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Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”

On September 21, 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the first African-American woman to lecture on women’s rights. She was jeered at by male crowds, who pelted her with tomatoes. A few years later in Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott received a similar reception when she pointed out that it was “not Christianity, but priestcraft” that had subjected women. Mott’s remarks, along with those of other women, were widely ridiculed by the press. On November 5, 1855, The New York Times would write of Mott:

The evident sincerity of feeling and intensity of thought produce a strong impression on the mind, but the utter absence of imaginative power stripped the impression of those almost higher attractions which beauty of illustration lends. Still, though the absence of this quality may neutralize the effect as far as popularity with a general audience is concerned, the effect on those who came with a preconceived sympathy with the ideas of a preacher, is likely to be more powerful, in proportion as the enunciation is simple and unaided by the poetical assistance of sensuous flights of imagination or classical touches of cultivated intellect.

In other words, Mott was merely some sincere country bumpkin who could only preach to the already converted. As far as The New York Times was concerned, Mott’s rhetorical approach, despite “a large and eager congregation,” could never reach the higher plains of cultivated intellect.

These ugly and prejudicial avenues were revisited on June 4, 2011, when The New York Times published a baffling article by Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler suggested that, any time a woman author tweets a 140 character message, she is engaging in a literary feud. Was Schuessler longing for a presuffrage America? Or a continuation of the complacent and sexist approach from 150 years before? It certainly felt that way. Despite claiming that feud watchers “question whether Twitter feuds really qualify” (and who is a feud watcher anyway? Jonathan Franzen when he’s not watching birds?), Schuessler condemned numerous women for speaking their minds. By criticizing the establishment, numerous bestselling authors were somehow transformed into a mindless mob. And if Schuessler has possessed the linguistic and argumentative facilities of her 1855 counterpart, she might very well have claimed that these women carried an “utter absence of imaginative power.”

After serving up a laundry list of all-male literary “feuds” (Theroux v. Naipaul, Vargas Llosa v. Garcia Marquez, Moody v. Peck), with the feud defined as “a willingness to throw actual punches along with verbal jabs,” Schuessler writes:

If the literary feud has lost its old-school bluster, it might be tempting to lay the blame with what Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called “the mob of damn Twittering women.” These days, in America at least, it’s women authors who seem to start the splashiest literary fights, and you don’t need a stool at the White Horse Tavern to witness it.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that those who have tweeted critical comments (the names cited in the article are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Ayelet Waldman, and Roseanne Cash) wish to engage in physically and verbally aggressive behavior, or that they have little more than barbaric contributions to offer to public discourse. In Schuessler’s defense, there is a modest case that Waldman, in defending her husband, was engaging in ongoing ressentiment towards Katie Roiphe. But the other women cited in Schuessler’s piece were not. If Weiner and Picoult “led a Twitter campaign against what they saw as the male-dominated literary establishment’s excessive fawning over Jonathan Franzen,” one must ask whether a campaign constitutes a feud.

The feud, as described by Schuessler, is one predicated upon hatred for another person. When an author receives a black eye or a knockout, this is little more than an ignoble pissing match revolving around egos. When Paul Theroux writes a poison-pen memoir condemning his former friend Naipaul, does this stand for any corresponding set of virtues?

Yet when a group of women is trying to raise serious questions about the manner in which books are covered by the media, can one really call it a feud? The evidence suggests nobler intentions. In an August 30, 2010 NPR article, Jennifer Weiner stated that the establishment is “ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.” On August 26, 2010, both Weiner and Picoult were interviewed at length by The Huffington Post‘s Jason Pinter about their positions. And it becomes clear from Pinter’s piece that the purported “mob of damn Twittering women” isn’t just “a Twitter campaign,” but an attempt to start a discussion.

Schuessler also condemns “a similar crew” who “took aim at Jennifer Egan” after Egan declared chick lit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” But in refusing to identify the “crew” in question (and only getting a quote from Katie Roiphe, who had little to do with the “feud”), Schuessler proved herself to be an irresponsible journalist. The conversation about Egan’s remarks extended well beyond Twitter, with detailed essays appearing for and against in such outlets as The Frisky and The Millions. Does such a debate really constitute a feud?

When Roiphe says, “The nature of Twitter is you don’t need to think about what you’re saying. Most of us need to think more about what we’re saying, not less,” she demonstrates her total ignorance of the way in which Twitter works. As seen by the Egan remarks and the Franzenfreude statements, there was an initial emotional outcry on Twitter that became dwarfed by a more serious discussion. People formulated their thoughts and wrote lengthy online essays. If the comments to those essays were somewhat heated, there remained numerous efforts by thoughtful people to maintain a civil debate.

So when Schuessler gets Waldman on the record to speculate about how Jane Austen might have engaged in a Twitter debate over Naipaul’s recent comments, Waldman (perhaps unwittingly) upholds the status quo: “Only those of us with impulse control issues take our snits into the ether.” But this falsely suggests that Twitter encourages nothing less than our worst impulses and that one’s initial outburst can’t be tamed into a more rational discussion. It also upholds a dangerous double standard: a man is permitted to speak his mind and punch somebody out (presumably for the amusement of “feud watchers”); but if a woman does anything close to this, she’s little more than “a damn Twittering woman.” If the purported paper of record — an outlet that suggested a few months ago that a gang-raped schoolgirl had it coming — is seriously equating today’s talented female authors with Freidan’s “happy housewife heroines,” then it is clear that The New York Times is ill-equipped to operate in the 21st century.

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4 Comments

  1. Gender issues aside,Twitter does lead itself to those impulsive spur of the moment statements that we all wish we could just take back and act like they were never uttered in the first place,as a certain Congressman in New York can tell you with some “certitude” there.

    It’s not only literary folks who make gaffs on that forum,as Gilbert Godfrey realized much too late to save his Afflack gig,and it would do everyone using Twitter a world of good to keep in mind the phrase “Think before you speak/type.”

  2. A fair point, Lady T. And I also think of Nacho Vigalondo’s regrettable Holocaust jokes and Alice Hoffman posting Roberta Silman’s phone number. But are these really feuds? And are the tweet battles that Scheussler cites indicative of violent expression? Especially when they served as a launching point for the above linked essays and additional clarification by other journalists? Human discourse isn’t just a series of duels, especially when Twitter can be used to clarify what a person means within seconds. That’s a far different exchange than spitting in an author’s face or punching someone out.

  3. Granted,I’m not a Twitter fan and no doubt that medium can be used for good things but we easily remember more of the bad than the good there and for good reason,sad to say.

    As to feuds,they can be pretty childish whether it’s done by fists or words by grown people. A little sniping now and then is one thing and yes,human discourse is more than insult exchanges however,it’s the destination not the journey in this case. If the clash between two sides leads to some meaningful debate,then it’s worth it. If it only leads to more nastiness,then not.

    I am not surprised at Scheussler’s article,given that the NYT seems more and more prone to
    stirring up the gender wars nowadays;an early review of Game of Thrones in their Arts and Entertainment section was written by a woman who basically complained about having to pay attention to “Boy Stuff” and by her logic,since none of her female friends were the type to read sci-fi/fantasy,that genre was strictly a guys only area.

    Plenty of us gals who do read the likes of George R.R. Martin and Anne McCaffery were pretty peeved about that and said so. Apparently,the NYT is in favor of their female writers drawing gender lines in the sand these days.

  4. Thanks so much for this. It’s just excellent. Brava!

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