Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Novel on Yellow Paper, 1936

Stevie Smith’s first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, made a big splash in 1936 and I think it’s still worth your time. In the protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, Smith has created one of the most vibrant, funny, and specific voices in fiction that I’ve ever encountered. Anyone interested in voice would do well to study this one.

It’s not really a novel: there’s little plot--and what plot is there is buried in digressions and indirections--but it’s so funny and surprising that it does pull you through for quite a ways. (I do admit, however, that by around page 200, I am done and it can be hard going to read those last 50 pages or so.)

She is so pert and determined: “I think the two subjects about which there is most nonsense talked are sex, and how to bring up children,” she writes after a long section on her absurd sex education classes in school. Then, in a new paragraph, she boldly soldiers on, “So now shall we talk about how to bring up children?”

I love that wild irreverence, that bold female voice that somehow manages to be both utterly ordinary and colloquial and, at the same time, totally individual.

A nice page from her hometown university at Hull.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Smith on Hearbreak, Booze

“And I must say, and here never better, there’s nothing like the bar if you’re feeling a bit below par.”--Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper

Stevie Smith Week

I'm declaring it Stevie Smith week here at Fernham. I've just re-read the amazing, puzzling, exasperating, and hilarious 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper and my nerves are all jangled from the experience, so I'm going to inflict it on you.

We'll start with just a taste:

“And the people who say that children’s voices are the purest music certainly ought to be the people who sit near children’s playgrounds.”

As she says, "Read on, Reader, read on and work it out for yourself."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Victor was right

It was 1992 or so. I was in a stuffy apartment in New Haven at a party. Just a grad student party, but a good one. And a scary one: some young professors were there, too.

Victor Luftig, a young professor of British modernism, cornered me and pointed at Tom Perrotta with his beer bottle: you see that guy? Tom? Tom Perrotta? He’s the real deal. He’s going to be big.

No way.

Victor was a nice guy. Not mysterious or cruel. I could usually understand everything he said. These were not signs of future promise at Yale in the 90s. Aware of my own niceness, I tried to keep my distance.

Tom was nice, too. He was the only College Writing Tutor who was in my extended circle of acquaintances. He seemed like a good guy. Someone you’d like to watch a game with. Someone Victor probably did watch games with.

Tom was not going far. Victor was not the one to predict who would.


Years later, I’m sitting in the basement in a neglected but grand campus building, working on one of five computers shared by the 40 of us who teach freshman writing at Harvard. Tom works there, too. He walks in with a new haircut and a black leather jacket. MTV is actually making his novel into a movie. I started to pay attention.

Now, he’s everywhere. I’m really happy for him. I thought Little Children was a good book, a smart book, And I remember loving Bad Haircut.

I suspect that Perrotta’s success comes out of his being a good guy and being a really smart guy: he never presented himself as someone out of the ordinary so he can write novels about ordinary people that aren’t condescending. This seems to me to get at the heart of some of the problems of literary fiction: in short, and to be totally bald about it, perhaps novelists often feel so alienated from the world that they end up writing about worlds which fail to reconnect with readers. This is more about class alienation than anything else. I’m tired of reading books about writers and teachers, books that seem to imagine writers and teachers as the only people whose inner lives are worthy of consideration. Even Virginia Woolf stretched to imagine the inner world of the wife of a Conservative MP. I keep thinking about Laila Lalami’s eloquent plea for more fiction about poor people and keep looking, looking, looking for examples. While Tom doesn’t do that, he isn’t writing about how hard it is to write a novel in Brooklyn…

So, I am proud to have known Tom and happy for him. His novels are really good--maybe he is our generation’s Jane Smiley or Richard Russo, writing really good, dependable books every other year and then, occasionally a great one, but pretty consistently capturing something about the zeitgeist.

They’re not the books that thrill me, however. That’s probably not surprising, given all the time I’ve spent reading British modernism. So it’s interesting to me to witness the little critical firestorm over the reviews he got last weekend.

Like Levi, I guess I would have been perfectly happy with the moniker “dependable” for Liesl Schillinger, who wrote the cover review for the New York Times. But why am I calling someone dependable whose review of the new DeLillo was so openly out of sync with his project? Hers wasn’t an informative, biting, or pleasurable bad review, just an anti-intellectual one. Still, like Carolyn, I would have felt a little intimidated to have my review up against hers--an inaccurate phrase, but that is how it must feel.

I was grateful, then, to Mark for taking the time to point out Schillinger’s inanities:
And perhaps this muddle makes sense to you but to us it's just, well, a muddle:

Usually, when you ask yourself, “What would a Perrotta character do?” you know the answer: he’d do the familiar, guiltily compromised, self-interested thing that any normal guy would do ... and you understand him, even if you don’t applaud him.

Back to the Style section, if you please.
Interesting, how the "strong silent type" line made Mark squirm with agony, made Carolyn wish she'd thought of it, and went right past me as a little lame and a little funny. In any case, kudos to Carolyn for her review in the LA Times. I liked this bit here:
Tom Perrotta ("Little Children," "Election") brings this world to life with a few strokes. He never condescends to modern suburbia -- instead, he mucks around its corners, opens closets and reveals oddball secrets. It's a kind, gentle satire -- one that gives equal time to its villains and its heroes. The evangelical pastor, for instance, believes he's doing the right thing, even when he shows up uninvited on a parishioner's doorstep to shield him from sin.

It veers toward cliché, perhaps, but that’s a hazard in trying to describe this Perrotta world of ordinary suburbia.

Updated to add what you already know: that Laila liked it pretty well.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Girls Night Out for Girls Write Now

I turned in my tenure materials this week and was thinking that I needed a break, a treat. What would it be?

A couple hours later, I have an email from Lauren Cerand telling me about the benefit she was organizing for Girls Write Now. Girls Write Now is a nonprofit that pairs NYC high school girls with a passion for writing with women professional writers: the coolest kind of Big Sister group I could imagine. Tayari Jones, newly moved to Jersey City, was going to be reading. How could I resist the chance?

Tayari and Janice Erlbaum were the two readers and they’ve already posted their accounts of the night on their blogs. My version will be kind of backwards.

I had arranged to meet my husband for dinner on Bleecker & Elizabeth at 8:40. When I did, I was whipped—a mild cold, the whole tenure thing (did I mention that?), and then the events of the night, had me reeling.

“How was it?”

“Well…It started at Bluestockings, this radical feminist bookstore, and three pairs of girls read poetry with their mentors…then I walked up to Houston and got a grilled veggie pita…,” continuing in a flat monotone, “then I went to the Slipper Room and I met Tayari…and she introduced me to Tara Betts, the slam poet, who'd read over at Bluestockings…and I saw Lauren…and she introduced me to Katherine Lanpher—do you remember reading about her? She used to have that radio show with Al Franken? And she wrote that book about moving to New York in midlife that came out right when we moved to New York, too…and then, Lauren told Tayari that the burlesque dancer wanted to go first…so she did. And she stripped down to a g-string and tassels…and then Tayari read and that was great and I clearly have to read The Untelling right now…and then Janice Erlbaum read from a new book and it was incredibly moving, too, and made me want to read both her books…and then it was time to go meet you, but there was a go-go dancer dancing while I left and I missed the band?” I concluded, slow and puzzled at how this could all have happened in three hours.

“So, it wasn’t very good?”

“I just am not really sure what just happened.”

Still unsure, but more and more amazed. I got online this morning and sent in my donation to Girls Write Now. You should, too. Besides, I don't think I've ever been cool enough to have been to a Gothamist-recommended event.

And while I was uncertain about the feminist politics of burlesque dancing in the abstract, and embarrassed in person, it is really, really fun and funny to watch. I am not that brave.

To cap this all off, I went to class this morning and learned that my student, whom I thought I’d seen at the reading, was indeed there, and is a youth mentor with Tara. Very cool indeed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf

So, we didn’t watch Satyricon, because my husband came home on Friday with a video for me: Alan Bennett’s screen adaptation of The History Boys. I loved it. And, having missed it in London AND New York, I was very glad to be able to see it at home.

All of which has me thinking about Alan Bennett and Virginia Woolf. And sent me to read the play I’d forever meant to read, Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I only knew about it from Brenda Silver’s Virginia Woolf Icon. (You can read an essay by Silver & emerging from the book here and you can read my review of Silver, too.)

I was not all that surprised to find that I loved the play and found it hilarious even as I could see its enraging anti-feminism pretty clearly. The play, a teleplay from the 70s, is about a closeted man, a lecturer in English literature, whose crisis involved a grotesquely defaced portrait of Woolf (with enormous tits) that’s up on the board for his lecture on Bloomsbury.

I went on to read another play, with a slideshow, in which a batty woman shows slides, one of which depicts one thing, but she says it depicts “Percival before he went to India and died.” In Woolf’s novel The Waves Percival dies in India.

And both The History Boys and The Uncommon Reader are rife with inspirational thoughts on reading that chime very closely to Woolf’s own thoughts.

But for a man of Bennett’s generation and working class from the North of England to admit an affinity with Woolf (that elite, effete, Londoner) would be, I guess, anathema.

Still, there’s definitely a strong love-hate relationship to Woolf here. To be continued….?

UPDATE: I’m sure you’ve already seen Maud Newton’s lovely review of Bennett for the LA Times. And, to my surprise, it was reviewed in AM NY (the subway freebie paper) this morning as part of their—get this—new book section.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Spam of the Day

So nerdy is your humble litblogger, so focused is she on finding good writing implements, that this one took me a good minute to decipher:

No more lonely nights! The new era of big pen!s begins!

Thinking to self: big pens...hmm...would I be a better writer with a big pen?


Friday, October 12, 2007

It Amused the Bookstore Clerk…

…so it might amuse you.

It’s been a long week here at Fernham. Monday was a holiday, so that’s three days with the little ones to start. Plus, I’m up for tenure and pulling my file together. It’s enough to send a girl to her Tylenol bottle (and her wine bottle, for that matter) a few more times than usual.

So, clutching my coupon for 30% off one item, I headed to the chain bookstore on the way home from work to purchase:
  1. Orlando. I know, I’ve read it, I own it many times over, but I’m teaching it Tuesday night and I didn’t have the annotated edition yet (and forgot to request one from Harcourt). Woolf with an introduction by the wonderful Maria DiBattista! Woolf with footnotes! Hooray!
  2. Satyricon. My husband has been wanting Fellini & La Dolce Vita was $40; Amarcord & 8 ½ were out (as was Casino Royale, which is what I really wanted to see….) So, a Fellini Friday it is, and finally,
  3. The Jungle Book, because it’s never too early for Kipling. Because I’ll do Disney & I’ll do princesses, but so far I’ve managed to contain the Disney princesses.
It makes perfect sense to me: a little fantasy for everyone in the family. But, I suppose it could seem a little funny. It certainly did to the guy ringing up my purchases.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing's Nobel

Congratulations to Doris Lessing.

I slog through her works--she is a writer I admire more than love--but this is great news and a happy, unexpected event.

I would have guessed that she'd remain a contender forever.

I'm surprised at how excited I am.

I remember going to London a few years ago. I was still living in rural Indiana and was just pining for city life. My friend, by contrast, was tiring of London and the publishing circuit. Her emblematic story of how life was just too dull was that she had been to a party the night before and there was Doris Lessing in the corner with her cat...

She captured so perfectly the tone of one for whom that sight was an inevitability of a certain kind of publishing party. And I, playing the part of the country mouse, sat, mouth agape, burning with envy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Women and Leadership, Newsweek and Hollywood

By virtue of my affiliation with the Women’s Studies Program at Fordham, I got invited to the Women in Leadership Conference at the Museum of Natural History yesterday morning. It was sponsored by Newsweek and timed to coincide with the publication of their special issue.

I had to teach at 11:30, so I could only attend the first panel. I’d give it a very mixed review indeed. Arriving at the museum itself was exciting. I was marching up Columbus, running a bit late, behind three or four smartly-suited women in their forties. One had a small rollerbag. One was clutching an email with a line or two highlighted, clearly squinting to find the right address. I love that sense that we’re all going to the same place. And we were.

We entered by way of the new auditorium at 79th and Columbus. On the gracious old bricked path sat a new Infiniti. Infiniti was a corporate sponsor. Later, as the panel closed, a woman from Infiniti got up and introduced the new car (They were giving one away.)—the EX. It’s a sweet car. She had a funny term for it: it’s a new luxury crossover... She managed to list these and a couple more adjectives and I kept waiting. I’m teaching freshman writing this semester, so I’m on alert: Where’s the NOUN! Where’s the NOUN?

The crowd was corporate and attractive. Lots of handsome, trim, intelligent-looking women in really nice dark suits. I was too late for coffee, but it was fun to mill about in their midst. There were tons of diversity pamphlets from PriceWaterhouse Cooper, another corporate sponsor. I picked one up. Sad to say, that pamphlet contained some of the clearest feminist statements of the day—about coming out at work, maternity leave policies, the perspective being a minority brings, ambition and gender, and balancing family with career. I think that in Hollywood and academia we pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve socially and we are also averse to bureaucracy so that we often fail to make the structural changes that corporate culture makes. Maternity leave can be better for attorneys than for academics. The corporate world is not angelic—recent lawsuits at Bloomberg and Madison Square Garden, just to name two, remind us that we have a long way to go—but I admire the way that some corporations actively try to write anti-discrimination policies rather than just trusting themselves to be fair, failing to notice that the men have tenure at Ivy League schools and the women are administrators.

Overall, the prevailing lack of feminist consciousness was my big disappointment with the panel. The panelists were Andrea Wong (President and CEO of Lifetime), Mara Brock Akil (creator & executive producer of “Girlfriends” and “The Game” on the CW), Kyra Sedgwick, and Rachael Ray. Cynthia McFadden of Nightline moderated.

McFadden was a disappointingly casual moderator. She opened by asking Andrea Wong if Hollywood was still a boy’s club. Wong seemed thrown by this question and then gave the answer that lots of powerful women give: I just motored through and chose to ignore everything.

It’s a supremely disappointing answer. And she was very disappointing throughout. But what can one expect from the woman who brought Wife Swap and Dancing With the Stars to television? She makes her living on trash and the exploitation of women.

By contrast, Mara Brock Akil was thoughtful and smart: for me, she was the star of the panel. When Wong said, in response to a question about Lifetime’s reputation as a channel for women-as-victims, that she was hoping to make Lifetime into a place of inspiration, Brock Akil just stopped her and expressed her firm disagreement. Women are complex and stories need to be interesting, she reminded everyone. (Stop the presses, I know, but this was a relief after the inanities that preceded it.) She said that as a black woman she sometimes wanted to combat overblown negative stereotypes with emphatically positive ones, but that, instead, she chose to try for a good story, one that depicts black women in their full complexity. I was grateful for a thoughtful answer from a young and powerful woman.

Brock Akil also talked pointed about the hiring process in ways that resonated with my own job. She said that when a new show is going on the air, it gets a greenlight and suddenly there’s a huge scramble to find staff. If you’re in a room full of men, it can happen that all the people they happen to know and can recommend are also all men. So she says her job as a producer is to pause, slow down, and try to think about women and minorities who might be qualified and recruited to apply. I try to think about these issues each fall when I have to hire an adjunct to teach a class that starts—oops—tomorrow.

Rachael Ray was herself—a little annoying, very casual, kind of charming—it’s going to be hard for her to continue her “aw, shucks” routine for much longer. She is clearly an independent woman and a workaholic and, while nervous to appear overtly feminist, she seemed like she had a strong intuitive sense of how to support women and men and their families in the workplace.

Kyra Sedgwick was also terrific—smart and funny and thoughtful about the work/family balance. She seemed to understand acutely the challenges facing female directors in Hollywood. She mentioned four or five, and talked about their struggles to get projects financed.

Unfortunately, McFadden didn’t follow up effectively here: why is the route to becoming a director still so difficult for women? What might women do to ease the path? To her credit, Wong did wake up for a moment to say that she hoped that Lifetime could become a destination for female directors—and stars like Sedgwick—to get projects made that might not get made elsewhere. Sedgwick’s body language clearly expressed that she was happy right where she was, thank you.

In all, this was an interesting diversion—one I’ve clearly spent far too much time thinking about—but a disappointing showing for contemporary mainstream feminism. There was no mention of any of the structural changes that might make work, ambition, and achieving power and influence easier for women, no talk about child care, health care, affirmative action. Everything—and this seems to be a problem about American power—was always pushed back onto the individual: I succeeded because of my brothers, my mother, myself; I now try to mentor others (or not).

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s slim hilarious novella was a real treasure, a find from BEA. I devoured it with tremendous pleasure and am happy to see it got some attention on Sunday the 30th. (You can read the first chapter here. It'll hook you.)

The premise is silly and delightful: that the Queen (unnamed beyond her title but very like the current holder of the English throne) stumbles into a bookmobile one day when her dogs get loose. Too polite, too aware of her dumbfounding effect on commoners, she checks out a book: Ivy Compton-Burnett. This permits some small talk and necessitates, awkwardly, a return the following week. Again, overcome by her own politeness, she returns Compton-Burnett and checks out the well-pedigreed Nancy Mitford.

One thing turns to another, and the Queen becomes a Reader. Soon, she is disrupted state dinners with quotations from literature, unnerving the President of France by asking him about Jean Genet. Suddenly, bootblacks and cooks who read get promoted over the political animals who have no time for thought. Palace machinations and retributions ensue. Prince Philip, heading down the hall with his hot water bottle, distinctly puzzled at the sight of his wife so absorbed in a book.

I picked this book up because Bennett, author of a teleplay entitled Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, plays on Woolf’s literary criticism (The Common Reader, I & II) in his title. Not yet having read the teleplay (note to self: must read teleplay), this new book seems like a great entrée into Bennet’s thinking on Woolf and reading.

And it is: I read it a month ago and life does call me to return, so I can’t articulate the notion precisely here. Here’s an initial crack: Bennett, like a lot of English male writers, resents the ascendancy of Woolf and Bloomsbury snobbery in general failing to recognize how far her shares her generous sense that literature should be--is--open to all readers.

The Uncommon Reader is a delightful pun on that notion of common and commoner: the Queen is the opposite of common and yet she falls in love with reading in the most common and familiar way and, like all of us who are committed readers, her reading consumes her, competes with her life, in ways that have unpredictable consequences.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Dad, look at the birds flying apart and together
flying this way and that way.
Up into groups.
Doing loop-de-loops.
--Olivia, 4 1/2

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So Near--and yet so far

I think it was the fifth time the baby threw up that I knew I wasn't going to be able to blog that day. She's fine. Something didn't agree with her. And the look on the face of a baby (well, she's 1 1/2) throwing up is incredible: I can see where horror film special effects people get their ideas. It's so funny and sad and touching to see the look of horror, surprise, and confusion on her face as she erupts. Poor baby.

That's only the most disgusting and dramatic thing that has kept me away. And it's too bad. In my head, I have half-written posts.

And I've been writing and reading. And doing stuff. But that little twenty-minute window to write it up has evaporated of late.

Monday, October 01, 2007

R.I.P. Miss Moneypenny

Actress Lois Maxwell has died. She was 80. She played Miss Moneypenny--surely one of the great names ever!--in the first 14 James Bond films!