Faces in a Crowd

On my way to work this morning, winding my way through the crowded streets of the garment district, I looked up to see three New York City policeman mounted on horseback.

It’s not as though I’d never seen mounted police before, but it was startling on this brilliant and freezing morning to come upon three of them poised for action. What could be happening? As I turned the corner, the reason for their presence was revealed: several streets of advertisements for the Super Bowl—people lined up at various booths, stamping their feet with the cold.


I found myself thinking how amazing it was that hordes—and this was just the beginning—hordes (mainly of men in down coats) were hanging out participating in some kind of pre-game mystery, possibly shopping for souvenirs (of the event that had not yet taken place). It wasn’t amazing that they were participating in what appeared to be a ritual. That was predictable. What struck me was how you can feel utterly disconnected from what appears to be a large segment of the human race. In this case of American men gathering—or pre-gathering—for a major national activity. Football. I had a moment of utter clarity: this is something that could never, never touch me. It was a comforting feeling. I spend a lot of time dithering about doing this or that, the relative advantages/disadvantages of going here, there, buying this, that. In the morning sunlight I felt gloriously detached. No way I belonged on Super Bowl boulevard, newly created for the event.

Later that day, in the early evening, after teaching my first class of the semester, I got on the F train with a young colleague, headed for Brooklyn. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken the F train, but it appeared to be the quickest way to get to an event in Dumbo: a book party sponsored by PEN for new members and new books. Since my book was a new book, and since I was a member, I absolutely wanted to be there. After all, how often would I have a new book? And how much time and effort had I already invested in getting the book into the world? It would be a shame to miss the occasion. And how great was PEN?

My friend and I arrived at the bookstore—the Powerhouse Arena. It was an astoundingly large space for books—nothing like it in Manhattan, huge, spacious—and by the time we had hiked several long blocks in the freezing cold from the subway stop, we were happy to join the packed crowd in the store.

Naturally, my first concern was seeing whether my book was there. It was!

I was happy to see the book displayed. I was thrilled to be included in just the kind of event I want to be part of: the polar opposite of the Super Bowl.


But here’s the thing. I looked around at the many faces of fellow writers, thinking surely I would know, encounter, or at least recognize someone. But as we wandered through the the vast and noisy aisles, gazing at the books on offer, it soon became clear that while all those familiar faces looked familiar, they in fact were not. Without my friend by my side, I would have stood in a corner feeling completely ridiculous—and utterly lonely. The music was loud, the crowd was young, “cool,” and I felt as much an outsider as I had contemplating the crowds excited by the Super Bowl.

On the cab ride back to Manhattan, as we looked at the fabulous views of bridges and skyscrapers, I couldn’t help wondering why I had wanted so badly to be there. That’s not quite it. I know why I wanted to be there. The hard part was admitting that being there, like having my book out in the world, wasn’t really enough. I wanted a kind of belonging that for me never means being part of a crowd.

I always knew I’d never be at home in the world of football fanatics. I hadn’t quite realized just how out of place I would feel in a literary gathering.

Dream Reader, Nightmare Reviewer

This weekend brought two radically different responses to my new memoir that caused joy and despair, the alternation of outcomes my friend Carolyn used to refer to as the “swings and the roundabouts”―what you lose on the one (the swings), you gain on the other (the roundabouts). Things balance out in the end. In this case, though, it started with the roundabouts: a friend forwarded an email her twenty-year-old babysitter had sent her from vacation in the Dominican Republic, along with a selfie. I could not help smiling and sending it on to my friends.

IMG_8655The message read: “A pina colada and a cigarette in one hand, Nancy’s book in the other, with Spaniards and Frenchmen surrounding me. It’s actually a great vacation read.”

This image of my book lying on the thighs of a young woman I do not know, clearly enjoying herself on the beach, gave me a terrific kick. No other way to put it. While it’s true that the Press had labeled the book “travel/memoir” on the back cover, I had been skeptical about the category that I associate with guidebooks. The girl’s snapshot put another spin on travel: the book itself had traveled, and also the book could be read on vacation. I loved the beach atmosphere and above all the girl’s confidence radiating from the shot itself. I can’t quite work out how she took the picture, but the angle told the story.

There was also the surprise of seeing my younger self looking out from the book jacket on the lap of this lovely twenty-year old; it made me feel, more than any positive review (though I’ve been very grateful for those), thrilled that I had written a book that could speak to women in their twenties today, not just women of my generation, and that “real people” could read and enjoy. I was, briefly, a happy author.

A few hours later, I received an email from a young friend who had happened to see a review of Breathless in a newspaper I don’t read, but which is a major newspaper. She was excited for me and I was too―though cautiously―because this would have been my first, and probably only, review in national media. She hadn’t read the review but told me it was long.

I know enough by now not to look at reviews that might be negative, and I’ve asked the Press to send all reviews to my publicist and so that she can filter them. I need to know if there’s something bad out there (if other people know, and with Google everybody can, then I should know too), but I have found over the years that the hostile words stick in my brain and so I try to avoid reading bad news as much as possible. This one, alas, did not make it through the screening process. The Press let me down. But it turned out that our neighbors, who were away for the weekend, subscribe to the paper and it was sitting out there on the landing―unread. So my husband tiptoed over to their door and borrowed the paper in order to read the review for me. He stood in the kitchen with his back to me, reading for what seemed like a very long time. I studied his back, hoping for some kind of involuntary movement that would give me a clue as to what the review contained. Finally, he finished and turned to look at me, sadly. I asked him if there was anything good in it, and he said no. But he gave me some of the flavor of the prose, enough for me to recognize this as one of those “mean girl” reviews and one that smelled like the culture wars. He put the paper back on the landing.

One of the dangers of writing in the first-person―as a critic or a memoirist―is that readers may outright hate you, your “I,” your persona. A version of “he’s just not that into you.” But what has always baffled me is why, when a critic picks up an essay or a book and feels a visceral repulsion for the writer, and everything she stands for, why go ahead and review it? It always then gets personal in the most ad feminam way. I remember a reviewer of a book about my family, who wrote: “And she’s not even grateful her parents sent her to Barnard.”

Not surprisingly, the bad review erased all the pleasure the email with selfie attached had given me. And being me―and not my friend―in this situation the roundabouts did not even begin to even out the swings.

It’s too late in my life for me to develop a thicker skin―always the recommendation at this point. So I’ll just have to wait for the bad stuff to exit my system. Like a hangover, it always does.

Does Size Matter?

It depends.

I’ve been struck by the attention media has lavished on the size of two women writers: Lena Dunham and Jennifer Weiner.

Does Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in the hugely (oops) successful television series Girls, have the right to appear naked on a regular basis? Is she “too fat to qualify to have sex on cable television”?

dunhamMore pointedly, should someone whose hips and thighs are bigger than her breasts (think Renoir) play ping-pong topless, wearing only her low-rise panties over which hang a few inches of belly fat?

Should she wear shorts that emphasize the width of her rear end and the heft of her thighs? Is it plausible that lovers find her “beautiful”? Asked by an interviewer about the propensity of her character to bare her body, Dunham answers: “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you’re not into me, that’s your problem.”

If the opening of the show’s third season that has Hannah sitting up in bed having a bare-breasted conversation with her lover is any indication, we have not seen the last of that, shall we say, problematic body? (Oddly to me―it’s generational no doubt–comments on her extensive tattoos are rare by comparison.)

renoir70Jennifer Weiner, on the other hand, has not by any account appeared naked in public, but she has been forthright in her defense of plus-size women’s right to be fictional heroines in stories with happy endings. Weiner’s 2001 debut novel Good in Bed has been referred to as “the first ‘chick lit’ novel featuring a large protagonist.” Rebecca Mead, New Yorker, January 13, 2014. Weiner, herself, is said to be “full-figured.” Weiner has entered the fray of conversation about the literary media’s bias “against female writers, and against books written by women.”

The criticism leveled at Weiner’s best-selling novels does not address matters of size entitlement per se―neither the author’s, nor her characters’―but it’s interesting that it seems impossible to discuss either without the subject coming up.

Weiner’s recent talk at a conference focused on eating disorders was titled: “The F Word: On Growing Up Big, Speaking Out Loud and Raising Betty Friedan Girls in a Britney Spears World.”

A recent session at the MLA (Modern Language Association for those of you lucky enough not to recognize the acronym) was titled: “Girls and The F Word: Twenty-First Century Representations of Women’s Lives.” During the discussion period, we wondered what exactly the F word meant in the title: Feminist? Female? Fucking? or Fat? Maybe FAT stands for the intersection of those little f words.

Does size matter? It does not seem to matter for Governor Chris Christie. I have been fascinated by the fact that in all the rightfully horrified speculations about the man’s possible involvement in the George Washington Bridge scandal, no one brings up the man’s significant weight in relation to this performance as an elected official.  I don’t mean to suggest that Christie’s fat caused the lanes to be closed, but in the current discussions of his desirability as a presidential candidate who may recklessly have thrown his weight around, no one seems tempted to add insult to injury, which surely would happen in the case of any woman of size. But if Hannah is thought to be too fat to have sex on cable television…. then I think that Christie is too fat to be president (even if he may weigh less than President Taft, no one seems to know exactly, according to my Internet research.). Imagine that profile on Mount Rushmore!

Finally. It’s not only about size, of course, but is still always open season on women, either for their appearance or their behavior. Remember the snide remarks about Hillary Clinton’s “fat ankles”?

Of all the people who worked for Christie and who might be the ones responsible for the lane closings, only the woman Bridget Kelly, who is thin, gets called “stupid” in public by the boss who once valued her competence.

Where is Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna when we need her? She was always hilarious on New Jersey complaints.

Freewriting? or Writing for Free?

One of the nice things, or so I thought, about publishing a book that actual people might read, was being asked to answer interview questions in writing. How cool! I get to talk about the book I wrote, not to mention me! Soon after publishing my memoir Breathless, I received a few requests of this sort. Flattered, I said yes. I said yes more than once. I’m still saying yes, though, skeptically, and with a sense of embarrassment sliding into shame. Why is that? Because I am writing for free. I’m sure that well-known writers would not do this, write for free. Either the inquiring venue would offer a fee, or the agent would demand one. Only we sps (supplicant writers) never even ask. We are grateful for the chance to win over another reader. We drink the Kool-Aid.

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 4.06.13 PMAs an academic, of course, I’m used to writing for free. (Why pay us? We earn a salary.) Our reward for publishing books that don’t make money for their publishers and therefore don’t receive advances is appearing in a footnote a few years later, turning up in an index. Whoa, now that is exciting, or what we academics consider rewarding, especially since the opposite—being left out of a note or an index–can be a vexing, if not humiliating experience. (For a stellar account of humiliation see my colleague Wayne Koestenbaum’s brilliant Humiliation.)

I realized that I was getting bothered by the prospect of writing for free when I was asked to provide a photo essay for a travel magazine that had run a piece (um, interview) on my book. It would take a fair amount of work (on the assumption that they found my photographs exciting enough to run), and would it really send readers to my book? Was it worth my time?

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 4.07.38 PMAs I was thinking not just about time, but how much time and money (there’s the website, the publicist, the author photo, the launch—all on our nickel) we sps spend to help our books to survive, the concept of “freewriting” popped into my mind. Freewriting is a term for a wonderful writing practice developed by Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers. The key to freewriting is nonediting during the exercise. Freewriting means just sitting down and letting whatever comes out on the page flow. Freewriting expresses your voice, your rhythm, Elbow argues, and without that you are nothing. Now, you may well want or need to edit after you’ve completed the exercise, oiled the machine. That’s a courtesy to your reader. But it’s a different process. Elbow no doubt coined the term before automatic spell check came along to turn freewriting—one word—into two. And of course the compulsive self-editing built into writing on the computer.

So here’s my idea. Do “writing for free” only as freewriting. Again, with the caveat, of checking afterwards for spelling mistakes or total incoherence. That way, you do the writing for free faster, which means cheaper—for you—and, according to Elbow, writing better. You are wasting less time doing something with dubious cost-benefit ratio. I, for one, already feel a lot better.

What say you?

On not making certain New Year’s resolutions

I thought I would enjoy my break from blogging more than I have. It turns out that I like the discipline of focusing once a week, the way I used to like thinking about what I would narrate for a friend with whom I had dinner once a week, wanting to entertain her with the soap opera of my life. There’s something infinitely more satisfying about the weekly rhythm―storing things up for, letter writing when separated by distance―than the inevitably shattered, randomly intermittent exchanges of email. I can’t even begin to imagine the texting relationship my young friends have, although I can see its convenience, just as I recognize that the ubiquity of the cell phone is more convenient than looking for a working phone, not to mention a phone booth. Still, certain experiences seem irretrievably banished by the new social media (like the fraught romance of the phone booth), and sometimes it scares me to realize how superficial, finally, my ties are to twenty-first century culture– superficial, resistant, and probably Luddite. Oh, and how old my dissonance makes me feel.

So maybe the blog post is some kind of compromise formation. It’s completely an invention of Internet technology (I say that as I used to say “dominant ideology,” which it also sort of is), which mainly baffles me, and yet has some emotional ties to an older way of relating. I guess it’s of a piece with my attachment to pencil and paper―my date book and dog-eared address book are handwritten (as are pages of scribbled passwords), and when I recently had to empty my file drawers so that the painters could move my desk, I saw that I was by now hopelessly retro, as I suffered almost physically with every piece of paper, every folder I forced myself to throw away. It is no consolation for me to know that I could store my class teaching notes in the cloud (the cloud?). I need to see the file folders bulging with possibility to feel confident that I truly exist.

photo (43)My messy desk during the paint job.

In the same way, I’ve had to conclude that not only will I never have a cleanly functional desk, but that I don’t want to. And here is why. My friend Carolyn Heilbrun prided herself on keeping her desk clear. She answered every piece of mail as it came in, and filed away the very few pieces of paper she needed to hold onto. But looking back now after the tenth anniversary of her suicide, I can’t help thinking that a clean desk was the opposite of what might have kept her alive. Yes, neatness counts, but the wrong way. It makes you feel that there is nothing whatsoever to do.

Unless something “to do” is sitting in a pile (better: scattered in several piles) on the desk, people like us feel lonely. Irritating as the messy desk can be to the severe eye, for the rest of us, it is also a perverse lifeline (hoarder alert): annoying, demanding, but demonstrating the ties we have to others.

I realize that this sounds like a specious defense of procrastination, but as I enter the new year, I will not make a resolution to clear my desk. The appearance of chaos is what I need to keep going.
What about you?