Bad Boys, encore?

You have to wonder what kind of anxiety about masculinity drives the editors at the New York Times. Last week it was “bullish on boyish-boys,” a survey of current talk show hosts. This week it’s a question generated by the 100th anniversary of writer William Burroughs’s birth.

“What has become,” the Bookends section headline wonders, “of the so-called literary bad boy?”

In what appears to be a gesture toward gender parity, this column typically solicits pieces by a man and a woman. There may even have been an occasion on which two women writers squared off.

The odd thing is that neither James Parker nor Rivka Galchen is enamored of the category “literary bad boy.” But both take a stab at the question.

Parker opens with the (universal) writer’s dilemma: “It’s the question every writer faces every morning of his or her life: Am I Malcolm Gladwell today, or am I Arthur Rimbaud? Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head in a bucket of absinthe?”

Hmm. I’d love to know whether any woman writer starts her writing day with that conundrum. It’s curious that Parker goes for the “his or her” gender gesture and then comes up with his two male models. I suppose that if I were a poet, I might wonder, as I drank my morning tea, whether I’d ever reach the heights (or depths) of the man who composed “A Season in Hell”; and if not, I might well, as a mere memoirist, envy the genius of the poet who declared “Je est un autre” (I is another) at age 16! And absinthe is hard to come by. But still, why the bizarre binary?


All the more so that Parker, after cataloguing a genealogy of bad boys from poets to bad-boy chefs (never mentioning Burroughs), reaches the sublime gender counter example of Emily Dickinson! “Who was badder then Emily Dickinson, housebound and life-abstemious in Amherst, Mass., but kicking open the doors of perception of with every poem?” Hurrah for Emily. Why not refuse the bad-boy category from the start and begin there: Who am I today? Emily Dickinson or―hard to find the loathed Gladwell female equivalent―and I don’t think I’ll try.

Galchen’s cautious (good-girl) meditation, and homage to Burroughs, concludes with her conviction that so-called “literary bad boys” still exist, even thought she’d be reluctant to name any.

Curiously, neither mentions the well-known fact that Burroughs accidentally killed his common-law wife in a drunken game of William Tell. And Burroughs is said to have claimed that the accident engendered his literary career.

wilhelm-tell-e6ac107e-38d2-4ac0-a892-26e6ad2691d3If that’s what it takes to make it into the bad-boy category, I’ll take “life-abstemious” (?!) Emily Dickinson any day.

The Persistence of Boy Power

“Bullish on Boyish for Late-Night TV” reads the headline of the lead article in this week’s Sunday Times “Arts and Leisure section” (the print edition).

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Seven talking-head faces are featured: 6 male, 1 female. If you keep reading, you learn that the woman (whose name appears in a parenthesis) is Chelsea Handler who performs on E! Beyond the parenthesis there is no mention of WHY Chelsea Handler is the only woman to appear on late-night tv.

Full disclosure: though I recognized the names of the men, since they are much in the news, I had never heard of Chelsea Handler until my young friend Tahneer Oksman sent me this clip from YouTube:

I was happy for the introduction.

The Times offers no analysis of why the millennials, the kids of baby boomers, the much sought after target audience for late-night shows, should prefer or require the virtually all-male line-up. The question of gender never comes up. It’s the demographic, stupid.

Now I don’t watch late-night television, and haven’t seen for myself what makes these guys so popular (except for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), unless, of course, I were to DVR them to view earlier in the evening, as Fallon recommends his parents do (and as we geezers do for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). I realize this puts me out of the cultural mainstream, but somehow I’m not moved to find out what I’m missing. Maybe it’s because the (boyish) man I lived with in the 70s insisted on going to bed with Johnny Carson (that’s mainly what I remember about our breakup, though he did introduce me to SNL); or maybe the late-night-tv-brand is just not my taste. De gustibus.

Why so few women? Maybe Tina Fey or Amy Poehler or Sarah Silverman (I know there are others but these are the names that come to mind as possible obvious choices) don’t wish to stay up late, don’t like the format, or just plain weren’t asked. Nor, presumably, were the millennial girls

In TV land, as in the literary world, as in the art world, as in…name the profession, the men in charge prefer the boys—and the boyish boys.

Why can’t they grow up?

Feminist Friends Forever: Met and Unmet.

Maxine Kumin died last week at age 88. In her typically thoughtful obituary, Margalit Fox highlights Kumin’s long life as a poet, teacher, mother, and friend.

Although I never met Kumin, I did correspond with her briefly when I edited an interview she had done with Diane Middlebrook about Anne Sexton in the early 1980s. Diane―who had been a friend of mine, though not at the time―was researching her biography of Sexton, and spent several hours with Kumin, discussing her relationship with Sexton. It was a famous friendship between two famous poets who met early in their careers.

In the late 1950s Ms. Kumin enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop, where Ms. Sexton was also a student. They became such close friends, and such close readers of each other’s work, that each installed a dedicated phone line in her house on which to call the other. When writing, they left the receivers of the hook; the moment one finished a poem she would whistle into the open line, and the other would come running to hear it, a system that proved a supremely effective forerunner of instant messaging.


Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin at a meeting of the John Holmes workshop.

Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was shattering for Kumin, but she went on writing poetry, as well as essays, novels, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir.

Diane envied the friendship, and so did my friend Carolyn Heilbrun. Carolyn had admired Kumin for years and would have liked to write a book about her. Kumin demurred. Carolyn described her admiration for Kumin in “Unmet Friends,” an autobiographical meditation from The Last Gift of Time (1997).

For me Kumin has been a woman, vital to my sixties, whom I know in a way no biographer or friend can know her: she is her poems and essays, and what I choose to make of them. At its simplest level, she is what I might have wished to become but never could; her life seems to me a very heaven, intermingling animals and poetry.

During my brief email correspondence with Kumin, I learned that she and Carolyn had dinner together at some point in the Village. Carolyn, moreover, blurbed Kumin’s 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: “Here is a singular story of survival, an earthly miracle wrought by family devotion, gardens, horses and guts. A compelling read.” I was astonished to learn that Carolyn had finally met her unmet friend.

What we don’t know about our friends!

I (stupidly) did not save our emails, so I cannot recall exactly what Kumin told me about their encounter. Kumin did say, however, that she had been intimidated by Carolyn’s erudition. Since Carolyn had committed suicide not long after that meeting, I asked Kumin whether Carolyn seemed depressed. She said yes.

Toward the end of the obituary, Fox observes that Kumin’s work asks how, how “can one weather the losses life’s course makes inevitable?” For Kumin the answer “lay in the promise of continuity from generation to generation.” And in closing Fox quotes from a poem inspired by one of Kumin’s grandchildren.

So here is where Carolyn’s beliefs diverged dramatically from Kumin’s: Carolyn’s grandchildren, it would seem, did not help her deal with the kinds of losses she had to have felt when she decided to leave the world. Her fantasized identification with the poet ended there.

Are biological generations our only buffer against loss? Without children and grandchildren, I have come to think, or at least hope, that friends themselves―especially our younger friends―also offer that promise of continuity and solace. The value of friendship between women is one of feminism’s most precious gifts, even if in the heat of debate we sometimes forget just how precious it is.

Forward into the past!

If I hadn’t already been depressed about how the publishing world treats women writers, the article in this week’s Nation would have made me reach for my Valium (that dates me, but that’s also the point). Check it out: the graphic is stronger in the online version.

toxictwitterIn her stunning analysis of the mood in today’s the feminist blogosphere, Michelle Goldberg traces the emergence of a toxic environment in which bloggers attack one another for what appear to be incorrect political views. This is also the rhetorical activity known as trashing, long a problem in the feminist movement, well before the creation of social media. Goldberg does an excellent job of documenting the debates. The examples are striking, sometimes surprising, and so I will not try to revisit them here (especially since one of the explanations for online violence has to do with academic feminists and their unfortunate “postmodern” belief in “the power relations embedded in language”). Guilty as charged.

The list of  the complaints, critiques, screeds–how you perceive the form depends on your…location–makes for painful, if familiar, reading.

I have vivid memories of “Scholar and Feminist” conferences at Barnard College in the early 1970s. This was the era of affirmative action and consciousness-raising, and whatever the conference theme, speakers tended to be as clear and careful as possible when they articulated their positions. But no matter how thoughtful and diverse a panel of speakers was, someone always would get up and addressing, while condemning, the entire audience: “I’m an X,Y, and Z, and what you’ve said does not describe/include/value my experience.” Always.

Perhaps the saddest example is the case Goldberg cites of Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, who left Jezebel to become a columnist for the New York Times Book Review. She quotes Holmes on the parlous state of online feminism: “It’s really depressing. It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

When the Times Book Review becomes a haven, a refuge from the online world, one can only admire the irony of the digital revolution.


“‘Curiouser and curiouser,’” Cried Alice,” as she fell through the rabbit hole.
I’m so glad I never mastered the art of the tweet.