While the Matron lives in fear of Harsh Word rendered upon her own writing, she is nonetheless deeply appreciative of artful and intelligent critique. The deft, heel-gouging that Astonish Me received in last week's New York Times Book Review so impressed her that she thought to share. The essay is sharp at the sentence level, but notable for linking the novel's flaws to the larger difficulties of writing about a particular subject. Astonish Me is about ballet. The reviewer, Jennifer McDonald, faults the book for characters that too closely resemble fictional or real dance icons, resulting in precisely the soap opera sensibiltiy that too often trips up narratives about dance. So not only does the reader learn about the successes (or in this case, failures) of a particular book, we learn about the challenges of a wider sort, the pitfalls and challenge that s dog an entire genre.
This reminded the Matron of the time she turned her own delicate hand to the task of an entire genre: fiction and nonfiction books about anorexia. Indeed! She wrote an entire chapter of her dissertation on these narratives. Largely, she felt (and still feels) that these fairly uninteresting and tediously similar books simply reproduce the ravages of disease -- the emaciated body and its bizaare behaviors -- and that's about it. The reader's experience is voyueristic; we watch as pathology unfolds. This empahsis on pathology--its specatcular presentation -- magnifies the line between the anorexic and everyone else. Nothing like reading (over and over again) about behaviors like sucking on coffee grounds and chocolate chips from the garbage to make you feel pretty darn sane in comparison. Then after all that detail on disease, these books inevitably end with a triumphant . .. . And Then I Got Better sentence or two. The End.
This pattern has two troubling consequences. First, there's that whole question of how one actually recovers. This difficult, painful and highly personal part of the story may provide a roadmap or model for others, but that's not something we ever get. For example, the crown jewel of this genre may be Marya Hornacher's Wasted, which spends nearly 300 pages on disease and ends on this note: "I want to write about how to Get Well, but I
can’t. " Here's the real waste -- the wisdom of one woman's journey and hard work, lost for the rest. The dearth of anorexic recovery narratives (fiction or memoir) stands out among other depictions of disease. No such shortage of 'recovery' narratives exist for those corking the bottle. The newly sober will find legions sharing precisely that -- their recovery, tips and tools, hard-learned lessons and experience. Not so much for the anorexic. She's left on her own -- right where she was in the first place.
The second part of the pattern that troubles is the line drawn between the 'disordered' eater and everybody else. "Disease" is so spectacularly drawn that the continuum between dangerous and normal is rendered invisible. In a culture where slenderness is deified, yet 35% of the adult population is obese, there is a sharp disconnect between ideal and reality. If -- as the Matron believes - the ideal of slenderness also holds within it discipline, health, and beauty - there are a whole lot of people perpetually, consistently disappointed, unable to hoist themselves up to the minimum bar of health, beauty, and discipline -- let alone their ideals. Far easier to condemn the thinness of the anorexic as pathology than to ask larger questions about thinness and its pursuit.
Of course when asking why America is fat (but doesn't want to be) also demands an interrogation of the economy, class, and food production but . . . well, that's another blog post. But the Matron had to nod to Michael Pollan. Because he's right. If there is a serious critique of the 'anorexic literature' in the near future, the politics of food production and distribution must be considered.
The Matron, however, won't be writing that serious critique!! No --she just temporarily hopped up on her own high horse for a few minutes, returned here thanks to a thoughtful and well-done book review. Because artful and intelligent critique can do more than alert us to the pitfalls and foibles of a particular text, but hold up a mirror to some broader aspect of our lives, the larger culture. She just loves it when that happens!
'Astonish Me,' by Maggie Shipstead