September Links Roundup: Manspread Your Novel

Ahh…September. The days grow colder, my brain wakes up, the Young Master begins first grade (!!). Time to get back to drafting the Endless Sequel.

If, like me, you write slowly, perhaps you’ve heard that self-critical voice in your head. The one that says the book really IS taking a thousand years to get to the point–it doesn’t just feel that way because you’re squeezing in an hour or two of writing every week, in between washing stinky boy socks and throwing out your saved letters from 2006. The voice that’s always nagging you to hold their attention, be more fun, give them what they want.

Well, ask that voice: when was the last time you saw a novel favorably described as “sprawling” that wasn’t by a man?

At Electric Literature, Jessica Shattuck’s manifesto “Why Women Should Do More Literary Manspreading” gave me some new tools to fight this self-undermining mindset. The piece is subtitled: “Stop self-editing and let yourself ramble like a man.” Certainly, in the later editing rounds, all writers have to consider tightening up scenes and pruning plot elements that don’t fit the final shape. But Shattuck takes aim at a form of self-censorship that particularly plagues writers socialized as women. We have been trained to worry about taking up too much space. People socialized as men expect that an audience will listen respectfully when they hold forth about their expertise and special interests.

There is a particular magic to an immersive and sprawling novel, and a thrill in following a confident writer on a scenic route through his imagination’s wilderness. Of course they can be terrible too — overlong and self-indulgent, stuffed with showy displays of information and smug postmodern tricks a reader is likely to skim over. But either way, many of these novels are met with both critical and sales success. Apparently readers are willing to follow a good writer down a long and winding road.

So why are so few of these novels written by women?

…As Meg Wolitzer postulated in her 2012 NY Times essay “The Second Shelf,” if a woman “writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.”

…Men tend to be less inhibited by lack of expertise or authority — if Philip Roth wanted to write a whole chapter about the inner workings of a glove factory, why not? If Jeffrey Eugenides wanted to delve into the origins of the Nation of Islam in Middlesex, who was going to question his authority?

Women, on the other hand, have long been told to watch what they say (or, more often — in church, in synagogue, in public in general — not to say anything at all). We have had to earn our credibility through quantifiable mastery, and even then, been frequently questioned or doubted. We have been encouraged to trim and edit our physical appearance, from whalebone corsets to bikini waxing. No wonder we are strict self-editors — in art as in life.

So go ahead, imaginary friends: tell me everything you want me to know about 1980s horror films, Jewish theology, bondage, and comic books.

The Christian literary journal Ruminate featured this intriguing reflection by Renee Long on rightsizing your self-image, “Reconciling Humility and Self-Worth in the Age of Ego”. Her touchstone is the weekly benediction at her church: “Be brave, because you are a child of God. Be kind, because so is everyone else.” Whereas conservative Christianity conditions us to abase ourselves in order to see Christ in others, Long concludes that healthy humility means resisting the American culture of lists and rankings. “It is possible to recognize the sacred in others, in all things, without having to weigh it against our own value. We can lie down, spread ourselves out on the floor of the universe and look up. We can see the infinite spectrum of light without having to dim our own shine.”

Taking up space is a pressing self-acceptance issue for me and my perimenopausal body. I’ve got feminist theory up the wazoo, but at a gut level (pun intended) there’s a strong belief that uncontrollable change equals failure. America’s culture of food moralism reinforces this. The Angry Chef is a lively contrarian blog about “exposing lies, pretensions, and stupidity in the world of food.” Author Anthony Warner takes aim at pseudoscience behind food fads and panics. In his post “Heart of the Problem”, he compares conflicting studies on the benefits of low-carb diets, and suggests that once basic nutritional needs are met, our food choices actually don’t make much impact on health and life expectancy. In developed (industrialized) countries, personal lifestyle obsession becomes a distraction from structural inequalities.

Everywhere, despite our wealth and secure food supply, people experience stress, stigma, pain and hurt. Or they are forced to live in inadequate housing, eat contaminated food, drink poor quality water or suffer a lifetime of inequality. They will get sick. They may use food as a comfort or an escape. Others will use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs. They will develop disease and disorders, often in ways that will end their lives early. Is it really so surprising that these factors dwarf any tiny differences in the macronutrient composition of their diet?

This is why, when it comes to population health, anecdotes about the miracle properties of this diet or that are stupid and misleading. Look at me, I feel great because I eat low carb. Or Paleo. Or Keto. Or Mediterranean. Or DASH. Or vegan. Or clean. Surely if it works for me, it can save the world.

No. You feel great because of your privilege, your nice house, your dietary freedoms, your lack of stress. You feel great because you are lucky, your friends and family are lucky. You have never experienced the crushing stress of a marginalised existence. You don’t know what it is to live in constant fear of violence. You feel great precisely because you are free to choose your diet, buy your exclusive ingredients, and care enough about yourself to do so. That is why you are healthy. It has nothing to do with your food.

This is lifestyle drift in action. We know what really determines health – the deep and vicious inequalities that taint developed societies. But instead of trying to address these things, we imagine that if we impose the dietary choices of the privileged on those who are suffering, they will be transformed. And so every diet followed by a member of a privileged elite is touted as the solution, but none of them are. The only real solution is giving everyone a better life.

It is not food that is kills people early. It is poverty, stress and broken lives. No dietary change can insulate people from these things. The reason why we have not yet discovered which diet is best, is because within a society that has enough food to eat, any diet that rich people eat is associated with optimum health. And the reasons why have nothing to do with the food itself.

Along those lines, at NPR’s food feature The Salt, Alan Levinovitz in “What Is ‘Natural’ Food?: A Riddle Wrapped in Notions of Good and Evil” suggests that the coveted moniker is more of a symbolic or spiritual concept than a scientific one. Until the 18th-century Romantic movement, people believed processed foods were healthier and higher-status. Food restriction was the province of religious ascetics who, rather than trying to get closer to nature, wanted to transcend it. Nowadays, people are more afraid of unregulated corporations putting chemicals in their food, and nature seems benign by comparison. But the line between synthetic and natural is even hard for philosophers and scientists to draw.

Take the philosophers. Joseph LaPorte of Hope College specializes in the language we use to classify the natural world and has written extensively on the idea of “nature” and “naturalness.”

“To be sure, natural doesn’t mean safe,” he told me. “Nature produces some of the most formidable toxins in the world. But when it comes to packages of chemicals, as they exist in foods or fragrances, nature is a good bet, or at least a clue, because co-evolution often suggests its safety and efficacy.”

Not so fast, says York University’s Muhammad Ali Khalidi, also a philosopher of science who specializes in classificatory language. “Something very recent might be safe,” he points out, “and something that’s been around for hundreds of years could be very dangerous.” Case in point: Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, has long prescribed herbal remedies that contain dangerous heavy metals. Smoked meats, a mainstay of non-industrial food production, are now known to increase cancer risk.

Nor is the lack of consensus limited to the safety of natural food. Scientists also disagree on whether it makes sense to distinguish natural from synthetic products at all. Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist, told me flat-out that all chemicals are natural. Petroleum, he explained, was originally algae. Coal used to be forests.

Maybe natural is just shorthand for “what you see is what you get” or “ingredients I can spell”?

Samantha Field’s blog post “Sin Is Not Just a ‘Heart Issue'” and Adam Kotsko’s post “We are not the ones we have been waiting for” similarly question what Kotsko would call the neo-liberal dogma that individual choices are the main driver of social change. Field discusses the controversial movement to ban plastic straws in restaurants, which disability activists argue would adversely impact them without making a real difference to the environment.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

Kotsko challenges the common journalistic framing that “we the people” collectively lacked the will to stop global warming, when these decisions were actually made by identifiable politicians and business leaders.

This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

Several important articles this summer took on the topic of disparities in women’s healthcare. Writing in The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters surveyed stories about health-care gaslighting in “The Doctor Doesn’t Listen to Her. But the Media Is Starting To.” Celebrities like TV star Lena Dunham and tennis great Serena Williams spotlighted the problem of doctors dismissing women’s symptoms that turned out to be life-threatening. Lili Loofbourow at The Week wrote about “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”, asking us to question the assumption that painful intercourse is natural for people with vaginas. This disregard leads critics to minimize #MeToo stories as simply normal (bad) sex.

I’m speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.

Finally, because I love a good “Fire your mom” post, enjoy this salty advice from Lori Gottlieb’s “Dear Therapist” column at the Atlantic, in which a pregnant woman asks whether she should let her abusive mother be her midwife:

Sometimes when people come to therapy, they want my advice on a question they’ve already answered. The person already knows that she wants to leave her abusive boyfriend, or switch jobs, or not go on vacation with her cruel sibling, but still she asks, “What should I do?”

Why do people ask a question to which they already know the answer? Often it’s because they don’t trust themselves, because, through no fault of their own, their inner voices have been distorted or silenced. Given your history, I imagine this is what has happened to you, too.

…Becoming less visible to a volatile mother served as protection from her ire, but an unintended consequence was that you also became less visible to yourself. Your inner voice became muted, while external voices became amplified. So if people tell you to “let go of the past”—a past that’s as recent as two years ago, when your mother walked out of your wedding—you can barely hear the inner voice that says, If I can’t trust my mom to be there for me at my wedding, I can’t trust her to be there for me after my child’s birth. The calibration is out whack, and now’s the time to fix it.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for motherhood is to start trusting your inner voice more. Becoming invisible may have been a useful strategy when you were a powerless child, but the good news is that now you’re an adult with full agency, and becoming invisible won’t only be counterproductive—it will be impossible, because, like it or not, you’ll be very visible to your baby. Simply by watching you live your daily life, your child will learn a lot about relationships, and you will have the wonderful (and healing) opportunity to show your son or daughter what an adult who trusts herself and isn’t besieged by self-doubt looks like—starting with trusting the answer you already have deep inside about bringing your mom in as your midwife.

TL;DR: Run, mofo!

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