The Pleasure Of...Academia?

I’m as surprised as you are. (Plus Gothic tales, of WAGs and other demons)

Last night I went to the launch of a new series of books from NYU Press, from Avidly, a wonderful site for niche cultural enthusiasms. The editors define Avidly Reads as “short books about how culture makes us feel.” The first three titles are on diverse subjects—board games, theory, and making out—but together they made me think about something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while, about trying to find a better way to reconcile my academic and—what even is the opposite? Secular? Public? Commercial? Creative? Other?—selves. It might have been while I was listening to Kathryn Bond Stockton talk about kissing and reading and kissing as reading, making out and making out, caught up in the intensely studied playfulness of her words; or it might have been listening to Jordan Stein reading about reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality in public as a college student, desperately self-conscious and yet desperate also to be seen, read, interpreted, understood, outed, even, by his choice of reading, and spinning that into an analysis of how biographers have and haven’t read Foucault’s homosexuality into his work. I was thrilled, anyway, to be back among my people, my original people, for whom writing and reading isn’t purely an aesthetic business, isn’t a business at all, but an all-absorbing, self-absorbing struggle with meaning: finding it, making it, conveying it. I’ve spent so long in revolt against everything that’s deeply, structurally wrong with academia as a capitalist project, and so long swallowing the bullshit certainty of outsiders that academics can’t write that I’ve let that muscle shrivel.

In my class last week we talked about the difference, or distance, between reviewing and literary criticism. My student Emily talked animatedly about Judith Butler and Jacqueline Rose, and a piece she was working on about Jane Austen, and I could feel her excitement at the back of my neck—the lights coming on, the way I would feel when I was deep in reading something difficult, theoretical, making it to the end of a chewy clause-clogged sentence and getting it. Listening to Jordan read last night I felt that same excitement, although I never felt the bond he described with his friends about literary theory. I was never close friends with anyone in my college cohort who read English. My friends were in science and politics, anthropology, economics, and we didn’t talk much about work—not the substance of it, just the pressure. But I knew exactly what he was describing. It’s been there throughout my academic career, beginning with the tight, pretentious clique of boys in the year above me at college, who I envied, and mocked because I envied. Theory, the more difficult the better, bonded boys, especially straight ones, who were always in the minority, always seemingly reaching for the thing that would lift them into the safer realms of politics, philosophy, history, economics. Away from literature, its feminized and sensual pleasures. (You read storybooks! I remember a historian friend at college yelling at me when I complained about work.) I never really thought about it as a defense of masculinity—or I joked about it without really thinking, about what else it affected.

But it affects everything. It means that part of being an academic means having to cordon off reading and writing “for pleasure” as something furtive, illicit, out of bounds, because maybe acknowledging the pleasure of reading and writing as part of work, intrinsic to it, threatens to undermine our right to be in the academy at all, with our storybooks, our reading that is subversively close to making out. Well, screw it. I want to rediscover the pleasure of difficult reading, digging out the thing beneath the thing, doing what my students used to worry about, reflexively: Maybe I’m reading too much into this? To which I would laugh and say, that’s what you’re here for. 

Standing with one foot in the creative world and another in the academic is a rickety place to balance, not least because the two worlds are so antagonistic: Writers resent the snobbery of academics and mock them for their impenetrable prose; academics envy creative writers their freedom and mock their lack of rigor and rules. I am still figuring out what it means to balance the critical and creative, how to be clear-eyed and critical about academia and yet hold on to what it trained me to do best: to assert, to argue, to pay attention, to read closely and skeptically: because it is work and at the same time, pleasure. Maybe it’s the division that’s the problem.

Things I Read & Wrote

These three collections of spooky stories, for the TLS for Halloween. Did I bitch about the takeover of October by horror movies? Why yes, I did. But there was plenty of good stuff in these collections, especially Women’s Weird. Having loved her books as a child I’m now very intrigued by E[dith] Nesbit’s stories for adults, and Eleanor Fitzsimon’s new biography of her as a socialist and radical, as all the best children’s authors are. I also enjoyed the creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” in the BL’s Promethean Horrors collection of mad-scientist stories—it’s about a girl bred to be poisonous, but more about men who want the pleasure of love without the consequences. I may have insulted the very pretty Quaint & Curious Volume by suggesting it was designed to be Instagram fodder, but it’s solidly stuffed with classics, and the introduction, on the history of the Gothic, is great. Anyway, review soon!

Good Thing (?)

Look, I didn’t want to care about the WAG feud heard ‘round the world. I don’t actually care. But if you’re going to go down a tabloid rabbit hole, Marina Hyde is there for you.

The Pleasure Of... Breaking

Weather, news. Also, baking.

It was over ninety degrees on Wednesday afternoon, heat that hangs on you like a weight, and by midnight, after the rain burst and gushed, it was thirty degrees cooler. A crash into October, and just like that, autumn. So I’ve been skipping around in objectively terrible weather quite happily this week, because it was the last hot day and the first chilly drizzly one, enough for a leather jacket and scarf. I sheltered in Sur La Table, testing whether there was a limit to how many samples of their almond pumpkin spice cake one person could get away with eating, so partly out of sample-gluttony-guilt and partly out of seasonal joy, I bought a new loaf pan, a proper sturdy good one. I dug around in the cupboards at home and made a spiced honey cake—this recipe, though with dates instead of raisins. (Honestly it’s a little sweet for my taste but it makes the apartment smell amazing.) I’m defiantly not a Halloween person—I hate horror movies and dressing in costume with equal fervor—but otherwise I’m here for all October’s autumnal rituals, its bright skies and turning leaves, its apples and pears and pumpkins and decorative gourds.

^Our local supermarket. I love how this nonsense has become part of the monoculture.

T and I also cleared out our closets, which has generated enormous donation bags and piles of things to be mended, so as ever the real task is actually getting that stuff out the door, rather than letting it pile up in the hallway. (And thanks, brain, for an especially vivid discovering-a-secret-room-in-the-apartment dream last night—it was great fun to furnish and decorate it. Sigh.) It’s always an enormous shock to find out how little value clothes retain, even the ones you paid a lot for, so I was inspired to revisit Anuschka Rees’s book The Curated Closet, which I really love, for the inspiration to work through what I actually want to buy/own/wear. It suits my current philosophy that everything that gives real joy and satisfaction also takes thought and work. You can’t figure out what you want to wear without knowing who you want to be.

Thing I Wrote*

Finally, finally, it’s official, which is to say it got announced in the industry newsletter:

There was more to the announcement**, namely where it’s going—to Claire Potter at Seal Press, a storied feminist publisher now owned by Basic Books and Hachette. The title refers to the specific subject, the secret feminist club Heterodoxy, and comes from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of its members and a rabble-rousing teenage socialist organizer from the Bronx.

*Will write, to be precise. And optimistic!

**Let the record show that it was PL, not I, who left off the NYHS hyphen.

Thing(s) I Read

Not much this week beyond books for review that I’m not enjoying much—one that was just terrible, which I won’t link to, and one that’s good but a little disappointing, since I wanted it to be more magical than it is: Lara Maiklem’s Mudlark, about her hobby/habit/compulsion of scavenging on the banks of the Thames, and what the objects she unearths reveal about the city’s history. I also have some collections of spooky stories to read for the TLS, so I suppose I will be capitulating briefly to the Halloween-industrial-complex this weekend after all. Woo? 

Good Thing

I might be a trendsetter? The lovely Saeed Jones, whose poetry collection Prelude to Bruise I loved a few years ago, and whose memoir is about to be everywhere, is starting a newsletter that he describes as “small essays about people, places and things that make me happy and what I’m learning from that happiness.” (OK, fine, he says he’s actually inspired by Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, but whatever.) He’s a beautiful writer, we need more joy and beauty in the world and in the culture, and this should be good. 

The Pleasure Of... Lowering the Bar

On naps, news overload, list-making, and chaotic magicians.

This hasn’t been a week of great joy. I’ve been in a holding pattern, quiet and tired, my to-do list getting longer and longer. It’s been hot, and I’ve been hiding from it, impatient for the weather to change. Stuck in that space where the (self-imposed) pressure to do more means I don’t do anything much. My impulse is to berate myself out of this restless funk. Sometimes it works. Deadline panic works, sometimes. But I am learning that what works best is just riding it out: long walks, long naps, letting my attention wander. Reminding myself that powering down, lowering the bar, is okay.

For the past few days it’s been easy to let my mind flit, fixated on the news, which means fixated on Twitter, tugged along in its turbulent wake. I can’t do anything, pinballing between parliamentary yelling on one coast and cable-news yelling on another, but I can pretend to myself that watching it unfurl is a civic duty. Time dilates in this mood: I’ll see a tweet about the Emmys, and remember jarringly that that was also this week. I watched the damn thing (yay, Phoebe!) but it was a million years ago. 

Also this week, I applied for a major fellowship, wrote a proposal for an archival project, sent out a few pitches for articles, put together the beginnings of a proposal for a new book, taught the second session of my class—like, I got stuff done. I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival, a networking event, and coffee with an editor friend. I went to a three-year-old’s birthday party! But still there are boxes unchecked on my list, always, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that when I listen to my body rather than, I guess, my ego, I’m cheating. Letting myself off the hook. Lazy. I think of that joke about how being a writer is great if you loved the feeling of always having homework you hadn’t finished, life as eternal Sunday night. 

Writing this out I’m reminded that pleasure is a question of focus, too. It takes work, or if not quite work, then at least determination, decision, attention. It’s easy to let joy drift by. Pleasure and celebration don’t follow automatically from finishing a difficult task, and we tend to assume that working for that celebration, thinking about it, planning it, is somehow antithetical to the whole idea. Joy should be spontaneous! Shouldn’t it?

We assume our memories are better primed than they are for joy and relaxation. It is, of course, incredibly easy to think of a million pleasurable things to do when I’m on deadline, but somehow that never translates into keeping a list for when I’m not. The idea of a list for joy sounds monstrous, somehow. But sometimes it’s hard to call things to mind. When I have a rare, low-deadline-pressure week, my mind goes blank. So in lieu of things I have, in fact, done this week in the name of joy, here’s a stab at that list. Small, domestic things, mostly. The everyday pleasures it is easy to forget.

Walk, or take the ferry, to Hunter’s Point to visit the gorgeous new library that just opened this week on the water. I mean, look at it! (Pic by Max Touhey for Curbed.)

Make yogurt. Prep all the random vegetables in our CSA box. Take Friday evening off, have a glass of wine and finish the half-eaten tubs of ice cream in the freezer. Catch up on the fall previews of arts & culture stuff and put some exhibitions and films and events on the calendar—and not just things I want to write about. Buy plane tickets for a trip in November. Clean out my closet and do some new-season window shopping. Read some poetry. See some friends.

Try not to worry so much about doing things right or wrong. 

Good thing/My thing:

The MacArthur Genius grants this week were a ray of sunshine, including a lot of wonderful writers. Ocean Vuong, who is thirty damn years old, was also longlisted for the National Book Award, and I’ve been dying to read his books for a while (an excuse to go to the library!) And Saidiya Hartman, who is simply an extraordinary writer and researcher, and whose Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments blew my head off this year. I’ve never read anything that gets inside history this way, and although I struggled to articulate it, I’m pretty proud of how this review turned out. 

Culture Thing:

I could preface this, as is my instinct, with a disclaimer about how I don’t really read YA, but I am always wary about what that disclaimer is doing—preserving my intellectual bona fides? To whom, or against whom? Like there’s someone waiting in the wings to take my PhD away if I admit to loving something silly. Something easy. Something charming. Anyway, disclaimer aside, earlier this summer I really enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which is a queer rebellious riff on both Harry Potter itself and the vast and vibrant fan fiction world it inspired, and I loved its sequel Wayward Son, which came out this week. I am a sucker for warmth and humor and a road trip, for anything that subverts the conservatism of children’s books, and also chaotic magicians. I haven’t read Rowell’s other books, but there is something thrilling about seeing a writer evolve to the point where they can do whatever the fuck they want—in this case, writing a novel (two, now) about characters they created within the universe (and then, at a remove, within the fandom of that universe) of another novel. I liked Constance Grady’s review at Vox, and this piece by Dana Schwartz at LitHub:

In the literary community, fanfiction is almost uniformly dismissed as frivolous, associated a certain unseriousness that misogynists love to ascribe to teenage girls. But the strange relationship among Rowell’s books (not to mention their explicitly fanfic-centric plots) force light onto the all-too-fine line that exists between metafiction, so often exalted as high art, and fanfiction, so often dismissed as high art’s downfall.

Dismissing teenage girls—their brains, their commitment, their ideas, their vision for their own lives and for the future of the planet—is habitual, and boring, and tired, and can we just… stop? It’s not like Serious Men are covering themselves in glory lately.

The Pleasure Of... Creativity

Retreat to move forward.

A clunky word, further hollowed out these days by its adoption by every startup transforming the world by selling boxes of makeup on the internet, but nevertheless you know what I mean: the pleasure of putting a little gentle pressure on your ideas, seeing what shapes they’ll make if you prod and bend and stretch them. I should know better than to argue with the New York Times Style Section, but my thinking on this was prompted by a muddle-headed article attempting to dunk on the current vogue for “creativity workshops”/retreats/whatevers led and embraced primarily by women. The established female authors who lead these—Elizabeth Gilbert, Dani Shapiro, Meghan Daum—come in for a tall-poppy scything despite the fact that the writer could only, it seems, find satisfied customers, who had seen concrete results, in the form of publication and career advancement, after taking one of these workshops. Surely it shouldn’t have been hard to find someone willing to say their thousand bucks were wasted? Or perhaps what the writer is chafing against is the fact that measurable outcomes aren’t really the point of these events: aspiring writers know that they still have to do the work, and that writing does happen alone and often in pain. But the community, inspiration, solidarity, refreshment of an event like this is nice, if you can afford it, and if—like many people!—your friends and colleagues aren’t writers.

I took a writing workshop a couple years ago, right as I was transitioning back into full-time freelancing, with Ann Friedman and Jade Chang, over the course of a weekend. It cost $500 and I agonized over it, but I could afford it, just about, and not only did I meet a bunch of smart women I’m still in touch with, I refer back to its lessons a lot. To me, it was absolutely worth it. I’m sensitive about this because I’ve just started teaching a six-week writing workshop myself, on cultural criticism, i.e. asking strangers to pay for my expertise. Those strangers are very different from the mostly reluctant freshmen I’m used to, smart and motivated and experienced (and yes, all female.) The actually interesting article might be to examine if (and why) female-identifying people are more willing to pay for an experience rather than a credential, more open to an experience that offers community and creativity without promising measurable results. Maybe these settings better fit how women write and learn, or maybe men are more susceptible to the isolated-genius myth, since they’re the ones who set it up in the first place (Emily Dickinson notwithstanding.) (OMG you’ve seen the trailer for the new show, right? It’s worth it.)

Ultimately, I don’t see anything wrong in telling ourselves that our creative impulses deserve time and attention, and since capitalism obviously conditions us to associate value and money, paying for something like a writing workshop is a declaration that you think your creativity has value. It is very hard to maintain that conviction alone, when we are carving creative time out of the waking hours that we are supposed to devote to making money and (if we are women) caring for our families. I think sometimes about Joanne Rowling in her Edinburgh cafe with her sleeping baby, writing a story about a boy wizard. The supposed happy ending is the wild success, making more money than the queen, but think for a minute about that mother, actually there in that cafe, day after day, and how much she must have overcome in herself to keep going back, to listen to the little boy she conjured up in her head. How easy it would have been to put it away and laugh at it, at herself. 

I have been—I just deleted “trying”—writing fiction again for a year or so. I have a forest of defensive language to protect it, my little hatchling novel, but I know that I’ve found a story that feels like me. It is so easy to become convinced that we have to shape what we write to fit the market, whether that’s the market of actual money or the market of prestige and prizes. But either way, the market is dumb. Publishing, like Hollywood, is always said to be risk averse, but it also has a very rigid idea of what constitutes a risk. Watered-down version number seventeen of something that hit before is a risk, of course it is, just as much as weird thing we love but don’t know how to market. It’s just that the sales team will back an editor on the first, and not the second—no matter how many times the weird thing becomes the hit.

Publishing is not the only measure of creative fulfillment, and the inequities built into it are real and dire. So why publish at all? Isn’t creativity morepleasurable when it’s private and pointless? Yes, of course. But writing just for yourself misses the part of creativity that really matters, that really pushes and changes you: the terror. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, after a childhood of scribbling in notebooks and hiding them under the bed, never finishing or sharing anything. One of the goals I set for myself this year was to publish a piece of fiction, which I am downgrading to at least sending it out, at least trying to push beyond the pleasure of just writing for myself. 

Me, Elsewhere:

This hasn’t shipped yet, but I am delighted to be a part of the second edition of The Second Shelf magazine, talking of course about the wonderful Marjorie Hillis. Allison has just triumphed in her long visa battle and been officially recognized as an outstanding literary citizen, so please support her and her business: pre-order the magazine and visit the shop (pictured below!) and help us all raise the profiles of women writers.

Culture Thing:

This week is early book Christmas, with the always massive, always sunny Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday and the National Book Awards longlists rolled out this week. Having been inside a little award-giving myself and knowing how arbitrary these things are, my heart always hurts for everyone quietly nursing their disappointment this week. Longlist to shortlist is the most painful winnowing, and like—can’t you just have a longer shortlist? Maybe it’s too many people to invite to the ceremony or something. Anyway, that aside, there are some amazing titles on this list, go buy one at your local indie bookstore this week, and big ups to Lisa and everyone at the NBF.

Good Thing:

Climate Strike. Follow the kids.

The Pleasure Of... Back to School

Choices, change, & overstuffed backpacks

During the summer holidays I used to make calendars counting down the days to the first day of school, and blu-tack them over my bed, crossing off the last days of summer and freedom with joyful X’s—an anecdote that’s probably more revealing than anything else I could tell you about myself as a child. So September, the rentrée, will always get me, with its lists, resolutions, blank notebooks, new pens. In New York we’re not there yet; it’s still too muggy for sweaters and tights, but it’s turning, and every 80+-degree day feels like the last one. I like this transitional phase, buying the last of the corn and aubergines and tomatoes before it’s all potatoes and squash and dark greens and roasted root vegetables, stews in the oven and cake and tea. I’m a warm-weather lizard but the cold has its pleasures: faster running, reading on the couch while the sun goes down. The season turning lets us flex the muscles we need to process big, unwanted changes, to mourn what’s passing and face what’s coming. This week has also felt transitional since I’m still jet lagged from London and Paris, which means waking early and afternoon naps, and doing my best to embrace Ursula K. LeGuin’s truly inspirational work schedule:


People seem to have powerful preferences about the seasons, summer lovers, summer haters, those who live for fall and sweater weather. But during this in-between week, I’m embracing ambivalence, my sadness at summer ending, my joy at the autumnal restart. This problem with favorites runs deep. When I first moved to New York, people back home in London would ask me if I liked it better; then I’d sit around with fellow English expats arguing out our preferences, conversations which mostly devolved, as immigrant storytelling tends to, into litanies of what we missed from home. I found the choice paralyzing, destabilizing, weighted with unwanted meaning, like those questions about what you’d save from a burning house, as though it were possible to think past the horror of a home on fire. What if I’m wrong? What if I make the wrong choice? What if what I choose says something about me that I don’t mean? We’re constantly asked to make these kinds of choices, to define ourselves as this-not-that, team X or team Y, to assert clear, zero-sum preferences for weather, drinks, outfits, vacations, politics. I mostly envy people who are fixed in their likes and dislikes—most of my closest friends are people who are boldly decisive about small, daily things. Of course, I do have tastes and preferences and things I hate, but I’m getting less certain all the time. What might I discover if I try this thing I don’t think I’m going to like? In my late twenties I toyed with signing up for a dating site, but I fell at the hurdle of the age cutoff. What if the perfect guy was one year older or younger than where I placed my limit? (As it happened, he was.) I know we have to make rules for ourselves to get through the day. But when it comes to preferences, I want to stop ranking and choosing and excluding. I want to learn new things. 

So whatever it means, back to school. Please enjoy this photo of me  (on the right) and my best friend Lucy at age eleven, ready for our first day at secondary school. Even in my enthusiasm I am a total mess, but boy were my notebooks ready. 

Reading Pleasures.

I’ve been flitting around, reading articles, a couple of novels, including Louis Bayard’s absorbing and melancholy Courting Mr. Lincoln, about Abraham Lincoln’s young adulthood, his courting of Mary Todd and his concurrent, intimate friendship with Joshua Speed. I linked above to Brandon Taylor’s newsletter, and I am very excited to dive into his novel Real Life, which comes out in February (galleybrag, I guess.) I met Brandon in the spring at the Minneapolis book festival and he was delightful—I love this essay he just published too, about childhood fears and how they shape us.

(A lot of) My Work This Week

Two big pieces of mine came out this week, both of which I wrote over the summer and were difficult and time consuming, and so I’m quite proud of them. The TLS asked me to review a new edition of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz and a scholarly variorum edition of Gatsby—not really comparable, but emblematic, I argued, of their wildly different levels of literary status. I didn’t dig into SMTW’s racism as much as I wanted (which it shares with Gatsby, but inflected differently, reflecting the difference between northeastern Princetonian racism and the Alabama-princess variety.) Anyway, the piece is here (paywalled), and I was also on the podcast!! If you are in the UK, you can pick up the paper copy *with my name on the cover* which made me very excited.

(A reference to the iconic!! episode of Sex & The City in which Carrie is invited to appear on the cover of New York magazine as an embodiment of the “single and fabulous” lifestyle, but gets drunk preemptively, so that her hungover-to-shit photograph ends up slapped with the tagline Single and Fabulous? The question mark is the kick in the teeth.)

I’m also really proud of this story, at Narratively. It’s one of those rabbit-hole dives that came about during research for the Hotbed exhibition at New-York Historical, about a nationwide 1915 contest to find a universal outfit for women. Cut for space (and the fact that it was impossible to confirm) is the mysterious personal life of the woman at the center of the story, Mildred Johnston Landone, whose brother-in-law (I think) was an infamous eugenicist, inventor, and all-around weird dude named Brown Landone (or some variation thereof), who I am pretty sure had a relationship with Mildred’s teenage son from a previous relationship, serious enough that they lived together, and for him to list the younger guy as an “intimate friend”—in place of any family—on his draft card in 1918. But it’s very unclear what happened to any of them, and my days searching turned up blank. Census records are a hell of a drug. 

And finally, back to school(s)

New York schools just instituted a moment of silence for 9/11, and announced today that they aren’t going to penalize students who walk out for the 9/20 climate strike. After 18 years, there are no kids in school who remember 9/11, so memorialization gets codified as we pass from memory into history. At the same time, there’s—at least among kids—a new urgency about the future. It’s good to look back, and forward.

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