Hong Kong and ‘The Hunger Games’

The Umbrella Movement’s kaleidoscopic and iconic “Lennon Wall” featured drawings and hand-written statements (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” among them) on colored post-it notes.—Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Los Angeles Review of Books, November 11, 2016

Largely absent from the coverage is a far more uplifting and meaningful visual: “Lennon Walls” bearing rainbow Post-It notes of hope and determination from Hong Kong’s residents.—Hana Meihan Davis, Washington Post, August 8, 2019

When we made plans to talk by phone a few months ago, having never met but having each read and liked short pieces the other had written, we knew what our first topic of conversation would be: Lennon Walls, a utopian feature of the Hong Kong protests that fascinates us both. The name goes back to a celebratory structure created in Prague in the early 1980s, the work of young activists who used paint to express their love for John Lennon. The original wall showed that the hopeful spirit of the song “Imagine” could survive Lennon’s assassination and stay alive even in a place of authoritarian rule. Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls—both the single 2014 one that became a key symbol of the Umbrella Movement and the many that have gone up in recent months—use Post-It Notes rather than paint, speak to local concerns, and sometimes include messages of anger and frustration, but overall have the same optimistic feel as their inspiration.

What we did not realize before speaking that first time was how quickly we would shift from utopian to dystopian themes. We soon discovered that, as different as our backgrounds and current situations are, Lennon Walls are not the only kind of creative work whose relevance for the Hong Kong crisis intrigues us. One of us may be a Californian who got his doctorate three decades ago and the other a Yale student from Hong Kong, but we share a deep interest in the dystopian vision of one writer.

Some might assume that the author in question, whose work we talked about by phone and have kept returning to in subsequent email exchanges, must be George Orwell. After all, Hong Kong protesters are pushing back against a Communist Party that is often described as running a Big Brother state. In addition, 2019 was a big year for Orwell, with the 70th anniversary of 1984 and events in Beijing and elsewhere proving him prophetic. And throughout 2019, as reports appeared detailing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the use of high-tech surveillance across the country, the adjective “Orwellian” was used with increasing frequency to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to rule.

We certainly both admire Orwell, but his dark imaginings have not been the focus of our communications. Nor has it been the murky V for Vendetta universe dreamed up by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, though some protesters in Hong Kong and other places have donned Guy Fawkes masks associated with that dystopian world. We have also not been comparing notes on the creators of the Matrix films, though a powerful late 2014 Louisa Lim article for The New Yorker quoted a veteran of the Umbrella Movement describing the year coming to an end as one during which some locals felt they had taken the “red pill” that allows characters in the franchise to see the brutal side of how power is exercised in their world.

The writer we keep circling back to is The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins.

Where Hong Kong is concerned, 2019 was a Hunger Games year. Throughout the summer and fall, determined people, like Katniss Everdeen and other heroes in Collins’s series, took bold actions to try to overcome seemingly impossible odds. Some protesters were in their mid-teens, as Katniss was when she took on a leading role in the resistance struggle in Catching Fire, the second book in the series. Some were even younger. And there is clear evidence that the series was on the minds of some activists, for a two-part phrase that figures in the books became a common sight in Hong Kong in 2019: “If we burn, you burn with us.” This motto is similar in structure to, but has a radically different tone than, the famous “Imagine” line that we saw written out on banners and Post-It Notes in 2014: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

In exchanging ideas about the work of Suzanne Collins, we found that we both had The Hunger Games on our minds five years ago, around the time we each first caught sight of the original Hong Kong Lennon Wall. It was important to the elder of us then because that was the point that he started receiving blank looks in his classes when he spoke of it being useful to think of China as divided into regions where the boot-on-the-face mode of control associated with 1984 was the rule, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and locales where Aldous Huxley’s vision of control via hedonism and distraction a la Brave New World was more relevant. The problem was that some students, while familiar with Orwell, knew little about Huxley. The elder of us began experimenting with adding comments about The Hunger Games, saying Xinjiang and Tibet were like the tightly controlled district where Katniss grew up, while Shanghai and Beijing were more like the glittering Capitol. This worked well, given how familiar nearly every student was with the novels featuring youths forced to perform as gladiators who fought to the death in televised spectacles, and even more so the films based on them.

For the younger of us, the world of The Hunger Games was important in 2014 for a more straightforward reason: She was a teenager in a school where everyone seemed to be reading the novels and seeing the films. Like many of her classmates, she had devoured the trilogy of books and watched the first three of the movies with equal tenacity. She saw the third movie—part one of Mockingjay, the series-ending novel having been broken up into two films—nearly two months into the Umbrella Movement. And she loved it. She was looking forward to the release of part two the following year, which would show audiences what it looked like when Katniss and other young rebels managed to pull off a version of the David versus Goliath story, toppling the autocrats in the Capitol. The franchise seemed to her a symbol of hope.

Neither of us thought in 2014 that The Hunger Games had direct relevance to the Umbrella Movement. The fiery filmed battle scenes were nothing like the peaceful sit-in on a major downtown thoroughfare that was the main site of action. Yes, there were rare uses of the three-finger Mockingjay resistance salute in Hong Kong that fall, as there were earlier that year in Thailand. Still, to invoke a symbol associated with a violent conflict seemed far-fetched, especially on the largely peaceful Hong Kong Island, despite some police use of tear gas and pepper spray. With hindsight, though, we had to admit that the salute’s use in Mong Kok across the harbor, where some clashes involving not just police and protesters but also pro-government thugs, gave a foretaste of darker days to come. In 2014, the occasional nods that activists made to The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta seemed a minor—not major—part of the struggle’s symbolism.

But by the middle of 2019, much had changed. A clear sign of this was the proliferation of the phrase “If we burn, you burn with us,” a key line in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Sometimes, it would appear on posters showing film star Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss, who in a memorable scene shoots a flaming arrow. Sometimes, it would be painted on walls as graffiti or written out on banners. In still other cases, it would show up online beside images of real-life activists using low tech weapons, such as sling shots, which resemble those deployed by youths in the films as they fought against the more advanced armed forces of the rulers in the Capitol.

Some images coming out of Hong Kong have made The Hunger Games seem less like a dystopic fantasy than like an actual locale’s new normal. We are thinking of shots of bloodied protesters—as well as of passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time—juxtaposed with spotless police gear; of streets set alight by Molotov cocktails hurled by militant frontline protesters; of vandalized storefronts, often of buildings owned by government supporters; and of subway stations and malls filling up with tear gas, patrolled by officers with batons, guns, and darkened masks that shield their features.

And it is not just protesters who use terms that bring the series mind. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Yang Guang, the spokesperson of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, warned in a press conference in August.

The Hong Kong crisis has inspired many historical comparisons, with people citing parallels to past crises centered everywhere from Belfast and Berlin to Ukraine and South Korea. None of these references are a perfect fit. None tell us what will happen next in Hong Kong. But some can help us bring blurry aspects of the ongoing struggle into sharper perspective. The same is true for forays into fiction, including references to the anime series that have inspired some protesters. We definitely see value of this kind in the Hunger Games analogy. Unlike the series, there are no clearly defined leaders of the Hong Kong protests. There are also many reasons to doubt that the ending of the struggle on the streets will resemble the simplistic and satisfying conclusion of the trilogy in which Katniss and her beloved live happily ever after in a liberated land. Still, if used judiciously, the comparison has its uses.

The main value of keeping The Hunger Games in mind when thinking about the Hong Kong crisis lies in appreciating that many participants see themselves as taking a final stand. Here, the allusion to The Matrix, as mentioned above, is helpful as well. When Beijing and its local proxies refused to give any ground in 2014 over how the next Chief Executive would be selected, despite the widespread support for the Umbrella Movement and the moderate methods protesters used to press their case, this was an eye-opening “red-pill” moment for some local residents. More such moments followed between 2015 and 2018, serving as gradual but assured wake-up calls for many in Hong Kong. For some, it was when five local booksellers whose publishing activities displeased Beijing were spirited across the border into mainland China. For others, it was Beijing’s interference with a local court gearing up to decide whether two people elected to serve on the Legislative Council should be disqualified from office for the mocking way they took their oath of office; or when word came that it would soon likely become a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to show public disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.

Events such as these helped frame 2019 as Hong Kong’s last stand, giving protesters the sense that too many of their values had been stolen away. So, too, did two things that happened early in that year, well before tear gas began to fill the air in mid-June and the first Molotov cocktails were hurled weeks later.

One important development came in April. That was when moderate leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to months of jail time on charges dating back to the non-violent rallies of 2014.

The other, which was the specific trigger of the massive march of June 9 that set the current movement in motion, was Chief Executive Carrie Lam introducing an extradition bill. For millions of Hongkongers, this was seen as the first step in creating a situation where fear of retribution would govern the city: where all residents local or foreign would worry that engaging in behavior displeasing to Beijing could mean finding themselves at the mercy of the brutal legal regime across the border. If the bill went into effect, anyone could potentially be subjected to the sort of treatment that the booksellers had had to endure—with the difference that no force or subterfuge would be required to get them across the border onto the mainland.

In a piece appearing near the start of a year, it is worth ending on a forward-looking note. So, here, despite knowing how often Hong Kong has made fools of forecasters, are some cautious predictions for the year that has just begun.

First, an easy one, since Suzanne Collins has already announced her intention to do this. 2020 will see the publication of the first addition to the Hunger Games series in a decade. It will take the form of a prequel.

Second, in Hong Kong, by contrast, there will be sequels—not to the series but to the protests of 2019. This seems a safe bet because the sense that a final stand is underway has not yet dissipated. The final weeks of the last year saw everything from a peaceful march by more than half a million people, which one of us was on the scene to witness, to new acts of vandalism that damaged buildings and renewed police violence. The first sequels have already taken place, as there have been several January protests.

Third, while there are many reasons to view the current situation across the mainland through different sorts of dystopian lenses, and while both activists and independent-minded artists are finding less and less room to maneuver there, in Hong Kong, Hunger Games analogies aside, things will not be as bleak. There will still be at least momentary flashes of hopefulness among activists and artists, even forays into utopian creativity.

One reason we make this last prediction is that when police and thugs tear down Lennon Walls, people rebuild them almost instantly. Another is that on Christmas Day, there was another clear indication that the “Imagine” spirit lives on in Hong Kong.

Here is what happened on the 25th of December. Local artist Sampson Wong and his “Add Oil Team”—known for daring, playful, and often optimistic light projections—created a work that paid homage to the billboards that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had put up around Christmastime exactly 50 years earlier in a dozen cities around the world, Hong Kong among them. “War is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko,” was the wording on those billboards half a century ago. Wong and his colleagues, choosing as a fitting canvas the now blank concrete wall in the heart of Hong Kong Island that in 2014 was turned into the city’s first Lennon Wall, projected this variation on Christmas Day: “TYRANNY IS OVER! If You Want It. Happy 2019 from Add Oil Team, Hong Kong.”

Image: William Sauro/The New York Times Photo Archives

The Fashion of Jane Austen’s Novels

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen has been a long time coming. It started out as a chance comment in 2013 from Professor Aileen Ribeiro, author of foundational books on dress history such as The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750 to 1820. We were standing chatting in the snowy grounds of Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, who was adopted by childless cousins and changed his surname. The gracious Elizabethan manor had become a center for studying women’s lives and writings, but we were there for the filming of the BBC documentary Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball, which sought to recreate the famous Netherfield ball scene from Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. I had made a hand-stitched replica gown for the production and appeared as the costume expert. During conversation, Professor Ribeiro mused on the fact that there was no good book on Regency dress. I agreed, but was taken by (flattered) surprise when she said she thought I would be the perfect person to write one. The conversation moved on. However, the idea’s seed started growing quietly in the back of my head. Six months later, I had decided to write what I privately thought of as The Big Book of Regency Dress.
My introduction to the clothes of Britain’s Regency period (c. 1795-1821) was through the body and life of Jane Austen, by recreating a silk pelisse coat, the only known garment connected with the author. Her incredibly observant writing, combined with the breadth of research existing on her and her family, made Austen the perfect starting point. Because I began with her physicality, I mused on the importance of the bodily self as the starting point for imagining and wearing fashion. From this center emerged the book’s structure, which moves outwards in concentric circles from Self, through the experiences of Home, Village, Country, City, Nation and finally, World. Locating seemingly English local fashions within their wider global contexts was important to me as an Australian historian. Without Britain’s world trade, none of the heaving bosoms dear to screen adaptations would have been clad in muslin gowns and Kashmir shawls.
I also wanted to go back to first principles. Regency fashion attracts a lot of myths, like that women stopped wearing stays or corsets, or damped their dresses to achieve a clinging fit. Did they really? And if not, what were Austen’s gentry peers actually wearing? The research involved scouring every kind of source I could think of, peering into people’s washing lists, their account books and recipes, taking advice from professionals of the time, and reading a lot of second-rate fiction. I also amassed thousands of images of clothed Regency people, only a comparative few of which appear in the book. Here’s some that didn’t make it.

A Virtuoso and a Fly, Isaac Cruikshank, 1796, Lewis Walpole Library.

Continuing an 18th-century tradition of depicting scholarly men in loose “banyans” or robes, this “virtuoso” of 1796 combines the domestic informality or undress of a turban and plaid gown—probably made of Indian Madras checked cotton—with outdoor shoes with buckles. The corner of his by now old-fashioned waistcoat with long skirts peeps from below his gown.

Maria Edgeworth, John Downman, 1807, Wikimedia.

Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth’s letters are a font of information about dress and dressing practices. By comparison, only 161 of an estimated 3,000 of Austen’s letters survive. Edgeworth moved in more exalted social circles as a celebrated author, which Austen unfortunately never lived to experience. The Edgeworth letters share fashion details of the aristocracy as well as her tactics for dressing well in such company. In this portrait, the writer wears a blue satin gown, and her age-appropriate cap is bedecked with matching ribbons.

Negligence, Daniel Thomas Egerton, 1823, Lewis Walpole Library

Images of dressing practices are harder to find than the finished ensembles. In a satirical yet detailed portrayal of the effort required to appear negligibly dressed, as was the fashion, many intimate aspects of the male dressing room are revealed. The snoozing servant’s clothing, including knee breeches, is less up to date than his master who wears newly fashionable trousers.

Comfort, Unsigned; probably by Charles Williams, c. 1810. Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library.

Regency women didn’t wear underpants. She is reading a copy of The Monk by Matthew Lewis, a wildly popular Gothic novel of the sort Jane Austen sends up in Northanger Abbey.

Cloak, late 18th century. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Englishwomen wore bright red worsted or woolen cloaks throughout the 18th century and into the Regency period. Foreign visitors thought them a peculiar and charming local style. Visual sources show the ubiquitous scarlet garments worn in the country by everyone from local gentry girls through to peddlers and street sellers.

Boot and Shoe Shop from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813. Public domain.

A vision of unpretentious provincial retailing of footwear in the popular seaside resort of Scarborough. The lady in a white cotton gown and voluminous cloak is being fitted for a pair of the heelless shoes that entered fashion around 1800. Her companion wears a woolen riding habit, worn on horseback and for travel. Habits took their cues from men’s fashion, further reflected in her Hessian boots and top hat.

Unknown sitter, formerly called Miss Lamb, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1810s. Museum purchase with funds donated by James A. Simpson, William M. Spencer, Jr., and The Women’s Day Lecture Series, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama.

Thomas Lawrence’s luminous depiction of an unknown sitter glows with life, satin, and nipples. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the engineering of Regency breasts, and how women used changing shapes in corsetry to support their busts—the key part of the new high-waisted silhouette. The brooch in the center front, and the gathers falling from it, show there is still a structured undergarment below this seemingly draped gown.

L’Emprunt mutuel (The Mutual Loan), 1817, Pierre de La Mésangère, Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris

French and English fashions mutually borrowed from each other during the Regency period, as the title of this print from the series Le Bon Genre suggests. The subtleties of difference in each nation’s fashions are harder to reconstruct from the distance of a couple of centuries. To contemporary viewers the distinctions were clear. It would have been evident without the title that here were French girls dressed in English fashions, and vice versa.

The Jockey Frank Buckle, the Owner-Breeder John Wastell, his Trainer Robert Robson, and a Stable-lad, Benjamin Marshall, 1802, Yale Center for British Art.

Riding clothing was one of the strongest dress influences for the Regency gentry. Knee-high boots, cut away coats, and caped great coats imitating coachmen’s weatherproof garments suffused gentlemen’s dress. The peaked cap worn by jockeys such as Frank Buckle was fashionable for women, too. In 1811 Jane Austen wrote that “now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding-hat shape, like Mrs. Tilson’s; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one.” It would cost her a guinea (a pound and a shilling).

A Flint, 1811, Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

The arts of making dress were of far greater importance to Regency people than they are today. Clothes were nearly all custom made, usually by dressmakers and tailors, and the gentry understood the construction processes. This comical figure is a tailor comprised from the tools of his trade. The artifacts of making would have been familiar to every man who had fittings in the professional premises, or at home. Even villages had at least a tailor or two. A quality garment was judged through the hands as much as the eye, and style could not be achieved without good fit.
The world of British Regency dress, seen through the lens of Jane Austen’s life and work, has been my constant companion in the years since that wintery afternoon deep in Austen heartland. I’m delighted to be able to share the fruits of my labors, and give readers an insight into how she and her contemporaries wore, used, made and understood clothing, that fundamental part of all human culture.
This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Bon Courage: ‘The Good Wife’ Qua Middlebrow Novel

1.

For this year’s Year in Reading, I wrote about my 2019 reading grump—a restless disinterest in many of the novels that literary and social media were excited about. As readers we all go through these ruts. For whatever reasons, we are fickle—impossible to please, hungry for work that will stimulate and nourish our intellect, emotions, and spirits just so.

Enter the dramatic TV series.

Backing up: One of the reasons I feel disconnected from contemporary literary fiction is that it’s become a largely middlebrow medium. This assessment is admittedly vague, subjective, and not necessarily a wholesale critique. I really don’t expect anyone to agree with me, nor do I feel impelled to convince readers who love/admire the books in question that they should feel or think otherwise. Generally speaking I embrace subjectivity in relation to art: let’s disagree, let’s have varying experiences—all for the greater Good and pursuit of Beauty.

But what do I mean by “middlebrow?” I mean this: The story is centered around familiar types of modern people dealing with modern problems, including something related to race and/or social inequity and/or complicated romantic and familial relations; the protagonist(s) is (are) both earnest and flawed; pathos and wit co-mingle in good measure; the prose “flows,” i.e. is “well-written” and propulsive such that the reader does not trip over it, is guided along from sentence to sentence as if by a kindly butler or gentle ocean wave; there is a balance of interior (thought, reflection) and exterior (dialogue, action) drama; there are no more than two or three high-conflict scenes, which may be vividly unpleasant though tolerably so.

Another way of putting it is that a middlebrow novel need only be read once, perhaps in three or four sittings, and the reader will be satisfied by this experience, which is relatively passive while also still engaging. Yet another way of putting it—more grumpy—is that there is no strangeness or disturbing difficulty at the heart of the narrative or the characters, nor in the language or structure used to form them. The reader is not inclined to pause in mid-scene or mid-sentence—to take a moment to metabolize or review or recover—because these novels are meant to be smoother and more manageable than life, and thus no such slowing-down in response to unsettledness or confusion or wonder or alarm is demanded.

I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.

If this seems snobby, let me offer an analogy, which may seem equally snobby, but hopefully at least clarifying: I am not someone who wants my candidate for president to be primarily someone I can “have a beer with.” I want that person to be smarter and better than me—much smarter and better—a little intimidating, someone who will lead, challenge, and enlist me to participate actively in the greater good.

And so, these days, I am passing on middlebrow, aka “relatable,” novels. I think: For satisfying manageable engagement, why not watch good serial TV instead?

Prestige showrunners like David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have both spoken of their multi-season series as having been conceived “as a novel.” Each might be understood as a Great American Social Novel—the former roving through multiple sectors of urban life in a major city (Baltimore), season by season; the latter spanning socio-cultural transformation between 1960 and 1970 via New York City’s advertising world. In centering its many storylines around Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, Mad Men is perhaps more character-driven than The Wire, whose real main character (despite a richly complex ensemble cast) is the city of Baltimore itself. Yet neither is protagonist-driven, strictly speaking.

As someone interested primarily in the mystery and complexity of human personality—as reader, viewer, and writer—the series that has me thinking most about TV drama-qua-novel then, is The Good Wife.

2.

For seven seasons (2009-2016), viewers followed the eponymous wife, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), through her mid-life coming-of-age—her journey the very model of an adult bildungsroman. In the pilot, we meet Alicia in high crisis: Her husband, Illinois State’s Attorney General Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), has just been convicted of corruption, while simultaneously exposed as a philanderer. With Peter serving prison time, stay-at-home mom Alicia is not only humiliated, but must now earn a living for herself and their two teens. Trained as a lawyer, Alicia sets off to interview at corporate firms for associate positions usually reserved for recent law-school grads. Between her resume gap and public profile, her prospects are grim, until by chance she runs into an old flame from college, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Will is dashing, confident, a partner in his own firm. He says, “Call me sometime,” and when Alicia becomes desperate for a job, she does. Will gives her the break she needs, hiring her as an associate at Stern, Lockhardt & Gardner, where she thrives and advances quickly. In the midst of disaster, Alicia begins to not only find her footing, but also her latent talents and ambitions.

Alicia is both Hillary and not-Hillary: She stands by her man, but her public image could not be more different. Nicknamed by the press “Saint Alicia,” she eschews public attention, is temperamentally calm, deferent, laconic—feminine in the ways a “good wife” should be—slender and smoky-eyed to boot. Building each episode’s plot around a court case (or two), the strength of the series is in interrogating, challenging, redefining over and over this notion of “good” as it applies to “wife”—and to woman more generally—along with professional ethics. Through the vicissitudes of Alicia’s life over seven years, we come to know—or think we know and then realize there’s yet still more to know—the conflicted, hungering inner life of a character whose defining external traits are self-denial, quiet intelligence, and caution.

Series finales are high-stakes balancing acts: writers must satisfy audience, art, and network (CBS, in this case). To their great credit, The Good Wife writers stuck that ending (see in your mind Simone Biles, feet planted and arms stretched to the sky after her floor routine). They hit that surprising-but-inevitable sweet spot in a way that sent me right back to rewatch earlier episodes—not all of them, but particular ones that sent up pricks and sparks of resonance as the series’s final moments rippled back through the seven-year narrative like an electric current.

The upshot: Alicia, now truly free of Peter, arrived and confident (professionally, sexually, emotionally) at the same time she is thoroughly battle-scarred—is less “good” than we thought she was. More importantly, she is less good than she thought she was. Her relationships to the law, ambition, colleagues, money, friends, lovers, children—all these have both deepened and darkened, grown more complicated and more simple in thought-provoking ways.

This is true of our relationship to Alicia as well. After seven seasons of rooting for her, we find she is not so exceptionally sympathetic after all. She is—has either always been, or has become, or both—as self-serving and transactional as anyone. What we are left with then is the essential question of how we feel about that.

Is it more or less “good” to be (a) sober-eyed, seasoned, willing to claim your success and take your pleasure or (b) naive, soft-hearted and deferent, ever-longing after but unsullied by the triumphant sumptuousness of the big-bad world? This either/or proposition—how to be “good”—is a woman’s question; certainly it has been. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is changing). A woman cannot—in 2016 in Chicago, in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch. The question is urgent, difficult, infuriating, and real.

But the incarnation of the how-to-be-good conundrum at the end of The Good Wife, open-ended and unsmooth, is to my mind comforting in its courage.  This was network TV, mind you, the very breeding ground for middlebrow, redefining a “good woman” as a complete woman, a full person—neither relative object nor idealized vessel, but multidimensional Subject. She may or may not be likable; she is as disappointing as she is inspiring. She is no saint, and even publicly rejects religion (despite the entreaties of her earnest daughter and a straight-shooting African-American minister). In the finale’s final seconds, after her moral character and physical body are at once dealt a stunning blow, Alicia smooths down her pencil skirt, then lifts her chin. But that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.

3.

Serial format is inherently populist and thus fraternal with middlebrow: The serial novel, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries à la Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, et alia, made novels accessible to poor people (a periodical or installment was less expensive than a bound book) and even those who couldn’t read (excited readers would gather to read the latest installment aloud). Serialization has been good for creators and producers alike, generating communal conversation about the most recent installment and anticipatory predictions/hopes for what comes next, all of which bolsters interest and sales.

This phenomenon, of episodic buzzy chatter, has clearly energized today’s TV-viewing and the economics thereof. It also, interestingly, has the effect of making serial TV more novelistic: In slowing down the series’ central narrative tension—in the case of The Good Wife, the romantic-sexual-professional relationship between Alicia and Will—we experience the arc of that central narrative more completely. The Alicia+Will connection underwent intensity and diffusion, intimacy and distance; it was a slow, patient burn. Even after Will abruptly and dramatically exited Alicia’s life and the series in season 5, Alicia continued for two years to metabolize—more profoundly than she had when he was present—what had happened and not happened between them. As would be in life, it took the whole seven years.

Meanwhile, each episode, with its bite-sized court case, delivered its smooth, manageable dose of rising action, conflict, crisis, and (generally too-easy) resolution—replete with delightful and entertaining supporting characters and cameos (some of them well developed in themselves, others narrowly typed)—to satisfy the need for passive engagement and propulsion. Even marathon-watching the entire series in a few weeks delivered these shorter- and longer-term satisfactions.

4.

In lieu of the proliferating middlebrow literary novel, might we bring back the serial narrative? Nonfiction has done so, with wild success, via podcast. On the upside, long-form fiction could, like serial TV, hook readers installment by installment and generate a wider base of word-of-mouth consumers (good for authors); on the downside, books with weak, unsatisfying arcs/endings would exploit reader addiction and anticipation (bad for readers and for art). In 2015, Washington Post book critic Hillary Kelly, recognizing that the serial form favors plot-driven work—for example fantasy fiction and YA, both forms currently producing serial publications actively—and/or “literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety,” nonetheless made a strong case for reviving the serial novel, across all genres:

[Serialization] requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum…While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a Game of Thrones book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded…Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.

Perhaps the revived literary-fiction serial could, like the hit podcast Serial and its progeny, be in audio form. Or some other interactive hybrid that incorporates visuals, hyperlinks, choose-your-own adventure? I don’t know. Perhaps the novel is doing just fine, and I’m the grumpy defector here. I’m just saying: As both writer and reader, I’m rooting for literature and books; but for now serial TV has effectively replaced middlebrow fiction for me. Both the pleasures and substance of long-form TV drama are richer and ultimately more resonant than those of the sort-of-but-not-quite literary novel. Form and content are better matched; there is an integrity between the two. The literary novel, on the other hand, respects and optimizes its raison d’etre in respecting and optimizing language; its eggs are all—should be, more than it currently is—in that basket.

Call me a traditionalist or a dinosaur or whatever: I’m a Gen Xer who came to reading and writing for the richness and poetry of language. I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it. I get excited about the ambitious structuring of a novel like As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis, who both creates his own and channels his literary forebears’ language and polyphonic structure (specifically Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar). As one reviewer puts it, “as a kind of vellum onto which this novel has been written…” Or the weird, dense sentences, and equally weird, lightly absurdist characters of stories and novels by Joy Williams, all of which invariably add up to something mysterious, vibrant, and sad. Or the precise, mesmerizing narrative voices of Yoko Ogawa and James Salter; the muscular, whirling, linguistic and philosophical energy of Sergio de la Pava.

I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?

We’re all figuring these things out. The golden age of TV, its captivation of our emotional devotion and resources, has yet to run its course, if ever it will. In the meantime, I wish you all bon courage—good luck and best wishes—but also the Good and the Courageous literally, in choosing your satisfactions.

How the Women Became Little

In 1834, Amos Bronson Alcott—most famous now for being the father of the author of Little Women, but then a 34-year-old self-taught intellectual determined to become famous himself—founded the Temple School for children in Boston. One of his visions (he was the kind of man who had many) was of space: He wanted his school to be a kind of cathedral, and he found a fitting setting for it on the second floor of the recently built Masonic Temple on Boston Common. The classroom spanned 60 feet. Its ceilings were so high that in winter the cavernous space they enclosed was always cold. Its enormous arched window bathed everything in sacred-looking light. Alcott arranged the desks in a semicircle, since his would be a classroom of conversation, in which every soul was valued, every voice listened to. He would be these voices’ conductor. He put busts of Plato, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Socrates around the classroom’s periphery, and a bas relief of Christ behind his own desk, right above his own head.

Alcott’s school quickly found a different kind of space, too, thanks to his assistant, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; not long after the Temple School opened, she started writing a book about it, called Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture. In 1835, a full year before Emerson’s Nature appeared, it would become the first published book to emerge from the Transcendentalist movement. Peabody was 30 years old when she worked at the Temple School, and surely one of the most overqualified teaching assistants to have ever assisted a teacher. She had a formidable mind and education—she would eventually know 10 languages, was a prolific writer, and would later be publisher of the famous Transcendentalist journal The Dial—and had opened her own school at the age of 17. Peabody was the one who taught Alcott’s students mathematics and Latin, because Alcott himself wasn’t qualified to teach either. She was also the one who found him his first crop of students amongst the children of the Boston intellectual elite who knew her but not him.

Record of a School is actually a record of many things. First: It records Peabody’s admiration (at least partly warranted) for Alcott’s skill and vision as an educator. Alcott worked via Socratic method, and out of his students, some of them as young as 5, he drew astonishments. He read to them, stopping to paraphrase and respond and asking them to do the same—requiring active reading of them in a way that would look familiar to modern teachers but was at the time radical, assuming as it did that children had something of value to say. Rapturously, Peabody writes, “Mr. Alcott thinks that every book read, should be an event to a child.” All aspects of Alcott’s teaching were events. Alcott’s “spelling” lessons became cascading moral sermons on all the meanings that could expand out of a single word as if out of a clown car:

Lone was the first word defined. Did you ever feel lone, lonely? said Mr. Alcott. Yes. Always, when there was no person present?—No. Ever when there were people present?—Yes. This led to the conclusion that loneliness was in the mind, a feeling independent of circumstances…but that the feeling could not exist when the soul was conscious of the omnipresent friendship of its Father…

In evidence here are far loftier ambitions than teaching children to spell “lone” correctly. Alcott believed too that students must be allowed a time of free exploration in their own writing before their teachers tried to inflict “petty criticism” upon it, subscribing to the view that, as Peabody writes, “Children have a great deal to contend with, in the attempt to express their thoughts.” There’s a valuing and empathy and treasuring of individual children in Record of a School that makes us understand that Alcott’s schoolroom was in many ways a lucky place to be.

But that’s of course in part Peabody’s valuing and empathy and treasuring, because that’s Peabody’s voice, telling us about Alcott’s beliefs, making him beautiful. The second thing recorded in Peabody’s Record, if a person looks for it, is her own subjugated place in the Temple School. Peabody’s daily Latin and arithmetic lessons figure in the text mostly as stage directions: “After recess I took my class into the other room to attend to Latin.” We almost never get anything substantive about this “attending,” and never whole scenes, as we get so often in accounts of Alcott’s teaching. When I picture those scenes—children talking, Alcott himself talking and talking—I see Elizabeth Peabody sitting apart and taking her notes, perhaps at the rear of the classroom, or along one of its edges. Only very occasionally interfering, and then mostly internally. When Alcott is explicating the opening of the book of John, for instance, Peabody tells us, “I was sorry he did not take the time to observe to them, that word, in that passage was probably used in a still more general sense than Language, meaning the expression of Truth in all ways…” We might wonder if time was really the limiting factor in Alcott’s failure to say this to his students; we might wonder also what would have had to change in that room, and in Peabody’s placement within that room, for Peabody herself to have been able to say it.

It isn’t news about women and their history, of course, that they’ve often been excluded from certain arenas. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing a recurrence in the shape that women assumed within those arenas, when they did manage, against all odds, to make their way in and become thinkers and artists. In the Rodin Museum in Paris, there’s one room devoted to the work of the female sculptor Camille Claudel, a room that exists because Rodin himself stipulated its existence. Claudel was a gifted artist in her own right, but she was also for a time Rodin’s protégé, and his much, much younger lover; eventually Rodin ended the relationship because of his continued attachment to the woman of around his own age, Rose Beuret, who was his mistress for decades and whom he eventually married. Claudel’s most famous sculpture, “The Mature Age,” which has pride of place in the Claudel room, is of a man being led away from a young, imploring, kneeling woman by an old woman who whispers intimately in his ear. The younger woman’s arm, her face, strain. She herself isn’t moving, but her wanting is an active force. Claudel’s most famous sculpture is many things, and one of them is an image of Rodin leaving her. Of herself, being left.

This shape is everywhere in the history of women scholars and writers and artists once you’re attuned to it: the embodying of this active/passive contradiction. Mary Lamb, sister of the 19th-century English writer Charles Lamb, had a hand in the books that bore his name (sometimes along with hers) and played a part in his salons, and ended her life—like Camille Claudel, who died in an institution—in poor mental health. At one point she wrote to her brother, “I am much fonder of receiving letters, than of writing them.” Frida Kahlo said of the patterns of her pain, “Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow…”

This is how these brilliant, ambitious women see their places. The self kneels and reaches after, the self receives, the self makes a bank for the river, which passes it by.

In Record of a School, Peabody’s shape is mostly the shape of a margin, or a hem. When I read Peabody’s book, I’m looking for the places where I can actually see her. Here, for instance, where she recounts a story she told the students: “I here asked permission to tell the first tale that I remembered Life to have told me…” The tale is of women in white robes crossing a dark, stormy sea; disembarking, two by two, into a new wilderness; kneeling to pray; going into the underbrush to make little huts to live in. “The story of the Pilgrim fathers! exclaimed several, interrupting me; but what made you think the Pilgrims were women? said one. It was the misunderstanding of a single word, said I.” Misunderstanding, perhaps—or revision, conscious or unconscious. A widening of the story into a more spacious version of itself, so that there was room for a woman, too, to set out voyaging and forefathering.

We have to wait until near the end of Record of a School for Peabody’s most extended coming off the wall. Now that she’s recorded the goings-on of Alcott’s classroom, she wishes to frame what she’s observed for the reader, laying out some “General Principles of Education.” To steel herself she requires paragraphs of preamble and performative humility. “I am well aware that the foregoing record is an entirely inadequate representation of the interesting communications between Mr. Alcott and his pupils; but if I have not failed utterly, some interest has been excited…” The essay that follows is thoughtful and groundbreaking, and crammed to overflowing with her learning. It has Lycurgus and Ignatius de Loyola and “Asiatic religious polity” and Anaxagoras at its fingertips. But it also keeps putting those fingertips on the cradle. “There is nothing in true education which has not its germ in the maternal sentiment; and every mother would find more of the spiritual philosophy in her own affections, if her mind would but read her heart, than could be obtained by years of study in books,” Peabody writes—this woman who has spent years and years of such book-study. “What is the soul? is the question; and, will not every mother, who has watched the infant from its cradle, respond to the following propositions…” she writes—this woman who was not and never would be a mother. Her analysis, she seems to feel, must be couched in womanly terms. To ensure the best reception for her ideas, she clothes them in comparisons to motherly feelings. I know I am a woman, but I can know things. Look at me, knowing them, showing them to you.

Alcott lived his life surrounded by women, and his daughters surface occasionally in Record of a School. He makes them into cases in his point, as he illustrates various moral or educational principles. Peabody records a story he told about how, when one daughter told him that her sister, “a boisterous child who inflicted pain thoughtlessly,” had pinched her and pulled her hair, Alcott then pinched and pulled the hair of the offending daughter in turn. He asks his class, wasn’t he right not to “let her mind go uncultivated because I was afraid of hurting her body? The result of the conversation seemed to be a universal agreement with Mr. Alcott.” Alcott wanted such agreement even from his daughters themselves. He wanted their inner lives to harmonize so completely with his own that they would welcome his harshest penalties: “His own little girl is led to tell him of all the naughty things she does, and the telling does not save her from punishment, but often only ensures it.”

And this is the little girl who would grow up to write Little Women. We first encounter that novel’s father figure in the letter he sends to his wife from the war, in which he lectures his daughters from afar in very Bronson-Alcottian fashion: “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” This father means his daughters to be students of self-conquering; their success, in his estimation, hinges on how well they have fought their “bosom enemies,” and I have wondered if it’s possible those are just their disagreements with him.

Elizabeth Peabody’s disagreements with the real-life Bronson Alcott take the form of wonderings, additions, or, on one occasion, a lengthy bracketed aside: “[N.B. I generally agree with the views that Mr. Alcott brings out from his pupils; but in this instance I disagreed; and I am inclined to think that he unconsciously led them into his own views; by contradistinguishing mercy and justice…].” Here is the set-apart space in Peabody’s own book where she permits herself to think her own thoughts. Here and only here can she express her worry about the way Alcott is reaching inside his students’ heads and shaping their thoughts to mirror his own.

I wonder if she thought to question whether, in the non-bracketed text of her book, he was doing the same to her.

Despite its promise, the Temple School soon collapsed into failure. After Elizabeth Peabody published her Record of a School, Alcott decided to write a second volume himself. He called it Conversations with Children on the Gospels and included inflammatory passages that Peabody had warned him their social circles weren’t ready for. In response, too many of the students’ parents pulled them from the school for it to remain open. Alcott and Peabody also had a personal falling out: Peabody had been living with Alcott and his family, and he and his wife discovered and read her private correspondence with her sister Mary, which contained worries that sometimes Alcott’s teaching was more about himself than about the children. The Alcotts were enraged. Peabody had not sufficiently conquered herself, it seemed.

Yet the amount of self-conquering on display in Record of a School staggers me. On every page, this book demonstrates its author’s belief that someone else’s words, opinions, insights, verdicts, and judgment matter more than her own. It’s not that Peabody measured Alcott against herself and found him larger—it’s that she assumed he was larger from the beginning and so never really measured at all. She assumed he was entitled to what he was asking of her.

Time has passed; things have changed, of course. But somehow I think many of us still find ourselves, more often than men do, in this place of the expected why yes. Why yes, person (often man) to whom I have no real personal or professional obligation, I will read your manuscript four times/let you pick my brain/refer you to my contact/reassure you repeatedly/listen listen listen listen listen.

There’s not much room in this place for the demands of the self, but that doesn’t mean those demands stop pulling, even if the woman in question can’t move in response. Even if she remains folded into the space that’s left to her.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own And reached for a pen if only to show We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; We pressed a thought into the wayside, Planted an impression along the verge.” —Billy Collins, “Marginalia”

Sometime after the fourth century, an unknown transcriber of the Mithraic scholar Lactantius Placidus accidentally conjured into history a demon named Demogorgon. Writing in the margins of Placidus’s commentary on Statius’s Latin poem Thebaid, the transcriber turned his attention to a line concerning “the supreme being of the threefold world.” By way of gloss, the scholar noted that Statius had been referring to the “Demogorgon, the supreme god, whose name it is not permitted to know” (even while Placidus apparently knew it). Etymologically the provenance of the word is unknown. Aurally it reminds one of the daemons of ancient Greek philosophy, that indwelling presence that acts as a cross between consciousness and muse; a terrifying sounding being, with its portmanteau connotations of both “demon” and of the serpentine-locked “Gorgon.” Most uncanny of all is that no reference to the “Demogorgon” appears to exist before the Placidus’s marginalia.

As if he had manifested the creature from the very ether, the Demogorgon has replicated from that initial transcription through literary history. After that initial appearance, the Demogorgon appeared in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles, where the Italian author connected the entity to the demigod Pan while interpreting a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; by the Renaissance he’d be incantated in works such as Ludovico Aristo’s I Cinque Canti, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Christopher Marlowe’s diabolical play Doctor Faustus. A few centuries later, and the sprite mentioned in Placidus’s gloss would be name-checked by Voltaire, and he’d be conjured in Percy Shelly’s Prometheus Unbound and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

By the 20th century, the Demogorgon would become a character in Gary Gygax’s role-playing phantasmagoria Dungeons & Dragons, and he now enjoys his ninth life as the bestial, reptilian antagonist of the first season of Netflix’s exercise in Gen-X nostalgia Stranger Things. Cultural footnote though the Demogorgon may be, that scribbling in the border of Thebaid endures. What Spenser described as something “Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse / Where Demogorgon in full darknesses pent, / Farre from the view of Gods and heauens blis, / The hideous Chaos keeps, their dreadful dwelling is.” More prosaic an explanation for the creature’s genesis—whoever had been copying Placidus’s commentary had misread the Greek accusative referencing the Platonic concept of the “demiurge.” All those deltas and gammas got confusing. There never had been a Demogorgon, at least not outside of that initial misreading. Even Placidus nods, it would seem (just like the rest of us). At least that’s how it’s often interpreted, but in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one. From this vantage point, the Demogorgon is less a mistake than a new being born in the space between intent and misinterpretation. A conjuring appears. So much depends on marginalia.   

In his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, John Milton replicates that transcendent transcription error when he invokes “the dreaded name / Of Demogorgon,” but the blind poet got the marginalia treatment himself in a used copy of his work that I read during my doctoral composition examinations. My copy of William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton has a delightful addition made on its title page. Marginalia by way of doodle, where some bored and anonymous undergraduate, a Placidus in her own right, added a cartoon thought bubble to the 1629 portrait of the young poet posed soberly in his stiff, starched, ribbed collar as if an oyster emerging from a shell, leading the annotator to imagine the author thinking “I am a seahorse, or a snail.” Not my favorite marginalia as it is, that’s reserved for a copy of the Pelican Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice heavily annotated by a reader who’d clearly no previous familiarity with the play. When Shylock gives his celebrated soliloquy, in which he intones, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” the previous owner approvingly added in the margins “Bring your own BOOYEA!” Whoever got their first taste of The Merchant of Venice from the copy that I now possessed was rightly rooting for Shylock, so much so that when they got to the final act and discovered the moneylender’s heartbreaking forced conversion, they wrote in a corner of the creased and dog-eared page “Aww,” then choosing never to annotate this particular copy again.

Such marginalia greatly enlivened my reading of the play; in part because the weird enthusiasm of the previous owner was innately funny, but not without being equivalently moving. As all marginalia is, those little marks that people make in borderlands of a book, in the margins and on the title page, underlined text and notes scribbled wherever there is a blank space requiring commentary, exegesis, digression, or doodle. They exist as the material result of a reader having grappled with literature. Since the era of literary mechanical reproduction (i.e. print), there has been the risk of all books partaking in a dull uniformity with every other object that shares their particular title; marginalia returns the actual book to its glorious singularity, print is converted back into manuscript as my copy of The Merchant of Venice is individual from all the others in the Pelican Shakespeare series as a result. Marginalia in a used book is an autograph from the reader and not the author, and all the more precious for it. Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Such reverence for marginalia was hard-won for me; I’m not the sort of reader who took naturally to jotting observations in the corner of a page. When I was growing up, I approached my books with a bibliomaniacal scrupulosity that was marked in its own neuroticism. To prevent the pages of paperbacks from curling around each other in the un-airconditioned summer humidity, I used to take a ruler and make sure that they were perfectly lined up on the edges facing the back of the bookshelf, so that their spines greeting those who might peruse their titles were strung along like crooked teeth. Books were to be gingerly opened, carefully placed, and certainly never allowed to have ink vandalize them. An observer might note that all of this obsessiveness doesn’t have much to do with actually reading; as S. Brent Plate writes in his own reflection on marginalia and the totemistic quality of books at The Los Angeles Review of Books, “this fetishization cannot be sustained.” Graduate school broke me of that affectation, the need to actually ingest the content of a book became more important than treating a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as if it were the goddamn Book of Kells (which incidentally has its own marginalia). Disciplining and punishing books is precisely what we did in wrestling with the ideas therein; no wonder so many violent metaphors are used in describing the process of reading, whereby we “crack spines” and drench pages in lurid corpuscular red ink.

When I first began writing book reviews several years ago, I still hadn’t quite shaken my previous idolatry of paper and binding. Writing my first published review of a book (it was Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints considered at The Revealer) and I concocted an elaborate system of color-coded Scotch-tape tabs and enumerated page numbers listed in a document so as to be able to reference portions of the text I might need to paraphrase or quote, all while avoiding anything as gauche as dog-earing or underlining. Untenable is what this system was. Now I struggle with at least the books I’m tasked with reviewing as if Jacob with his nocturnal angel, and the marked, torn, broken books that limp away testify to an event that in some way altered us both. At least evidence that there was an event that we can call reading. Out of interest I checked some of the most recent books that I had to read for my supposedly professional opinion (I don’t do this with novels from the library of course), and my marginalia is a record of my perseverations c.2019. In one I wrote underneath the printed words “seems anemic, feels as untrue as feeling that God can’t be cruel,” and in another I penned “AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” At the very least, the people who purchase the corpses of my volumes read after I’ve deposited them into the book donation bin will be able to psychoanalyze my hypergraphic observations.

Referencing exhibits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, Plate notes that today is a veritable golden age of the form, even as digital publication would ironically seem to announce its eclipse. The plucky dons of Oxford University even sponsor a Facebook group for the analysis of evocative specimens of the form spotted in the wild. The BBC reports one volume from the Bodleian Library in which a student wrote “I hate these clever Oxford people.” One reader recorded their graffito in the pages of the Labour Party’s response to the EEC with “Why the fuck is this all so boring…” An annotation in a scholarly journal reads “This article is a load of balls.” Much as with the literary Banksy who imagined my Milton dreaming of a beautiful aquatic invertebrate existence, these marginalia have little to do with simply annotating the book, and everything to do with engaging with the text as if they were an interlocutor (as angry as those engagements sometimes are).

What the exhibits, studies, and Oxford group signify is that marginalia has long come out from between the covers as it were. A demonstration of how literary theorists interested in material history—as well as critics concerned with that nebulous collection of attributes that invisibly radiate out from the book proper and which are known as “paratext” (including everything from covers and blurbs to prefaces and reviews—have been academically concerned with marginalia now for a generation. Writing in Early Modern English Marginalia, scholar Katherine Acheson notes that the form is a “record of our complex material, intellectual, emotional, and psychological interactions with the book, and therefore [they present]…a special kind of history of those marvelous things and their readers.” A history of marginalia, from the saucy medieval monks who used manicules to mock their own transcription errors, to the 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s unfulfilled promise in a marginalia to have found a proof that no positive integer greater than two can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn (and which awaited three centuries until it was again proven), is as a history of the human mind itself.

Marginalia has gone digital, with projects like The Archeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (administered jointly between Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and UC London), Annotated Books Online, and repositories of authors from Walt Whitman to Charles Darin and their marginalia available to the historian and the merely curious alike. Harvard’s Widener Library has an online collection allowing anyone to read the annotations of “John Keats, Herman Melville, [and] Hester Lynch Piozzi,” among others. And marginalia has finally earned its indefatigable scholarly champion in the form of H.J. Jackson and her exhaustive study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Jackson surveyed a voluminous amount of material written and read across the century’s books consumed by both the famous and the average, so as to develop a taxonomy of the form. She writes that “Readers’ notes in books are a familiar but unexamined phenomenon. We do not understand it well. We have mixed feelings about it, sometimes quite strong ones, such as shame and disapproval.” Beyond simple note-taking, Jackson discovered that those who annotate their books do it for a variety of reasons, even while those reasons may be “private and idiosyncratic.” Readers address the author, they address an imagined audience, they address posterity and the absolute. They are written to express ecstatic agreement and vociferous disagreement, to interrogate the book as if it were under oath, and to merely express physically the existence of readers themselves in the most potent objects that embody writerly ambition. Jackson observes that “All annotators are readers, but not all readers are annotators. Annotators are readers who write. Annotation combines—synthesizes, I should say—the functions of reading and writing. This fact in itself heights the natural tension between author and reader.”

As enjoyable as anonymous marginalia can be, most of us seem more interested in the annotations of famous writers considering other famous writers, for the obvious reasons. Aspiring seahorse or snail John Milton’s heavily annotated version of Shakespeare’s first folio was recently discovered hiding in plain site at the Free Library of Philadelphia, an identification that may prove invaluable to scholars trying to understand the influence of one genius on another. Then there are Vladimir Nabokov’s drawings within Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the committed Peabody Museum affiliated amateur entomologist trying to flesh out the segments and exoskeleton of poor Gregor Samsa. Being able to see a fertile brain in flux is one of the exquisite joys of marginalia in the hand of celebrated authors. Writing in his column entitled “Marginalia,” Edgar Allan Poe enthused that in “getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin…penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” A brilliant writer not alone in that pose. Consider that old curmudgeon Mark Twain’s notation in the margins of his copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagles Around the World when he wrote “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?,” presumably whether ex nihilo or by primordial soup. The character of Jack Kerouac as both reader and writer is on display in an edition of his fellow New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pilfered from a Lowell, Mass., library in 1949, a little under a decade until the writing of his most famous book. There Kerouac underlined an observation of Thoreau’s: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”

Ever is the case, for it’s not a coincidence that Thoreau’s language has such evangelical connotations to it. Reading does have something of the religious in it, and not just all of the transcendent hoopla either. With considerations of faith, prayer is not just a matter of the soul, but of the hands as well; reverence not only a subject for the mind, but of the body contorted into kneeling, too; ecstasy fit not only for the spirit, but also as an issue of the body. Such is the same for reading, for even in our supposedly transhumanist digital age there is still the question of how you comport yourself when scanning a page, whether leaning over a desk or sprawled across a couch; of how the book is gripped or carefully opened, of the pencil or pen poised over print. Marginalia can be such a form of material supplication, before the altar of the text’s base physicality. As a method, marginalia remind us that all annotation is allusive, that all literature is connected to everything else, that the reader influences the writer as surely as the other way around, and even if the later has been dead for centuries. Plate writes that margins are “sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and…between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive—alive because they’ve been read and responded to.” Books are otherwise inert things, whereas marginalia turns the moribund page into a seminar, an academy, a disputation, a debate, a temple.

Books are, certainly, often inert things. They can exist as a type of interior decoration, as status symbol, as idol. Think of the unreaderly sentiment parodied by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when Nick comes upon the library filled with classics bonded by their uncut pages. There a drunken admirer of Jay Gatsby, wearing “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” informs Nick “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me…It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Certainly not to actually read the books, because they exist not to be interpreted, but admired. “Printed matter” as mere wallpaper. A memorable image of a certain type of crass materialism, of the idolization of the book at the expense of the actual writing, the whole thing drawn to its ultimate logical conclusion. Not only is Gatsby not underlining and marking up his margins, he’s not even going to bother cutting the pages to actually read what’s inside. By contrast, consider the marginalia made by the young poet Sylvia Plath while she was an undergraduate at Smith College first reading The Great Gatsby. Before she’d lived the bulk of her own tragic life—abuse at the hands of her husband, Ted Hughes, and her eventual suicide—Plath read of Daisy Buchanan.

When the narrator leaves Gatsby standing vigil outside of the Buchanan home, his youthful love retiring upstairs with her brutish, privileged, bigoted husband, Nick reflects that “I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” There in her neat, meticulous, tidy handwriting, Plath recorded nine words in black ink organized into eight lines marked with the caesura of a single hyphen: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Such reading is as if a prayer for intercession, and the physicality of the whole thing is instrumental. Such a method of annotation gives the flesh spirit, reminding us that books are objects—but not entirely. Such is the gravitational power of literature, that every new work alters every other so that the canon as an abstract idea can never be defined, can never be static. Marginalia, as evidence of thought and engagement, is among the synapses of that process. Marginalia is the ash left over, the melted wax of the candle proving that a fire once burnt here.

Image credit: Andrew Measham

The Subjective Mood

In my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.

I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.

As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.

But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.

This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.

Our politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.

Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.   

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.

Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.  

And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.

A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez

Why I’ll Never Read a Book a Week Ever Again

I’ve always been a slow reader. I’ve loved books since I was a kid, but I didn’t identify as a voracious reader until grad school. My writing professors touted the importance of students reading thousands of books before taking a stab at penning their own. So, in an effort to maintain positive habits after graduation, I decided to track my reading.

I’d jumped on the habit-tracking train before: daily words written, weekly miles run. For a while, I even tracked the minutes I wasted on social media (I don’t recommend this—it’s too depressing). The outer accountability of habit tracking has helped me form healthier routines and utilize my time more wisely. I set my first annual reading goal at 40 books, finishing the final page of book number 40 before the ball dropped that New Year’s Eve.

Moving into 2019, I resolved to raise my reading goal. I wanted to catch up with my own compulsive bookstore purchases and watch that pile on my nightstand shrink even more rapidly. I was intrigued by the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge I’d seen on Nicole Zhu’s blog. Surely I could handle 12 more titles than I’d read the year before. Plus, I liked the way it felt in principle: If I stayed on track, not only would I get a clean slate at the start of the work week, I’d get a second clean slate in cracking open a new book.

I started out strong, finishing four books in January, then five in February. To track my progress, I used the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which informs you when you’re ahead of schedule, on track, or behind on your reading goal. I liked my new reading pace, making haste with books. Instead of lighting up my phone screen the moment I woke up in the morning, I’d open a book instead, reading on the couch with my first cup of coffee. This habit has been a game-changer. I’ve never been able to read before bed because I fall asleep mid-page. But morning reading? I’m all for it, and for the tone it sets for the rest of my day.

As the year progressed, I read several books I wasn’t wild about. In the past, I’ve always felt at peace with abandoning a book before finishing it. Why waste time on a book I don’t love, trudging through to reach an ending that won’t satisfy? But reading a book a week made it harder to justify abandonment. I didn’t want to fall behind—like I said, Goodreads will tell you when you do. And the thought of that sent my Type A brain into a tailspin. So I wound up finishing several books I felt lukewarm about from the very first chapters. I bolted through short story anthologies cover to cover, most of which I ordinarily would’ve thumbed through, reading only the stories with openings that piqued my interest. The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life.

I also never thought I’d select a shorter book simply because it would take less time to read. But when I found myself stuck in a 700-page tome for three weeks, the next few books I picked off the nightstand pile had significantly fewer pages. I love big, sprawling novels and wish I’d made time to read more of them in 2019. My favorite summer memories from past years involve dragging a fat hardcover down to the beach, dozing off between chapters on my towel: books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And while I chose lighter books, I still barely took the time to watch the waves striking the shore this summer. And more importantly, I wasn’t immersed in reading. I was immersed in reaching a goal—a goal that was beginning to feel arbitrary.

On top of tracking my progress on Goodreads, I shared books on Instagram as I read. I was pleased when a follower told me I’d inspired her to set a reading challenge of her own. And when another friend said she’d started reading a book she saw I’d just finished, I was thrilled. Sharing a reading experience with someone is among the most intimate bonds.

I received many messages from friends who were curious about what I thought of a book I’d just posted: Would I recommend it to them? Why or why not? But it takes me a long time to digest a story. Often, I’ll come away from a book with lukewarm feelings, only to love the story more after I’ve lived with it at a distance. On the flip side, I’ve torn through certain books from beginning to end, adoring the story and its characters, only to notice it on my bookshelf months later and wonder what made it so captivating. Posting my progress as I finished books allowed little space before friends started asking, “What’d you think?” While I loved that my friends wanted to chat about books, I often didn’t have the words to do so. I felt pressured to form opinions too soon. My post-reading experience became more forced than authentic.

Finding myself in the middle of a book I never want to end is among the greatest joys of reading. I live for the desire to finish a book in one sitting, and the competing desire to slow down and make the pleasure last. Sadly, I robbed myself that pleasure this year. I blew through everything I read, including books I would’ve dragged out for weeks just to live in their worlds a little longer.

Today’s habit-happy productivity culture advocates for setting measurable, attainable goals. Finishing what we start is considered a victory. But our reading lives shouldn’t depend on filling in a Goodreads progress bar. That’s because reading isn’t just any old habit to track.

While I can’t change our society’s obsession with productivity, I can change my own. That’s why I’ve set a different reading goal for 2020. This year, it isn’t based on the quantity of books I aim to finish. Instead, I resolve to abandon books I don’t like. I’ll take the whole summer to pore over that staggering novel I never want to end. I’ll recommend books to friends after I’ve lived with the story awhile. I’ll read intentionally and joyously. After all, there are too many good books out there. From now on, I’ll take the time to savor them.

Image credit: Tonny Tran

A Pregnant Pause: Reading About Motherhood

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told, besides my husband, was my friend’s mother, Claire, who is a doula. The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “slave” and refers to a birthing professional who is devoted to the mother—or to both parents,— and ensuring her holistic well-being during the antenatal months, through labor, and into the “fourth trimester.”

Claire insisted on sending me a book. It arrived in the mail a few days later: Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey, another Melbourne-based doula. The subtitle interested me: Savvy Choices for Normal Birth.

A “savvy woman,” the book purported, understood that there was “power in women’s bodies,” and that it was necessary to “be on guard, defensive and second-guessing all the time about what the agendas are for suggesting particular procedures.”

These agendas and procedures, Dempsey continued, ranged from artificial induction of labor, to pharmaceutical pain relief (the infamous epidural), to extraction of the baby with forceps and vacuum induction. The alternative to these various interventions, the author stated, was to embrace birth as an ecstatic experience and revel in the female body’s capacity to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is essential in the laboring process.

Was I a “savvy woman”? I shut the book, terrified that for some reason, I wasn’t.

Over the following months, Dempsey’s book would sit mostly unread under a pile of other books, all pertaining to pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, that I’ve read in lieu of relying on the scant pamphlets provided me by the Australian medical establishment. Having moved hardly two years ago to this remote corner of the world, with my mother and sisters and friends back in North America or Europe, these books were really all I had.

When Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood came out in 2018, I immediately read it. I did so because I like her work—I would have read her latest book if it had been called Bicycles or Turnips. But as I followed the main character, nervously flipping a coin and hoping that fate would randomly decide whether she, at 37, should have a baby with her live-in boyfriend, I understood that unlike this narrator, I was not undecided about whether to become a mother. For whatever reason, I never have been. Whereas Heti’s narrator wonders aloud (via her iChing coin-flipping methodology) whether a female artist should have children—
But I don’t care about my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?

yes

Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no
—I, for some inexplicable reason, have always felt that motherhood and creative work will somehow go hand-in-hand for me.

And yet, I still had no idea how to be pregnant. I knew that What to Expect When You’re Expecting was considered the “bible” of pregnancy around the world, so I found a copy. Originally published in 1984 (the year I was born, my mother’s fourth pregnancy, and the only one where she accepted the use of an epidural, as she was 41 years old and the obstetrician basically told her she had to use it), the 530-page tome assumes that the newly-pregnant woman knows nothing, and therefore offers information from multiple angles on every possible topic of concern: vitamins; birthing locations; weight gain; single motherhood; alcohol consumption; preparing for labor; and in the third (and current) edition, a new emphasis on partner communications.

I flipped through it, and somehow found the page on “Emergency Delivery If You’re Alone”—i.e. what to do if your baby decides to come very quickly and you don’t have time to go anywhere and only you and your partner are around. Using an exacto knife, I removed this page from the book and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Step number one: “Try to remain calm. You can do this.”

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable,” my husband said with a pale face when he saw the page. I assured him it was just in case of an emergency.

At 13 weeks of pregnancy, I boarded a plane to Europe. I’d planned the month-long trip before getting pregnant. In Slovenia and then Italy, I promptly ignored all the dietary cautions I’d read in What to Expect and ate raw milk cheese, salami, and crudo at every chance, washing it all down with modest sips of wine.

By the time I got to Berlin, the last stop on the journey, I was finally showing, but not much. But emotionally, I was in a state—I realized that this trip was my last solo hurrah—ever. I blurted out to one friend over Syrian food in Kreuzberg: “I have always wanted to go to Berghein.” Because she’s not a native Berliner, my friend didn’t roll her eyes dramatically, but instead volunteered to meet me there the next day, for a morning rave. At 9 a.m., I arrived to the ugly beige warehouse that houses Berlin’s most notorious nightclub. I waited nervously to be judged by Sven, the legendary guard. He barked at me to remove my sunglasses, then briefly scanned my outfit—I’d worn the black shift dress that another friend had gifted me secondhand, swearing it had gotten her through pregnancy. I was allowed in, and located my friend at the espresso bar downstairs. We danced for hours, completely sober, and I placed my hand on my belly, smiling at the thought of one day telling my child, “I went out dancing when I was pregnant with you!”

As I do on every trip to Berlin, I visited the magazine shop Do You Read Me?!, in Mitte. In their tightly curated book section, I found a series called “Vintage Minis” that prints short works by famous authors on mundane subjects. I purchased one, called Making Babies, by Irish novelist Anne Enright, and read it on the plane back to Australia.

Enright does not make any attempt to provide guidance on pregnancy and motherhood. To the contrary, she herself seems to be fumbling along, and she narrates all of her anxieties, annoyances, discomforts, and elations from the first trimester onward. In the grocery store, Enright battles cravings: “Starvation is no joke, especially when you have been eating all day.” She fears, even becomes convinced, that something is wrong with her baby, it must be deformed, until the first ultrasound proves otherwise. And Enright discovers, as I did, that being pregnant is a discursive state—a woman’s body becomes a blank page, upon which others can project their own morality.

“A pregnant woman is public property,” Enright writes. “I began to feel like a bus with ‘Mammy’ on the front—and the whole world was clambering on. Four women in a restaurant cheered when I ordered dessert. A friend went into a prolonged rage with me, for no reason at all. Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouths. Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless. It was also most unfair.”

The second trimester is a time when hormones charge the body. Reading Enright’s words, I felt very emotional. Everyone was judging me, I felt—judging my body and consumption, already making me out to be a bad mother before the child was born.

Once the baby has arrived, Enright chronicles the months in terms of “Development (the baby)” and “Regression (me),” almost like an advice book that carefully outlines each stage of pregnancy in terms of sleeping, eating, bodily capabilities, etc. We see Enright struggling to hold it all together (her emotions, her career, her marriage) as the baby takes it all in stride. At five months, she goes back to her smoking habit and gets very tipsy whenever possible. At six months, she feels that her life is essentially centered upon literal shit. I, too, gave up smoking when I became pregnant and reading, I started to wonder whether I’d crave cigarettes not long after my baby is born. I also questioned my environmentally driven vision of using cloth diapers.

As time went on, I reverted to the advice books. After all, I was going to have to breastfeed this child and keep it clean and fed, all of which seemed like pretty high-stakes things. A friend lent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, and it became my cornerstone.

Gaskin is a beacon of sanity in a world of hypermedicalized child birthing. After one birth in which a doctor used forceps, followed by a traumatic premature birth on a bus traveling though Nebraska (the baby did not survive), Gaskin became motivated to provide better birth experiences for women. In 1971, she and her husband founded one of the United States’s first outside-hospital birth retreat centers, called The Farm, in Tennessee. Over the decades, Gaskin and her coterie of midwives delivered thousands of births, and she became the foremost expert in natural childbirth. I read her book from cover to cover, absorbing every single one of the birth stories with gusto I usually reserve for binge-watching Netflix.

With confident Ina May by my side, I felt equipped to write my “birth plan,” in which I voiced my intention to avoid, unless medically necessary, every kind of medical intervention ranging from induction to episiotomy to C-section. And I finally felt comfortable telling my doctor that I would not be taking the gestational diabetes test, which involved fasting for 12 hours and drinking a sugary solution, since I had no risk factors and plenty of qualms with the methodology.

At around 20 weeks of pregnancy—halfway through—I remembered that a book called Bringing Up Bebe had been a huge bestseller in the U.S. Being a Francophile, I rushed out to get it. In this 2012 book, Paris-based American journalist Pamela Druckerman offers anthropological insight on French childrearing culture. Every time Druckerman debunked another classically American, overly risk-averse stipulation, whether about pregnancy or childbirth, and cracked the code on what the French were doing, I felt like cheering out loud. Her approach showed expert journalistic slyness and cultural sensitivity—French mothers insisted they didn’t let their babies “cry it out,” but when Druckerman pried more, these mothers explained that they briefly “observed” their babies crying just for a few minutes, before acting. French childrearing was different, I came to think, because it emphasized the well-being of broader society (a child must be well-educated because it’s better for everyone; a child must go to daycare because it’s important to the family as a whole that the mother works) rather than obsessing over a child’s achievements and plotting its entrance to Harvard at six months. Druckerman, I thought, you’re my hero.

Three friends who live in Europe, who were also pregnant, shared photos on social media featuring a nice new hardcover book called The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. They seemed excited about it, so I ordered it. The author, Heng Ou, applies her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking to postnatal care for the mother. About half the book is recipes, including super food smoothies, bone broths, soups, and stews—apparently, after birthing it is important to warm the body—and I noticed one recipe, in particular, called for Chinese red dates, which according to the author “bestow amazing postpartum benefits.”

I tried to picture myself going to the Asian markets to find these red dates and preparing such a stew. Even without a baby crying on my hip, it seemed like a lot of work. I lay the Forty Days book on the shelf along with my other aspirational cookbooks such as Bar Tartine’s.

At 31 weeks of pregnancy, this stack of books sits neatly on a shelf. I have stopped reading any of them; instead I prefer to delve into the latest Rachel Cusk essay collection and Ben Lerner’s new novel. I’m not sure a book could make me a better mother than I am already destined to be. But at least I do know that I’ll raise a good reader—and maybe one who likes late-night dancing to house music.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Lost in Translation: Classical Arabic Literature

It’s a good time to be an Arab writer. December 18 marks the seventh annual UNESCO World Arabic Language Day, just one of many honors accorded by western elites on their Arab peers. Another came earlier this year when the International Booker—not to be confused with the “Arabic Booker,” a.k.a. the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; as James English observes in The Economy of Prestige, the nature of cultural prizes is to endlessly beget more prizes—had its first Arabic winner in Celestial Bodies, by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. All of this commotion means that publishers are now seeing Arabic titles spike in supply and demand. With conspicuous gestures by enterprising Gulf monarchs, there is now more financial and psychical support than ever for translating Arabic literature into English.
Yet such happy developments tend to bless the province of modern works alone. However well-intentioned their goals, the various prizes, publishers, and pecuniary goods—in short, the institutional boons to translation—are losing sight of Arabic’s great riches: the centuries-old tradition of classical literature, as well as the battle-weary corps of translators bringing it into English, often from beyond the fortified ramparts of university tenure.
There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is the Emirati-funded Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), a New York University Press venture that has released more than three dozen works of classical Arabic. For each, scholars use original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and English translation, in partnership with a board of accomplished Arabists. The books are then published as bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. Among the tenured, this series bodes a new era of friendly assistance that some have waited entire careers to see. However, the LAL editorial policy of turning away young scholars—with the worthy goal of keeping them from work that doesn’t count for tenure—means that most titles come only from comfortably established professors or translators. This stiff hierarchy finds itself mirrored outside the university, too: journalists and others not affiliated with LAL but who hope to promote classical Arabic literature have had lost potential readers to LAL’s savvy, well-funded publicity team.
But despite the odds, a number of independent translators, most of them young and untenured, have in the last few years taken to small presses with radiant, vigorous English translations. The majority are works of classical Arabic poetry, although in the case of NYU’s David Larsen, the text in question was an 11th-century etymological dictionary called Names of the Lion, translated by Larsen and published as a “chapbook” with Wave Books in 2009 and reprinted in 2017. Larsen has another Wave Books title, Lightning Scenes, of actual Arabic poetry in English.
After a characteristically insightful preface, Larsen surrounds and overwhelms his readers with lexicographical minutiae—a list of more than 400 classical Arabic synonyms for “lion” compiled by Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, plus translator’s footnotes that betray a deep erudition:

al-Rayyas              “The Strutter”al-Jukhdub           “The Great Big [Leaper in the Grass?],” also said of the locustal-`Ajannas          “The Colossus,” also said of a camelal-Sabanda          “The Daredevil,” also said of the leopard, as is al-Sabantaal-Ghadb               “The Scarlet,” said of intense saturation with rednessal-Bay’as               “The Bane,” said of anything that causes harm. God, be He exalted, speaks [in Surat al-`Araf 7:165] of “a doom that is ba’is.”al-Muhis                “Who Causes Folks to Step Along”al-Arqab                “Whose Neck is Massive”

Doing more justice to a classical Arabic tradition obsessed with its own language than many a wispy verse collection could, Larsen’s oddball gamble paid off, netting him the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. With 2020 promising his second classical poetry night for the American Oriental Society, he is clearing the cobwebs from a corner of ancient Arabic literature that English readers never get to see.
But Larsen is a working poet, just like many who grind away at classical Arabic. It’s no shock that they should choose to translate verse rather than something else. Casting an enormous shadow over this new generation of Arabic literary translators, in terms of style and voice, if not in direct tutelage, are the labors of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. For decades, he has rendered the Qur’an, pre-Islamic desert odes, and Islamic Sufi lyric poetry in a way that avoids the archaizing quality of the original, striving instead for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse,” as he explains in Desert Tracings. Here, for instance, is his opening to Qur’an 82, “The Tearing”:

When the sky is tornWhen the stars are scatteredWhen the seas are poured forthWhen the tombs are burst openThen a soul will know what it has given              and what it has held back

Spare, ghostly, thrumming with the distance of legend told in light whispers—this is not a classicist’s crib, but instead the ethereal fare one might expect in the pages of River Styx or Tin House. Being aware of this working poet’s sensibility goes a long way toward explaining the shape of translations now being made by young Arabists, and perhaps why some of them have chosen to remain outside academia, where literalizing trots are the preferred tool.
One translator in this camp is Kareem James Abu Zeid. An Egyptian-American with a UC Berkeley Ph.D. and training under the poet CK Williams, Abu Zeid has worked exclusively with modern Arabic up to now, including Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian poet Adunis (with Ivan Eubanks, New Directions, 2019). But in 2018, he secured a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate the mu`allaqat or “hung poems.” These are a group of seven—or 10, depending on the compiler—pre-Islamic desert odes as formative to Arabic as Beowulf was to English.
Channeling a sixth-century Arabian desert zeitgeist in which the grainy details of tribal warfare and harsh landscapes mingle with more expansive themes such as love, betrayal, and hubris, the odes were traditionally grist to the mill of European orientalists like Charles Lyall and Sir William Jones. But in the last century, they got their first working poet’s touch from Sells in Desert Tracings, mentioned above. Abu Zeid moves in a similar direction, rendering them “more poetic and accessible,” as in this passage from the hung poem of Imru’ al-Qays describing the poet’s own horse:

How quickly he moves,charging forward and drawing backas in a single motion, poisedto rush down from on highlike a torrent of stones.His hue: the dark of wine.His back: so slickthe saddle-felt slips from itlike raindrops off rock.

Sidestepping the familiar Latinisms and plodding cadences, Abu Zeid delivers tight, Creeley-esque lines that quicken long-dead poets back to life. Specialists will groan about yet another translation of what they see as well-worn texts, but this view forgets how novel they are to non-experts. What’s more, the specialists themselves, malnourished by a lack of apparent relevance to society, will reap the fruit of greater public awareness about classical Arabic titles beyond the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Speaking of that last work, another person to watch is Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian translator and essayist for venues like Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. One of the first women to translate the Nights, in 2018 she put out a dynamic English rendition of Aladdin with Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Just as artful but less known are her experiments with the mystical poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. According to Tentacular Magazine, Seale has teamed up with Robin Moger, a Banipal Prize-winning translator of modern Arabic literature, to workshop poems from The Interpreter of Desires, a collection that uses erotic motifs to express mystical-philosophical doctrine. At the urging of his pupils, Ibn Arabi wrote a preface to clarify the connection.
Regarding their method, Seale and Moger explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” Readers can watch a single poem evolve as Seale and Moger post its several English reincarnations online, such as these lines in Moger’s translation:

if we meet we will partbut in one moment pressing and wrapping we is emphatic
really there is space between useyes do not see itinstead the unity of usin my sparse stuff and your light
by my thin cries loosed I am spied

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such redolent material, Ibn Arabi is yet another figure touched by the poetic vision of Michael Sells. In 2018, he reprised his earlier work Stations of Desire (Ibis, 2000) with a new set of translations from The Interpreter of Desires, called Bewildered (The Post-Apollo Press), with further plans to publish a complete translation plus Arabic edition.
Some up-and-comers have cast their translator’s nets to the other side of the boat, opting for material less common in English. One is Melanie Magidow, Ph.D. alumna of University of Texas at Austin and a freelance Arabic consultant. In 2017, she received an NEA grant to translate the epic Sirat Dhat al-Himma, the longest of its kind and the only one named for a female general, Dhat al-Himma—“She of High Resolve,” a warrior’s honorific; her real name is Fatima—who brawls her way across the Arab-Byzantine borderlands. Readers can find an excerpt published through the University of Iowa. At times the English comes off a bit sclerotic, as when Magidow’s classicizing ear picks up the garble of battle cries:

Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!” “No!” Fatima hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!”

But she is more confident in passages of description or narrative:

Fatima kept to herself, riding the horses and learning the arts of war on her own–attack and retreat, lining up for battle, pursuit, defense, and charging. She made weapons from tree branches, leaves, and reeds. Whenever a camel stallion opposed her, she would shout at him and, clinging to the stallion’s mate, she would direct him until he surrendered … By the age of seven, she could fast a full day, repeating to herself the name of Allah. The Bani Tayy began to call her “Shariha the Mystic.”

Another translator whose work enlarges classical Arabic literature’s place in English is Alex Rowell. A Beirut-based journalist and managing editor of Al-Jumhuriya English, Rowell burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers). Despite being a household name in the Arab world, the 9th-century poet Abu Nuwas is all but unknown in English. An infamous philanderer, sexual adventurer, mocker of religion, and general free spirit, he’s considered above all to be classical Arabic’s bacchic bard. His wine poems, or khamriyyat, speak of a dissolute Baghdad nightlife where all pleasures can be found:

Why would I go on Hajj as long as                I’m plunged in a wine house, or a pimp’s pad?And even if you could save me from those               How could I be saved from Tiyzanabad?

Unlike most renderings of classical Arabic poetry, Rowell’s English pulls off rhyming couplets (aB-cB-dB-eB, etc.) without sounding trite or stilted, although readers will sense his taste for a bookish register when compared to the other translations seen here. Along with a sharp introduction and helpful notes, Vintage Humour finds a rare balance between poetry and philology that so completely defines the original.
It’s a balance needed right now, at a time when contemporary Arab writers are taking their turn on the world stage, in order to keep the classical tradition from being lost to view. As independent translators strive after the best English voice for lines written a thousand years ago in Arabic, they are also determined to show why those lines matter in the first place.

Image: T Foz

Lessons in Waiting for Yes

1.
I used to be in a band.

We played more than 600 shows in our roughly seven years together. We lasted seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes, and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos. We weren’t the best. We weren’t the coolest. We weren’t the hippest. But we were good. We were really fucking good. And we outworked everyone. Beyond any music we ever created, we became most known for that work ethic. We were the Road Dogs, the writers said, the Working Man’s Band, the Hardest Working Group in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Our tires were bald, our heads heavy, our guitars torn to absolute shit.

Yet all of that hard work yielded nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It yielded seven of the greatest years of my life, the majority of which were spent driving around the country, playing my guitar every night, making new friends and fans, seeing old friends and family, watching our small but devout fan base singing words that we wrote right back in our faces, and spreading our beer-soaked gospel in every corner of the country. We got to see our world in a way few people get to see it, and I’ll never suggest anything other than our being amongst the luckiest people on Earth.

But in the end, it resulted in nothing other than fond memories and a lifetime of experiences. As far as tangible returns on our years-long investment, we had nothing to speak of.

And yet here I am, starting at the same point I started at almost a decade ago. Only now, in place of a guitar and a bunch of songs, I am armed with a laptop and a bunch of stories.

I’ve decided to parlay my life and career from (arguably) the hardest industry to break into to break into (arguably) the second-hardest industry to break into. I’ve decided—thanks to a resume whose main body attempts to explain how being a “guitar player” can bring value to your company—to try and get paid doing one of the few things I know I can do well: writing.

Because being a musician—a decade of noes and passes, of agents and managers and labels and distributors and venues and bigger bands and producers telling me (in their kindest boilerplate language) that they’d rather not work with me—wasn’t enough, I’ve decided to have another go at failure in an attempt to start a writing career.

2.

In the 18 months since I gave up on a job search and threw myself headlong into trying to get paid enough to make a living as a writer, I’ve enjoyed a modicum of success. I’ve had a bunch of stories published online via sites great(ish) and (very) small. I’ve written for The New York Times and Catapult. Some publications have paid very, very well. Most have not. Every day, I apply for full-time work as a staff writer. I write and rewrite pitches. I query editors.

But I’m making a living—thanks, no doubt, to relocating from Lower Manhattan to the much less expensive Chapel Hill, N.C.—solely from writing.

There are the good gigs. The thrilling stories and the personal essays I hope to one day publish as a collection. There are the bad gigs. The dreaded listicles and the less-dreaded SEO work that pay the bills more regularly than anything else.

I write about sports and about wine. I write about the local flair of my adopted hometown and about the Italian-American food that is my family’s heritage. I write about my son, 18 months old and nearly half as tall as his mom.

Last summer, I pecked away every morning at a story about him, about her, and about me, and emerged with a 45,000-word manuscript of which I am very proud. I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for my mom, who’s been dead half a decade, and for my family, who are still here. I wrote because I felt that I had a story I had to write. I wrote for all the reasons the half-cocked self-help gurus tell you to write; “Don’t write the story because you want to get published. Write the story because you need to write the story.”

I needed to write that story. But I also wrote it with the intention of selling it to a publisher. Because fuck the self-effacing, pre-failure refrain of writing only to write because the story needs to be written. Because I want this story to be successful and I want it to be read and passed on and, at best, I want it to resonate with people. Because I want to be paid for my work. Because I want the book tour and the trappings that come with some bit of success.

Because I want it to be a book. Not just a manuscript. And I feel not an ounce of shame in saying that.

And it will. Someday. I have little doubt.

But first I have to wade through another cycle of the endless noes and passes, as the 50-plus literary agents whom I’ve queried and the 50-plus more that I’ve yet to query tell me in their kindest boilerplate language that they’d rather not work with me.

And while I recognize that most aspiring writers’ unsuccessful queries number in the dozens, if not the hundreds, and while I’ve already had dozens, if not hundreds of editors pass on my story pitches, it doesn’t take the sting out of the Thanks-But-No-Thanks responses that litter my inbox at present.

3.

It took seven years and 600 shows for the wind to leave my sails as a rock ‘n’ roller. Seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos for the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters to cause me to crumble under the endless weight of denial, under the endless reminder that my music just wasn’t quite good enough.

So I still have some time. I still have hundreds of queries to send and editors to pitch and more manuscripts to write and more people to bug with my endless optimism. And if after seven years, my resolve is destroyed by the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters, I can always try out for the Mets.

It can’t possibly be harder than trying to write for a living.

Image: Scott Warman