Feminized Literature, Motherhood, & Canada Reads

It was with trepidation I opened the current CNQ, dubbed "The Gender Issue." I understand, and advocate, the need to be fair to all sides when delving into any issue, but today, this week, I'm tired of being angry. And if you're going to give equal time to all ideas on gender (specifically, gender and Canadian literature), I'm going to get angry at something. It's inevitable. I'm an "angry feminist" and generally pretty happy about that.

So I was gratified that the lead piece was Nicole Dixon's "The Other F-Word: The Disappearance of Feminism from Our Fiction." Dixon takes on the current landscape of Canadian female-authored fiction with a real "angry feminist" eye, that I appreciate. Sometimes, I feel that as feminists we have to pull our punches too often, so as not to offend. Third-wave feminism, as the reader no doubt knows, was a big, needed leap forward in terms of inclusivity. However, Dixon and many other feminists now take umbrage with a theory of feminism that has become too scared to make a point in fear of coming across as not inclusive enough. Feminism, so the thinking goes, has become too susceptible to alternative versions and definitions (Sarah Palin, anyone?). The resulting
problem with keeping feminism undefined and mutable is that the stereotypes the second-wavers fought against creep back into public thinking and published fiction, brought back and advanced by women as well as men.

One of the stereotypes Dixon rallies against, within a CanLit framework, is compulsory motherhood. As I've said before, I'm child-free – recently I chose to have a tubal ligation to (hurr hurr) seal the deal – but I am interested in motherhood narratives, sometimes just for the reassurance that I have made the right choice for me. So, for someone like me, it's always good to read a piece that fights against the notion that motherhood is a necessary part of the female experience, though it is one of the most common. Of Lisa Moore's February Dixon writes:
To write and publish such a novel and create such a character at a time when more women graduate from universities than men sends the message that breeding is more important than education... Why coach women toward publishing and graduate degrees when Canada's successful women authors literally coach them toward mental suicide?
I don't think Dixon is suggesting that those women who have had children are now brainless (though mothers with too little sleep might argue they feel as such). Rather, that the imagined women of CanLit, and indeed some of the authors, are defined not by their own personhood, but by the existence of their children.

There are, of course, some issues with Dixon's analysis. While I agree and/or am engaged by a lot of her critical analysis of the texts, the politics fall down a bit. In returning to a more second-wave activist viewpoint, Dixon does neglect some of the things the third-wave worked so hard to achieve, mainly understanding. First off, I'm troubled by the unthinking classism displayed here.
Nothing else a woman does is universally applauded as having a baby – not earning a PhD (more women attended a friend's baby shower than her PhD defense), not becoming a lawyer (most of my lawyer friends are now stay-at-home moms), not even running for president

Not all women have the opportunity to get graduate degrees, let alone attend post-secondary education. While I did get a BA, I'm not exactly a high-powered career woman, and there are lots more like me. Are these women invisible? Is the “loss” of people like me to motherhood okay, because we don't have graduate degrees? I doubt this is what Dixon means, but her examples are not exactly pan-experiential

Dixon also assumes that “women can choose to live whatever lives they want (in this country anyway)[.]” This again, seems to speak to a certain section of Canadian female experience that is, indeed, over-represented in CanLit. Some women don't have a choice (or don't know that they have a choice) about motherhood, due to cultural, familial, or religious obligations and constraints. However, if we're going to focus more on the white, likely middle-class women who write the books Dixon is looking at, there are still issues. The thing is, a lot of women really do choose motherhood. Not to beat the fandom horse, but Kerry Clare and Marita Dachsel have a wonderfully thoughtful conversation on motherhood and writing* posted at Pickle Me This. Many of my white, middle-class friends have, or want, kids. If motherhood narratives are popular, it must be at least partially due to the number of mothers reading and identifying with them. It's dangerous to call too many of these narratives mindless, because that view is suspect of the readership,** and in truth, there are a lot of really smart women out there, with children, who appreciate literature on the same level that Dixon does.

While I'm critical of Dixon's piece, I also want to make clear that I really, really like it. I think it's a really great bit of feminist analysis that has me thinking about CanLit in a new way, and it's given me a critical framework that I'll definitely employ going forward. It also reminded me, through some of the works it deals with (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Birth House)and the mention of Dixon's roit grrrrrl university days, that a really deserving book missed making the Top 5 of Canada Reads this year, after making it to the top 10. Bottle Rocket Hearts is the story of Eve, making her way through life and love in mid-90s Montreal. Zoe Whittall belongs to the same cohort as Dixon and I, and Bottle Rocket Hearts inspires fond memories of how transgressive we felt, before "alt" was (ironically) so common a modifier as to be completely meaningless. Eve is unsure and tough, all at the same time, and reminds me of the 20-year-old arrogance and swagger we displayed, while not having any fucking clue what we were really doing. If I'd met Eve in 1995, I'd have wanted to be her, though I was probably more like her than I think. Bottle Rocket Hearts is, I hope, a book Nicole Dixon could get behind.

*Yet, I was also taken aback by the following comment: “My own view, of course, is that biological reproduction is intrinsic to creative work, and that the labour of giving birth and of finishing a book are pretty close to the same thing.” I felt this comment to be marginalizing to those of us who have chosen not to participate in the parenthood process (not to mention those women who – for whatever reason – can't have children but want to). The comment has since been contextualized for me, but honestly? It still rankles. I am definitely pro-mama, and I think as a society we still don't value mothers as people enough. However, we can't go so far as to assume that “biological reproduction” is a necessary pre-condition for a certain kind of work. Not only am I child-free, but I'm the second generation of my family to be adopted. This history, in part, leads me to believe that there is an over emphasis on biology and reproduction. Which is where Dixon and I meet up again.

**And this is something I find all too often with critical analysis in this country; if something is popular, it must be mindless. I feel there's a classism in this as well, and I don't believe that populism is necessarily a bad thing. But what do I know? I don't have a graduate degree.

It's odd to admit, within the context of a post dealing with feminism, that I read The Birth House because I saw Ami McKay give an award acceptance speech that made me cry. I ended up liking the speech more than the book.

And I could also write three times as much on all the times I said “Yes!!” in my head, or on some other little things I want to engage with, but I'm trying to be ever-so-slightly focused.

This Can't Be A Coincidence

Last night on Family Guy, Brian published a book with Penguin. And here's how that show portrayed a higher-up at Penguin:

This can't be a coincidence.

The Nature of Blog

I've had this post about Freedom sitting in the queue for weeks now, needing to be tied together, edited, and published. I haven't looked at it since I wrote the first draft in a frenzy of undergrad-like motif spotting. Which is often what I do here; write tiny, not-great undergrad papers. Partially I do this because I'm not sure how else to write about books; I don't know how to write a real review, though I do respect those who can. I feel like I don't have enough adjectives. I also don't just want to rehash those reviews. I want to bring something else to the table. With the Freedom post, I feel like I've caught onto something that reviewers missed, but I've written about it on such an elementary academic level, I'm a little hesitant about putting it up. Because, who cares, really? This is a blog, not a class. I've been told that the way I write about books can sometimes be difficult for the reader, because it relies so much on familiarity with the text. That's a fair assessment, and I don't deny it. Again, it's just my default of writing papers, something I enjoyed a lot, but haven't done for a grade in ten years.

I know I just need to write, for the practice. I find that my more successful blog posts (successful meaning interesting, insightful, thoughtful, maybe funny) have been written without too much thought. They were initial reactions, with a little research, maybe a couple pull quotes. This makes sense, when I think about how I wrote all those A papers: the night before, or the day they were due, from scratch. I'm good under pressure, good on my feet, better off-the-cuff. So I have to endeavour to do that; not over-think, just write.

One of the problems I'm encountering, with just getting it down, is the weird editorial board I seem to have contracted. I do advertise new blog posts on my Twitter, and almost every time the first commentary I get is a spelling, punctuation, or grammar correction. (It's always a man, not always the same man, that does this. I don't know what to make of that precisely, but I don't think it's just a coincidence*.) When I posted about Fauna a Twitter pal immediately launched into refutation mode, citing books written about Calgary. When I angrily suggested he was missing the whole point of the post, he admitted he hadn't even read it, he was just commenting on the title. And then I made this face: >_<

I started this blog, like so many do, because I simply love books. Reading is integral to my personhood. Boyfriend put new shelves up for me the other day and now I can see a small percentage of my books from my bed, and I'm filled with a sense of comfort and happiness every time I look at them. So I started writing here because I wanted to talk about books. Then I quit talking about books for a while. Then I wanted to talk about them again. My model has always been Pickle Me This**, and though I know I'll never be half the reader or writer Kerry is, the way she writes about living with books, not only about their content, is something I strongly identify with. I wish I could post multiple times a week, but I just don't have the content in me. I want to post about everything I read, but I never do. Sometimes I just have nothing to say about a book, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I just finished, enjoyed a lot, and then put away. What's to say? Egan is amazing. The end.

Thanks to Kerry, I'm currently reading Ex Libris. If she is "startlingly unoriginal in loving Anne Fadiman’s books of essays, not to mention about a decade late" then I'm not sure what rock I've been living under to have never heard of them till now. Fadiman and I agree on a lot of things: a well-used book is a loved book, annotating is a good thing, finding unexpected bits of paper in a book is a joy (I love when people leave their library slips in books, so I can see what else they've read), and so forth. I do envy Fadiman her hyper-intellectual upbringing, I'm a little annoyed with how often she name drops Mark Helprin, and I'd probably stab myself in my eye if a friend ever said the following to me:
I had repaired to the King's Arms, the pub closest to the Bodleian Library, with a fellow student, a dashing but bullheaded young Scotsman who proclaimed over coffee that Homer was vastly inferior to Virgil. As a Homeric partisan, I was much miffed[.]
I'm hoping this is a caricature, but even still, I don't find it an endearing one. Anyway, I'm mostly positive about Ex Libris, because it does what I want to do here: discuss how books shape my life, how I interact with them, how they make me feel, how I react, where they lead me, how their physicality touches me, and how reading is now -- and will ever be -- the most important thing in my life. The writing comes much further down the list.

*I'm sure I'm going to catch shit for reporting this, in this way, but it's the truth. No woman has ever (metaphorically) fallen upon me shouting "Oxford comma!" If pointing out errors is seen as a way to enter into the discussion, without having a literary framework, that's a flawed approach.
**I'm sure I've said this before, several times probably.
Really, who talks like this?! I sort of thought, "Well, if she's maybe British..." but no, the friend is American. If accurate, this is inexcusable affectation.

On Meeting Douglas Coupland

I was lucky enough to attend a conversation/lecture at Ryerson on Wednesday*, featuring one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland. As a part of Ryerson's Retail Week, Coupland was there with the co-founders of Roots, talking about his clothing line. It was an interesting talk, despite the chatty undergrads who were resentfully attending. I do work in the consumer goods sector, after all, so it wasn't as if everything they discussed was irrelevant to my interests. The Roots guys talked about Canadian manufacturing, cost measures, and design and company directions. Of course, I was more interested in the book signing afterwards, with Coupland. Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog, or is Steven W Beattie, knows how much I love Coupland. It's not a blind love; there are things I haven't liked, but overall he's one of the few authors who have me excitedly anticipating a new book as soon as I hear rumour of one.

We were sitting, during the lecture, with a television personality that we know. TV, as I'll call him, went right up to Coupland after the lecture and started a conversation. My boyfriend joined in. We began walking towards the book signing table. I grinned like an idiot. Then my boyfriend introduced me. I shook Coupland's hand and sort of stammered and said “I'm sorry I'm totally starstruck right now. I get this way around authors; I almost barfed on Margaret Atwood.” Expect I think that probably sounded like a Twitter hashtag, with all the spaces removed. He sort of chuckled and said, “Oh, she's a pussycat.” Easy for you to say, man!

One of the things I've noted, time and time again, about Coupland's work is his ability to convey loneliness and isolation in perfect, heartbreaking detail. In Player One one of the main characters contemplates a life alone:
He comforted himself with the belief that a quiet life of loneliness could be its own Great Experience.
Still, it's tough being alone in a room full of people. As Coupland went to get sorted for the book signing, TV told us that he noticed that no one was talking to the author, despite the number of people heading to the table with books. “I've been there,” he said. “When people know who you are, they think they can't talk to you, so you wind up standing alone and awkward a lot.” That's why he engaged, and brought us in. People, as Martin Gore wrote, are people, and unless you're Margaret Atwood, chances are you would actually enjoy conversation with your adoring public.

I can't say enough nice things about the man, by the way. He signed my book “To Panic” with only a slight eyebrow raise. He stood there while Boyfriend took a tonne of pictures that I kept ruining with an expression I can only describe as “surprised duck-face.” He joked around with us a bit, in his sort of deadpan way. He was a regular — albeit super nice — person, for which I'm grateful. Because I was a super dork. It must take a lot of patience and heart to deal with the public repeatedly, and yet sit alone often.

<3 Motherfuckin' three.

*Thank you so much, E!