In the midst of all these TV shows starring ex-TV show stars in even older storylines, Mad Men is a refreshing watch. But I still have some problems with it. The first time I watched the show, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. » Read the rest of this entry «
I’ve seen enough Kubrick films to dismiss him altogether. Please tell me this is true because I do not want to see another Space Odyssey type yawner. That movie was so godawful, I was reduced to playing Freecell in a tiny window while the film was playing. Because fast-forwarding is against my, well, principles. » Read the rest of this entry «
One of the benefits (or not) of living in the twenty-first century is how politically conscious, hyper -ism aware you are. Even when you are watching cinema as masterful as Ophül‘s or Renoir‘s, you find yourself uncomfortable with certain scenes. For example, the scene in which the woman resists the man’s advances until he forces himself onto her. » Read the rest of this entry «
I like being a feminist. I like not having to say, “I believe in equal rights for women but please don’t call me a feminist.”
My belief is quite simple: men and women and all other genders are equal and have (or should have) equal rights to all things even if we’re different.
Lately I’ve begun to worry about how “equal” my reading tastes are. It’s an absurd thing to ask of myself because I shouldn’t be worring about these things. I like who I like; that is all. To say that I am a woman and therefore must like work only or mostly written by women is counter-intuitive. But what bothers me is how few women writers I bother to read.
I started thinking about this a month ago, when I read Elaine Showalter‘s article at The Guardian on the best women writers in postwar (which war, I don’t know) America. I recognised some of the names, but was largely uninterested in the works of these women. This was odd, because I do think that women are just as good at men at writing. At the same time, I didn’t feel like going out and getting those books.
And usually, this is how I find out what I want to read. I read something online or talk to a friend and discover something new.
Naturally I began to panic, and when I panic I make lists to calm myself down. Or I do the math on lists I’ve already made.
I’m only talking about fiction, so this is the number of novels (graphic novels included) and short story collections I read last year (not including anthologies): 35.
Number of the above written by men: 24, by women: 11
% of books written by men loved: 37.5%
% of books written by men liked or considered OK: 45.83%
% of books written by men hated: 16/67%
% of books written by women loved: 36.36% (50% of this was erotica)
% of books written by women liked or considered OK: 45.45%
% of books written by women hated: 18.18%
By now you think I’m crazy to be doing math on this sort of thing, but I don’t care: there’s still this year left to check. No short story collections this year, just anthologies. So I’m sticking to counting novels: 12 so far, of which 10 are by men, 1 by a woman and 1 is anonymous, so I’ll leave that out of my calculations.
The one book by a woman that I read was an Austen, that was OK.
% of books written by men loved: 60%
% of books written by men liked or considered OK: 40%
Besides saying that I prefer male writers, these numbers indicate that I seem to be unconsciously choosing to read men rather than women.
I have more proof of this. One is my current reading list, the fiction section of which (excluding anthologies) is more than 60% male. The other is my “I want to read these people” list: (male) Knut Hamsun, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, Jim Thompson, Philip Roth, Yevgeny Zamyatin, (female) Charlotte Roche and Elizabeth Wurtzel.
All of these decisions have been made unconsciously. I don’t think, “This is a man, I must read him,” or “This is written by a women and therefore it is no point reading.” I’m not that sick. But this unconscious prioritisation of male over female writers at the level of choosing what to read is really bothering me.
I also cannot think of any female directors that I like. Actually, I can name only a handful of familiar names. Female directors from India: Meera Nair, Deepa Mehta, Sai Paranjpe; from Britain: Gurinder Chadha; from USA: Sophia Coppola. And I don’t like any of them. (To be fair, I haven’t watched any of Paranjpe’s films.)
What I’m trying to say, at the end of all this, is: HELP!
Poetry and morals
This latest controversy about Derek Walcott* reminds me of a discussion at my blog that happened almost a year ago: “Immoral” writers and motive. The issue was whether the moral faults of a writer coloured our perception of his/her writing. The example I used was of TS Eliot, who was known, among other things, to be very racist. Jon Stone offered a very interesting response; he said:
Yeah, it does colour my perception. I tend to think of poetry as a kind of cultural discourse (or so I keep saying) and so whether or not I think a poet has something to say is a factor in how I receive their poetry. ‘Immoral’ sickos might have some interesting ideas but I’m less likely to feel much strong affection for their work if it’s tainted by stupidity. I’m even less kindly disposed, however, towards fairly normal poets who might be ‘good’ people in a broad sense but don’t really have any stake in anything outside of themselves. The poet has got to put something on the line, I feel, and in that respect bad’uns can easily outdo the charming-but-tactful.
My (badly written) response is as follows:
I wonder if the cultural discourse you are talking about is more significant (or is treated more significantly) in the contemporary scene than if you are talking about a poet who wrote a few decades (or more) ago. The distance of time itself seems to generate a kind of awe about past writers (the ones that survive, anyway) that prevents, to an extent, critique of their personal politics and lifestyle.
It’s a related post, but not quite. What I noticed about the first few reactions to Walcott’s withdrawal were “We’re talking about poetry here, not morals. Walcott is a great poet and that’s all we should care about.” But the issue wasn’t “Is Walcott a better poet than Ruth Padel?” (Sadly, Mehrotra is not considered important enough to be part of the discussion.) It was “Is Walcott a better poetry professor than Ruth Padel?” I recommend Mary Fitzgerald’s article at The Guardian, where she writes:
The fact is that one of Walcott’s students complained she was given a C-grade because she spurned his advances, and was awarded a better grade on appeal. This points to his unsuitability as a professor, not an artist. The Byron analogy doesn’t stand up at all: many parents would encourage their teenage daughters to read Byron’s poetry, but would be less kindly disposed to him teaching their daughters about the mysteries of verse in person, particularly if he had defended himself in the farcical terms that Walcott did, claiming that his teaching style is “deliberately personal and intense.”
Padel versus Walcott, in my opinion
I’ll be honest and say that I was rooting for Padel from the start. I don’t know why exactly, because I am as familiar with her work as I am with Walcott’s, which is not much at all. Walcott is admittedly “greater”; he has a Nobel prize. But something about Padel’s campaign, which seemed to focus more on what kinds of lectures she would be giving if she won than on how great she was, made me want her to win. I had also read some of her poems from her latest collection (on her ancestor, Charles Darwin) that I really liked.
When the earliest news about the anonymous letters surfaced, I wasn’t sure what to think. After reading a number of news articles and blogs, I’ve begun to think Padel really was the better choice.
But more than having to personally choose which candidate I prefer, what bothered me was the absurdity of various arguments. Let me go over this carefully.
There were two things about the letters that were bothersome. The first was that they were anonymous, which made a lot of people think or suggest that Padel or Padel’s supporters had something to do with it. Prof Hermione Lee, one of Walcott’s biggest supporters, asked that Padel “publicy disassociate” from the campaign. But why? There was no indication that she had done anything, and given the way her campaign had been run so far, it’s highly unlikely that she would stoop so low.
One can only speculate about who was responsible for the letters. My guess is that it was a group of women (or just one) who had been victim to Walcott’s advances and couldn’t stand the idea of him being elected to such a prestigious post. For whatever reason, the anonymity of these letters does not bother me, though I can see why they bother other people. Many have said that the nature of the letter campaign was no better than sexual harrassment. We like to hold people publicly accountable for their actions, especially celebrities. But if someone accuses Walcott, then the accusor, it appears, should also hold himself/herself publicy accountable for making that accusation — this seems to be the general feeling. There are two points to note here. One, it’s much easier to reveal that some A-list actor cheated on his wife (especially as this ends up being the job of the paparazzi, who have few qualms) than to put down a literary god. Two, if these were women who had been harrassed by Walcott, I can understand why they wouldn’t their names revealed. There is a lot of shame in admitting harrassment.
The other bothersome issue was that the allegations were only allegations. There was no proof that he really harrassed any students, and moreover, all of this happened in 1982. Note that The Guardian called it a “smear” campaign, suggesting that all of these were made up. Of course, if they were really made up, I doubt Walcott would’ve withdrawn. I’d also like to point to Seth Abramson‘s blog posts on Walcott. He indicates that Walcott has pretty much accepted these charges. In one case, there was a legal settlement. In another, Harvard reprimanded Walcott for giving a student a low grade after she refused his advances (which famously involved Walcott saying to the student, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?”). Again, people are going to say, “That’s not enough.” I think it’s more than enough. Moreover, there is an anonymous comment on Abramson’s blog that is very telling:
… as his student at Boston University, in recent years, I repeatedly found Walcott personally unmanageable and often cruel. Our class at Boston University– seven graduate women, two men–were all familiar with Walcott’s unsavory approaches to women, and as a class of many women, we navigated them with some combination of shame, disgust and disdain. We took them as a matter of course, making excuses for him, but they often made for a hostile environment and precluded for me, finally, any excellence he might have had as a teacher.
Any number of women who went through the Boston University program speak about this as a matter of course. His behavior was not isolated, it was chronic and habitual. My own experience was this: Walcott asked me to dinner one night, and when I refused he was angry at me; I went from being a pet pupil to being ignored in class. When I wrote a dialog that contained two women characters he called them “prating bitches,” and cut off the scene before it was done. Later he asked me to take him driving one day (he does not drive) and then told me to “touch his tumescence.” (He then asked if I even knew what the word meant.) I refused. I asked him, as my professor, for a letter of recommendation. He dictated one: “__________ is a fine poet and would be a good addition to any literature department.” That was the extent of the recommendation he would write for me [...] I’d just like to add that I was Derek’s student in the 2000s. It goes on and on and on.
I don’t need much more to know for sure that Walcott was a sexual predator. Would it have affected the way he lectured at Oxford if he had won the professorship? Perhaps not. Perhaps he would have had great things to say. But how would he have been received, especially once he had established contact with students and it became known that he was a predator.
As I mentioned earlier, the absurdity of the pro-Walcott arguments have astounded me.
First, you have the “Why are we being such prudes?” argument. I liked this comment at James Marcus‘s blog: “We’re not talking about sex here. We’re talking about harassment. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, it he’s harassing students he’s harassing students. He’s failing to support, mentor, develop half (or more) of his students.” The issue is hardly prudery. If anonymous letters were sent about Walcott having orgies in his house (with non-students) every Saturday afternoon, that would be grounds for accusing people of prudery. Sadly, anyone who goes anti-Walcott is accused of witch-hunting. Abramson, for example, was accused of McCarthyism by a commentor on his blog.
Second, you have the “This is Oxford’s fault” argument (I lost the link, unfortunately). What should Oxford have done? Refused to admit that letters were received and read? Stopped the postal service? Not accepted Walcott’s withdrawal? After all, they didn’t force him out of the race.
Thirdly, you have this crazy demand by AC Grayling that Padel and Mehrotra withdraw from the elections. Sure, the race is tainted. I feel bad that when Padel wins it won’t be because she had a strong campaign but because she’s the default candidate to vote for. But that’s hardly reason to stand down, especially when there’s so much to lose. It’s funny how, on the one had, you have people arguing that Walcott’s morals shouldn’t have been called into question, and on the other, you have people asking that Padel and Mehrotra make a moral protest against just this kind of policing (if one can call it that).
Overall, this isn’t about morality, really. It’s about ethics. “Is it OK for a teacher to ask for sexual favours?” and related questions. It’s also about crime. I had a thought about Walcott’s withdrawal that I kept to myself because I know that just because someone withdraws from something doesn’t mean it’s an admission of guilt. Something about the psychology of it, however, made me think he was guilty, though, and Abramson seems to think the same way:
I will admit I am partially swayed by having represented thousands of individuals charged with misconduct, and seeing in Walcott’s responses to these allegations, and to the whispers spread by those who do have some basis to know him, all the hallmarks of a serial offender who has never been called to task for his behavior–largely because he operates in a community without the will to do so.
I also don’t think this controversy will taint people’s opinions of Walcott’s writing (at least, not in a big way). Instead, much of the debate has reinforced his stature as one of the most important living poets today. The controversy may, however lead to a shift in the way we read his work, a shift explained partly by Jon’s comment on poetry as cultural discourse and by something the anonymous ex-student of Walcott said:
Derek is brilliant, but flawed. I would point out also the treatment (or lack thereof) of women in Walcott’s work; the work’s continual desire to belong to a grand tradition which it (the work) discursively recreates through the exclusion of women; and to suggest Walcott’s chronic insistence on a model of greatness both in work and life that excludes real participation by women. This limitation diminishes his work in my eyes. The work, however grand its formal gestures, loses its lustre when seen through this light. It provides a limited and limiting model of how art can be made. It is this myth which seems to most inform Walcott’s approaches to art, is perhaps a congruent flaw to Walcott’s personal dimensions. Frankly, it feels like a rather dated model of greatness. I think that Oxford might consider that as well, as they make their decisions about his professorship.
On a side note, I was very sorry to see Ruth Padel indirectly implicated in the letter campaign. The Guardian has, however, put up a nice article on her today, which spends a good deal of time talking about her work and achievements and what she plans to do if she wins.
Though the fall-out from the campaign may, she admits, “taint things for a while, if I am elected, once you’re there … well, poetry rises above it. I intend to do the best I possibly can.”
*For those completely unfamiliar with it, this is the controversy: the elections for Oxford Poetry Professor (a very prestigious, although not necessarily lucrative position) take place today. There were three candidates: Ruth Padel, Derek Walcott and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (in order of when they announced their candidacy), the former two being the frontrunners. Some days ago, anonymous letters were sent to Oxford academics detailing allegations of sexual harrassment made against Walcott. This led to Walcott withdrawing his candidacy (even though Oxford didn’t want him to) and his supporters getting very publicly angry. Some felt that the elections should be postponed so that a new candidate could surface, making the contest “fair” (currently it looks like Padel will win). Others felt that both Padel and Mehrotra, but especially Padel, should also withdraw because of the elections were now tainted. As it stands, the elections haven’t been postponed and neither candidate has backed out.
This is not entirely relevant to the controversy, but this teacher-student-harrassment thing bothers me. A lot. I’ve just graduated from college and am now officially a teacher. As much as I may downplay the teaching job, I’m pretty serious about it. I’m aware that in my field, I’ll have to do a lot of teaching if I get to where I want to be. I’d like to do it right, as right as I can.
I have never, ever, EVER been harrassed by a teacher — sexually or otherwise. It comes as a great surprise to me that it’s very common in American universities (see Abramson’s posts). The idea of sleeping with someone to get a good grade is alien to me.
Any harrassment that I’ve received (and I’ve gotten my share, thanks) has happened while I was on a bus, or trying to catch a bus, or walking alone somewhere. Some of it was fairly aggressive too, and I’ve learnt to deal with it, but a teacher propositioning you is something else altogether.
I think part of the reason is that education-wise, I’ve led a protected life. My father was in the army, so we moved a lot and obviously I changed a lot of schools. All of my early were co-ed. Boys became slightly problematic (in a good way, obviously) around fourth grade, but the teachers were all fine. In India, there seem to be very few male schoolteachers. Even all boy schools have more female teachers than male, I’ve noticed. As a girl, I’ve never felt threatened by adults in a school.
Shortly before my father took premature retirement from the army, I was admitted to a really good (if snotty) all girl school in Bangalore. Here, most of the really good schools are either all boy or all girl shcools. I suppose a lot of parents feel their daughters will be safer away from boys. (These parents are mistaken. I remembermeeting a LOT of boys in school.) The boy-girl thing wasn’t such an issue for my parents. We have a family history with the school I joined, so it just seemed right. I can only remember three or four male teachers: one music, one physics (whom everyone said was gay), the rest sports. Nothing inappropriate ever happened with them, as far as I know.
I went to an all girl junior college (same as 11th and 12th grade) as well. I was too lazy to go anywhere else. I mean, literally, having to travel to another part of the city. Again, we had very few male teachers.
At roughly the same time, I started studying French at the Alliance Française, where the classes are mixed. I had a classmate who was an old retired bank employee, several middle-aged classmates, some parents. Most were in their twenties and working, and there were a few college students. I was always the youngest. There were always more women than men, but there were men, and male teachers too. Again, nothing inappropriate happened.
Finally, my degree. I was determined to get out of this all girl business. But then, it was an all girl college that had the best reputation for the course I wanted, so yeah, I applied, I got in, and have had, for the most part, a very feminist education. I did have some male professors, but very few. There was one creepy man whose classes I did not attend for long, but the most he got was flirtatious (and not with me, thankfully.) There were two other English lit professors, and both were very tame. The male professor my class interacted with most was gay. (By the way, we all adored him, and still do. He lectured on media studies, mainly.)
I don’t know what to say! I’ve never had to feel uncomfortable sexually about any of my teachers. I’ve never been harrassed by them. Sure, I’ve argued. I’ve argued a lot with several teachers. I went through my third year of college almost blamelessly, until one class toward the end of the sixth semester, where I dared to suggest to a lecturer that poems aren’t merely “more complex” biographies of poets. I was accused of being an “individual” of all things. Hilarious. It took a while for the tension to dissipate, but at least it wasn’t sexual tension. I don’t think I’d be able handle that. I’m bad enough when it comes to disagreeing on course material.
Anyone want to tell me any interesting/helpful/scary stories? My email ID is aditimachado(at)yahoo(dot)co(in) if you’re not comfortable posting in public.
Of interest: More on poetry reviews and criticism; flame wars; sexy cover art; gender and Indian politics; more
Gaby Wood interviews feminist blogger Jessica Valenti
The Purity Myth [Valenti's latest book] rails against a cultural phenomenon that has genuinely threatened young American women, at least since George W Bush became president. With the rise of federally funded abstinence education, the ever-imminent overturning of the right to have an abortion, and the general promotion of the virtues of virginity, Valenti wants to, as she puts it, “outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies”. This is a laudable aim, though one that might appear to be at odds with the declaration that feminism makes you better in bed; certainly Valenti’s oeuvre so far has not exactly made women’s bodies seem irrelevant. After all, her books even contain views — and a repertoire of jokes — about pubic hair (“What do parsley and pubic hair have in common? You push them both to the side before you eat”).
Kurt Vonnegut on Phoebe Hurty to whom he dedicated Breakfast of Champions
Phoebe Hurty hired me to write copy for ads about teenage clothes. I had to wear the clothes I praised. That was part of the job. And I became friends with her two sons, who were my age. I was over at their house all the time.
She would talk bawdily to me and her sons, and to our girlfriends when we brought them around. She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.
I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty. It think now that grace was easier for her than it is for me because of the mood of the Great Depression. She believed what so many Americans believed then: that the nation would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came.
I never hear that word anymore: Prosperity. It used to be a synonym for Paradise. And Phoebe Hurty was able to believe that the impoliteness she recommended would give shape to an American paradise.
Now her sort of impoliteness is fashionable. But nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise. I sure miss Phoebe Hurty.
Ian Jack on the woes of publishing today
A misleading idea has arisen, however, that writers generally can earn enough money to do nothing else. The idea is ignorant of history, of TS Eliot keeping himself comfortable on academic stipends and a publishing house directorship, of Angus Wilson superintending the reading room at the British Museum [...] What you might call the moral and aesthetic case for writing — to think, imagine and describe and then communicate the result to an audience — can be satisfied online. It just doesn’t make any money. The age of the gifted amateur is surely about to return.
At British and American universities, this future has to be kept as a woeful secret. A great paradox of the age is that while newspapers continue their inexorable decline and publishing cuts its costs, journalism and creative writing degrees have never been more popular. Year on year, journalist applicants stood a quarter higher at 13,229 for courses beginning this autumn. Creative writing can now be learned at nearly every British institute of higher learning. Figures are hard to come by, but Britain is probably turning out about 1,300 “creative writers” every year.
Thanks to Kk for this link.
The Art of Penguin Science Fiction (read “sexy book covers”)
Anindita Sengupta on gender and Indian elections
As India went to the polls over the last few weeks, a small section of Indian women exercised their vote to protest against regressive gender stances. A recent spate of attacks on women by Hindu fundamentalist groups in Karnataka probably brought home the need to do so. The vigilante groups are widely believed to enjoy the support of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which explains why some women among India’s educated middle classes adopted an anti-BJP ballot philosophy.
… and on related issues
This article reminded me of the defensiveness attached to writing from my location as a middle class, educated, privileged woman. Some usual reactions: ‘how dare you talk about Mangalore when there are so many worse things happening’ or ‘look at women in Saudi Arabia’. I often write about the urban, educated women because a) I know the most about it and b) I believe we need to be more involved in thinking, engaging and demanding more in terms of gender rights. To put it simply, we have more time and energy to do so. Nor are we unaffected by gender issues. After all, domestic violence, sexual assault or female foeticide are not restricted to the poor and rural [...] I have every right to go out and not get followed. And no I don’t have to be okay with it because women in Saudi Arabia are so much worse off. And no, I don’t have to wait until after I get raped to protest.
Adam Fieled on flame wars
… you learn certain lessons in maintaining a blog: if you flame a fool, or get drawn into a flame war with a fool, you will get a foolish response. Flame an intelligent poetry blogger in a purposeful way, and you may begin a valuable discourse. On the other hand, it is possible to be blind-sided, in such a way that self-defense is simply necessary. One cannot always choose the Other that one encounters. Heteroglossia is not always fun; it can be painful to be addressed in an alien language (especially when it seems to hold no rhyme or reason.) Yet this post is meant to act discursively, rather than as a how-to manual; what is important is that flame wars are both valuably illustrative of the most positive attributes of digital consciousness and valuable as incidents that demonstrate their own kind of heterogeneous logic. A new context for encountering the Other creates a new Self; a new Self necessitates the creation of novel textual forms. A flame war shows us this process in action, and is, thus, viable as an autonomous form in its own right.
It could be that the gifted child is the true outsider of our times. Caught between the physical world of their peers and the intellectual realm of adulthood, they mirror the feelings of not quite belonging one can experience as one gets older. As such, readers can empathise with the conundrums and pitfalls that befall the prodigy. After all, it’s probably Salinger -– who always had a gimlet eye for an outsider -– who practically invented the whole genre with his monumentally fucked up family of geniuses, the Glasses.
There is another argument that suggests that childhood is so complex now that the only convincing first-person way to write about it is by allowing an adult sensibility — and intelligence -– to comment upon it. I mentioned this to an editor recently and he nodded, then said “Well perhaps, but I think mainly it’s because it’s easier.” He was being mischievous, but he had a point. So long as your narrative has an internal logic, and the voice is consistent, the reader can have no real complaints about the veracity of the character. If it doesn’t sound like one of the kids you see on the bus every day, well it’s not supposed to, is it?
John Sutherland annotates Bono’s poem on Elvis
William Logan on the savage art of criticism
Coleridge claimed, according to John Payne Collier, that “reviewers are usually people who would have been poets . . . , if they could: they have tried their talents . . . and have failed; therefore they turn critics, and, like the Roman emperor, a critic most hates those who excel in the particular department in which he, the critic, has notoriously been defeated.” Words like that are painted on the wall over every poet’s desk, to console him. Things have changed since Coleridge’s day, however, because the twentieth century offered one long string of poets who turned their hands brilliantly to criticism: Eliot, Pound, Empson, Auden, Blackmur, Jarrell, Berryman, and Lowell. For these poets, who had not been defeated (except for Blackmur, who, though a brilliant critic, was a dreadful poet), criticism was high-minded, an attempt to explain the art to itself. It might seem wise to make a distinction between those who practice criticism in its drier and more erudite forms and those who take off their gloves for a bare-knuckle brawl. Yet most of these critics were bare-knucklers, some of the time.
Kent Johnson elaborates on his proposal for poetry reviews
So here’s a vote for Guriel’s call that the “negative” spirit continue– only that it continue with a much more forceful satiric push. There’s never been a great age of poetry, after all, where poets weren’t taunting and lampooning one another [...] What I’m suggesting, and for reasons stated above, is that poetry publications begin to reserve a space for some percentage of “unsigned” reviews and essays. These could appear anonymously, pseudonymously, heteronymously (wonderful to think of a Pessoa-like critic figure tearing up the scene), or under collective banner (wonderful, likewise, to think of sub-rosa MFA-student collectives submitting their jaundiced-eyed considerations).
… and some interesting responses to Johnson’s proposal
V Joshua Adams: Where I disagree with Johnson is in the apparent exclusivity of his commitment to satire as a form of criticism. There is no necessary connection between the satirical impulse and good criticism; the latter can be satirical, but it doesn’t need to be, and in the hands of the unskilled it can go badly wrong. Therefore I would suggest an amendment to what Johnson proposes. We don’t necessarily need more satire or crankiness in poetry reviewing: we need more intelligence.
Robert Archambeau: Right now, the incentive for reviewers is to over-praise. But what would the incentive be for reviewers if their work went unsigned? For many, there’d be none at all. While some journals pay reviewers in cash, it’s rarely enough to justify the investment of time by itself. Worked out as an hourly rate, the majority of paying journals aren’t really offering much more than one could earn at, say, Chick-fil-A Most journals offer considerably less, although the work is marginally more congenial. Reviewers are really paid by seeing their names in print, and by being allowed to feel (with some degree of justification) that they’re becoming part of a conversation, and getting recognition from a literary community.
Robert Baird: Is it too glib to say that what I look for in a good review is what I look for in a lover: that it be smart, witty, and pretty (and in that order)?
Then how’s this, from Martin Amis: “The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned—perhaps because of its ubiquity…The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness.”
Dullness and its opposite make a better axis than positive and negative to talk about reviewing because, pace Jason Guriel, there is no dearth of negative criticism, at least once you get outside the hothouse world of lit magazines [...]
To my mind the most underrated way to avoid dullness is to make intelligent, instructive arguments: about goodness, yes, but also about how poems work and why they are (or are not) important. People often marvel at The New Yorker’s willingness to run 10,000 word articles on Bolivian water projects, but I pin it on their figuring out that—shhh!—some people like to learn.
Bill Freind: [...] these days, almost none of the reviews I read are in actual dead-tree magazines. Instead, I look on blogs, listservs, and online journals. I’m not sure if my tendencies are typical, but it’s clear that online sources have fundamentally improved the genre of the poetry review. This entire exchange is an example of that: Guriel’s review appeared on The Poetry Foundation’s website; Kent’s essay was originally a posting in the comment section of that article. And from my perspective, the discussion in the comment section is even better than Guriel’s article.
Daisy Fried: When a certain film critic for a Philadelphia publication says a movie isn’t funny, I know I will find it hilarious. When she finds a movie poignant, I know I will find it revolting. If she and her fellow reviewers for this publication wrote anonymously, I could no longer rely on her unreliability.
Critics who are consistently wrong are the most useful critics
Johannes Göransson: I’m also not sure why you are so attached to the crotchety review. You say that William Logan has been writing the “most entertaining poetry criticism for years.” If by “entertaining” you mean “pointless” and “reactionary” you have a point. If you mean “tired policing of poetry” you have another point. If you also mean “cranky ideas that never led to an interesting discussion” you have bingo [...] If contemporary poetry does not harass us, make us uncomfortable, pushes us to new views and vision, it’s just a useless armchair game for the well-to-do, a means of feeling sophisticated. Ugh.
Ange Mlinko: even though Kent Johnson isn’t exactly wrong about the social forces at work keeping poets from criticizing each other, there seems to me an intransigent philosophical issue underpinning them. As poets, we’ve set up the whole shebang to be either/or, black-or-white, love-it-or-leave-it by emphasizing “very interesting language” — poetry dialect. You either fall in love with the poet and their dialect or you don’t. You either get the top of your head taken off or you don’t. Or — my favorite — it “heals” you or it doesn’t. It’s subjective and irrational, post-avant and third-way, hybrid and legitimate.
Murat Nemet-Nejat: In Kent’s work, nothing is exactly what it seems; that is why the perception of a modest proposal is very apt. For instance, one reading his dolorous lament that in the present state of affairs “the ‘review’ and the ‘blurb’ begin to blur in purpose and effect” will be tickled to remember that about 20 percent of his fascinating book The Miseries of Poetry consists of blurbs for the book—myself providing one of them. They are part of its internal structure [...] I propose three simple rules — three thou-shalt-nots — for the rejuvenation of the art of reviewing poetry [...] 1) I forbid the use of phrases “non-linear” and “non-narrative,” or any expression saying the same thing [....] 2) I forbid all textual analyses of a poem, based on sound or rhythm echoes among words. This is a hybrid of New Criticism (oh, Language School, how far hast thou fallen!) and Ron Silliman’s theory of “torque” in his New Sentence [...] 3) The third proposal is my own drollery, a dreamer-despite-yourself ideal. I forbid each reviewer from reading Ron’s blog.
A disclaimer: I’ve been doing these “Of interest” pieces for a while and I like the format. JM told me he liked the way excerpts are offered without commentary, so you can arrive at your own opinion. Admittedly, I have thrown in commentary at times. I mean, I couldn’t really resist that snigger now, could I? But, overall, I wonder if it’s understood that I don’t necessarily agree with all of the people I quote in here. I often do, but today’s collection is fairly polemical (the poetry-side of it, anyway; and I mean polemical for my blog and not in general) and also contradictory. I hope it has and will continue to be obvious that I do not necessarily endorse what everyone is saying. What do you think? Should I add a disclaimer to this series in future?
I should add, however, that I strongly agree with Anindita when she says that feminists cannot concern themselves with problems only in rural spaces, or in places where things are “worse off”, if at all we can decide for certain who is “worse off”. — A
To end, two more examples of sexy cover art
Nathalie Rothschild has a great article up at The Guardian’s CIF section: Who says sex workers want to be saved?
While the British government would like to crush the sex industry, sex workers themselves may not want to lose their incomes. And it’s not just about money — it’s an identity just as anything else.
A transgender woman called Savannah announced that she was proud to be a call girl. She told me: “I’ve worked as a streetwalker, escort, model, dominatrix, in dungeons …” Being a call girl is easier, she said, because it means she can avoid police harassment.
This hints at a much greater problem of violence against sex workers — a problem that gets ignored in favour of the project of defining a standard morality for an entire nation (“this is state feminism which has nothing to do with gender equality. It’s about the state identifying a proper way for its citizens to behave and defining millions of women as victims”).
Sex work in India
In 2007, a friend and I did a lead article on sex work for our department newspaper. The only thing we were sure of was that we wanted to meet actual sex workers and not base our article on downloaded and most likely inaccurate statistics. We had fairly romantic ideas about how we were going to do this, i.e. storm into brothels and ask questions while feigning sympathy. In fact, our first angle (before any hard research) was the lack of attention given to children of sex workers. We got the idea from a documentary film we watched called Born into Brothels by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, which shows life in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s famous red light district. What we get is photographer Zana Briski teaching the children of Sonagachi how to take pictures. One kid got to go to an international convention. The mothers were portrayed as abusive and domineering women who beat their children on a regular basis and who did not want them to be educated. Briski comes off as the squeaky clean white woman who wanted to do her bit for the dirty, ignorant third world and the kids got a few awws.
My friend and I were duped. We thought we’d do what Briski did in Bangalore, minus the film and photography lessons. Instead, we’d find out if it was the same in Bangalore, publish it, get a good grade, and feel golden inside.
It turned out to be much harder than that. We learnt, for example, that there aren’t really any identifiable red light areas in Bangalore. There are brothels, sure, but there aren’t any big signs with lights that go “Hey you! Want some sex?” (AH later told me that a certain road parallel to MG Road is filled with soliciting sex workers in the evening. Funny how I’ve never noticed them.)
As we began to comb the internet, we found several critiques of Born into Brothels. Families in Sonagachi (yes, they have families, not just random offspring) were upset with the way Briski and Kauffman had portrayed their home life. They had expected something different. And despite all the talk of getting the kids out of Sonagachi and into “good” schools (I suppose they meant anything that wasn’t in or near a redlight area), there is little evidence that the lives of these children changed for the better.
That’s another thing: the focus was on getting the childen “out” of those spaces, as if no reform was possible within Sonagachi. They didn’t look at reasons or possibilities or grey areas. Perhaps they cut out all the grey areas, silencing anything that might compromise dominant notions about the sex trade. That’s the brilliance of editing.
Our questioning of Born into Brothels began when we met Byatha N Jagadeesha of Alternative Law Forum. Along with our internet research, he was the first to talk to us about the contradictions and deceptions of the documentary film. We also spoke with Nithin Manayath (who lectures at my college), who pretty much disturbed all our comfy ideas about sex work.
Our article went through nearly ten revisions, each with a slightly different angle. Broadly, we went from talking about children in redlight areas to how to get them out to rehabilitation of children and women in sex work to how the media represent sex workers to the wide gap between what cinema would have us believe about sex work and what actually happens.
Cinema and prostitution
I’ve considered posting that article on my blog, but I’m uncomfortable with the way we wrote it. We sound like overenthusiastic school children. I’ve decided to post excerpts.
The article was written in the context of yet another whore-with-a-heart-of-gold film — Laaga Chunari Mein Daag – being released. It follows the popular trend of the hero saving his love from the grim clutches of prostitution. It happened in Pretty Woman, too, if you can remember beyond the hideous clothes Julia Roberts wears in that movie.
What amuses me when mainstream actors like Rani Mukherjee (who stars in LCMD) do roles like these, they call them “character roles” and inevitably talk about how they did so much research before filming. Really? What sort of research? I would love to know. I’m not denying there are highend sex workers who don’t look any different from your page-three-socialite, but Bollywood seems to think that’s all there is. Yummy for the viewer, I’ll bet.
This is why I love Chanda in Dev D. There is a logical explanation for why and how she gets into sex work, why she’s up-market and there’s no apology for it. Not for a second do you think, “But will he save her?” She doesn’t need to be saved.
The glamourised saving of prostitutes is great fun to watch. What about real life, though?
“Men claim to love us too,” says Jayanti*, who has been a sex worker for 19 years. “They promise to marry us, as long as we give them our earnings. Once the money stops, they leave. Sometimes when we refuse to give them our earnings, they threaten to tell our families back home what we’re doing.” Besides dealing with partners who betray, sex workers have to survive threats from street gangs, and rape and violence from police officers.
Law and order
This is where I think we should be focusing our energies. After reading laws related to trafficking and soliciting sex, all I got was confused.
According to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, sex workers are victims: they cannot be arrested. The Act can only be used against traffickers, pimps, and other agents and facilitators of commercial sexual abuse of women and children. In reality, most cases are booked against the women victims. “With the help of NGOs, some sex workers now know that they cannot be penalised. But most of the younger ones are still unaware,” explains Smita*. Smita*, also a sex worker, has been working with a collective called Sadhana Mahila Sangh for four years. She adds that the police threaten to arrest such women if they do not have sex with them.
Later, I also discovered that if a woman is seen soliciting in public, then she can till be arrested, because it “offends” any of the more “moral” people in the vicinity. Funny thing, that.
Most of the legal movements that aren’t flat-out “let’s ban this whole thing” argue either for legalisation or decriminalisation or both.
…legalisation… could work well in cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, where red light areas are clearly demarcated and thriving spaces. The entire family in plunged into prostitution or trafficking of some sort; families accept, to some extent, the “dirty” work the women do because it brings in money. For this, they are protected. In Bangalore, however, such spaces do not exist and sex workers often find themselves without a support group; in fact, their families are seldom aware of the dual lives they lead. Here, legalisation would segregate and restrict human movement [through licensing], branding the women as “immoral” and socially unacceptable.
“Decriminalisation, that is, the removal of criminal status from the selling of sex, is a more viable option,” explains Byatha N. Jagadeesha, an advocate with Alternative Law Forum, an organisation that works in research and litigation for marginalized groups. Decriminalising does not legitimise the role of the brothel-keeper or pimp, but it recognises the right of the woman to be in the practice of sex work, and to be free of violence and stigma.
Almost a year after we wrote and published our lead article, we met with an NGO worker who was staunchly against legalisation. (That’s something that I had to realise, that each NGO has a slightly or drastically different philosophy from the next.) She believed that we must do everything possible to get women and children out of sex work. Her group regularly raided brothels and tried to rehabilitate women.
This method seems… wrong. Not that women shouldn’t get out if they want to, but why force them out? Why get them in more trouble with their pimps? Why not do things slowly, in a step-by-step manner?
The woman also mentioned that she had a criminal case booked against her — violation of human rights. Apparently, at a raid, one sex worker refused to be “saved”. She clung to the feet of her pimp, calling him her god. So the woman from the NGO tried to pull her away. This was caught on tape and used as evidence to book a case against her.
Now, she probably didn’t do anything violent. But I have a problem with forcing someone to do anything. If the woman wanted to stay with her pimp, she should’ve been left behind.
Besides criticising her method of forced rehabilitation, I also, unfortunately, argued for legalisation in front of the NGO woman (I can’t remember her name or initials). I had meant to say decriminalisation (because the law does not categorically decriminalise sex work), but it had been a while since my research, and I got muddled up. Also, I adamantly refused to budge from my point of view, as did the NGO woman. In other words, the whole situation was frustrating and I received quite a few “Why the fuck can’t you shut up?” from my classmates after the guest lecture.
Getting into sex work
One of the problems the NGO woman (I need to stop calling her that) had with my crazy legalisation idea had to do with preparing young adults for the profession. In her words, roughly, “If my daughter came to me saying, I want to be a prostitute, how would I prepare her? What would I say to get her ready for her first day at work?” It was all very rhetorical. Clearly she would never consider getting her kid ready for something as dirty as sex work.
By taking a highly improbable situation as example, she mocked at the idea of sex work as a legitimate profession, as something women do because they want to do it. Because they want to pay bills or because it’s who they want to be.
I am never sure how women get into sex work other than the kidnapping/sold into slavery by desperate family or creepy boyfriend route or as a result of industry conditions (i.e., having to sleep around to get an audition and suddenly becoming a call girl). Those probably cover the major ways.
Irrespective of whether one was forced into it, it is possible that after a while, you don’t mind keeping your new job. You don’t want someone coming and pulling you out of it. You would like to have your clients, but also be able to dictate a few terms. You want to be able to choose who you service, how much they pay for, for how long and for what exactly. You want to be able to say, “Use a condom and use it properly or get out of here.”
But instead the world around you is focused on how to “clean up the streets”.
What I find interesting is how stark the difference is between how Indian and British governments want to deal with their sex industries. Frankly, I don’t hear much debate about it in India, except by alternate media and the NGO world. I’m pretty much out of the loop, either way.
Britain wants to curtail demand by criminalising the buying of sex. (If I’m not mistaken, a similar law was passed in the Netherlands some years ago, bringing the rate of AIDS infection down drastically. EDIT I want to qualify this to prevent any misinterpretations. I don’t support the criminalisation of buying or selling sex as that would only drive things underground and make matters worse. ) India, if she were to do anything about it, would probably attack supply. In a country that allows policemen to rape women simply because they sell sex for a living, we’re surely not going to ask a man to take the bullet.
It would be strange to romanticise sex work as something exotic or empowering. But we would also do well to go beyond puritanical rescue missions such as that proposed by Smith and Harman and acknowledge that for many, working within the sex industry is simply an economic decision. After all, for a majority of people, salary is a prime factor in determining what job we pursue. Moreover, some apparently enjoy working within the sex industry. According to Savannah, “some are proud to be sex workers and chose to do it just like others chose to become physicians and are proud of being that.”
*Names changed to protect privacy