Look. No, Don’t Look: My Book Cover, the Angel in the House, and Me

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A year ago, when my editor at Tin House Books first asked whether I had any suggestions for the cover of my second novel, The Virgins, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew what I didn’t want. I tend to dislike covers that are too literal, I told him, and I think that abstraction is often a wonderful choice for fiction. My novel focuses on three teenagers at an East Coast boarding school, two of them in a complex, sexually charged relationship, and a third who observes them obsessively from a distance and tells their story. I joked: “Just promise me that it won’t be of two young people lying together in soft focus in a field. That would really depress me.”

So I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw what Tin House Books was proposing for The Virgins. Admittedly, it wasn’t two young people lying together in a field. It wasn’t in soft focus. But there was a photograph of a young girl lying languidly on her side. In a field.

That wasn’t all. She had her hand on her crotch.

Let me back up a minute. I had plenty of positive reactions to the cover. Its composition was elegant and intriguing; I loved the softness of the girl and her floral dress against the bolder geometries of the cutout circle and the rectangle of the book itself. I loved the vintage-y, dusky green jacket color. I loved the retro feel.  

I didn’t like where the girl’s hand was lying. Specifically: I couldn’t get past the way my eye was drawn straight to the spot between her legs, smack in the middle of both the photo and the cover.

Why, though, I had to ask myself, did I have such a strong reaction? My novel is about many things, but one of those things is certainly sex. The Virgins contains numerous explicitly sexual scenes. Body parts are called by straightforward names. It wasn’t as if Tin House Books was trying to grab stray eyeballs at any cost, relevance be damned. And I did find something quite compelling in the image of the girl that couldn’t be reduced to titillation. So what exactly was my objection?

There were my kids, of course. I’d so been looking forward to walking into a bookstore with them and seeing copies of my novel on a table. My kids aren’t exactly kids anymore. They are 16 and 15 years old, just about the age of the protagonists in my novel, which is shot through with the acknowledgement that teenagers are deeply sexual creatures. But we all know that even grown men and women find it seriously icky to associate their parents with sexuality. How would my son and daughter feel about the fact that — in my gloomiest judgment — Mom’s new novel looked like soft porn? I had somehow believed that for my children to know what was in my book, they would have to open it. They would have to read it, page after page. This would necessitate an act of will, which they would probably commit only if they felt really ready. I hadn’t stopped to consider that a cover image could fly right under the radar of their will, entering them and exploding its meanings within them without their full assent.

After the kids, came the worries about in-laws. Neighbors. Former teachers. That’s when I began to see that my unease wasn’t really, or wasn’t only, about the cover. It was about the way the cover advertised what was in my book and gave a taste of its sometimes solipsistic and voyeuristic eroticism. The sexuality in The Virgins has many different meanings and implications, some of them contradictory. Sometimes it is an attempt to express or forge love and affection; sometimes it is exhibitionistic, a performance; sometimes it is desperate or aggressive or, as the proposed cover suggested, self-pleasuring. If anything, the cover perfectly captured the overdetermined, shifting nature of sex in the novel. And there lay the problem. It hit me that the cover I’d hoped for, though I’d never been able to create a distinct picture of it, was really a cover that would have covered up, like the brown-paper wrappings that mask the dirty books and magazines at newsstands. If the cover accurately expressed the feel and content of the novel, and the cover embarrassed me, what did that say about my relationship to my work? And had I really never pictured what it would be like to have people read The Virgins?

Apparently not. When I was typing alone in my room, it felt entirely natural to write about sex, which has always seemed to me a great and rich subject. None of the scenes I wrote troubled or embarrassed me at the time. But now, the whole endeavor felt horribly intimate. Aviva Rossner, my female protagonist, is not me, even if I gave her my hometown and my departure for boarding school at age 16, but the sex in The Virgins clearly comes from my own, personal brain — whose else’s could it have been? Would readers find that sex — and therefore me — laughable, sick, or otherwise distasteful? Years ago, I published a long, meditative essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review about breastfeeding in which I got pretty specific about body parts as well as the spiritual and physical yearnings that breastfeeding aroused in me. A neighborhood acquaintance who happened upon the piece online told me with a frown that she “couldn’t believe” I would “put that out there.” Was I ready to be revealed to her and others as the author of a novel sprinkled with the words “cock” and “cunt?” 

I was in college when I first came across Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum, in her essay “Professions for Women” from the collection Women and Writing, that writers must kill the Angel in the House. By the Angel, Woolf meant the female — more specifically, the mother and wife — whose role in life was to be the gracious hostess-cook-and-mender, smoother-over of family tensions, and graceful supporter of the endeavors of husband and (male) children. Woolf had to kill the Angel, she said, because its top priority is self-suppression and conciliation, while to write one has to display “what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.”

My reaction at the time was: Doesn’t apply to me. It was understandable that Woolf, born in 1882, had been intimidated by the Angel ideal, prominent in Victorian poetry and sentimental novels, but to me that ideal was absurd. I was 19; it was the early 1980s. The second wave of feminism had transformed the culture, and women and niceness no longer necessarily went together. There were women on campus with shaved heads or green, spiked hair; there were rugged women athletes and pro-porn activists; the era’s patron saint was Madonna. 

But time — 20, 30 years — went by, and I went from being a student to a single working woman to a married working woman to a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. Those changes in status, I saw, had changed me. Motherhood in particular gave me an appreciation for the value of “nice” — patience, softness, nurture, and, yes, self-sacrifice. Living in a small, tight-knit community made me want to be seen as agreeable and a good neighbor. I liked to think I in fact was patient, nurturing, agreeable, and a good neighbor. I’d spent a couple of decades building up my kinder, gentler persona, while at the same time daily sitting down to my computer to write about sex and/or people who thought and did things that were sometimes very peculiar or ugly. I had managed for a long time to keep these two sides of my life from having much to do with each other. My first novel, about an antisocial man with severely obsessive-compulsive habits, must have tipped off my neighbors that I was thinking about more all day than feeding the kids and folding the laundry, or even the local school board elections. But in part because the novel was published by a very small press and sold in limited quantities, I was able to continue to be the woman in the red-and-white house who’d written, well, something or other.      

Woolf wrote that “when I came to write I encountered her [the Angel] with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page…” I suppose I should be grateful that my Angel cast her shadow not during composition, but during the strange limbo between completion and publication. Surely this is cultural progress. Yet I’m startled at how relevant Woolf’s words remain, despite the example of so many women writers who in past years have opened up the possibilities for writing about sex. After Woolf (who never did write much directly about women’s bodies), there were Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Edna O’Brien, and Erica Jong, among many others. In recent months, Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More, and Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, have made waves for their powerful depictions of women and desire. My reticence, my fear of departing from the Angel ideal, feels almost silly in light of such examples. But the Angel ideal must run very deep in many of us, not excluding those who in our youth were smugly convinced we were immune to it.       

I want to be clear that I am in no way mocking or belittling the Angel ideal. In fact I have a great respect for it. It’s now clear to me now that Woolf wasn’t mocking the Angel either. When I reread “Professions for Women” recently, I discovered that I had seriously misremembered it. I’d recalled that Woolf put her hands around the Angel’s neck and strangled her. In fact she simply says that she flung her inkpot at her. We don’t even hear the thud of impact. Yet Woolf otherwise uses the strongest possible language, saying that “the struggle was severe,” that “had I not killed her she would have killed me,” that, left to live, the Angel “would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” I suspect that Woolf couldn’t bring herself to be graphic about the imagined killing because the Angel is, in fact, an angel and not a devil. Even Virginia Woolf saw the beautiful side of the ideal; she lovingly embodied it in the vivid Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse. I can’t read that novel without wanting to be Mrs. Ramsay — calm and competent, beloved, the arranger of marriages, the felt center of the family — far more than I want to be Lily Briscoe, the novel’s solitary, fretful artist. There is a place and a role for the Angel in the House, even if her perfections are unattainable, and I feel unapologetic about spending good part of my adult life aiming to be more like her.

But, like Woolf, I also sit down each day and try to tell what I “think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.” Thanks to her and others, I can have it both ways, because, in the 21st century, the Angel need not be quite so ethereal and self-denying, and the public has a far greater tolerance — not to say appetite — for the sexually frank. There will always be neighbors ready to make thoughtless comments, or people who consider a frank book to be smut, but I don’t risk public ostracism of the sort Edna O’Brien details in her new memoir, Country Girl, or (as far as I know) divorce.

After admitting to some of the handwringing detailed above, I told my Tin House editor that I was fine with the proposed cover, but of course it wasn’t all Zen from there on. That became evident when the image was finalized and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. Not being all that Facebook savvy, I didn’t realize that this meant my new cover would pop up in the News Feeds of my however many Facebook Friends. All of a sudden people were “liking” the cover and commenting on it left and right — positive things, but I had peeled back another layer of protection and subterfuge. The same exposed feeling was roused again and again as more people saw the image or heard about the book, but I know now that this was merely the continuation of a kind of coming-out that had started well before, when my agent and I came up with the title The Virgins — no, earlier, when I’d sought out my agent in the first place. I wanted to be published again, after all; that is to say, from the beginning there was a desire to let others once more into my private imaginative world. Like the girl on my cover — like the girl in my story — I was presenting myself to be seen. Look, I said. And later: But don’t look. Look. Don’t look. Look…Does the toggling ever end?

I doubt it.

Making Things Is Hard Work: Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts

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Janet Malcolm understands that artists make things. This may seem a more than obvious truth, but it’s startling how often it is sidelined. A fair amount of writing about artists is premised on the idea that they are better or worse or more generous or brutish or attuned to the subtle vibrations of the universe than the rest of us. Malcolm doesn’t seem to think so, and it’s very refreshing. The profiles in her new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers focus primarily on thing-making – the ideas behind it, the process of it, and the way those things are received by the public – as opposed to personality. Not that personality is missing from her essays; the reader gets a very strong sense of various artistic characters and their mannerisms. But there is little here of sleazy affairs, bad behavior toward family and colleagues, or other familiar fodder of artistic biography. (Often such biography suggests that the artist’s main career is being an asshole, while the paintings or photographs or books happen somehow in his free time.)

Malcolm’s excellent title piece is a good choice to open this collection. Forty-one numbered sections give forty-one different beginnings to a profile of the painter David Salle, written in 1994. It’s amusing to wonder if Malcolm initially meant to write a more traditional profile, and fell into this arrangement through difficulties, or if she always planned this format, for it nicely mimics Salle’s collage approach. Just as Salle’s canvases in which he allows nothing to be original – he works only with previously produced images from magazines, photo files, and art history – transform their individual elements into a new whole, a complex and many-faceted portrait emerges from Malcolm’s fragments. It’s a portrait not only of Salle himself, his aims and his methods, but of a particular generation of artists who came of age in the 1980s and generated tremendous hostility with their jettisoning of high-modernist pieties.

This last theme is revisited in the collection’s other standout essay, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” which uses former Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy as a focal point for a sprawling multi-actor depiction of the 1980s art world. I was initially disappointed when I saw “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” included in this volume, because it has already appeared in Malcolm’s earlier collection The Purloined Clinic. It seemed a bit of a cheat to bring it out again. But rereading it after more than twenty years, I changed my mind. It holds up in every way, treating enduring themes of generational conflict among artists, “high” versus “low” art, arcane versus plainspoken artistic criticism, and the artist as garret-dweller versus the artist as successful brand. I am only sorry that Malcolm did not include some sort of postscript twenty-seven years on. I would very much have liked to hear how the passage of time has altered her impressions of this period in American art, and what she might have to say about the contemporary artists that have in turn been influenced by the figures featured in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.”

But perhaps Malcolm isn’t interested in addenda. The introduction to Forty-One False Starts has been written not by her but by New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, which is too bad. Frazier has little to offer except outlandish praise, which Malcolm may deserve but which is less illuminating than comments from the author herself would have been. Malcolm may feel she’s paradoxically fulfilled the task of an introduction with the last piece in the collection, the intriguingly brief essay “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography.” Malcolm can’t write her planned autobiography, she tells us. It brings on “a feeling of boredom.” Her attempts strike her as “pitiful.” Decades of journalism have destroyed her imagination and her ability to climb out of “the pose of objectivity.” The objective “I,” claims Malcolm, “is unsuited to autobiography.”

This is a beguiling argument, expressed as vividly as Malcolm expresses anything, but I don’t buy it. The objective “I” (or eye) is a boon and not a drawback for the autobiographer. Without it we get solipsism.  In one essay here, Malcolm is quite critical of a memoir by Angela Garnett, the daughter of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Garnett grew up amid the various eccentricities and bohemianisms of Bloomsbury, and did not learn until she was eighteen that Bell’s husband was not in fact her father. While Malcolm sees Garnett’s sour view of her mother and the Bloomsbury circle as something that “cannot be pushed aside,” she also finds Garnett’s memoir “unpleasant” and narrow-minded. She suggests strongly that Garnett lacks the ability to get outside of her own skin, to see the world of her youth with sufficient detachment.

In Malcolm’s case, imperfect objectivity is a selling point — one of her most appealing qualities as a journalist is that she is always present, both explicitly and implicitly, on the page. Her judgements are evident, and so is her process of thought. “What are the properties and qualities of authentic art, as opposed to ersatz art?” she asks herself, and us, in “Forty-One False Starts.” David Salle is “an acutely intelligent, reserved, and depressed man,” she tells us in the same essay. In an essay on Edith Wharton: “There are no bad men in Wharton’s fiction.” Malcolm suggests that Julia Margaret Cameron’s often scoffed-at 19th-century photos of children and housemaids dressed up to illustrate Biblical tableaux are works of merit, and remarks that someone should have dissuaded Irving Penn from mounting an exhibit of (to her, unsuccessful) photographs at the Whitney in 1999.

It is this gentlewomanly but insistent presence that makes Malcolm both instructive and entertaining to read. One never senses that her judgments are gratuitous or off the cuff: she comes off as the most careful of writers, one who takes her time, who rethinks and revises constantly (in the short eulogy “William Shawn,” she singles out her famous New Yorker editor for teaching her that “the slowing down was the important thing”). She may not always convince – her piece on Edith Wharton’s supposed misogyny struck me as quite off-base – but her opinions are always worth considering. She has a particular style of scene-setting that more than anything marks a work of hers as “a Janet Malcolm piece”; for instance, she likes to take a subject’s living space and make it speak for that subject. So Salle’s loft is “sleek, cold, expensive, unused,” while that of formidable critic Rosalind Krauss has “a dark, forceful, willful character. . . . No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked.” Ingrid Sischy’s method of chopping tomatoes comes to speak for her inefficient but tenacious and ultimately successful captaining of her influential publication.

Besides the Salle and Sischy articles, the strongest pieces in Forty-One False Starts are on photographers: Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Thomas Struth, who was recently commissioned to do Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s official portrait. In these diverse essays, a connecting thread is the sense of embattlement and defeat many artists suffer from, their constant struggle to create something that answers to their deepest intuitions of truth or beauty. Malcolm puts it most powerfully in a comment about writers, invoking their endless fight against “the pretentiousness, intellectual shallowness, moral murkiness, and aesthetic limpness that come naturally to the pen.” Then there is the chronic feeling among artists, not paranoid but quite realistic, of being under-appreciated and misunderstood. The confident, ecstatic engagement – or “flow,” to put it in pop-psych terms – that non-artists think of as an everyday part of the artist’s life is very little in evidence here.

Making things is hard work, sometimes exhausting, often leading to failure. Janet Malcolm explores the artist’s temperament as a source that feeds and is adjunct to the making process, rather than as something of separate and greater meaning. Thank goodness. My only significant complaint about Forty-One False Starts is that so few entries in it are recent – meaning that Malcolm, who has produced excellent journalism in other areas in recent years, is not doing enough new writing on art to satisfy her hungry readers.

Running Through the Future, Screaming: Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake

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In my early and mid teens, I was a big reader of genre fiction: murder mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi and horror. Stephen King was a favorite, of course, and so was a novel by Frank de Felitta called Audrey Rose, about an eleven-year-old girl who turns out to be the reincarnation of girl who died in a gruesome car fire. The idea of being haunted from within, of being literally inhabited by the past, was deliciously frightening.

Then, at a new school, I came under the influence of teachers who lobbed some biggies at us: Dostoyevsky, Proust, Mann. Crime and Punishment showed me that the movements of a mind can be as suspenseful as migrating spirits and telekinetic powers, while Proust’s intricate explorations of time revealed less supernatural ways in which the past penetrates the present. Reading these masters, I began to feel, physically, the difference between sentences that merely move the plot along and sentences that are a type of music and a conduit for the exploration of human character. I became a lit snob and didn’t look back. There were only so many years to hit all the high points between Gilgamesh and the latest Alice Munro! Even when I was drawn to the premise or plot of the latest blockbuster, I found I lost interest by page 20. If a book doesn’t hold me sentence by sentence, it doesn’t hold me at all.

Dan Chaon is a writer for those of us who thought we’d left genre behind. Sure, contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Colson Whitehead import genre conventions into their literary fiction, but my guess is that their most avid readers tend to be those who never lost their taste for the detective story, the thriller, or the futuristic drama, stories in which character generally takes a back seat to magic and adventure. You may read Chabon or Lethem for their powers of invention and their remarkable sentences, but you don’t read them for richly nuanced characterization.

In Chaon’s work, character, and character’s corollary, relationship, are primary — and therefore so are the emotions of longing, grief, guilt, and rage. Chaon has long been creating completely realistic scenarios that nevertheless transmit all of the distressing uncanniness of the best supernatural tales. A lover of Austen, Eliot, and James may never warm to Lethem and Co., but is likely enough to fall for Dan Chaon.

Chaon published his first short story collection in 1995, but it was his second, Among the Missing, that put him on the map. It featured bizarre premises, such as a woman who purchases an inflatable doll to replace her dead husband, or a boy who believes that his next-door neighbor is literally himself, grown up. The standout stories created phenomenally convincing worlds in which Chaon’s typically isolated and self-distrusting characters are trapped by an ambivalence and epistemological uncertainty so strong as to become a crippling dread. In “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” a woman is tormented by the pet parrot of her brother-in-law, who has been imprisoned for a series of rapes he says he didn’t commit (but the woman suspects he did). The parrot screams phrases like “Smell my feet!” and “Stupid cunt!” channeling the brother-in-law’s threatening presence into her previously safe-feeling home. In “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By,” a married man, on a visit to his childhood home, is suffocated by the saccharine attentions of the Ormsons, the parents of a boyhood friend who went missing when they were fourteen years old. Mr. and Mrs. Ormson treat the narrator like their substitute son, but their desperate affection feels vampiric. The horrors here are the horrors of ambiguity and unstable identity, of circumstances that feel supernatural even though they are always explainable in rational terms.

The pleasures and the impact continue with Chaon’s new collection, Stay Awake, following two well-received novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. While Stay Awake does not abandon Chaon’s signature themes of identity and isolation, disappearance and memory, it flirts even more openly with the line between the supernatural and the rationalistic – and indeed two of the stories, “The Bees” and “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” have overtly supernatural elements. The situations have grown even more extreme: a couple has a two-headed baby, a woman drowns several of her children, a father comes into his young daughters’ bedroom intending to kill them in their sleep. Two men in two completely different stories fall off of ladders, severing a finger – a coincidence that I must admit I found distracting. Characters desperately want to or do escape their homes, their towns, the marriages they’ve made; they think they’re free of the past until memory or something even more sinister catches up with them. One character watches Soylent Green on late-night TV, and an actor in that horror movie is described as “running through the future, screaming.” The phrase could easily be an alternate title for this book.

Stay Awake also is more preoccupied than Chaon’s earlier collection with the sending and receiving of messages – from departed family members or loved ones, from the universe itself. Chaon has spoken publicly about his wife’s premature death from cancer in 2008, and it’s impossible not to see in these stories a yearning for communication between those who disappear and those who remain. Chaon nicely leaves open the question of whether it’s scarier to imagine that the universe is trying to send us certain messages, or is not.

While there isn’t a single clunker in the entire collection, the standout, for my money, is “Shepherdess,” which is also, I must say, the one most in the Among the Missing vein. No truly gruesome situations here — just a drunken woman who falls rather comically out of a tree — and no supernatural elements. “Shepherdess” is simply about a youngish man, his mother who has just died, and a girlfriend whom he suspects is about to dump him: the old story of human bafflement and longing. Waiting in the hospital while his possibly-ex-girlfriend is getting treated after her fall, the story’s narrator speaks for nearly all of the significant characters in Stay Awake when he says: “I am not really sure how I am supposed to behave in this situation.”

The last story, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” shows Chaon taking major risks with point of view and style, and bringing it off wonderfully. The narrator is dead, albeit only in an alternative universe, and the result is really freaking spooky. In the margin of my copy I scribbled, “I’m sorry I read this at night.” (Beside another story, I wrote: “No!! This is horrible — and very effective.”)

Chaon’s style is tone-perfect but hard to quote; there are no lyrical flights or riffs of obvious brilliance. It mixes brisk, sometimes even brutal, colloquialism with unobtrusively elevated language, and its power is contextual and cumulative. Easiest to cite are the more comic moments, as in the terrific opening to “Shepherdess”:
This girl I’ve been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening. She’s a little drunk — I bought a couple of bottles of hopefully decent Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s on my way over to her house — and now she’s a little drunk and a little belligerent. There is something about me that she doesn’t like, and we’ve been arguing obliquely all evening.
Can people ever change? Are our identities fixed in all the worst ways and fluid in all the worst ways, too? Chaon says: Unclear, and Yes and Yes. The take-away? Be Afraid. The truth is I didn’t just stop reading books like Audrey Rose so long ago because my taste improved. It was also because, the older I got, the more they scared the hell out of me. Scared me beyond pleasure and into real distress. Maybe, upon leaving the cocoon of family and childhood, I discovered that reality was more than enough to be frightened of. Dan Chaon knows that, too, and evokes just enough of the uncanny to bring me back to those old innocent genre thrills, while offering the lit-snob side of me the realism-based subtleties of language and character that I need like bread and water.