and perfectly autarkic world . . . snatched from the icy waters of calculation, violence and self-interest . . . a world of nonviolence.” He even calls the body “a sacred object, excluded from commercial circulation.” I concur, though I suspect our position to be blasphemy in Brooklyn where the lack of welfare benefits for young people routinely drives humanities majors to dabble in sex work. In related news, the US is a dystopian hell. The New York Times picked today—February 13, 2017—to say that the number of incarcerated Americans per 100,000 is “approximately 666.” Bourdieu doesn’t say how many minutes he can keep up the closed and perfectly autarkic world. Lessing implies a half-life of several weeks (very intense weeks, because no truly lovable man has a job). Now, that’s what I call realism!
“Realistic” novels, as Gessen says, generally don’t even try. They want to “work,” to be “good reads,” by manipulating emblems of meaning smoothly in a framework of familiar myth. Many work contemptibly, steering sentimental nodules of canned subjectivity into the cheesiest myths imaginable. Authors hope to inhibit readers’ critical urges entirely for as long as a given book lasts; in essays, interviews, and formats like “My Writing Day,” we hint at the tricks we use to facilitate total audience immersion in our shared dream. Where we do intend readers to exercise critical faculties, those should be directed at something other than the work. They want a trance state, and we want to give it to them. But in that transaction, something vital is lost. That could be the reason so many admirable people read nonfiction instead: You can’t communicate with people you’re trying to hypnotize!
Take Halldor Laxness’s stupendous magnum opus Independent People, surely a gem among novels. It will make you want to strangle your landlord and the Icelandic pony he rode in on, and that’s a fine thing; a shift of power to a larger class of people can transform society in positive ways. But it’s just a story. The 20th-century intellectual project mentioned above doesn’t happen to Laxness. He’s all about injustice. His is not an exhaustive analysis of life, just a political one, and it seems accurate mostly because (face it) you know nothing about Iceland in 1900. I mean, by age 15 you could dismiss Gone with the Wind as bullshit, but Independent People will remain plausible to you forever because it’s about farmers in Iceland, the fishing and banking nation that put “ice” in its name as a warning to would-be farmers. There’s not going to be a meta moment when Laxness asks why you bought a long novel about starving children just so you could watch them starve.
Even before reading Lessing, I felt a certain antagonism toward the pure-storytelling model of fiction. I wrote a novel, Nicotine, as a way of dealing with the constant pressure to consume TV and film, storytelling’s leading vehicles for nearly a century. Earlier critically-minded authors less talented than Lessing (e.g., Brecht) battled the hypnotic imperative with work designed to be super boring and make the suspension of disbelief impossible. I knew my bank balance couldn’t handle that. But to outgun film’s hypnotic arsenal with the written word alone . . .
Then again, why not? Holding an audience’s attention is the ultimate second-rate artistic ambition. Nothing is harder to look away from than a car crash, and nothing is easier to write. As Philip Rieff taught me in the one college course where I learned anything, film and TV (except for Benji the Hunted and the nature documentaries on Bayern 3) are one big car crash. They foster an aesthetics that has nothing to do with beauty or pleasure.
Accordingly, I subtitled Nicotine “a series” rather than “a novel,” and the initial draft was all dialogue and stage directions about things going wrong. Why should I invest in thoughtful descriptive prose for an audience of accident-addicted TV fanatics accustomed to judge character by casting and plot by hourly recaps? Mislaid (my 2015 book) is chockablock with explanations and descriptions, and The Wallcreeper (2014) is one long apology. There are no explanations in Nicotine. It “worked.” See the New York Times: Dwight Garner said he couldn’t put it down. Some public libraries have banned it. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. None of it makes any sense, and it’s not supposed to.
Lessing’s protest takes a different form. (Because of her, my next book will be different.) She tells a story that takes on the authority of nonfiction. She doesn’t write to get it out of her system, but to practice writing it better (witness the five Children of Violence novels, beginning with Martha Quest, that presage The Golden Notebook). By writing about people who think the way educated modern people think and making their thinking explicit, not as a stream of consciousness but as interrelated concepts that influence their cognition, responses, habitations, clothing, social contacts, sexual mores, and so on, Lessing made the suspension of disbelief, for me at least, yield to belief—the feeling that her books are genuine relics of their time and place, amenable to serious study.
Whenever I get onto thin ice trying to write nonfiction like this, I remember how easy it is, when writing fiction, to assign conflicting or nonsensical views to different speakers. But I shouldn’t flatter myself; dialogue isn’t dialectics; iron out the contradictions in a dialogue scene, and you might be left with nothing. Lessing doesn’t fall prey to dialogue; The Golden Notebook is made up of nested works of fiction, all traceable to one woman, and her self-discovery is the novel’s stated goal.
In college I refused to study fiction because no one seemed to care whether its implicit assumptions were true; I preferred philosophy . . . am I still that girl? I guess I am, and finally I’ve found some rigorous realist fiction to love.
P.S. I asked John Clute, by email, if he’d ever met Lessing. He’s a science fiction critic (she wrote a lot of it) and has lived in London since 1968, so it wasn’t a far-fetched question. He said yes, in 1996. She was, he said, as charming as anyone could possibly expect her to be after meeting thousands of people who know her better than she will ever know them.
P.P.S. The Prime Directive’s corollary—plug living authors on the slightest excuse, especially if they have books coming out—prompts me to say that I enjoyed reading Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, which possibly pulls even with Martha Quest. If we both work really hard, maybe in a few years we can form a peer group.
My Writing Day, as rejected by the Guardian
My writing days are indescribably drab. I sit in my apartment, on a mattress on the floor, writing.
Inspiration comes in the form of life’s irreducible contradictions. Non-paradoxical truths can be mapped in three dimensions. Narrative adds the dimension of time, so that truths can coexist and succeed one another. When the central paradox inheres in the narrative in a disquieting way, I’m happy with what I’ve done.
For example, my novel Nicotine has a villain—a guy who wants to be thoroughly bad—but the real harm in the book is done by kindly doctors subjected to the social pressures of the hospice movement.
To come up with stuff like that, I have to spend a lot of time thinking. While thinking, I stare at the wall. Then I write fast, because I know what I want. While falling asleep, I make notes for the next day. I sit bolt upright and turn on the light, careful to record my thoughts in a legible hand.
Now you know how I do my art.
On the other hand, were I to reinterpret “My Writing Day” to mean one of the days that could only have happened since I became the sort of writer whose publicist the Guardian might contact to solicit an account of her creative process, I could tell you about this party I went to the other night. My friends don’t invite me to parties. I drink water, quiz all the academics about their research, and head home at eleven.
Strangers don’t know that. They think I’m a “feral” (Slate) “wild thing” (the New York Times).
This invitation came from art patrons in Berlin who got my email address from a writer they know. Their labyrinthine duplex, where I once had dinner with the kids in the kitchen, sports an iridescent Olafur Eliasson to light the front hall and a marble-paneled fireplace in the penthouse lounge. I told my friend Fred, who aspires to live on the set of Mad Men, “You absolutely must come with me, because you need to see this apartment.”
I put on a sixty-dollar evening gown with sequins and bugle beads (a long dress means you can wear knee-highs and skip the pantyhose), in honor of the holiday season. Fred pimped his jeans with a newish shirt and undershirt. We rode the bus to Mommsenstrasse in Charlottenburg.
We’d been told to come at eight, so we were surprised to find a hundred people there at ten after. It was deafening. Catering staff in little black dresses took our coats and offered us drinks. The other guests wore suits, or floppy mini-dresses with spike-heeled ankle boots, in shades ranging from midnight blue to cerulean. (The dress code: “Come As You Are.”) Fred said he would be leaving immediately.
“Don’t do that!” I said. “You haven’t seen the apartment yet!” I pointed out a potential route to the stairs via a narrow gap between a row of dining tables and the wall.
Fred cleared a path through a thicket of flimsy chairs. But I still managed to trip over something, possibly my dress. Falling down wasn’t easy, what with all the furniture in the way.
It was very clatter-clatter-crash-thump. As I fell, I regarded my glass of lemonade—a thin-walled, delicate orb. Had I dropped it and fallen on the remains, I could have ruined more than my evening. I chose to keep it upright, like an outfielder making a heroic catch. When the final clatter subsided, I lurched to my feet to reassure the crowd. “Didn’t spill a drop!” I proclaimed, holding the glass high.
People stared. There was no music at this party.
Our host’s small son fetched an adhesive bandage for my knee. “You look beautiful,” an arty stranger remarked, possibly charmed by the retro oddity of seeing a woman in a long gown and dancing slippers felled by her own weakness and draped in an armchair, partying like it’s 1899.
When we got to the penthouse, it was as crowded as the rest. A princely being in a black satin cummerbund asked Fred if he was an architect. He fled to the roof terrace, where some Russians were lamenting the scarcity of illegal drugs, and I went back downstairs.
Our host seemed to be looking for me. He set about introducing me to people as “a famous writer.” I took issue with the term “famous.” Beyoncé is famous. Nobel laureate Herta Müller, who was at the party, could be described as not entirely obscure. Fred told me later that the American ambassador also attended, along with four bodyguards and the guy who played Goebbels in Downfall. I wouldn’t call them “famous” either.
I excused myself and got in line for the buffet. A sister ship (older, American, nerdy) introduced me to her husband. Each described the other as famous (“famous curator,” “famous painter”), as if it were a simple job title. Obligingly, they spelled their names.
I started to catch on. The most embarrassing aspect of being introduced as “famous” to people who had never heard of me—its obvious illogic—didn’t trouble them, because “famous” isn’t a descriptive term. It’s a job. Fame is the part of my work I get paid for. It’s the difference between getting your picture in the newspaper and just doing art.
It has advantages. Imagine a dowdy middle-aged woman falling down at an exclusive party with a drink in her hand. Now imagine she’s “a famous writer.” Whole different anecdote.