I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists — the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam — named beloved, important books and authors. My answer — which I think came as a surprise to most — was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants — English is not their first language — and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over — something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college — relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience — I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe — and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment — because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago — the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill — in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” — when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time — “catchup” reading I’ll call it still — captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo — if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo! — but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female — a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here — four score and a decade later — still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes — social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness — have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays — Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion — for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world –” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment — Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness — inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture — cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility — is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience — those moments when the inward life questions — that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration — collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read — whole-soul read — being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Wikipedia
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
“There are two sound ways for a girl to deal with a young man who is insistent. She can marry him, or she can say ‘No.’” — Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1961
In 1962, a 40-year-old woman published a guide for single girls that shocked a nation (and spawned future memoir-manuals.) The author was Helen Gurley Brown, and the book was Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, Career, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men.
Racy title aside, the simple teal-blue book jacket was far from flashy — if anything, it looked like a secret handbook. But the message inside was loud and clear, and Helen megaphoned it to the world: Single girls had sex, and often with multiple partners before marriage. Why pretend otherwise? “Should a man think you are a virgin?” she asked in one chapter. “I can’t imagine why, if you aren’t. Is he? Is there anything particularly attractive about a thirty-four-year-old virgin?”
Drawing from her years of experience as a penny-pinching bachelorette in Los Angeles, Helen gave single women advice on everything from keeping a budget and finding an apartment to wearing makeup, meeting men, and staging a successful affair — she’d survived plenty of trysts with married men — but she was no longer single herself. She was comfortably married to the editor and movie producer David Brown, who had conjured up the idea for the book in the first place, and her status as Mrs. Brown was the ultimate testament to the fact that her man-trapping tips really worked, at any age.
Though Sex and the Single Girl had no shortage of critics (Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times called it “as tasteless a book as I have read this year”), it was an instant bestseller, generating a multimillion-dollar franchise that included an eponymous movie (starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis); a nationally syndicated column, “Woman Alone,” written by Helen and aimed at single girls; a recorded album called Lessons in Love, which offered gems like “How to Talk to a Man in Bed;” a second book, Sex and the Office; and, of course, a magazine, the new Cosmopolitan, which Helen revamped from a staid general-interest title into a sexy single girl’s bible in 1965.
The original Sex and the Single Girl also inspired countless imitations, among them a cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl (“Guaranteed to do more for the bachelor girl’s social life than long-lash mascara or a new discotheque dress,” it promised), Sex and the Single Man, and Sex and the Single Cat. “A publisher asked me to write a ‘me-too’ book — about sex and the college girl,” Gloria Steinem told me in a recent interview. She declined, but future food critic Gael Greene took on the task of reporting from the real frontlines of the sexual revolution: the nation’s college campuses. Her book, Sex and the College Girl, hit shelves in 1964.
Along with guidebooks for single girls, there were also stern warnings. In 1963, two young, unmarried women were murdered in their apartment on the Upper East Side; one had been a Newsweek copy girl, the other a teacher. The high-profile double homicide was dubbed the Career Girl Murders, and it terrified thousands of single, working girls across New York City. It also inspired a morose 125-page safety manual, Career Girl, Watch Your Step!, written by Max Wylie, the father of one of the victims, who cautioned the Sex and the Single Girl set about the dangers of dating and living alone in the big city.
There’s no doubt that Helen Gurley Brown deserves credit for ushering in the sexual revolution and singles culture, but she was hardly the first woman to tackle writing a cheeky, charming guide for bachelorettes. Five decades earlier, in 1909, Helen Rowland, a noted satirist who penned biting aphorisms about the battle of the sexes for the New York World newspaper, collected her columns into an illustrated book of epigrams titled Reflections of a Bachelor Girl. (She began the column after the demise of the first of her three marriages.) Rowland followed up with more books, including A Guide to Men, published in 1922 — the era of the flapper, with her short skirts, bobbed hair, loose morals, and penchant for cigarettes and petting parties.
That year, Helen Gurley Brown was born in the small town of Green Forest, Ark. She grew up during the Great Depression, when wives and widows flooded the workforce, taking on jobs once meant for their husbands. Necessity paved the way for a new breed of woman who was capable of taking care of herself, and didn’t have to rely on a man — and popular culture reflected her newfound independence. In the summer of 1936, when Helen was 14, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind topped the bestseller lists, as the nation fell in love with a flawed and fiercely determined heroine named Scarlett O’Hara. The same year, a Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis published a self-help guide for single women titled Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
Who exactly was this Extra Woman, or E.W., as The New York Times later dubbed her? She was a woman who earned her own money and liked to spend it, and to reach her, Hillis’s publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, ventured far beyond the bookstore to places where single women congregated. “They sent their salesmen to department stores around the country with a multi-page memo that outlined how to pair quotations from the book with items from the store, like negligees and pajamas, compact furniture, and cosmetics,” says Joanna Scutts, who is currently working on a book about Hillis, The Extra Woman. “Hillis was resolutely a believer in material pleasure, beautiful objects, and the comforts of surrounding yourself with the things you loved.” (Three decades later, Helen Gurley Brown’s publicity team pitched Sex and the Single Girl to boutiques, singles resorts, and secretarial schools. In L.A., one bookstore’s window display featured the guide, opened to the chapter “How to Be Sexy,” paired with a black bikini.)
In many ways, Hillis’s books and their offbeat promotion offered a valuable blueprint for Helen Gurley Brown, with one major exception: Live Alone and Like It spoke primarily to a savvy, city-dwelling reader, while Sex and the Single Girl addressed a far simpler creature. It was meant for the plain, small-town girl — or “mouseburger,” to use Helen’s famous coinage — who might have aspired to be more like Hillis’s sophisticated reader, or Hillis herself, only with a much more active sex life. (A minister’s daughter from Brooklyn, Hillis had pragmatic attitudes about sex but didn’t obsess over it, or men, the way Helen did.)
Still, despite their differences, both authors recognized that the so-called problems faced by single women could actually be assets, even enviable luxuries. Long before Helen declared the working single woman as “the newest glamour girl of our time,” Hillis addressed her with a cut-the-bullshit approach. Might as well face it: “An extra woman is a problem…Extra women mean extra expense, extra dinner-partners, extra bridge opponents, and, all too often, extra sympathy,” she wryly observed in her first chapter, “Solitary Refinement.” And yet, the right attitude could turn it all around.
Being a “live-aloner” had its perks: namely, total freedom. Without a man of the house to serve, a woman could tend to herself, breakfasting in bed, basking in her nightly beauty ritual, and best of all, she could have her own bathroom, “unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings,” Hillis wrote. Like a witty, worldly aunt, Hillis doled out bon mots on other subjects like decorating a modern apartment for one, mixing a classic Manhattan, and the importance of having a chic bedroom wardrobe. “We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown,” she noted, “nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.”
Hillis also leveled with the legions of single women about the pros and cons of sex outside of marriage, and having an affair. “Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty,” she wrote. “Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third party and can take all that you will have to take — take it silently, with dignity, with a little humor, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth — perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t.”
In 1937, Hillis published Orchids on Your Budget, predating Helen Gurley Brown’s practical financial advice for single girls, followed by Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner — a recipe book that might have inspired Helen’s later Single Girl’s Cookbook — and New York Fair or No Fair, a travel guide for women headed to the 1939 World’s Fair. (The same year, at the age of 49, Hillis shocked her readers by marrying Thomas H. Roulston, a wealthy widower who owned a chain of grocery stores, and moving to Long Island.)
Most of these single-girl guides have gone the way of the chastity belt, but in the spirit of HGB, here are some of the wittiest and weirdest, along with some choice advice — take it or leave it.
Title: The Young Lady’s Friend (1880)
Written By: Mrs. H.O. Ward, compiler of “Sensible Etiquette”
Written For: Proper young ladies of America
On Keeping Cool: “The less your mind dwells upon lovers and matrimony, the more agreeable and profitable will be your intercourse with gentlemen.”
Title: Advice to Young Ladies from The London Journal of 1855 and 1862 (published in 1933)
Selected By: R.D., from the weekly columns of “Notice to Correspondents”
Written For: Proper young ladies of England
On Coquetry: “Flirting is heartless and unprincipled; it leads to callousness in other respects, sullies the female mind, provokes retaliation, and is sure to end in heart-burnings, sorrows, and too frequently disgrace.”
Title: Reflections of a Bachelor Girl (1909)
Written By: Helen Rowland, columnist for the New York World who became known as “the female Bernard Shaw”
Written For: Men and women wanting a good laugh
On the Importance of Taking the Long View Before Taking a Vow: “Before marrying a man, ask yourself if you could love him if he lost his front hair, went without a collar, smoked an old pipe, and wore a ready-made suit; all of these things are likely to happen.”
Title: Live Alone and Like It (1936)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis, Vogue editor
Written For: Single career girls in the city
On Ladies and Liquor: “There is no simpler way of entertaining successfully than having a cocktail party, and there is no surer way of making a casual guest have a good time, than serving a highball. For breaking ice, mixing strangers, and increasing popularity, alcohol is still unrivaled.”
Title: Orchids on Your Budget (1937)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis
Written For: Style-conscious live-aloners with limited funds
On Fashion Sense: “A cheap dress worn with good accessories will fool more people than an expensive dress worn with cheap accessories.”
Title: Sex and the Single Girl (1962)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Small-town girls thinking of moving to the big city for romance and recognition
On How to Meet a Man: “Carry a controversial book at all times — like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
Title: Career Girl, Watch Your Step! (1964)
Written By: Max Wylie, father of career-girl murder victim Janice Wylie
Written For: The Sex and the Single Girl set
On Bachelorettes in the Big City: “Don’t think of yourself as being safe. Think of yourself as being in danger all the time. This will make you wary. There is no better protection than an awareness of the dangers that might engulf you.”
Title: Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965)
Written By: Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry, college roommates-turned-cookbook authors
Written For: Unmarried women looking for the fastest way to a man’s heart
On Cooking for the Man in a Brooks Brothers Suit: “If you can cook without tripping over it, by all means wear your chicest hostess skirt. This is known as packaging the product.”
Title: Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Cosmo Girls
On Ending the Affair: “When it comes to that dinner you know in your heart is to be the longed-for (on your part) last one, you must plan as wickedly as for a lovers’ feast. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Through careful observation of your companion through the months or years you’ll know everything he actively hates — what gives him tummy cramps or causes him to break out. These are the foods you carefully prepare and feed him tonight.” Suggested dishes: Ceviche, Lamb Kidneys and Bacon, Refritos with Cheese.
“Why is Helen Gurley Brown trending?” a confused man in San Francisco recently tweeted. The answer is Lena Dunham, who has put HGB back in the spotlight again, with the publication of her memoir/self-help manual, Not That Kind of Girl.
Anyone who has read or simply read about Dunham’s book probably knows that she was inspired by Brown’s 1982 bestseller, Having It All, which she bought for 65 cents at a thrift store in Ohio, thinking it would be “a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies.”
As it happened, the book became an unlikely lifeline. A student at Oberlin at the time, Lena inhaled Helen’s recipes for success (and probably a fair amount of dust), with some reservations. “Most of her advice . . . is absolutely bananas,” Dunham writes in her introduction to Not That Kind of Girl. “But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.”
As someone who has been working on a book about Helen Gurley Brown for the past few years, I’m thrilled to see her name in the press again, and I think it’s great that Dunham is tipping her hat to Brown in her own memoir, which features a similar structure as Having It All (both books are divided into themed sections), a photo of the author in a classic ’80s power pose, and the line, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all.”
I, too, own a copy of Having It All. When I read Dunham’s description of her thrift-store find, which came with a stranger’s inscription, I smiled in recognition . . . My pre-loved copy of the book came via Amazon, with a slight scent of mildew, dog-eared pages, and an ancient, discolored photograph that fell out as soon as I opened it. I do not know the mustached, mostly naked, overly tanned man pictured in the photo. I only know that whoever took the photo used too much flash and must have thought that her boyfriend/lover looked pretty damn sexy posing in a bathroom doorway wearing his tightest black banana-hammock with brown cowboy boots and a thin gold chain. As long as I own this copy of Having It All, he will continue to live among its pages, along with some of Helen Gurley Brown’s best and worst advice. They simply belong together.
Not That Kind of Girl and Having It All belong together, too, in the relatively small canon of cheeky memoir/self-help-books-written-for-women-by-women. I understand why, in press interviews and public talks, Dunham keeps referencing Brown’s guide for attracting “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.”
Granted, Dunham hardly started with nothing: The daughter of artists, she grew up in Soho and attended the prestigious Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn, before studying creative writing at Oberlin. Brown’s childhood was far less comfy. Born in the tiny town of Green Forest, Arkansas, she was just a girl when her father died in an elevator accident, forcing her grieving mother to uproot the family to Los Angeles, where Helen’s older sister was diagnosed with polio. I’m guessing that Dunham probably could afford not to work. Helen didn’t have a choice. She worked her way through 17 secretarial jobs before landing the career (and the husband) of her dreams.
The story of Helen Gurley Brown is ultimately one about the power of will, and I understand why, as a college student, Dunham gravitated toward Helen’s belief that, as the Girls creator put it, “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” (See: Having It All, Chapter II, “How to ‘Mouseburger’ Your Way to the Top.”)
But I still think that Lena is spotlighting the wrong book.
The book that she should be talking about—that we all should be talking about, at least those of us who are talking about Lena Dunham and Helen Gurley Brown—is Sex and the Single Girl, which came out 20 years before Having It All, and changed the way people talked about sex (nice girls had premarital sex, too!), paving the way for shows like Sex and the City and Girls. (Props to Marisa Meltzer who made the connection at Yahoo! Style.)
Life isn’t a college syllabus, and it’s not Dunham’s job to talk about a book that didn’t speak to her, or that she may not have read yet. But from a critical perspective, talking about Having It All without mentioning Sex and the Single Girl is kind of like talking about How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong’s follow-up to Fear of Flying, without mentioning Fear of Flying.
Brown published Having It All when she was 60. She published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40 and much closer to her experiences as a single woman working in advertising and dating around. She married the Hollywood producer David Brown at 37, considered spinster-age at the time. “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor . . . But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband,” she began, before launching into her if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too spiel for how to lead a “rich, full life” as a single woman.
“Here is what it doesn’t take. Great beauty,” she continued. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
Sex and the Single Girl became an instant bestseller, with chapters giving women advice on where to meet men and how to have an affair from beginning to end. Yes, some of the advice was beyond ridiculous. Want to get a man’s attention? “Paint your car hot orange . . . or shocking pink.” Better yet: “Carry a controversial book at all times—like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
But Brown also dispensed practical, often wise advice to her readers on how to start a career, how to save money, how to find an apartment, and how to embrace their own sexuality, flaws and all. “What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” she wrote in a chapter called “How to Be Sexy.” “Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman . . . with all the functions of a woman . . . Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.”
What a concept! It’s hard to say what Helen Gurley Brown would have made of Lena Dunham and her nude scenes in Girls—in another chapter, she told readers that if they wanted to find a man, “Your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat”—but their message of self-acceptance is similar.
Like so many books that delve into the subject of sex and have been written by women, Brown’s book was a sensation and a shock. After reading the manuscript, her own mother was appalled and recommended putting off publication. Would her book get a lot of publicity? Sure, she said, but then again so would rape or murder!*
In The San Francisco Examiner, one furious male reader called Helen Gurley Brown’s message in Sex and the Single Girl “a libel against womanhood” that threatened the chastity of the nation’s girls. “The breaking down of moral values . . . which this book indirectly advocates is leading Western civilization into a decline,” he fumed.
Fifty years later, I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, at the age of 34. I know it was groundbreaking at the time, but the chapters about sex seemed tame; hardly shocking to someone who was still wearing skorts and Scrunchies when Madonna writhed on a bed in a cone bra and sang about being touched for the very first time.
Admittedly, I had a similar reaction when I read Fear of Flying, a book that I now count among my favorites of all time. The “zipless fuck” doesn’t seem quite so scandalous when your mother keeps asking you if you’ve “gotten to that part yet.”
Everyone said these books were about sex, and they were, but they are also about so much more. Sex and the Single Girl, Fear of Flying, Girls . . . as different as these works are in many ways, they are all about young women learning how to be alone with themselves, how to develop themselves, and how to take care of themselves; hard and often harrowing work that, preferably, happens before finding a partner. “When you accept yourself, with all your foibles, you will be able to accept other people too,” Brown wrote. “And you and they will be happier to be near you.”
That’s the message that Dunham is trying to get across, too, and I think she succeeds. I’ve read more than a few reviews in which critics repeat some version of the line, “I read Lena Dunham’s new book. I learned nothing about Lena Dunham,” suggesting that she is putting on a persona that has little in common with the “real” Lena. Really? I felt I learned so much about her, but also about her family, her fears. I was particularly moved by Dunham’s portrait of her younger sister Grace, who used to crawl into her bed as a small child and had “the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.” (When Dunham was writing her book, Grace was graduating college. “She’s emerged as a surprising, strange adult,” Lena says, sounding more like her mother than her sister.)
Reading about her penchant for “bed-sharing” that continued into college, I remembered girls I knew in college who went to similar lengths to avoid being alone with themselves. Her experiences as a girl growing into a woman, despite being so different from mine, were also deeply familiar. I found her memoir to be personal and unflinching, funny and at times profound. But not everyone did.
In The Guardian, book critic Hadley Freeman suggested that Dunham’s memoir be filed in a new genre of writing called “clit lit,” “books by young women writing about what is usually described as ‘all their flaws,’ which means everything that happens in their vaginas, from masturbation to menstruation, from sex to cystitis,” writes Freeman, who, at a certain point, began counting the number of times that Dunham uses the word “vagina.” She stopped when she reached 25.“ There’s sexual honesty, and then there’s just sticking your head up your vagina.”
Maybe Freeman is just trying to be funny, I don’t know. I do know that Dunham uses the word “vagina” when describing the pain she felt after being raped by a guy she knew in college and before going to see her mother’s doctor, who, upon examining her, acknowledged that, “It must have been pretty rough.”
Dunham also uses the words “vagina” and “uterus” liberally in a chapter recounting the severe stinging sensation in her crotch that sent her to her gynecologist, who diagnosed her with classic endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus that can lead to problems conceiving children. “I’m afraid that I’m infertile,” she says later in the book.
Are women writers not supposed to use the word “vagina” when discussing such subjects? Or is the problem simply discussing the subjects themselves? As for the writer at New York’s “Vulture” who, weighing in on Hannah Horvath’s nakedness on Girls, said not to apply the word “brave” to Dunham because, as he put it, “she’s not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice—attention,” maybe you should read the chapter in Dunham’s book called “Barry.” (Also, forgetting Dunham for a second, how could you assume to know this kind of personal history about anyone? )
A lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape.” (In an early draft of Sex and the Office*, Brown’s 1964 sequel to Sex and the Single Girl, she included a vignette called “Rape—More or Less,” recounting one woman’s experience of being attacked by a man she knew from work. The term “date rape” didn’t exist yet, and the story never made it to her final draft.) And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers.
“I’m an unreliable narrator,” Lena writes, before recounting the story of her rape, an episode that she told differently earlier in the book.
Like people, stories change. It doesn’t mean that they’re not true. Any memoir is an exercise in reconstructing memory. Every narrator is flawed. It’s not that Dunham is more flawed than anyone else. As was the case with Helen Gurley Brown, she is just more willing to look at her flaws, to write about them—and in the process, to rewrite herself.
Like stories, people change. It doesn’t mean they’re “not real,” a popular accusation that critics have been hurling at Dunham as of late.
“How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?” New Statesmen critic Helen Lewis asked recently. “Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill . . . Reading this book, you realise that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.”
This just seems goofy to me. We all have our public/private faces. To some degree, we are all performers in the daily dramas of our own lives. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories. We are all editors who choose which truths to reveal, and which to tweak or cut out altogether.
I’ve been remembering a story about Helen’s teenage cousin, Lou, who visited her in the Pacific Palisades shortly after Sex and the Single Girl came out. When Lou stayed with Helen and David in 1962, copies of the book were still in boxes, stacked in the den. One day, she asked Helen for her own copy of Sex and the Single Girl.
Lou stayed up all night reading. She was riveted. But she couldn’t help but wonder if Helen really believed everything she had written about life as a single girl—how it’s OK to sleep with guys before you get married, or have affairs with married men.
“Do you really believe that?” Lou asked Helen the next morning.
“Absolutely,” Helen said. “I believe the things I said. I just didn’t talk about how lonely it can be.”
As Dunham continues her book tour, I hope someone raises the question that Helen’s cousin asked her all those years ago. Do you believe everything you wrote?
Who knows how she would answer . . . But no one can accuse her of not talking about how lonely it can be.
*From the Helen Gurley Brown Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College