This year has been a tremendously difficult one for millions across the country as we figured out how to recalibrate our boundaries towards resistance and self-care, protecting ourselves while defending others, and making time for laughter in the midst of a trash-fire administration. For anyone who has been involved with books, this new political landscape has made it difficult for authors, particularly those with debuts, to have a strong opening, as the cultural window kept shuttering around any and everything that did not relate to he-who-shall-not-be-named and a sum total of our political opinions. Yet still, books have prevailed. And they always will, because they are necessary for guidance, transportation, and understanding.
I am proud to say that the majority of the books I’ve read this year was written by women. Immediately in January, I devoured Difficult Women by Roxane Gay within a few days. Homesick for Another World and The Book of Joan were two outlandish works of art that will stay with me for a long time because I feel like despite completing them, there may have been some details that I might have missed, which may or may not give me an entirely new experience while reading them once more. I read All The Lives I Want by my dear friend Alana Massey, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, and Hunger. Then I read works that delved deeply into the intricacies of family politics, such as Goodbye, Vitamin, What We Lose, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and The Rules Do Not Apply. I also read some entertaining debuts, such as Start-Up, Marlena, and Sour Heart, while reading recent works from more established authors, such as Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women and Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up.
There’s still so much I need to finish: Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and the Nasty Women anthology, and so much more. But the aforementioned books are those that I remember so vividly, whether I was taking a voyage to Brooklyn, reading as I waited for my tapas at a Barcelona restaurant, or having quiet time away from family back in New Jersey. I hope that they will do the same for you.
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Cat Marnell and Alana Massey both have new books out, and they are, in their own ways, variants on the genre of “confessional” writing. In an essay for Slate, Katy Waldman unpacks their essential appeal and their arguments, describing how each goes about the task of reinventing the concept of the memoir. You could also read our interview with Massey.
New York-based culture writer Alana Massey summons ghosts and goddesses in her debut collection of essays, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers. It’s the only party where you’ll find Lux Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides sashaying past Fiona Apple and Anjelica Huston. Massey regales readers with essays about these famous women using playful syntax and startling anecdotes to craft a collection both familiar and revelatory.
Massey spoke with The Millions by phone about her book, the allure of celebrity, and a reworked battle cry, “bitches: be crazy.”
The Millions: How do you feel about this thing that you have been obsessing over for the past year or so in different ways?
Alana Massey: I finished it in December 2015. I didn’t look at it really again until maybe last summer…Then I didn’t read the book in full until mid-November when I recorded the audio book. That was when I sat down and didn’t just read it for the first time, but read it for an audience of people in a sound group — who don’t mean to look intimidating [but] they’re staring at you talking your own words.
Next week it comes out and that’s when the bigger kerfuffle around it happens. There are going to be straight reviews that have no emotional connection to it and are going to be completely based on the style and prose and the merits of my authority to tell certain stories this way. I understand that’s going to come but the stuff that has happened so far has been so affirming.
My second book is overdue. I changed the deadline for it. I want so badly to have the full breadth of reactions to the first book [first] to make sure if there are glaring errors in the way I write or approach things, that I can make up for it in the second book. I do believe in feedback. I do believe that writing is a service in certain capacities. Some people write because they have a story inside them and they want to be creative people. They do it for their own artistic expression. Maybe it’s my Protestant blood for hundreds of years but I’m just like, “No. There should be use in it. It should help people. It should have an action item at the end even if that action item is ‘think differently about yourself and others and be kind to women,'” which is a very shortened version of what I hope happens from [this book].
TM: That was sort of my take away with it. This book does tell a lot of different stories. Anything that has a personal element can be a little navel gaze-y. I think that this has an empowering overall message primarily to young women and women who are in their late-20s to mid-30s who grew up with a lot of the book’s subjects. I thought the essay on The Virgin Suicides was really helpful; that story resonated with me too — their obsession with death, the way they were reduced down to plot devices to bring these anonymous men to maturation.
AM: I don’t know if you had this experience of The Virgin Suicides, but I was obsessed with it as a teenager. I wanted to surrender to that narrative of just being a fantasy object in a teenage boy’s mind. Watching the movie later, I realized, “Oh no, I shouldn’t want that. This shouldn’t be written in a dreamy way. This is a tragic, horrible thing these boys are doing — and not in a cute-horrible way. In a really insidious this-is-boys-in bootcamp-for-being-in-the-patriarchy kind of way.”
TM: Why do you think that it is young women are so drawn to these fucked-up characters, be it Lux from The Virgin Suicides or Sylvia Plath — or even Courtney Love? Why do you think we want to find some sort of identity in them? Why do we want to be like that?
AM: I think that so many of us feel like we have as much rage inside us as Courtney Love lets manifest in her life. We think we are the saddest girls in the world when we are sad.
The way that celebrity functions now…they have this exclusive deal with the elements in that they’re special. They’re different. Their skin glows differently. There is just something special and anointed about famous people. I feel like there are people — like the Kardashians or people who get famous of their own volition, like Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid. Justin Bieber started on YouTube. The idea of celebrity used to be that you could never be like these people. I think now it’s more if you just have the right voice trainer and the right tummy tea and you use this makeup, you can absolutely be famous and glamorous and all of these things.
I think there is an impulse inside of us that’s like if I just got angry enough and met the right rock star, I could be Courtney Love. My thing with Lux Lisbon was: I am definitely as sad as her and probably smarter than her. If I just get skinny enough, people will be in love with me the way they’re in love with her — and that was barrier to entry.
The way that people have responded to the book has been interesting in that there’s been multiple reviews that say, “Oh, you know there is definitely some filler in these essays.” I can handle criticism — okay yeah, I know that some are stronger than others. But everyone I talk to is so certain that the essay they like the most is the strongest one. That’s really heartening because it means people who do have those attachments are really gravitating to particular pieces. I think that that’s what’s exciting because what I hope happens is you came for the Britney and Winona but you stuck around for the Dolly Parton and the Anjelica Huston. You came for Amber Rose but you learned a lot about Nicki Minaj. That’s important. I hope the entire universe of it is an opportunity for empathy and forgiveness both of the self and of the celebrities we have punished for things that are not punishable offenses.
TM: I had a couple of different favorite essays. I think that the ultimate favorite was one about the ex-girlfriends. I really, really appreciated the line about, “We like our ex-girlfriends and ex-wives one dimensional. We like them to act alone.” That really does call back to misogyny and the way it demonizes these women. You never hear shit about ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands in the same way that you hear it in the feminine sense. Why do you think that is? Is it just because of misogyny and the patriarchy?
AM: In the same way you hear about how women in the workplace are more likely to spearhead a project and credit their friends, their colleagues. “Oh, it wasn’t all me. These people helped.” I think that happens with women’s relationships, too. They don’t lay 100 percent of the blame on their ex in a way that men do and have been taught is acceptable. I do think that misogyny does have this way it functions socially…I think this happens in the Winona Rider essay. Women are supposed to be characters in a hero narrative rather than themselves.
Because men are so routinely socially rewarded for basic decency that has always been the responsibility of women, they have a skewed sense of what kind of behaviors they are entitled to. When women butt up against those behaviors and say, “No, I’m not going to act this way. I’m going to assert my power.” When we talk about a woman in a breakup, we catch her in her breaking point. We crystallize her in the moment she broke rather than in the long period of time before it got to the point that it got to. We forgive women less frequently.
We believe in the validity of male emotions more than we believe in validity of female emotions. We are a society that doubts women who report their own experiences of what a man was like or what an experience was like. That’s rape culture, too. It functions across numerous variations on how relationships work. Maybe he’s this. He’s a good guy at heart…We make excuses for men left and right, back and forth. It’s really not a courtesy we do to women…
If I was in a relationship and we broke up and I went into my bedroom and cried for a month and didn’t eat but didn’t bother my boyfriend or didn’t talk shit about him…That is like a really unhealthy state of mental health. We don’t call that woman crazy. We call her crazy when she calls out a man for what he did. We don’t call her crazy if they break up and she moves to Paris and doesn’t talk to him. It’s only when she says, “Fuck you. You did a horrible thing. I’m getting back at you. I’m doing a thing. I’m asserting my power. I’m taking your money. I’m taking your land. I’m burning down your house because you have wrecked my life,” that we consider them crazy because they are breaking the mold of we-don’t-talk-about-what-men-do-wrong. We forgive men. We understand masculinity is complicated thing. These women are like, “Nope.” They have crossed this social line that they get punished for. That’s why I view that essay as a battle cry. “Bitches be crazy” should have a colon in it. Go buck wild. Make them afraid that you will fucking tell on them — that you will not go quietly because ill treatment is ill treatment.
TM: You said that you are already halfway through your second book. What’s that about?
AM: I’m working on a reported narrative about the function of emotional language and how it informs gender experiences and perceptions in the workplace and what it could potentially mean for the future of the workplace given today’s demographic.
TM: I think that the sentiment of men just wanting to be loved echoes in All the Lives I Want, as well — speaking to your experiences dancing and with other sex work with these men who seem to want to be cradled. They want this intimacy. It was really interesting because like you had said before, society paints women as being the hyper-emotional ones, the ones that are weeping because they don’t have a boyfriend. But men are the ones who are willing to even shell out money to have these experiences that feign intimacy while women are finding camaraderie with other female friends or other projects. It’s interesting.
AM: We are so used to not getting what we want. We are kind of okay with it. We don’t panic. I don’t want give away everything that is in the upcoming book. Sex work is one of those ones that you have pretend so hard that you’re not doing it for the money to the point that it becomes dangerous. You can make the most money pretending you don’t want the money or you don’t need the money or that, “Oh, it sucks that we met in these circumstances because I would totally be into you — but we met in these circumstances, therefore, you have to keep paying me.” Men really have become horrible about it.
Men are much more likely to believe sex work is not work. They don’t want to believe that loving them is hard. They don’t want to believe that it is laborious to engage with them. They believe their beating hearts are fascinating and that they should fascinate whomever they are fascinated by. They don’t understand how ordinary they are. It’s really dangerous for the person who encounters that person who has to keep up the lie for as long as they can.
They think they’re the first person who ever wanted to connect with you. It’s like, “Dude. look at me. I’m a hot young girl who can clearly string several sentences together. You’re not the first one who thinks they know the real me.” They have such a concept of themselves as special.
The same thing happens in [the essay looking at Lost in Translation,] “Charlotte in Exile.” Guys thought, “Yeah. Bill Murray, what a cool, sexy guy that I want to be.” I’m like. “He’s a horrible husband and father–”
TM: Hasn’t that also been the status quo, too? A lot of the sitcoms that we grew up with in the ’90s starred a blubbering incoherent, overweight, kind-of-old dude married to this hot sharp lady who is just fawning over him.
AM: I mean, The Simpsons. How did Marge Simpson end up with Homer Simpson?
TM: Because a man wrote it.
AM: Yeah. I mean in the same way there’s just so many of these stories that you hear about Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old to play — I think it was Harrison Ford’s wife…It was preposterous…
I think it’s really funny that, as much as I dislike Melania Trump, when she married Donald Trump and they were having a press conference some reporter was like, “Melania, would you be marrying Donald if he didn’t have a ton of money?” Without missing a beat she was like, “Do you think he would be marrying me if I wasn’t exceptionally beautiful?” She was very aware of that. There’s this idea of the gold digger. It keeps coming back to the book where it is like, “Do you think that that old man who came into the strip club and who had been like a sharp business man — made his billions, was involved with the Koch brothers — do you think he went in there thinking that, ‘Maybe these nice girls will think I’m attractive? Maybe we will really connect.’” That was transaction. A billionaire man always has more power then a young single mother. I don’t care how brittle his bones are. He is the person who has power in that dynamic and the optics of it suggest otherwise.
TM: We talked a little bit about how you want women to walk away from reading this book feeling empowered, feeling less alone, feeling that they have been understood. How do you want men to walk away from this book? What do you hope that they take from it?
AM: It’s interesting because I honestly thought men would really hate it. Then I have encountered several men who haven’t…I have been using the word “forgiveness” a lot. I think that self-love has a really high threshold but that self-forgiveness is a more gentle way of being with yourself…When it comes to men, I want them, if they were people who have participated in contributing to the narratives of how we talk about celebrities and how we think celebrities but then also how that has been reflected in their personal lives, to see the body of evidence. When they return to relationships with women, whether those are romantic, friendly, professional, familial, and seeing why women felt a certain way, acted a certain way, and trying to better know the interior lives of women.
The impetus and expectation for women to be doing the introspection on behalf of themselves and on behalf of men is so unfair. I hope this book can be manual for being…Like case studies in here’s why not to tell your girlfriend she could get her body back. Take Britney Spears. Here’s why you shouldn’t be calling an exceptionally angry woman who has been treated poorly crazy. Maybe anger is a rational response to the world…
I think celebrities are our modern-day fables. They don’t just have to be cautionary tales. They can be instructions for better living. We know the stories. I think that right now we use the stories really haphazardly and really poorly when we could be using this really well to make the world more gentle and more empathetic and more rich with the full dimensions of women’s experiences.