The Female Thing

Bratty and Contrarian vs. Dry and Authoritarian
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 6 2006 2:43 PM

The Female Thing

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis.

Hi Daphne,

It's true that we haven't formally met, but we were once in a room together: I was in the audience at a panel about women and work you did with Gail Sheehy and others. They were all in suits and heels (with commentaries accessorized to match), while you were sort of bratty and contrarian: I felt a deep bond. So I'm happy to be having this exchange with you.

By way of answering your opening comment about my overly reader-friendly prose, maybe I should start with a confession, which might serve the ancillary purpose of deflecting these complaints I keep getting that I'm not self-revelatory enough. (Confess! Confess! Doesn't women's culture these days start to seem a lot like Salem circa 1692? As I say in The Female Thing, the irony about female progress is that so much of what was once foisted on us by patriarchy now comes back under the banner of "free choice.") The confession concerns my employment situation in the dreaded world of academia, which you contrast to the populist twang of the writing. Although I do indeed receive a paycheck from a university, I'm actually a former filmmaker who went to art school and mostly teach on the production side of the curriculum. What I write about actually has little to do with what I teach, so I'm not really what you'd call a traditional academic. It's a little complicated to explain all this in a bio line, though I would have tried if I'd known that it would turn out to be a filter through which to read the book (not only here, but in the Times).

Advertisement

How does this relate to the question of prose style? Having an art education, and having been steeped in an experimental tradition at an impressionable age, I find myself interested, as a writer, in playing around with style and address, and in the larger question of how to creatively revamp social theory writing—the critical-diagnostic tradition of books like Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism, in which the writing itself is often unbearably dry and authoritarian. How would you write social criticism in which the writing itself performs the critique, as opposed to relying on argumentation or didacticism; books in which the writing engages the reader at the aesthetic level, not a cognitive one alone?

In Against Love, given the subject (adultery), I tried riffing on the mode of the love letter: The writing was over-the-top and flirtatious, there were a lot of run-on sentences and excessive metaphors, a lot of playing around—you know, like adultery. I was trying to write to the cultural id, and I think people mostly understood that. In The Female Thing, I really thought it would be clear that I was parodying the style of women's magazines and girl culture—not because the publishers were hoping to land me on Oprah (though I'm sure they wouldn't have minded), but as an experiment in appropriation: refunctioning (in the Brecht sense) girly language and turning it on its head, into critique. OK, maybe it was a failed experiment, if that didn't come across. But it wasn't unserious. And the more obvious route—serving up anecdotes about my own life experiences, which I would proceed to explicate, thus enlightening my readers with hard-won lessons in progressive femalehood—this just didn't appeal to me. For one thing, isn't that a pretty tired-out idiom by now?

Daphne, you nailed me: I must also confess to having a certain fondness for Sontag-esque opaqueness. Yes, I know she's now highly disapproved of for not writing more revealing things about her hot sex life with Annie L., or her tormented bisexuality, or whatever the really true story was. But I just don't agree with you that women "are afraid of implicating themselves in sexual discussion" these days. On the contrary: I think the issue is that the sexual discussions themselves so often manage to simultaneously reinforce the most puritanical tendencies in the culture; in fact, this may be the signature achievement of contemporary therapeutic culture.

I feel on slightly thin ice here, as I'm corresponding with someone known for confessional writing. My own reaction to this genre is, I confess, a little mixed. Well, to be honest, I often find myself appalled—while also completely fascinated, of course. Not only by the magnitude of the narcissism, but by the losing battle between the requirement to display self-knowledge, and the vastness of what you simply can't know about yourself—most of which is usually all too apparent to your reading public. In today's literary confessionals there's generally a predictable structure: the passage from problem to insight; meaning that some variety of curative self-knowledge must be produced before a denouement can be achieved. One thing this means is that even self-styled bad girls—your essay on spanking, for instance, or Toni Bentley's The Surrender—end up renouncing some illicit sexual pleasure for the higher rewards of self-realization. (How depressing if it turns out that inside every bad girl, there's a reformed bad girl screaming to get out!) What's framed as daring truth-telling actually follows strict genre conventions, covertly appeals to the reader (or some higher authority) for approval, and the clichés structuring the self-realizations frequently seem to mirror the conventions of 12-step culture: the addiction-recovery-testimonial model.

There are actually numerous personal anecdotes in both The Female Thing and Against Love—they're just not framed in the first person. I tend to think, given the gaps in self-knowledge we're all afflicted by, maybe—to paraphrase Wittgenstein, not that I've actually read him—whereof we can't speak the truth, thereof we must be silent. Or if not silent, then at least a bit taciturn. In both books, it's my experience of the world that I'm writing about and reflecting on, while trying to come up with modes of doing that outside the usual formulas. I'm not saying that I've pulled it off. Only that these books have been experiments in crossing genres: social criticism and some version of personal writing (minus the first person), while refunctioning the stylistic tics of the subjects. Probably there should have been stickers on the covers explaining what I was going for.

There's much more to say. Here's a question for you: Do men need to grow up, or do women need to lighten up?

Laura

Laura Kipnis' new book, How To Become a Scandal, will be out in paperback in September. Her previous books include Against Love: A Polemic, and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.