Memoirs by Men, or why bother?

Of course, not. What editor worth his salt would choose to group reviews of memoirs written by men under that title? No one. But Memoirs by Women, now that makes a lot of sense. Memoirs are by definition by men, so Memoirs by Men would be redundant. Memoirs by women, on the other hand, are, well, memoirs by women. You know, we women have so much in common. And look, the reviewer is a woman! We belong to that group of writers who live, as Meg Wolitzer, showed convincingly, on the “second shelf.”

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review column “Chronicle” groups brief reviews of four Memoirs by Women. What do they have in common? Let’s see: Blue Plate Special (Kate Christensen) is “a paean to cooking and food”; Nine Years Under (Sheri Booker) is the story of a girl’s summer job working in “funeral home in a poor, urban setting”; Mother Daughter Me (Katie Hafner) is the account of a “yearlong experiment in mutigenerational living”; My Animals and Other Family (Clare Balding) is a book about the author’s “deep affection for the creatures…that populated her childhood.” Try as one might, it is difficult to perceive what connects these memoirs except that they have indeed been written by women, and therefore, apparently, deserve no more than one paragraph in an omnibus review. (Compared, say, to the full–if only half page–review of a memoir by a thirteen year-old autistic Japanese boy.)

shirinThe pointlessness of the grouping becomes more striking by contrast with the one book that is not so much reviewed as summarized, but accompanied by a stunning photograph by Shirin Neshat, a well-known Iranian photographer, videographer, and filmmaker.

She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, edited by Kristen Gresh. This is not a memoir by a woman, rather a collection of essays that accompany the images, images taken by women. To review this collection as by women would have had a certain political sense and interest. But that’s not what happened.

One can only guess at the editorial “reasoning” behind the grouping: here are four books no one will read so let’s give them a break by putting them together under the fabulous photograph taken by an Iranian artist?

But perhaps it’s a mistake to look for the reasons behind the second-shelf treatment women writers contend against. Literary misogyny does not require reasons. All it requires is continuing resistance.

Back to School

I’m not going back to school in the way that “back to school” meant as a child (new shoes, new teachers), or as an adult who, after experimenting with life decides that she wants to go back to finish a degree, start a new one. I’m going back to school as I have for decades–to teach. My problem is not what to wear for the first day of class, though I’m sure I will try on several outfits. I am wondering, though, how I’m going to teach what I’d decided to assign more than six months ago.


In “Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education,” Mark Edmundson meditates on the state of undergraduate teaching in the United States. Much of Edmundson’s view of what makes a “great teacher” in a four-year college doesn’t really describe the challenges of animating a graduate seminar. But one comment in the review of the book seemed apt: that the task of the teacher is to introduce students to books that have changed their own lives in order to inspire the students to change theirs. (Naturally, this assumes that students want to be transformed.)

“Experimental Selves, Graphic Subjects,” the course I’m teaching this fall, is about learning to read books, memoirs in which the authors write and draw the self and, in the process, perform an exemplary transformational act. Here’s an instance of what I mean:

Bobby 060

This image comes from Bobby Baker’s extraordinary visual memoir, “Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me,” which transmits the experience of Baker’s struggle with years of treatment and hospitalization in the UK, from which she emerged in a state of health.

The text reads: “The idea of giving myself two mouths suddenly popped into my head. This is one of my all-time favourites and the first of many self-portraits.”

I have no idea what I’m going to say about this portrait, about the two mouths. But I hope that together the students and I will find a way to enter Baker’s project and be touched by it. I’m not at all sure that this is what Edmundson means by “transformation,” but it’s what I hope to make happen. Can we begin to see ourselves in a self-portrait other than our own?

Three Shades of Black

NancyblackshadesSummer Black, of course. No New Yorker needs persuading about wearing black in the summer―is there any other color?―but apparently London women need help, or at least encouragement to believe that black is still the new black. Hence the reassurance by style mavens that it’s more than OK to dress all in black this summer, despite the heat wave (a blip compared to New York weather), and despite all the advice to go floral and, well, summery. To wear black is to aim for “cool girl Scandinavian.” I have no idea what the “cool girl Scandavian” look is (the sartorial version of Scandanavian noir?), but there is plenty of black in London.

A recent trip with a visiting American teenager to Harrods had lots of black on display. (The fabled store is now owned by the father of Dodi, the boyfriend of Princess Diana, who died with her sixteen years ago; there’s a memorial shrine to the couple on the lowest floor of the store)

But the black that caught more than my eye was the number of women dressed entirely in black, shopping.

burkasIt was hard for me not to stare as I tried to try to make sense of the contrast between these women covered head to toe in black, with only a slit for their eyes, and the display of gorgeous luxury items for which the store is famous. What, I wondered, were they shopping for? And what were they wearing under the burkas (or burqas as it’s often spelled here)? In London burkas and headscarves are omnipresent and, for the time being at least, the fact of women covering their faces is not moving forward as a political issue. It has, however, been raised by conservatives.

The same is not true in France, where the question of the scarf (le voile) and face covering is a hotly debated and fiercely argued question.

burka2In France the rationale for banning the wearing of the headscarf is part of the secularist legislation banning all “ostentatious” religious symbols from the cross to the yarmulke–and the anti-headscarf position is largely supported by many well-known French feminists. But given all the other political and economic issues associated with the large Muslim population in France, the question of the headscarf is rarely just a matter of opinion. It has become a lightning rod for protest, often accompanied by violence on both sides―protesters and police.

In the summer of 2003 I was in London for the astounding heat wave that caused many deaths here and in Europe. I found myself more than puzzled, horrified really, to see many Muslim families in Kensington Gardens where the men were sitting on the grass in open-necked shirtsleeves, and the women tented in black tending to the children running around freely.

Surely, the acceptance of cultural difference has its limits? Or am I just depressingly Western?

Twitter and Trolls

The FEMEN movement has warned London and Britain that an offensive on the city is in the works. Inna Shevchenko whose face inspired a new image for Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic as portrayed on French stamps, is proud of her activism, especially if it provokes Right-wing Christian groups to fits of range: “Now all homophobes, extremists, fascists,” she is said to have tweeted, “will have to lick my ass when they want to send a letter.”


I’ve been wondering whether they’ll be coming to New York anytime soon, and if so, will their picture appear in the Times? A girl can dream.

But FEMEN isn’t here yet, and one can only imagine the kind of reaction they will get if the criminal rape fantasizers thriving in the Twittersphere have bare breasts to deal with.

Since I have yet to master Twitter, I’m paying a lot of attention to its effects, and finding it hard to understand why it’s so appealing to so many―for good or for ill. But there’s no missing the ease with which it can become a mode of intimidation. This past weekend, in order to create policy changes on the medium, there was a 24-hour boycott (#twittersilence) over the obscenity, abuse, and rape threats proliferating online, ostensibly triggered by the announcement of the Jane Austen ten-pound bank note, and aimed at Caroline Criado-Perez, the young feminist activist involved in the campaign to keep a woman’s face on the currency. Not all women agreed on silence. Some felt it was better to fight back, but the excesses were a wake-up call.

And it wasn’t all about Jane Austen. Living women writers were equally vulnerable to attack.

Mary Beard

While Criado-Perez was taking cover outside the city―what was thought to be her home had been targeted for potential violence– historian Mary Beard, famous for her popularization of classics scholarship on television (and criticized by some for her appearance―long, gray hair among other sins against feminine beauty) has been threatened not only with rape but with decapitation and bombing. Although some of the feminists here think that Twitter silence is the wrong way to go, better to stand up to bullies and online trolls, the reactions have forced the general manager of Twitter in the UK and the director of trust and safety to promise (weakly) that they will build in better report buttons on various platforms. The police are also on alert.

What connects sex, text, feminism and misogyny? There’s a strange stew of extremist ingredients simmering and ready to boil over the moment anyone turns up the heat on the status quo about women’s place in contemporary politics and culture.

No one seems to have a handle on the sudden proliferation of misogyny conjoined with social media. But I can’t say it makes me want to learn how to have a public face, as it were, on Twitter, any time soon, even if it’s been touted as a way to create attention for my new book.

“New-Wave Feminists,” starring Jane Austen

I’ve long been enamored of new-wave movies since they changed my life, and so it was a treat to see feminists referred to as “new wavers” in a spirit of excitement. A lot has been going on this summer by activists of feminism’s fourth wave. For one thing, due to campaigning by feminist activists, the Bank of England announced that the face of Jane Austen would appear on the next ten-pound note. No small achievement.


And crossing the channel for a moment, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the Femen leader was to be the face of France’s iconic Marianne: a new postage stamp designed to mark François Hollande’s presidency.

But, back to England, and not just stamps.

I’m not sure how many lions it takes to make a pride, but there’s a pride of feminist journalists reporting in the Guardian and a great deal of attention to feminist issues, from the mass rally in Hyde Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes’ action in 1913 to the Jane Austen story, to the battle against the display of what’s called “lads’ mags” in a large grocery chain. (A typical title: “Nuts and Zoo”).

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the avowedly feminist triumph of getting Jane Austen’s face on the ten-pound note produced an unpleasant, and even violent series of misogynist reactions posted on social media.

Elizabeth Criado-Perez, the brave young activist who led the campaign to have Austen’s face on the note, was attacked and threatened with rape on Twitter. Various conversations about an effective response have ensued guaranteeing that this individual case will not go the way of anecdote. Rather, this specific attack has led to a widespread conversation about the kind of harassmentthat has repeatedly been taking place across the Internet.

Even the distinguished classicist Mary Beard has entered the fray, “naming and shaming” an Internet “troll” who mocked her on Twitter. This feels like the beginning of a serious debate here about what’s been dubbed “anti-social media.

janeaustenI almost forgot. Jane Austen is also making news because of the recent installation of a larger than life Mr. Darcy (a k a Colin Firth) emerging from the Serpentine in a wet shirt as a publicity stunt to promote a new tv channel’s production of yet another film version of Pride and Prejudice. It seems that the lake scene is the scene from the novel (or would that be the movie?) most Austen fans like best.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hadley Freeman’s primer for how “not to be a dick on the internet,” belated advice to Anthony Weiner, pro-actively, how to fight back against internet abuse.

I know I’m given to idealizing places where I do not live, and god knows there’s plenty of sexism and misogyny alive and well in the UK, but I confess it is a restorative experience to read a newspaper column that refers to “fourth-wave” feminism as if it were something real, interesting, and potentially effective.

What will I do when I’m back with the Times?