Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The 8th Deadly Sin (for women)

Just in time to dovetail with my musings on the propriety of lady writers having ambition, a friend of mine sent me this review of Elaine Showalter's new book. Her thesis is a variation of what you'd either call a myth or a truism, depending on your point of view: men are interested in Things while women are interested in People; and when it comes to literary prizes and recognition, Things win out every time:
She has insisted that themes central to women's lives -- marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations -- constitute subject matter as "serious" and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel.
Then, of course, there are those insidious doubts to contend with:
The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man's work.
Which is not to say that lasses lack ambition; rather that what of it we have, we fear -- if not the drive itself, then the possible repercussions. And it's true! What's less ladylike than ambition, for god's sake? The word itself trembles with connotations of greed, heartlessness, and selfishness, none of which are laid out in the "Eyshes Hayl," a Jewish Friday night prayer extolling the virtues of the fairer sex. "Eyshes Hayl, mi yimstah?" King Solomon once asked, and we repeat: a righteous woman, who can find? No one looking through the aisles of Barnes and Nobles or the op-ed pages, that's for sure.

Her worth is above rubies. Why? Because she keeps her husband happy, her home clean, the candles lit, and there's a bunch of stuff in there about wool and flax and whatever. The point is, what wife and mother doing all that would have time to write a grand sweeping novel about the Napoleonic era?

Even now that many of us have rooms of our own and can outsource the spinning and weaving, it feels unseemly to step forward and say, "I, yes I, have written a book! Though I know the proper thing to do would be to bury it in a drawer, though I know I should be modest and afraid of outshining any current or potential reproductive mates, those I am exposing myself to ridicule for trying, I am putting this book out there for you to judge."

We try to cushion the blow by making the books either memoirs or memoirs masquerading as fiction (the literary equivalent of an "I" statement) or easy to ghettoize as "genre" (mystery, young adult, sci fi/fantasy).

This all boils down to the following summary: women write small, modest books about relationships, while men write large-scale epics about stuff, and when John Updike died half of the next New Yorker issue was dedicated to him, with another piece in the end about Ian McEwan. The only woman who could command a similar level of attention is Toni Morrison, and thank heavens she's around, if only for symbolism's sake.

Because I am an orderly person who likes charts and measures of things, I have created a handy-dandy scale for authors, ranging from 1 to 16.

1 = You really think you'd be good at this writing stuff! You read things and think, Pssssh I could do better than that in my sleep. You even have a weblog for when you will fulfill your potential and start having a go at it, at which point you will knock everyone's socks off.

16 = classics who get serious obits when they die; who are taught in graduate school; who have won at least one major international prize. 16s include Martin Amis, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie, Coetze, Pynchon, Melville, Dickens, Nabokov, Elliot, Austen, Woolf, Orwell, Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy, James, Wharton, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Marquez, Kundera, Steinbeck, Morrison, and their ilk. The majority of 16s are already dead. Almost all are male, serious, and at least occasionally unreadable. Frankly, I'm not sure even Twain makes the cut, though David Foster Wallace's untimely death might push him over the edge.

In between is everyone else, from the eager blogger with several beginnings of short stories and an outline for a novel on his computer (3) to the 26-year-old with a completed manuscript who just got an agent (9).

Anyone published is an automatic 10. Whether they continue to rise from there depends on whether anyone buys/reads/respects their book (11), writes a couple other books and has moderate name recognition, at least within certain circles (12), sees an adaptation make it to movie theaters and/or wins a prize and/or appears on a major radio or TV show (13), achieves name recognition and status to the degree that s/he can write whatever s/he wants (14), and is considered Great (15).

15s: Roth, Updike, Irving, DeLillo, McEwan, Ishiguru, Chabon
14s: Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, and popular authors whose gold makes the rules like JK Rowling, John Grisham, Amy Tan, & Dan Brown
13s: Donna Tartt, Alice Sebold, Myla Goldberg, Yann Martel, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nick Hornby, Curtis Sittenfeld
12s: Nicholson Baker, Audrey Niffenegger, Caleb Carr

I aspire to be a 12, if I'm very lucky a 13. But even admitting that much ambition is difficult.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mark your calendars

On March 20th, you will hear from me as to whether I have good news to share. If I have bad news, you will find me beating myself to death with one of Mr. Ben's African drums, or perhaps trying to slide behind the refrigerator to die unnoticed like my hamster did when I was little.

My book, my crazy beloved stab at a book, is going out to editors at 13 publishing houses today. This means, I am told, its fate will be decided in a month, if not before then. I can't tell you which houses, in case I'm not allowed to, but YOU'VE HEARD OF THEM. Oh mercy. Perhaps I will fall apart at the joints while I wait. Today I'll lose a foot; tomorrow the tip of an index finger.

Sometimes my brain rushes ahead of me and I can picture the New Yorker's short, disdainful blurb in its May 2010 edition: "Although this young author's premise shows some originality and imagination, ultimately the book fails to live up to the expectations generated by the idea. Not mean enough to be satire or absurd enough to be farce, A,AoG lingers in a kind of limbo of its own making."

This is for real!

I will try to remember to put on pants today. Let's see if I can do it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Into the Lions' Den

Here I go! Wish me luck, folks.

While I'm off doing something that makes me quake in the boots I've already vomited on once, if you feel like helping me up my day's earnings -- they're at $1.20 so far, but the sky's the limit! -- feel free to check out my posts as the NY Unemployment Examiner.

ETA: Oh, wow. That went really really well. My novel about a Very Important Talent Agency has now been picked up by a real Very Important Talent Agency. If I could eat ice cream I would go through a whole pint, and if I could drink I'd got sloppy, gushingly drunk. But all I can do is send text messages and glow.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Fingersmith Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Into every life, a little queer historical erotica must fall. This book is like Wilkie Collins, only with more smut!

View all my reviews.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Why

Roughly a month after joining the Brooklyn YMCA I finally made it down there for my first of four free sessions with a trainer, O., a tall muscular black guy who was clearly wasted on me.

"First off, can you fill out this form?" he said, handing me a clipboard.

I got through providing my name, age, and address okay. (International money laundering scam alert!! Hopefully the YMCA keeps the documents in a vault.) Then I hit my first snag.

"Um, when it says 'Activities You Enjoy,' does it mean physical activities?"

"Yes," said O.

I crossed out "Reading, Writing," and left "Walking."

"Walking's good," he said encouragingly. That gave me the strength to continue. Twice the form provided me with the option of saying I was interested in weight loss; twice I refused to check the box. Take that, societal expectations of women!

The last section mandated that I list three obstacles to my success. I wrote down two and then paused. "Is 'inertia' the same thing as 'laziness'?" I asked.

O. shrugged. "One time I had a guy here who was like 300 pounds," he said. "And he wrote down, 'Too many women.'"

"That's good!" I said. "I'm totally going to steal that."

I signed the form, agreeing to commit to exercising 30 minutes 3 times a week, which is really something for me. I think exercise is like parenthood: something responsible people do, sure, mostly when forced, but which sensible folks avoid as long as possible. Of course I have friends who exercise; on this topic, just like parents, they become gushing Patty Hearst types. Perhaps I too will become an endorphin junkie, but I'm skeptical.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bourne's Got Nothing on Me

VOICE: Hello, FBI.
ME: Hi, um, I seem to have gotten involved in an international money laundering scheme ...
VOICE: Please hold.


VOICE #2: Hello, FBI.
ME: Hi -- I seem to have gotten involved in an international money laundering scheme ...
VOICE #2: Please hold.


VOICE #3: Hello, FBI.
ME: Hi -- I seem to have gotten involved in an international money laundering scheme ...
VOICE #3: Ah yes. Email or Craigslist?
ME: Craigslist. I answered an ad requesting a tutor for a six year old girl and the next thing I knew I was getting a check via Fed Ex for $3,200.00.
VOICE #3: And you're supposed to wire that money to a third party?
ME: Yes, sir.
VOICE #3: Yup, this is an international money laundering scheme run by Nigerians.
ME: I knew it! Or I hoped it was Somali pirates.
VOICE #3: Yeah, they're still mostly boat-focused.
ME: That makes sense.

On the FBI agent's advice, I had to inform all the credit bureaus to flag my account in case some tricksy African tries to steal my identity from abroad and I had to put the whole story in writing on an internet fraud website. When I was done, it offered me a link to the helpful site Lookstoogoodtobetrue.com in order to make me feel even stupider than I already did.

At least I didn't lose any money. And hey, not everyone has a $3,200 check sitting on their desk, albeit one that they can't cash.

Aside from dealing with the feds, I've landed two PT blogging gigs, applied to a gazillion more positions, checked out several apartments, speed-read Monsters of Templeton and Free Food for Millionaires, books about other over-educated twenty-somethings who don't know what to do with their lives, and attended a rousing session of Powerpoint Karaoke. I've also had two mini-breakdowns and a migraine. Come on, 2009. Enough playing around. Let's let the good times roll, shall we?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The new Gray Album!

It really is too bad. Once upon a time, I liked Christian Bale. Newsies, anyone? ("Santa Fe? Are you there? Do you swear you won't forget me? If I found you would you let me come and stay ... I ain't getting any younger and before my dying day, I want space! Not just air! Let 'em laugh in my face, I don't care! Save a place ... I'll be there ... in Santa Fe." This is from memory, folks.)

He's the cutest singing street-urchin this side of Aladdin but he wins out in a head-to-head because Aladdin chooses a chick with a waist the size of my wrist, whereas Jack "Cowboy" Kelly marries into a nice Jewish family.

Not to mention the brilliant American Psycho where he almost kills Reese Witherspoon.

Look at that picture and tell me you're not cheering him on.

I hope he bounces back from this, in short. Russell Crowe and Jude Law, both once-loved, pretty decent actors currently in the doghouse, don't seem to have redeemed themselves yet for their public sins (throwing a phone and bonking the nanny, respectively, in case your memory needs jogging). Are we more forgiving of idiot women? Britney Spears does stupid shit all the time and still goes platinum, and let's not even get started on Lilo.

Follow up / unrelated question: If medicine is expired, do you take more because it's weaker or less because it's poison?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

so much to do!

My Busy and Important unemployed life demanded that I buy a planner for the first time. So far I have lots of exercise classes written in there, which is a great first step!

I also made an elaborate color-coded Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the 63 (and counting) agents to whom I have sent my proto-classic manuscript. I should make another to keep track of the jobs I have applied to, but that would cross the line into depressing. At least the agents have been encouraging, even the ones who pass. One fellow even asked me to keep in touch and let him know what eventually happened because it was such a close call.

I'll tell you what's eventually going to happen: I'm going to get to meet Barack Obama. Yeah, that's right. Somehow I will get from here -- in pajamas in an armchair with my laptop -- to a handshake with our heartthrob president and it will be because some agent takes a chance on my book. (Maybe if I write that in my planner for sometime in the future, it will happen. That's the Secret all over, right?)

Essentially I'm trying to stay active and focused. The big project at the moment is the mortgage, because if we can actually get the pre-approval and make a bid on the apartment we want, that will address one leg of 2009's Triathlon of Major Problems. These are, in case you're just joining us, that I

1) got laid off
2) am soon to be homeless
3) heard my Dad has cancer again

Is "problems" too strong a word? Should I say "challenges"? Someone who knows the Secret let me know, please.

1) is the hardest to fix, as I feel like I'm competing with every English/Film/Humanities major in New York City for every open position. But the unemployment checks help and I'm not in danger of insolvency soon.

2) could turn out to be a good example of falling up, if we do manage to get a loan and buy this one guy's amazing Cobble Hill apartment for appallingly little money (by New York standards). Regardless, though, I'm going to sow the fields with salt before we leave. I can't believe we planted a garden in our backyard and won't get to stay here to see it bear fruit come summer.

3) is not as dire as it seemed initially, thank god. I've now been to and from Washington twice to see him (well, and to see C.J. Roberts tussle with Obama, wish my grandma a happy 96th birthday, and meet my brother's new 24-year-old acupuncturist Californian girlfriend). Everyone's feeling more optimistic now that there is a treatment plan in place for him. This time last year, he was just getting over being chemo'd and radiated; now he gets to do it all over again, after which he gets to be skillfully disemboweled for the second time. Oh, the wonders -- and limitations -- of modern medicine.

My February horoscope looks good, though!:
The year 2008 seems to have been a little frustrating for you, but planets gathering in your eighth house will hasten your transition into your new life phase. ... On the agenda will be the basic questions: What will make me happy? How can I go about creating real, lasting changes - ones I will genuinely want - that will be in place for years to come? Certainly you want stability, so that's what will be on your list of questions to answer, too.
So true. I'm very open to suggestion, friends.