I admit it. I’ve been googling myself again. It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m stalling. Around page nine of my name –a few entries away from the really strange link asking if I want to find intelligence on my father–I stumbled across (not to be confused with Stumbling Upon, which would have been way less creepy) an excellent review in The Rumpus of Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness by Darcie Dennigan. The review includes Walt Whitman’s semen in a conch shell, Peter Pan, Gertrude Stein on a spring day, and lots of oceanic hullabaloo, including shipwrecks. I’m always quoting Leopardi: How easeful to be wrecked in seas like these.
This weekend I spent some time thinking about how much people love talking about MFAs, what they’re good for, who should get one, why they’re terrible, how much they cost, why they’re wonderful and on and on and on. I never imagined that a college degree could generate so much vigorous discussion. I love it.
At The Rumpus, Anelise Chen wrote an essay about the MFA Ponzi Scheme. It’s a great, witty essay that makes good, if not commonsensical points. The comments are pretty intense with all kinds of opinions being shared about the MFA with a great deal of cost/benefit analysis. I love when writers get all math-y. I don’t have much of an opinion on MFAs. I do not have one. I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome. There are worse things someone could spend their money on, like drugs, though for some, that might be something better to spend their money on. I don’t judge.
I actually started writing this as a private email to you, but then I thought that posting about it would be more in the spirit of the Rumpus, and that the resulting conversation might be a useful one–more useful than if it was just you and me emailing. So here goes.
Why do so many posts on The Rumpus start from the premise that the author is somehow incapable or a weakling? I feel like I see examples of this all the time, but looking at the frontpage right now, there’s the Angela Stubbs article on Gina Frangello (second sentence: “She’s [the] kind of person you meet and you know seconds after meeting them, they’re capable of things you’d never be able to accomplish.”) and then the newest installment of Sari Botton’s Conversations with Writers Braver than Me, which I’m sorry, is about as terrible a name for a column as I can imagine–which is a shame, since it’s a good column. Oh and there was the Steve Almond’s “One Over Forty,” which was, actually, in some limited but real sense brave, and yet insisted on assuming the posture of a whipped puppy, even though the only one doing the whipping was Almond himself. Other examples abound, if anyone wants to go dig them out. I guess what I am asking is, have other people noticed this trend? And what is the deal with it? Does anyone have any ideas?
Unsurprisingly, I have an idea–and it’s that the Rumpus just happens to be where I’ve noticed something that is much larger: part of a general trend in contemporary indy- and small-press lit-land that insists on modesty to the point of self-abasement, encourages people to get awestruck at the drop of a hat, and rewards the expression of self-doubt rather than self-confidence. I think it’s related to the question Blake posed the other day, about why writers obsess in public over their rejections in a way that they never would (and, crucially, would never be allowed to) over their successes. In the case of both the above-quoted Stubbs sentence and the Botton column title, the attempt seems to be to pay a compliment to the subject of the piece, but the actual effect is to deflect positive attention from the subject (Frangello; Gould) and back onto the writer of the piece in the form of negative attention. In both cases, the reader has been put on notice that the author may not be equal to her chosen subject-matter.
It has not escaped my attention that both these examples are of women writing about other women. I keep trying to figure out how gender and gender-role-enforcement might play into this, but it’s a little bit more than I’m prepared to take on right now, other than to say that in American culture women are consistently forced to adopt or rewarded for adopting an aww-shucks posture in relation to the people and things that they would champion. This is a tendency which ought to be resisted with main force. Last thoughts: There’s no honor in being called brave by a self-professed coward. If your goal is to tell somebody “you are awesome,” try not to follow it right away with “and I am shit.”
When I was younger, I used to read Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers. Those advice columns offered brief glimpses into the troubled lives of others. Sometimes, the columns were lighthearted and humorous with advice on how to deal with inlaws or children who refused to move out at the age of 31. There were more serious columns that dealt with addiction, or the death of a loved one, or a crumbling marriage. The advice of Ann and Abby was always sage, albeit a bit tame. In a few sentences they applied down home wisdom and common sense but more than anything their advice felt like a brief reminder that we are not alone.
When I first took a job as stripper, I had no sense that my decision to do so would have any real, far reaching effects on my life. To the contrary, I found in sex work a solution to very nearly all my problems at the time. No longer homesick or lonely, my new job not only remedied the un-belonging I’d experienced as a foreigner, but— as a product of a broken, working-class household, the first in her family to go to college, let alone study abroad– through sex work I discovered in myself a seemingly unending source of power and autonomy relating but not only having to do with my newfound ability to make money, and lots of it, anywhere in the world. And yet…
- from “Not Safe for Work,” an essay by my friend, Melissa Petro, about the lasting stigma associated not with being but with having ever been a sex worker. It is on the front page of the Rumpus today, and despite its title does not actually contain anything that will get you in trouble at your job. Which is just one reason why you should go read it now.
Dan: [...] I also think that flirting with you sometimes felt like playing with a puppy. Lots of energy without any particular direction, light wrestling, and you’d have no idea what to do with the stick if I threw it for you.
Elissa: I’d know what to do with the stick—
Dan: No, you wouldn’t. I felt old around you. I felt like I did drugs. I felt like a person who got drunk. I felt like an Adult. The problem was that I said shit like, “I won’t sleep with you.” This is maybe important because right then, you are freely allowed to compare yourself with other girls that I HAD slept with.
from “The Exit Interview: A Conversation with My Ex-Boyfriend” by the funniest romper at the Rumpus, Elissa Bassist.
June 10th, 2010 / 4:59 pm