A few weeks ago, I had the excellent fortune to attend a panel at the Strand on Bad Women. As the event description put it, “This panel of novelists and essayists will talk about the onus of likeability placed on women and whether women are allowed to be flawed, in fiction and life.” I think we call all agree that 'onus of likeability' may be the phrase of the century.
I just finished up a writing class at Catapult with Chloe Caldwell, one of the panelists, a few weeks ago, and most of my colleagues from the class and I planned to meet up at the event. I generally attend events alone so it was a fun diversion to have someone to sit with and talk about the crowd instead of sitting alone and furtively scribbling in my notebook all the weird things I overhear.
Our main observation was that the room was packed with super fashionable ladies. To the point where there were maybe like, four men in the room. I'm going to look at this from the positive angle, it reinforces my theory that rooms of women have a unique powerful energy that some men have the unfortunate tendency to mess up.
Once the huge mass of humans had flocked into the room and gotten settled (I'm not exaggerating, rare books room at the Strand was practically overflowing) and some quick housekeeping notes from Kaylen, the girl who runs events at the Strand who I am obsessed with because she is fashionable and funny and has the best job, Isaac Fitzgerald, the event's moderator, opened the panel.
He started out with a moment of silence to Prince, le cry. “We're losing a lot of our artistic weirdo geniuses and that sucks.” It sucks a lot, pour one out. But in a purple lining, being at this event on the night Prince died served as a call to put ones nose to the proverbial grindstone about making weird boundary pushing art. Of course, it's crazy that women being themselves in writing is still weird and boundary pushing, but – that brings me to the panel!
“Let's have a kickass conversation about badass women,” Fitzgerald said, and then the badassery commenced.
Other than Chloe, the panelists were Anna North, Jenny Zhang, and Emily Schultz. The event was centered around the paperback release of Schultz latest book, The Blondes. Some of the reviews of her book treated it as though it was full of bad characters, out to terrorize the town. Her response opened the discussion:
“I didn't think it had a bad woman in it. I thought it had a woman who was in her twenties.” That one certainly resonated in the room, as it was primarily peopled with women in or near their twenties.
Chloe then discussed the reviews she received for her novella, Women. It's one of my recent most fabulous reads, by the way, and should be picked up by absolutely everyone.
“Many of them said the narrator lacks apology or was unapologetic – which seems like a backhanded compliment, what should I be apologizing for? What would an apologetic female narrator look like? Ordering a beer then saying sorry?” Of course we all laughed, but it's funny because it's true. We're at a very interesting moment for women and apology, no? There's a strong cultural impetus for women to stop saying sorry, but then women who ostensibly act this out are called unapologetic. What is this magic middle ground that we're supposed to be filling in to?
She continued, “The most disconcerting thing is when you think your character is totally normal, that's what life is like, that's what my friends are like, and then you read a review saying your characters are so fucked up.”
What all the panelists continually wrangled with is that the commentary on female work is so much more judgmental and amped to a higher degree of personal attacks than any commentary on male work. How often do people even use the phrase 'male work'? Never. It's always a woman who receives the designation of gender on something she creates.
Zhang went on to draw the connection between this commentary in writer's workshops and in the world at large, drawing out possibly my favorite comment of the night: “It's like the MFA vs NYC thing – ugh so inside baseball gross.” (I really can't resist a good MFA vs NYC joke) (Or any joke that only makes sense to people in a weird subculture)
Zhang continued, “People were telling me the immorality of what I was interested in.” Do we ever do that for men? Who with 'authority' tells gross dudes to shut up?
North brought up the challenge of choosing which comments are worthwhile - “What are valuable voices I should take in?”
This reminded me of a question I've consistently debated: does it matter if some people 'don't like' your work? Of course in terms of the capitalist market it's important for some people to find value in what you make, and I also do believe that there are elements of art that need to be present to constitute something strong – I'm thinking structure, form, innovation, energy, utilizing classic techniques in creative ways. But at the same time, in a world so immersed in the culture of opinion, 'liking' is a totally subjective idea. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a work's merit.
Unfortunately it's impossible to discuss the creative work of women without coming up on accusations of narcissism and egocentricity. Something I love in this moment we're having with women is that some people finally seem to be saying: so what if this is 'about me'? What is wrong with that? Why the implicit insult in being focused on the self? Why is the negative association only directed at women? Nobody is telling Knausgaard to stop writing about himself.
“Clearly Chloe Caldwell's favorite subject is Chloe Caldwell,” she said, quoting a review. She went on to say how people always categorize her writing as self topical, “The topic is always stated as myself versus female friendship or bisexuality.”
Zhang countered with how this has played out for her in terms of race, and how people reacted to her work with shock because she did not fit into their stereotypes.
“It's like they're encountering that person for the first time. People would call my work daring, but I was just born and have this brain and care about what I care about.”
She went on to aptly describe a cultural tendency, for people to deride women for fucking up but also relish in that moment:
“There's this blood thirst in our culture for women to fuck up publicly, not to be good but to be interesting.”
Shulz brought the discussion of the language around women's work to the broader realm of women’s accomplishments -
“People are always asking who did she fuck / who did she know what are her connections – versus acknowledging the woman's work.”
And of course the way that men refer to women based on their age could not be avoided.
“Men who are thirty or thirty five are not called ingenues," Shulz said.
Zhang continued this thread, “Young implies that you're sloppy / irresponsible / artless / just printed out your diary.”
Though the question session began, despite a loving warning from Fitzgerald - “Please make sure it's a question and not a story about yourself,” with an awkward possibly sexist question from one of the only males that made the entire room cringe, for the most part the questions were eloquent and led to great responses from the panelists -
“Women would write thoughtful reviews and men would say 'Oh! I didn't know this was going on!'” Caldwell said regarding the differences in her reviews from men and women.
“I used the first person so much I basically strangled it with desire and affection” Zhang on her past and future writing genres.
“People are offended by the fact that there's not an easy morality.” More of Shulz analyses of the reactions to her most recent novel.
I left the panel of badass women first and foremost wanting to attend more panels of badass women. A panel is really the perfect form – you get to see people whose thoughts you love form new theories together, the total dream. But I also left it thinking – in the eyes of the general public commenting on art, women are never doing the 'right' thing. But this idea is inherently flawed, because it's acting as if there is a right thing, as if there is a 'thing' that women are supposed to aspire to, rather than being free to aspire to whatever they desire.