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After finishing this, I noticed that it had been blurbed by John Updike, and some part of the back of my head said, 'well, that explains everything'. I realize that being blurbed by John Updike is more of an effect than a cause, but I cannot help but see it as symptomatic of everything that is wrong with this book.

There is a great deal wrong with this book. Which is a shame, because there is also a great deal right with this book, but.

This is a collection of articles about woman writers, sometimes focusing more or less on one book or period, sometimes on their personal lives, and most frequently on the work laid against the personal life. The articles ran in the New Yorker between 1990 and 2000. Women discussed include Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, a joint article on Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell, among others. The biographical information is solid, the articles and book are well-organized, and Pierpont accomplishes one of the major goals of the critic: she provokes a desire in her reader to read the work she's discussing, if only to prove to yourself that you do not wish to read the work she's discussing. She finds something to catch the attention in even the work she considers least relevant, and her angle of approach is sometimes sharply valuable by itself (there is an article here about Mae West as a writer, and of course Mae West was a writer, because she wrote all the plays and films that made her famous and created the roles for which she became iconic, but people don't seem to talk about that very much).

However, I spent a lot of this book extremely annoyed, principally for two reasons. The first and more minor is that you can tell instantly which writers Pierpont enjoys, which ones she likes personally and which ones she might, if pressed, admit to considering overrated. Unsurprisingly, the essays about authors she likes are (mostly) better essays, and the essays about authors she does not like so strongly tend to come to conclusions that are less supported. For instance, her claim that the entirety of Gertrude Stein's writing life was based on emotional repression is contradicted very strongly by the excerpts quoted in the article, which makes one wonder about Pierpont's reading protocols for modernist fiction, which makes one wonder why she is writing about Stein in the first place, except that she seems to want to set her up as some sort of existential opposition to Virginia Woolf, an idea that though the two of them disliked each other I suspect either writer would have found ridiculous. This means that I eye about half the book with the wariness of a person who suspects that the assignment has been given out by an editor.

The exception to this trend is the essay on Anaïs Nin. Pierpont basically hates Anaïs Nin, but it is an explained hatred, a hatred based on solid research, on laying out fact after fact before the reader and continuously having the response many people, myself included, continuously have the more we hear about Anaïs Nin, a response which can be summed up as: WHAT. The first time I tried to read Anaïs Nin, as a teenager, I became convinced that someone was having me on; the more biographical information I run into about her the more convinced I become that the tragedy is that nobody was.

Anyway, all this pales beside the second reason I am so annoyed about this book, which I have been thinking of as Probably The Reason John Updike Liked It.

In Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula Le Guin has a long essay in which among many other useful things she discusses the cultural images of women writing, of women who write, and that eternal mythical dichotomy: you can have babies and a happy marriage, or books, saith The Canon. Not both. And Le Guin talks about some writers who have fallen out of said canon, and how, funnily enough, some of them had large families, and some had adored spouses, and some wrote at the kitchen table with the kids running by in the background suggesting that maybe there ought to be aliens (which happened to Le Guin with one novel, and it was apparently a reasonable idea). But there is this myth.

And the theme of this particular book is female writer as rebel, female writer as venturing into uncharted territory, as moving out of the myths and boundaries that have been imposed on women and their literary productions: well and good.

Why, then, does this collection spend so much time minimizing the possible happiness and validity of the personal relationships engaged in by all of these writers? The marriages and affairs that were unhappy get dwelt upon, the sibling relationships that grew into feuds, the mothers who were not supportive, the fathers who were sexually threatening. The mothers who loved and supported get painted as mildly perverse for it (Mae West), the spouses who were loving and interested get the importance of their relationships either mentioned only in passing (Hannah Arendt's final marriage) or sort of sunk into the background while Pierpont talks about other things (Alice B. Toklas, and how you manage this is beyond me). The miscarriages and the children walked away from get gone over in great detail, whereas the mothering that appears to have worked out all right (Doris Lessing's youngest son, Mary McCarthy's child) gets about three sentences. Pierpont also comes down on the side that there must have been something missing from Mae West's life because she cannot possibly have been happy just being that promiscuous, &c. &c., and the combination of this sort of thing with the abovementioned attitude towards relationships is mythmaking, is distortion, because what we are being given here is a collection of women who suffer for their art.

In some ways, fair enough. It can be a hard life not conforming to social norms. It is difficult making your life and your work what you want them to be. But I cannot believe but that there were times when their work was joy for every single one of these women, and I find it difficult to believe that they were quite so bereft of people they loved and who loved them and who could be relied upon as this book seems to think, even if the good times were only for a brief period. (Well. Except Anaïs Nin. I am not sure she ever loved anyone, because I think she was a sociopath. But that is different.) And I find it hard to buy this mythmaking when it is handed me about, say, Gertrude Stein, by a critic who dismisses some of the most uninhibited erotic poetry in the English language as "nursery-school contentment". It smacks rather of that inchoate feeling that suffering is more noble, somehow, which is an inchoate feeling that has been culturally inflicted on women for a very long time now.

Virginia Woolf once said that across a woman's life there falls the shadow of a sword, and on one side lies convention and on the other, who knows what. This is an attempt to report from who knows what, and it is not one that entirely fails. But it is not one that is seeing clearly, either. It is one that is trying to see patterns in these lives, and the patterns it sees very subtly conform to what the people who would like to believe that who-knows-what is not necessarily a good place might expect, see above re: John Updike. Oh, a valuable thing these women did, says this book, an amazing groundbreaking set of things, and we are so glad they did it so that we are where we are now, but isn't it sad about what it did to them.

And I grit my teeth, because the 'it' that did it, when it was done, is exactly the kind of cultural idea that is informing the deep layers of this criticism, and while this is as I said a real attempt, I am no longer content with only that.


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March 2017

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