Friday, July 31, 2015

A Matriarchy of Feminist Writers

Powell’s Books is an Oregon bookstore chain with an affiliated store in Chicago. Its main store is in Portland. It is New York City’s Strand Bookstore of the West. Each of these stores boasts miles and floors of new and used books. It is easy to spend a whole day in one of these stores, once lured inside. I visited the Portland store once, but spent many happy hours in The Strand.

Powell’s recently posted a promotional ad on its site, “25 Women to read before you die.” The list was prefaced with:

Below you'll find our list — compiled following lively debate by Powell's staff — of 25 women you absolutely must read in your lifetime.

In one sense, singling out a small group of female writers as eminently worthy of attention feels like an injustice to a gender who has published an immeasurable amount of profound, enduring literature. At the same time, recognizing great female authors is an exercise we here at Powell's are dedicated to undertaking again and again — emphatically, enthusiastically, unapologetically.

And so we present to you 25 female writers we admire for their vision, their fearlessness, their originality, and their impact on the literary world and beyond. To get you started, we've included a book recommendation for each author. -

Frankly, with few exceptions, I had never heard of most of these writers until now. I’ve heard of Adrienne Rich because her name keeps popping up in the strangest places. She was a lesbian poet (poetess?). Donna Tartt’s name was recently prominent because she was a signatory of a petition protesting PEN’s award to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. She resembles a near twin of actress Diane Keaton. I read one or two of George Eliot’s novels long, long ago, but can't remember which ones. I was familiar with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but can't recall if I agreed with her or not.

Joan Didion’s name also kept appearing in reviews of other writers’ works, especially when it had something to do with the “New Journalism.”  Margaret Atwood wrote The  Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel the movie version of which I also saw. Mary Shelley is noted for Frankenstein. I tried to read Patricia 8 HIghsmith’s Strangers on a Train, but it was so darkly introspective of the characters that I couldn’t finish it. Alfred Hitchcock stripped away all its darkness to produce a first class suspense movie. Susan Sontag? Her name keeps turning up like a bad penny in a variety of literary venues.

Well, that’s eight women writers I’ve heard of. No, nine. I’ve heard of Virginia Wolfe, too, but was never tempted to read anything she ever wrote. She looked morose and probably wrote that way, too. That leaves sixteen writers I’d not heard of until now. Excuse my hubris, but I think it’s a measure of the distance between the American public and the “serious” literary establishment that these sixteen names are alien to me and to many others, as well.

The reviews of these writers’ books were penned as Powell Books “staff picks.” The reviews are as good as anything one could read in the Washington Post Review of Books, the New York Times, or the New York Review of Books. While they are as flowery and adulatory as those publications’ reviews, they have the dubious virtue of brevity.

Many of these “ladies” are members of PEN, another contemporary, left-leaning, “non-governmental” cultural bulwark, which has hundreds of author members, most of whom one has never heard of. PEN International, however, is affiliated with the United Nations. Enough said. And every one of them has received either a foundation or government grant, or both. Don’t get me started on “25 men to read before you die.”

The late Adrienne Rich wrote lots of rubbish, but, as staffer Jill notes, her lesbian love poetry is what she was noted for. “Adrienne Rich is a feminist giant, and these poems, written in 1974, map and delineate the territory of women's love for women (sexual and otherwise) and the struggle of selfhood, consciousness, history, and art with strength, creativity, and fierce empathy.” The struggle for consciousness must have been especially difficult. After all, if one isn’t conscious, how can one struggle?

Alison Bechdel is a very masculine-looking but also geeky-looking lesbian cartoonist, a kind of distorted distaff Berkeley Breathed, creator of the Bloom County cartoons. She/It/Whatever is probably delighted to be called a “fellow,” and was recently bestowed a “Genius” award by the very loopy MacArthur Foundation, (which I parody in a doppelganger in Honors Due). Her/HIs/Its five-year “fellowship” of $625,000 will be paid in five installments of $125,000 each. All these grants come tax-free.  Bechdel is noted for His/Her/Its cartoon strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.

Here is a note about the MacArthur Foundation (a.k.a., the George L. Sismond Foundation for Social Concerns and Problems in Honors Due):

There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.
I can’t speak for the recipients of the grants who are in science, but the MacArthur Fellows selection committee seems to seek out the ones in the arts, social work, and journalism who are altruistic frauds, charlatans, and about as creative as a chimpanzee fishing for maggots. The twenty-five women on Powell’s list also tend to win National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and other prestigious literary emoluments, are given alleged Medals of Freedom, and are often interviewed by Charlie Rose and other talking heads as though they were the best thing to come along since sliced bread.

Staffer Jill was also wild about Rebecca Solnit.

“Solnit is one of the most eloquent, urgent, and intelligent voices writing nonfiction today; from Men Explain Things to Me to Storming the Gates of Paradise, anything she's written is well worth reading. But her marvelous book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost might be her most poetic, ecstatic work. Field Guide is about the spaces between stability and risk, solitude, and the occasional claustrophobia of ordinary life. With dreamlike transitions, Solnit considers a variety of examples which contrast created wildness with natural wilderness, including Passover, punk music, and suburban youth, the early death of a friend from an overdose, movie-making in the ruins of a mental hospital, and her affair with a hermit in the Southwestern desert. She explores the mysterious without puncturing the mystery, and that is a remarkable achievement indeed.” 

Indeed. There’s another unappetizing invitation to read another unappetizing “women writer.” Rebecca is a “human rights” activist, an environmental activist, and an anti-war activist, and is likely an activist in other realms she disapproves of, such as microwavable meals and the exploitation of silkworms.  In fact, most of Powell’s twenty-five darlings are also anti-something or other, in addition to being goose-stepping feminists.

Solnit has received two NEA fellowships for Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan literary fellowship, and a 2004 Wired Rave Award for writing on the effects of technology on the arts and humanities. In 2010 Utne Reader magazine named Solnit as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World".” Her The Faraway Nearby (2013) was nominated for a National Book Award, and shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.

There’s nothing like a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to keep body and soul together while one is having visions about changing the world.  I wouldn’t know the pleasure.

And, oh, yes, let’s not forget another private contributor to the decline of our culture: the Guggenheim Foundation, also a cultural establishment racketeer. Years ago, when I was living in New York City and struggling to write my second novel (it and the first were never published, I don’t even have copies of them in my “trunk”), I twice applied for a grant from this outfit, unsuccessfully. After my second and final attempt, I obtained a list of the then-current winners, and saw that I was as likely to be awarded a grant by Guggenheim as I’d inherit a million dollars from a long lost aunt.

The performing arts are excluded, although composers, film directors, and choreographers are eligible. The fellowships are not open to students, only to "advanced professionals in mid-career" such as published authors. The fellows may spend the money as they see fit, as the purpose is to give fellows "blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible", but they should also be "substantially free of their regular duties". Applicants are required to submit references as well as a CV and portfolio.

The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications every year. Approximately 220 Fellowships are awarded each year. The size of grant varies and will be adjusted to the needs of Fellows, considering their other resources and the purpose and scope of their plans. The average grant in the 2008 Canada and United States competition was approximately US$43,200.

Not as big a stipend as the MacArthur’s, but these grants, too, come tax-free.

As with the MacArthur Foundation, when it comes to sustaining artists and writers and other denizens of the humanities, the Guggenheim selection committee seems hunt for the fringe candidates, the nominally or least commercially successful, and the most disturbed, or not all there. Many of them have also been MacArthur Fellows.

I have never been anyone’s “Fellow.” Not even an Ayn Rand Institute Fellow. A correspondent objected to the fact that Ayn Rand was left out of that list of women to read before anyone dies, wrote Powell’s, and got this brush-off reply from Jennifer Cotner:

“Thank you for writing to Powell’s Books. We considered many important and influential women writers for the 25 Women to Read list and it was extremely hard to narrow the list down to just 25, but we created the list based on our staff’s votes. We realize there are far more than 25 important female writers of our time and that our list is by no means exhaustive. We appreciate your thoughts and I will be sure to share them with our team…. We started with a list of roughly 100 women authors, and both Ayn Rand and Agatha Christie were on there. Thank you for your interest in Powell’s 25 Women to Read promotion.”

Balderdash! Given the puffed up tripe that the staffers adored and drooled over, Ayn Rand was never debated or on the long list of women writers likely to influence the world. Powell’s staffers probably use Rand’s name to put a hex or a voodoo curse on people they don’t like.

I’m sure they would never like me. I’m not Establishment-worthy. Thank heaven. No Pulitzers or
Man Booker prizes for me. I like to be able to choose the company I keep.


GDW said...

They left out Lois Cook, author of The Gallant Gallstone. Oh, wait...

Linda P said...

I recently tried to sell some of my books to Strand. I strongly suspect (but cannot prove) that their decision to buy or not buy books is sometimes informed by ideology. For example, they didn't want any David Horowitz books.

It seems to me that in order to work there one must have tattoos, body piercings and a partially shaved head. And those are the women.

Jim said...

Jane Jacobs is brilliant, a first-hander, and one of my favorite authors. See Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Economy of Cities.