7.12.2004

DUDE DOES NOT WRITE LIKE A LADY

I was so excited to see our Zoe Heller listed in the "Don't Miss" box in the Books section in Time Out this week that I missed the feature on Paul Jaskunas and his first novel, Hidden. Until now, of course, right when my writing day was blossoming. Grrr.

Okay, I am very scared to write this blog post, because it is crossing a line of etiquette but I am going to cross it anyway, because the more attention I have paid to the sexism in publishing through this reading series and blog, the sicker the in-plain-sight secret of this sexism is making me feel. Paul is a nice guy, and I hesitate because I don't want to hurt his feelings with this post, but I'm sure his good publicity will outweigh my opinion by about a hundred times anyway, so I'm going to tell you the truth of my experience rather than bite my tongue and quietly simmer.

I went to Cornell with Jaskunas, and was in workshop with him for two years. I read portions of Hidden month after month after month after month after month. Naive girl-writer that I was, trying very hard each morning to hold my own writing to the standards of Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, I never in my life thought Jaskunas would get published, because his novel about good old Maggie Duke was so full of cliches that I could barely read it.

In fact, a woman he gave a copy to (this woman was not a fiction writer in our workshop, but was a visual artist and a big reader of all the Big Boy Books, she loved Gass and Ashbery and that sort of thing) said, completely earnestly, to me after reading the first chapter:

"Oh my god, it's brilliant! It's a satire of every cliche ever written!"

If you've checked out the Time Out article you will know Hidden is not satire.

Anyway, I was shocked in general by the preferential treatment given to the white boys in that workshop, but the treatment Paul got took it to new levels. (He was not among the shining stars at Cornell, as far as student opinion was concerned.)

After workshopping one section of this novel, a few of the women writers in our workshop received a 10pm phone call from the old-boy writing professor workshop-leader (a man who said "Faulkner! Hemingway! Fitzgerald!" every week to give us a hint as to what to aim for and once slammed furniture around in objection to my writing a single paragraph of feminist interpretation in a paper on As I Lay Dying). This writing teacher accused us women of "crushing and traumatizing" Paul and thought Paul would "never recover" after we girls had criticized his work that day. This professor wasn't indiscreetly relaying a complaint from Paul or anything--I don't believe they had spoken since workshop--he was just empathizing based on what had gone on in workshop.

This particular workshop was no different in tone from our normal workshops--in fact, it had seemed quite mild to me and to the other students, men and women alike.

What had happened, though, was that the women in workshop told Paul to nix a passage in which Maggie Duke, Hidden's protagonist, meets up with her best friend for the first time in a long time, and goes on and on and on about her best friend's breasts in a wet t-shirt after a little swim in the creek. We objected because we saw no authorial intention of portraying a romance or even an attraction there--it was just very clumsy writing and very obviously not a woman narrating: it was instead an obvious, if pedestrian, male fantasy overtaking the mind of the narrator, which is what, in all honesty, the whole of the novel seemed to be.

The women from that workshop have had quite a giggle to see that the cover of Hidden prominently features a woman's ass seen through a wet white dress, creekside.

Believe me, you absolutely must check out the ass that will surely sell thousands of books.

"I was doing things people say you aren't supposed to do: writing from a woman's point of view. I was venturing into territory where it was sort of dangerous and risky," Jaskunas says in the Time Out feature.

Yeah, dangerous and risky like girl-on-girl porn is dangerous and risky.

SPOILER: The plot of this novel is reactionary, almost Reaganite: Maggie Duke has helped put away her husband for beating her senseless. It turns out, however, that it wasn't the husband who beat her--it was a RANDOM DRIFTER! Reagan is surely smiling from his grave to hear that marriage isn't the the epicenter of such violence as the liberals would have you think--it's those poor people we should be blaming after all! I, for one, am so relieved that domestic violence isn't something we need to be worrying about anymore! This book is going to sell--the subtle reactionary denial of domestic violence is going to be irresistible. The subtitle of this book could be "A Defense of Marriage." Somebody call Congress. (Or at least Caitlin Flanagan.)

And give me Daisy Duke over Maggie Duke anytime.

Anyway, as for risky, as for how gorgeous it is when a man really does an amazing job of portraying women characters, go read Ghost World again, or any of Michael Dorris's fiction.

Sometimes I think it's just that the mediocrity is what sells. For example, why does Jaskunas have a book out when such brilliant guy writers as this aren't yet available to me at Barnes & Noble?

Mediocrity from boy writers sells as serious fiction and often wins awards, mediocrity from women sells like crack Krispy Kreme hotcakes as chick lit and doesn't do much more than convince women to go on a diet and spend $500 on a pair of shoes.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go listen to Teenage Lobotomy on repeat for about an hour and a half and see if I can't, without the actual surgery, up my mediocrity level a bit and enjoy the ensuing book deal.

xo
--Elizabeth
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