The Female Thing

Bratty Beauties and Babyish Boys
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 7 2006 11:56 AM

The Female Thing


The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis.

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your considered response, which addressed some of my points, side-stepped others, and, I thought, deliberately misunderstood others the better to feature yourself as an unfashionably un-"confessional" writer (as opposed, say, to my own ostensible proclivities for self-revelation), when I know I went out of my way to make clear that I wasn't asking for confessionalism from you so much as some dips into the personal. But let me begin at the beginning.


For starters, I can't believe you were in the audience at that N.Y. Times panel, since I thought I saw only the faintest scattering of people out there in the mostly empty expanse of seats. The fact that the other three panelists all chose to dress like camera-happy CEOs on a hot Sunday in early June while I dressed in casual, wrinkled linens (my favorite look: The Devil Wears Flax) does not in itself, of course, make me either a contrarian or bratty. And in any case, I recognize only one of those adjectives as a legitimate description of my personal style. "Bratty" is certainly not how I wish to come across. What I think I was—and it undoubtedly showed, because I've never been good at hiding my reactions (although I've been working on becoming more inauthentic, per the recommendation of a close friend)—was impatient bordering on infuriated with Sheehy's flaccid pseudo-sociology, custom-designed Web sites, and general aura of well-accessorized bullshit.

Second, I don't think it was clear that you were parodying the style of women's magazines and girl culture (is "girl culture" something dreamed up by media studies?). For that to succeed, you'd have to have abandoned all hope of making any real points—you can't have it both ways, at least not when it comes to persuasive writing—which I don't think was the case. And as long as you're confessing (there, I caught you) to a secret fondness for Sontag-esque opaqueness, may I say that I consider her d'haut en bas attitude toward her readers (much loved by French intellectuals of the murkier school) the least attractive aspect of her as a writer. I, for one, don't think she was obliged to be more revealing about her "hot sex life with Annie L."—which interests me not one whit, although I wouldn't have chosen to put it quite this way and I can't tell whether this is you being you or you being a parody of you—or even about her "tormented bisexuality." (Who says it was so tormented?) But I do find it of interest (and I suppose worthy of "disapproving" comment) that Sontag conveniently sidestepped her own lesbianism, or what I understood to be her lesbianism. (You can never be too careful.) Especially considering the fact that she made it a habit of taking up causes and airing her (often wrongheaded) political opinions. Her staying mum on the subject, for all her championing of the marginalized (including the sexually marginalized) in literature and life and her own interest in erotic subtexts—"Fascinating Fascism" is still, to my mind, one of her virtuoso performances—struck me as a shrewd and deliberate decision not to alienate her male readers, especially those who came to her in the '60s, when she was a dark-haired, bratty beauty (there's a brat for you), a pinup girl for the egghead crowd. And since I also think gay women writers with any prominence whatsoever are a rare breed, especially when stacked against the ever-swelling numbers of gay male writers, I believe it would have done them (and perhaps her) good to publicly identify herself as such.

As for your remarks about confessional writing, let me be honest in turn and say that I felt a wave of weariness come over me when I read your arguments about narcissism and self-styled bad girls, knowing even before I got to the end that they would lead inevitably ... sigh ... to yet another hauling up of my poor spanking piece. For the record, I regret one or two pieces I've written, but not that one: I think it was both intellectually and emotionally daring in the truest sense of the word. Most of the things I've read along those lines are neither as thought-through or as honest, including Toni Bentley's The Surrender, which would have been a far more profound—as opposed to largely sensationalistic—book if she had explored the psychology of submission beginning with her father and her choice of the dancer's life instead of focusing on the breathless hygienic preparations prior to her anal-sex sessions. I think artful truth-telling about anything is something of a high-wire act that requires less rather than more narcissism (and surely this word is so hopelessly overused that it has ceased to reveal any of its original meaning). You have to be as aware of what you're leaving out—what you don't know or don't want to appear to know, or, perhaps most important of all, don't want your readers to know about yourself—as what you choose to spill on the page.

As for truth-telling of a sexual nature, it's still terra obscura (virginilia?) for women. Nothing much has changed in the discourse since Virginia Woolf theorized that it was the one area of writing women had still to uncover. I'm not quite sure why that should be so, except that women (especially women who think on the page) are more afraid of not being taken seriously than men are and more afraid of having their self-exposure made fun of. The Men—Mailer, Updike, & Roth Inc.—can natter away all they want about cunts and orgasms and the humiliations of desire, and no one takes that to be the sum of their parts. My more-than-a-decade-old spanking piece will forever be held over my head—notwithstanding hundreds of other pieces of writing—as a sign, a signpost, an object of derision, an object of envy. Now, that's a subject we should talk about one day: female envy.

Meanwhile, let me answer your final question about whether men need to grow up or women to lighten up. Both, of course, although have you ever met a person of either sex you liked who didn't have a good sense of humor? Meaning that most women I know, young and older, don't set such store by their own maxims that they won't bend them (OK, I'll stoop to conquer, bend over) for the right love object. Which leaves the onus on those baby boys we know as grown-up men.


Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler. She lives in New York City and is at work on a memoir, Melancholy Baby. 



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