Year of the woman

Two weeks ago, I was having dinner with a scholarly journal editor, and we were discussing our writing. “Do you keep a journal?” he asked, and I had to admit that I don’t, exactly, and that this blog is the closest I’ve got to such a thing, and its sporadic output is a perfect indication of my, ahem, dedication to such an endeavor.

“Yes, I’ve tried on a few occasions to keep a daily journal,” he said, “but I just don’t have the discipline for it.” I nodded. We talked some more about diaries and, in the midst of much wine and cioppino, we ventured onto one of those sorts of offhand digressions that linger in my head for days: “Of course, in my teaching experience, I’ve found that women are much more rigorous about keeping journals than men are.” “Really?” I said. “Sure,” he said, “In my writing classes, I always ask the class to give a show of hands of who keeps a regular journal, and the hands are and always have been overwhelmingly women.” “Why do you think that is?” “Maybe women are by nature more introspective. I dunno.”

Are women more introspective, more willing to look at their interiors, by nature than men? I dunno, either. Certainly, men are more prone to seeking art that reflects themselves more than women—I’m much more likely to read a novel by a man, or watch a movie directed by a man, than either by a woman, and all that’s a form of self-absorption. Ego identification is not, however, exactly introspection. That, in fact, is a sort of navelgazing of which I’m ashamed.

I’ve been giving that conversation a lot of thought and, as longtime readers, I’m also prone to bouts of self-improvement—a much healthier habit all around. I’ve also been reading about, but emphatically not reading, these “year of” books. You know, The Year of Living Biblically, that book about spending a year saying “yes” to every yes/no question, that book (and documentary) about spending a year without electricity, etc. Why just a year, anyway? The cynic in me says that a yearlong—as opposed to a lifetime—commitment is just enough to get a 300-page book out of, and thus looks sexiest as a project to big trade publishers and editors, without, you know, having to change the writer’s lifestyle permanently. (You can recover from a year from anything, even bathing.)

Frankly, I’m tired of my ego, tired of looking at myself, tired of internalizing, tired of not experiencing the poetry and magic and lunacy and vision of half the human race. So, I officially declare 2010 the year of the woman. For twelve months, I will read only books and long-form comics written by women, see movies directed by women, and buy new music by women.

Theoretically, it won’t be hard. I’ve always wanted an excuse to reread Woolf, Morrison, Eliot, and Wharton; to conduct a retrospective of the films of Mira Nair; to finish up my Sleater-Kinney and Maria Schneider collections; to get into Mary-Lou Williams and Peggy Lee; to read Rebecca Solnit and Colette and Elizabeth Hardwick and Angela Carter; to discover the films of Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda and Claire Denis and to brave Catherine Breillat; to revisit Clare Peploe and Sofia Coppola; to finally read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and her forthcoming collection of essays; to read Natasha Trethewey’s poetry; to read that gargantuan Lydia Davis story collection; to get into the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb and more of C. Tyler and Carla Speed McNeil and Tove Jansson; to read more Andrea Lee and Fran Ross and Ann Petry; to read For Keeps cover to freaking cover; to, at long last, possibly figure out the appeal of the Brontë sisters; and on and on and on.

Okay, that’s theory. In actuality, I already see exceptions. There’s no way I won’t dip into Stephen Dixon’s forthcoming mammoth collection of stories. Since I’m trying to update my fashion, I’ll be perusing Scott Schuman’s gorgeous The Sartorialist regularly. (And can I really go a year without watching a Buster Keaton movie? We’ll see.) And I’ll continue to read essays, blog posts, reviews, etc., without a gender barrier. But, otherwise, men are out for 2010.

Maybe I’ll learn more about women in general, maybe I won’t. In any case, I won’t get a book deal out of it, and there’ll be the added benefit of getting out of my own head and dick for 365 days.

Wish me luck, and please make suggestions for reading and viewing.

——————–

UPDATE: Johann Hari writes a useful, engaging reminder of why there’s one woman I won’t be rereading in 2010. I tried, folks, but seriously: What is the appeal on Ayn Rand, honestly?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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10 Responses to Year of the woman

  1. brian says:

    A great idea Walter and I’ll try to do some of the same for a while as well. A many time I’ve said to myself, “maybe I should go with a woman (author poet musician whatever) next”, simply to balance out the sexes.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    1. I interviewed a video game developer (female) once who told me that in RPGs where people create an avatar, even though ~40 percent of the avatars are female, only 10 percent are actually female. She said the same holds true for racial groups as well. Basically (according to her) someone from a minority group is more likely to gravitate toward a representation that is most like themselves, where as those who are most secure (white, male) are more likely to experiment outside their own “identity.”
    Which doesn’t exactly echo what you’re talking about – I probably read a majority male authors if you discount genre fiction – but I do think it’s interesting in terms of how we define our comfort zones.
    2. After losing my copy of Zadie Smith on the way back from Jackson and not finding it until August (it was under the car seat), may I humbly recommend White Teeth for your year of womanly authors?
    3. I hate Ayn Rand’s writing. I started Atlas Shrugged once and couldn’t slog through it.
    4. Perhaps the majority-female-journal-keepers has more to do with how women (nature? nurture?) talk about our feelings all the damn time. Lord knows I do, even though I don’t keep a journal any longer.
    5. I prefer odd numbers.

  3. Good to hear from you both. Yep, Zadie Smith is one of my favorites, and I’ll be revisiting White Teeth along with the stuff that’s new to me. The idea of reader as identifying with those most like him/herself, unless secure, is interesting but I dunno. Every report I can find indicates that women are the primary readers of literary fiction (ranging from 50-70% of the readership), regardless of whether it’s written by men or women, which is why marketing departments try so hard to appeal to women’s magazines and venues; think of how ecstatic a publisher’s PR department gets when one of their books is selected for Oprah’s Book Club. White males tend, at least if we believe statistics, not to read much that isn’t written by white men.
    In fact, I’d argue that minorities are much more likely to read literature by people not like them than the other way around, simply because–until fairly recently–there wasn’t much choice. Until the 1960s, there wasn’t, for instance, a large body of literature explicitly by and about homosexual/LGBT/trans experience, so literate gay readers would, by and large, HAVE to read primarily stuff by straight authors, or at least books in which homosexuality was a very coded subtext. The same’s true for black writers–Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel R. Delany, and others all cite white writers as their primary influences; there just wasn’t that much African American literature to go around, and that was widely accepted as “good” literature.
    So, I don’t know. I sometimes think RPG avatars are so often female because horny teenage boys want to see big pixellated tits as they play, not out of any sense of empathy. There’s two words for why Tomb Raider is one of the most popular computer action games of all time: Lara Croft. And my bet is that 80% of that game’s players are male. Maybe I’m just cynical.

  4. Stina says:

    yeah, well I’m not too well known of course for being especially representative of women but I don’t so much have the discipline either… I’ll start but never stick with it. I’d have to say my best run of it was when I took that Rebecca Wells class and she suggested to me that I try keeping one from the perspective of one of my characters to help tease out a rough patch… but once I’d gotten what I wanted out of it I of course stopped.
    But then again I’m really not good at upkeeping intentions so I tend to start things and never finish (but I’m honestly noncommittal and open enough about it that people take it well, lol)…

  5. Um, a blog is a journal. As I am a woman (who could never keep a dead tree diary or any kind of regular journal until she got a blog) I give you permission to call your blog a “journal.” And to read any damn thing you want.

  6. Thanks for chiming in, everyone. A point of clarification/argument: Actually, one thing I’ve been arguing for a while now is that a blog isn’t a journal, exactly, in that journals & diaries are specifically not intended for public consumption and/or springboards for public discourse. For example, my diary–if I kept one–wouldn’t have comments such as yours in the margins, nor would other journal writers be able to so readily direct commenters to it. All of the famous journals–Goncourt, Thoreau, Pepys, etc.–were published and accessible to an audience only after the writers’ deaths. (I’ve written at length about why I blog, and what I think a blog’s function is, here. Scroll down to question #19.)
    To me, blogs combine, ideally, a lot of different types of writing: memoir, criticism, note-taking, daydreaming in written form (verbal doodle), sustained essay. But the fact that they are publicly consumed, and that the audience can engage with the blog and became part of its process, means that a blog ain’t quite a journal. Also, no straightforward journal could so easily incorporate audiovisual materials from other sources as a blog can. I’ve been doing this for 5 years, and I still don’t know what it is, but it’s not just a journal. (Though, with my small readership, sometimes it feels like it.)
    And thanks for your permission but I didn’t ask for it and don’t need it. In 2010, I am going to read any damn thing I want; it just happens that what I want is to read more by women.

  7. So if someone finds your paper diary, reads it, and scribbles notes in the margin, it becomes a blog?
    Full disclosure: once, during a hurricane when the power was out, I blogged the event on my manual typewriter.

  8. “So if someone finds your paper diary, reads it, and scribbles notes in the margin, it becomes a blog?” That sounds like a gotcha soundbite at first glance but, no, that’s not what I’ve argued above. What I’m saying is that intent matters. Unless you aggressively block anyone from reading your blog (and from linking to it and/or quoting from it at other sites), then by definition a blog is intended for public reading. That intent of public consumption makes it different from a diary–that intent changes everything from what the writer is willing to reveal about herself to what kinds of material the text includes in the first place. It might have diary-like elements or even be a sort of sketchbook–this site certainly has both–but it’s not the same.
    An example: I might someday find a copy of a journal by Philip Roth, written in 1970, and make marginal notations on it. But Roth intended for it to be private, and didn’t design it to be engaged with by anyone other than himself, so in essence it remains a journal/diary. He wouldn’t have the chance to respond to my marginal notes on the journal itself, others wouldn’t have the easy opportunity of reading our exchange, etc. I don’t think publication of Roth’s journal after his death makes it inherently less a journal or more of a blog. A blog, by design, is a part of social media; a journal, by design, is not. The ways in which writer and reader interact with each form is very different, as are our expectations of each form.
    This isn’t a denigration of either blogs or journals but rather a question of definitions. I just think it’s too facile to define a blog as “an online journal.”

  9. mernitman says:

    This is a Very Cool Idea.
    Of course your read of “On Beauty” would be enriched by another look at E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End,” ‘cept that would technically be a cheat… but this makes me muse upon a subtext here: the fact that so much art created by women is the result of, or in reaction to, the predominance of patriarchal and male-dominated culture (come to think of it, the reverse would be true for many male writers/artists (see Philip Roth) – reacting to the power of the female).
    And isn’t it weird that so few female directors have managed to sustain careers? Painters, sure, writers, yuh-huh, musicians and singers and dancers aplenty – but directing, even as we edge into the two-thousand-teens, remains the final frontier. Anyway, I love your notion, and you should be able to get at least a magazine article (as opposed to blog post or journal entry) out of this, if not a book.

  10. Billy, it’s good to hear from you. One of the issues that I’m already foreseeing with next year’s experiment stems from how I read: One book’s allusions lead me to wanting to read/see/experience the original source. I don’t read systematically. That is to say: Instead of spending a month reading a single author, or seeing movies by a single director, what I’m reading will–in a jazz-like, improvisational way–direct me to other stuff. Sometimes, it’s just an allusion–I re-read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway because it’s a turning point in Gregoire Bouillier’s weird-ass sort-of memoir The Mystery Guest (which is terrific, by the way). Sometimes, it’s a little stranger: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty will undoubtedly make me want to read Howard’s End, which will make me want to see the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation, which will make me want to see an English period drama by someone non-English–say, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vanity Fair–which will lead me to wanting to re-read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (very much a Victorian novel in form, even though it’s about India in the late 1940s). And that may want to make me read some brusque detective novellas by Simenon, just to wash down the taste of a 1500-page baroque novel.
    So. It’ll be hard to curb that flow of reading that’s so natural to me, or at least to direct it exclusively to works by women.
    Yes, it’s really weird that so few women have sustained directorial careers, or to do so with critical acclaim, and certainly worth a blog post or two. I can count the number of contemporary American women who’ve made more than three or four features on two hands: Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow, Allison Anders, Mimi Leder, Nancy Meyers, Amy Heckerling, um… In all those cases, there are looooong gaps between movies, and not one of them is as prolific as non-American counterparts such as Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, Naomi Kawase, Sally Potter, and Mira Nair. To me, that’s the real question: the French in particular have a proud tradition of prominent women filmmakers (the first four I mentioned are French), though it is demographically a much smaller country than the United States. What gives?

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