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
Monday, July 14, 2014
This is where yours truly is most at home -- her office. Friends, this warm jewel of a room sits high above the city along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. She and her dearest found the most fabulous of all fabulous homes in a neighborhood with a generally undesirable zip code. But there are pockets of peace and prosperity in said zip code, and that's where they reside. While the nature of online teaching and writing, generally, allow her to work in coffee shops and on-any-road, she is pretty darn happy in the homestead, working, writing or staring into the family calendar wishing she had a higher IQ or spreadsheet to figure out driving schedule.
Here is another comfortable domain: the kitchen. Some complexities and caveats exist here; while the Matron may be comfortable in the kitchen she is not necessarily consistently successful there. Here is an attempt at a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting -- and nobody bought it in a box, folks. The Matron is a whiz with many things (spicy chicken wings, meats in general, veggies of all sorts) but she chugs along as a learner when it comes to baking. Plus she makes a great big mess. But the kitchen! If the Matron isn't in her office, she's here. Sometimes she brings her laptop to that very table and sort of runs the world from the kitchen.
Where the Matron is not yet very comfortable is in the land of commerce. Now that she has a book to peddle, it would appear she is awash with uncertainty.
"You read the book? OMIGOD I can't believe you READ THE BOOK!? Should I pay you?"
"Oh no -- don't buy one! Let me give you one!"
"Did it suck?"
"What are my hopes for the book? Hmmm . . I guess that I don't embarrass myself??
The Matron's Emotional Intensity surrounding this project has surprised her. She was unprepared. Well, she was unprepared for the whole endeavor, but that was last week's blog post. Still, when she learns that someone she considers a friend has not yet bought her book or appears to have no plans to do so, she doesn't shrug it off or think "he's not a reader" but instead, feels betrayed.
For the record, the Matron reads the books her friends write. Or pretends to (a strategy that will work for friends who might be reading this without considering the book).
However, in the midst of this uncertainty and turmoil, she has made one key, important discovery. The book itself, actually? She just reread the whole darn thing -- first time in years -- and had a few goose bump moments. A few sentences sparkle and stand out, keepers. The story has dimension, side-roads, strong characters. It's a little simple, a little light. It's not going to win any literary awards.
But those hopes for the book? Realized. She is decidedly not embarrassed by it.
So she's going to raise that bar higher and hope for more. The Matron is going to work hard for that little book, even if it takes her out of the kitchen and the comfort zone. Starting with: if you have a blog and your'e reading this one, consider a Matronly guest post? She's happy to come into your zone and