Friday, January 04, 2008

“Not going yet.”

I’m going to write about something that’s bugged me for about twenty years. I don’t know why, but every time I think about it, I get irritated.

It’s such a little thing, you’ll think me silly, but here it is: Jane Tomkins, an influential feminist critic of American literature, wrote an essay that I read in graduate school that announced her turn from traditional scholarly work to more essayistic writing.

In general, I’m in favor of this move. I don’t like jargony academic writing and I love informed essays about literature.

However, in this particular piece ["Me and My Shadow," 1987], she describes herself sitting in her study (which I knew then to be in Chapel Hill), looking out over a wooded scene, in stocking feet, thinking about how she has to go to the bathroom but not going yet. “Not going yet,” appeared, as I recall as a fragment.

And, for some reason that fragment just sets me off.

I mean this made me so mad that I wrote an essay against the personal turn in feminist criticism--my first publication--which basically is my lament at her self-indulgence.

This little detail, “not going yet,” seems so incredibly inane to me that every time I think about Jane Tompkins (which is not that often) or her husband, Stanley Fish (more often, as he pops up on the Times weekly), or about personal criticism or about Chapel Hill, I do a little inner shiver.

I did one today. I’m in the midst of writing a book review of Susan Gubar’s Rooms of Our Own, a lovely, if flawed, adaptation of A Room of One’s Own for a contemporary context. In my review, I wanted to praise the elegant design of the book and I got pretty far into a paragraph doing so before I noticed that the thing I don’t like about the cover (and there is much to like) is that it matches my mental image of the study in Chapel Hill where Tompkins sat, holding her urine. Ick!

Funny, too, because I sit here, in my (not very sylvan) dining room, in stockinged feet. And, like Tompkins, sometimes I put off going to the bathroom if I’m on a roll with my writing. So I don’t know quite why this bugs me so much.

But it does.

Bah humbug.

(Someone else thinks through the Tomkins issue with more patience than I here.

4 comments:

Kate S. said...

I've never read Tomkins' essay but I'm quite sure that my response to that detail would echo yours! I have read a good bit of Gubar's Rooms of Our Own and I feel rather ambivalent about it. I love the idea that underpins it, but I'm not so keen on her execution of that idea. I would love to read your review when you're finished it.

Sally said...

Anne--I'm sorry--excuse me? Jane Tomkins and Stanley Fish lived in Orange County, North Carolina, in which Chapel Hill is, but they did not live in Chapel Hill, and don't forget, they both taught at Duke! Duke was the center of the universe for the beginning of that style of critical writing as far as I could ever tell. (I'll forgive you for the jab at baby boomers, but this one is much harder!)

Anne said...

Sally: I stand corrected. And I knew they were at Duke, not UNC. Sorry if what I thought was shorthand sounded--was--just plain wrong.

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