Saturday, June 4, 2011

The F Word

The new issue of Granta is out: Granta 115: The F Word, and just in time to answer some Naipalling* comments from a male Nobel Prize winner. The "F" word in this case is Feminism, and we get a variety of views on it, and a historical overview, by writers who include A.S. Byatt, Francine Prose, Jeanette Winterson, Linda Gregerson, Louise Erdrich, and even Eurdora Welty, who is dead.

Eudora Welty's contribution is a bold and hilarious letter of application to The New Yorker, from March 15, 1933. She offers to cover movies and art exhibits, saying she "could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse's pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple."

So, in celebration of the F word and Slattern Day in the blog, I let other women speak by quoting them today. (Plus, a nod to Bill below.) I return for the moment to Carol Shields, in her novel Unless, an excerpt from her fictional letter to a reviewer in the Chicago Tribune, who is, as so many do, damning women writers in familiar ways:

"Women writers, you say, are the miniaturists of fiction, the embroiderers of fine 'feeling.' Rather than taking a broad canvas of society as Don DeLillo does, or Philip Roth, who interprets relationships through the 'lens of sexual yearning,' women writers as such--and here you list a number of female names including my own--find universal verities in 'small individual lives.' This, you go on to say, is a 'tricky proposition,' which only occasionally works.

[She continues, and here I quote the section that parallels my education and its assumptions that writers recognize and honor the universal value of the particular human life]:

"...Way back in high school we learned that the major themes of literature were birth, love, understanding, work, loneliness, connection, and death. We believed that the readers of novels were themselves 'small individual lives,' and so were the writers. They did not suffer, as you intimate, from a lack of range in their subject matter. These lives apprehended the wide world in which they swam, and from their writers' chairs they thrummed to the tune of sexual longing, but their gaze was primarily on the locked-up consciousness of their individual, human, creaturely being and how each separate person makes sense of all that is benevolent or malicious."

[I love this honoring of the effort of each separate person to make sense of it all! And then she makes a further, important philosophical and moral claim]:

"There weren't any rules about good and evil, and no Big Rule. It just seems that our species is happier when we are good. This is observable, though difficult to document."

This last applies specifically and importantly to the theme of goodness in the novel, and also, of course, to the theme of goodness in human life, and I am struck by the phrase "difficult to document" and how it also applies to the physical and obvious pollution in our life, not only the moral "pollution" that is evil.

In Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber confronts this difficulty and slowness in science being able to track and document the effects of toxins in our air, soil, and water and their effects on our health.  They are indeed "observable, though difficult to document," because people move away from cancer zones and businesses resist regulations and reporting, etc., etc. We know better. We know that putting toxins out there is likely to make us sick, give us cancer, etc. Each time a new alert comes out--cell phones may indeed be carcinogenic--there is much mockery at first, and people go on happily using the next modern convenience or happily eating the large, pretty fruit.

Or smoking that calming, glamorous, trendy, cool, addictive cigarette. Until they get cancer, and look for someone to sue.

We know better. We don't have to be this way.

Hmm, it appears I am a slattern on a soapbox.

*Thanks, Bill Harrison! But I had thought of that pun, too! And I'm sure we are not alone in coining this marvelous term that may follow him to the grave, eh?


Collagemama said...

Here! Here! Stay on your soapbox. Get you audience all ears, then sell us some potions and bicycles.

Kathleen said...

Hey, have I got a good potion for your bicycle!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Lovely response! The arrogance and small-mindedness of Naipaul is truly stunning, but I've yet to read someone who cheers him on, so there's a small victory.

As for soapboxes, woo hoo, rant on!

Kathleen said...

I am probably going to need another one soon, but I think they sell them at the flea market. Along with various crates and cottage cheese boxes.

Maureen said...

Great post, Kathleen. I liked Diana Athill's response to Naipaul: she laughed.

Kathleen said...

That is a good response!

Hannah Stephenson said...

I'm totally down with you taking on the soapbox, microphone, megaphone, or podium. Rah rah!

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Hannah! Maybe we can start a rhetorical soap box derby....