Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism
On Wednesday, May 8, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe hosted a panel discussion on women and criticism, featuring a tremendous line-up of writers: Michelle Dean (who organized and moderated the event), Kate Bolick, Ruth Franklin, Laura Miller, Miriam Markowitz, Michelle Orange, and Parul Sehgal.
Here are some of the bursts of wisdom and wit that I managed to scribble down during the discussion (n.b. these are almost direct quotations, but I may have gotten an indefinite article wrong here or there):
“Apparently, smart, serious men took exception to the idea that they had misunderstood anything, including a novel they obviously hadn’t read.”
—Michelle Dean on readers’ responses to her (editor-titled) review, “Listening to Women: Why smart, serious men have misunderstood Sheila Heti’s new book”
“The thing about ‘serious’ is that men are ‘serious’ and women are not.”
“I really don’t mean to be mean to men…A lot of young men, when they pitch me, are really, really interested in reviewing the new Martin Amis.”
—Miriam Markowitz on getting pitched at The Nation
“How you experience a work of art or how a work of art makes you feel should be a legitimate part of the discussion.”
“When I wrote a very critical review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it ended up on Page Six…When I wrote an equally critical review of Zadie Smith, there wasn’t any kind of backlash.”
—Ruth Franklin on being a “mean” critic
“Why is there a problem if people are mean [in reviews]?…This is an ice pick, not a needle.”
“As the ‘critic of color,’ I’m frequently asked to review Indian and Pakistani writers.”
—Parul Sehgal on power and pigeonholing critics
“Women are more aware or comprehending of power so the truths that they deliver in criticism are often more devastating for men to receive.”
—Kate Bolick (who prefaced this by saying she was about to make a sweeping gender generalization)
“If all readers see women writers as substantive writers…then they’ll just absorb that.”
—Laura Miller on ways to correct gender disparity in publishing
Brain in a Vat
When I fly through the cloud
in the video game, somehow
the game doesn’t know what to do.
I am exposed as a brain in a vat.
It looks like I am trapped in a tower
of beer at the Arizona Pizza Kitchen,
but someone must love me very much,
or I am being used in a scheme to skim
the recipes I come up with in my dreams.
When the lights go out
they go out for a couple millennia,
and then I don’t really care what happens next.
I am flying on a plane through the international dateline,
a couple people vanish in first class and
I ask the stewardess if I can have their seats.
I heard that the Bermuda triangle has been
hovering in Buffalo for the past 20 years,
says the twilight man beside me.
The movie on his laptop looks abstract from this angle.
It is a movie called “Magnetic Basin.”
When I arrive on the tarmac and
descend the stairs onto the airfield,
I feel exposed. It is winter in the city.
I am trying to find a place to go to the bathroom,
as I think about Modigliani in turn of the century Paris.
How will I reward myself when I am normal again?
Thunderstorms mean someone is trying to get
at your snacks, I am told in the vat.
After a struggle against my own foreign limbs
I realize that during rest I am
propelled in a mysterious direction,
but you have egg on your pants I am
told in the vat. It must have come
from the man sitting next to me, I say into the liquid.
I ask to be kept central to my own story, but I find
that I am becoming more and more of a minor character.
I make a break for it by closing my eyes.
I spend long hours at home with books
about yarn and cabinetry. I am coming closer and closer
to realizing my dream of becoming
a single note sung out into a wide valley
by some 17th century village child.