My incredible friend, writer and artist Rachel J. Fenton (aka Rae Joyce), has been working very hard lately on a multitude of projects, two of which having recently come to fruition in a most beautiful way: two shiny books filled with art and stories.
Three Words, an anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics, edited by Rachel together with Sarah Laing and Indira Neville is a collaborative survey of the past twenty years of New Zealand women’s comics, bringing together over 60 contributors. It comes to show that, although frequently ignored, there are many women who make comics.
Find out more about Three Words here.
Island to Island is an amazingly beautiful book that includes the works of six graphic novelists from New Zealand and Taiwan, Rae Joyce being one of them. It’s a beautiful creation of six artists who got to know each other and include one other in their own work: each piece is created by one of them and dedicated to another. I thought the concept was amazing and the final product is a thing of beauty.
You can read more about both projects on Rachel’s blog Snow Like Thought.
February has been a slow month in books read. Maybe because of the interminable snow days, when I felt compelled to cook more, clean more (well, not really, that’s a lie), entertain the kids more, when I generally felt more stressed, so I couldn’t enjoy my reading. But January was better, so I’m going to put than in here too.
Asa Larsson, Until Thy Wrath Be Past: I am reading a lot of Scandinavian mysteries, and this one I enjoyed much more than others. It is a wonderful, very atmospheric book. It has elements of the supernatural (which I always like), but they don’t take a life of their own and only serve to create the surreal feel of the story.
Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Women in Clothes: Amazing book about what clothes are to women. It’s like reading 40 fashion magazines, but only a selection those really good articles (each issue will have at most one or two, if at all).
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History: A lot to learn from this book about women’s history. Not particularly memorable, I thought (because I forgot almost everything about it, and it’s only been a month or so since I’ve read it), but a good read, nonetheless.
Lisa Unger,Beautiful Lies: This book was just all right. The writing seemed a bit self-indulgent to me and the storyline rather predictable. But I read it till the end, and I usually just give up on books that are terrible, because I value my time. So it’s not awful. The main character had a lot of potential, I thought. It could have been better. But I would give this author another chance, and read one more book, because this one did leave me hopeful.
Emily Spivack, Worn Stories: This is a small book and a little disappointing. It’s a collection of stories, each about one particular item of clothing that holds significance for the storyteller. The thing is that yes, I get that we seem more cool when our most precious piece of clothing is some rag from high school, but that’s really not interesting to anyone. There are one or two stories about actually beautiful pieces, but most of the book is about the pricelessness of some sort of ripped and stained t-shirt. A very American thing, I feel, although I might be wrong.
Karin Fossum,Don’t Look Back: I enjoyed reading this book, although it did feel like it had too many characters that didn’t achieve enough depth and the story was not paced properly, so the climax fell flat. But it was not a bad read. And isn’t that cover beautiful? My favorite out of this month’s bunch.
Susan M. Wyler, Solsbury Hill: I picked this book because, you know, I would read anything about the Brontes. It is a light read, and not at all bad. The house described in the book is pretty fantastic. And the main character is interesting: she’s a designer of wool clothing, who started by repurposing old sweaters from thrift shops. But it reads more like romance than anything else, and that is not my favorite genre in the world.
I think I have streamlined my reading list now so that I am never out of appealing titles, and I almost never have to give up on a book before the end. I’m using Goodreads more than ever and I like the functionality it offers: adding books to the To-Read pile and then taking them out into the Read pile. It’s simple but it works great, and I never saw it until this year, although I’ve been on Goodreads for a very long time. Never too late.
During this winter vacation I read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” a book that has been on my reading list since forever. Big round of applause for this minuscule achievement! Right. Thanks. Moving on.
I knew I would enjoy the book, but it exceeded my expectations. I agreed with everything Virginia Woolf says to such extent most of the time I felt I could have written this exact same book myself. Of course, it would not have been this book, but one much worse that nobody would have read, so good that things turned out as they did in the end.
There were just a few of her ideas that I that I feel very strongly against.
For example, while I couldn’t agree more than one of the reasons why women were not able to rise to any prominence in the arts was because they had to care of house and children, and had no time of their own, I don’t know if I agree that the ones who managed to write, wrote fiction, of all genres, because it was easier.
This is what Virginia Woolf says in “A Room of One’s Own”:
If a woman wrote, [speaking of the woman of the nineteenth century middle class] she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain — ”women never have an half hour . . . that they can call their own”— she was always interrupted. Still it would be easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. . . . Therefore, when the middle-class Woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels, even though, as seems evident enough, two of the four famous women here named were not by nature novelists. Emily Brontë should have written poetic plays; the overflow of George Eliot’s capacious mind should have spread itself when the creative impulse was spent upon history or biography. They wrote novels, however.
I find very interesting this idea that poetry would require less interruption and more concentration than a novel. I can’t speak about history, biography or “poetic plays,” since I don’t have any experience writing those genres, but I assume they are all difficult and requiring a space bigger (physically and mentally) than a common sitting room. But poetry? Was Virginia Woolf thinking of epic poems or something like that? Because poetry is a short, concentrated form that can be written and edited in short bursts of time and creativity, with the greatest chance of surviving undamaged by frequent interruptions.
I find writing novels a much more complex and gargantuan intellectual task for which interruptions are much more damaging. The writer needs to keep in mind at all times a big number of characters, developments, themes, and needs to maintain an order and structure that can take everything off tracks if one loses their train of thought for a few minutes. What am I not seeing here?
Another idea that Virginia Woolf presents in “A Room of One’s Own” is that Jane Austen wrote better than Charlotte Bronte (despite the fact that Charlotte Bronte had more genius) because Jane Austen didn’t write out of anger.
This is what she says about Jane Austen:
Here was a woman about the year 18oo writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra;
And this is what Virginia Woolf says of Charlotte Bronte and her Jane Eyre:
One might say, I continued, laying the book [Jane Eyre] down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
I have to say that throughout the book Virginia Woolf says it over and over again that women should write like women, not like men. However, I feel that here she is defending masculine writing to the detriment of the writing that comes natural to women. She argues against passion and sentimentality, which are characteristic of the way women often think and live their lives. I don’t think that Jane Eyre loses any of its power because of its enraged author. On the contrary, that’s what makes it such a powerful piece of literature.
Of course, I am biased. I’ve loved Jane Eyre with a passion since the age of twelve, and nothing will dissuade me from worshipping it and its author forever and ever, amen.
It doesn’t feel right to disagree with Virginia Woolf. Feels a bit like a betrayal. But I do tell myself that it is fine to have disagreements and differences of opinion, because literature and genius and feminism are nuanced, complex, subjective matters that cannot be accurately painted in just black and white. And debates are always healthy and only advance an issue, rather than suffocate it. Right? Right. Unless, of course, due to the inherent interruptions of womanhood, they don’t coagulate and instead degenerate into something meaningless. Like this derailed train of a blog post. Sorry. Still braindeadly sleep deprived over here. But soon, soon, I’ll get back on course. Because, you know, I am the happy owner of a basement workspace. No more sitting-room writing for me. Soon.
The literary world is not as boring as some might think. Every now and then, good disputes arise and keep us all on fire. I have been reading lately about those in the middle of which we find writer Jennifer Weiner, author of books such as Good in Bed or In Her Shoes, which was turned into a movie with Shirley MacLaine, Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. Her latest book is The Next Best Thing.
So, Jennifer Weiner has been very vocal about how literature written by women is constantly ignored by the critics. Her outrage is valid. The organization Vida, Women in Literary Arts, keeps an eye on the statistics, and according to their research, in 2012, The New York Times Book Review covered 488 male authors versus 237 female authors. The numbers were similar in the previous years: 520 vs. 273 in 2011 and 524 vs. 283 in 2010.
It looks like she has become a sort of a crusader for the inclusion of women’s literature into the pages of any serious literary journal and in any literary dialogue, and she is suffering a lot of backlash because of her uncensored comments.
I haven’t read any of Jennifer Weiner’s books yet, but I think I might pick one up because the author seems like such an intelligent, down-to-earth, and very funny woman. And she is not afraid to voice facts that are hard to hear for many. I am not a big reader of chick-lit, although I’ve always wished I had a little bit of that sense of humor (for that reason only, I should read more of the genre, in hopes that I will catch some of that), but disregarding the voices of women authors (and so many women readers) because genres like chick-lit or romance are “light” and not literary enough is disturbing. Because it happens that, as a consequence of muddled causality vs. correlation, most of the fiction written by women, literary merit or not, is overlooked and labeled a priori as lacking in any literary, “serious” value (despite the commercial value, which can be many times outstanding).
While some have accused Jennifer Weiner of only trying to publicize her own books by continuing these debates, I think that she is fighting the good fight. I think that she is brave to expose herself as the “hysterical” woman who will scream out loud every time she perceives an injustice in the way the critical world treats women writers. It’s not a comfortable position that she has assumed. It is an admirable one. The way I see it, women authors don’t need to write more like men to have their works perceived as valuable, but they need to change the concept of literary value itself, so make it more inclusive of the feminine sensibility or aesthetic. And we have a greater chance at achieving that because of flag bearers like Jennifer Weiner.
I have been thinking about a recent debate regarding women authors and childbearing. Author Lauren Sandler wrote an article for The Atlantic professing that the secret to a successful writing life for a woman is to have only one child, giving as examples writers like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood and Ellen Willis. If a woman has more than one offspring, then she risks becoming more of a mom than a writer, was the assumption. The article got a lot of attention, but one of the best things that happened was that Zadie Smith replied in the comments section in an effort to disprove the theory, giving herself as proof (she has two children), but also writers like Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison.
Then, let’s not forget, there are those “studies” that somehow come up with results showing that the more intelligent a woman, the less likely she is to desire children. That might explain why humanity finds itself in such an impasse today that is produces crap research like that.
I myself am now a mother of two, so you know on what side of the barricade I wave my flag.
The problem with writing is that you are at home with every good intention of taking care of everything: writing work and house work and parenting. In the brutal reality light you realize that you cannot do everything well, not even well-enough most times. There is a lot of guilt involved, and a lot of doubt, pressure and often too few rewards, because the children will always complain, the house will never be sparkling, the dinner will always need to be made, again and again, and your inner critic will never, for the love of God and country, just shut up.
I do worry these days more than before. I have a novel that’s asking to be finished this year, and I as much as I was hoping to be done with it by now, it’s still in works. The baby, as much as I hoped for a more quiet and sleepy one (thinking that I have paid my dues with the very demanding first of my progeny) still does not sleep more than two hours at night, at almost three months now. So everything is very much uncertain. I cannot hold on to a schedule because my time is not my own right now. And when I am mercifully being offered half hour breaks during the day, I am often too hazy brained to do any proper work, and only succeed in putting on fresh clothes and feeding myself, and maybe picking up a dirty diaper from the living room floor.
So, yes, I confess without pride that sometimes, with teary eyes, I think of the past two or so years when my soon-to-be eight year old has been very independent and has given me plenty of time of my own. And then I think of the future, full of unattainable hopes, and the present full of moments that I tell myself I should be savoring, and I try to make the best of it all. This most days only means managing to not actually hate my life. That’s why I chose this half hour of blessed morning baby nap to write a blog post while still in my messy pajamas, in the middle of a living room that looks like a large, sunny diaper accident. Because one has to prioritize, and there are times when (I know you’ll be surprised to find out) I would rather write something than clean the house. Crazy as it may sound. As long as the children are fed, clothed and emotionally secure (as much as I can take care of that), I can consider my mom job done, and I feel free to do this writing thing. The sun will shine again.
This article published on the website of the National Book Critics Circle is so disturbing that I have a hard time rereading it even if it was just to order my thoughts for a rebuttal. It makes me very upset and while strong feelings are a good base for fiction, they are not a good starting point for a reasonable, civil discussion. But I am a woman and I am going to own my strong emotions. I am going to accept them and use them in my favor (hopefully). For too long women have been dismissed as hormonal and unbalanced.
I am tired of seeing all the spheres of women’s interests being ridiculed, disparaged and considered unworthy. I am tired of having to defend crying, pink and other “girlie” accoutrements in front of my daughter who has started rejecting them in an effort to fit in the judgmental kindergarten social space.
So according to the author of this article, women writers should behave more like men if they want to be taken seriously: they should not do girlie chat on stage in front of an audience, speaking about going shopping, doing yoga and having lunch, like Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett did recently in Portland. They should not write about the mundane, the domestic, although it is a big part of their life, because such topics will always fail to produce the kind of literature that is appreciated and valuable. And they should not, by any means, sit comfortably with their legs tucked up on cushioned chairs. Horror of horrors! Can you imagine? Chatting “like girls at a slumber party?” (I can feel my blood boiling just by writing this quote.)
I personally would have loved to be in the audience and see these two women act like women, be natural and offer me a slice of understanding of what they really are about as people. I would think it shallow and close-minded to considered them less competent and worse writers because they put their feet up and created a more casual atmosphere in that lecture hall. Since when have we stopped allowing even the creative people to manifest their creativity?
I am suspecting a generational issue here, although I do not know who the “admin” of this blog is. The comments on the blog are also closed. What’s wrong with girls and their slumber parties, pray tell? Why is that so bad, while the image of grown up men playing like boys is so endearing, heart-warming and thoroughly acceptable?
The thing that bothers me the most, however, is the idea that a book written around topics that are, for whatever reasons, closer to a woman’s heart are deemed of less importance than topics that are more “manly,” like war, let’s say. We are returning here to that spiny problem of the domestic life and work being seen as less valuable than work outside of the home. It is a prejudiced attitude that doesn’t take into consideration the huge impact on humanity that the domestic work and home life have. Nurturing children and families has been a woman’s problem for … ever. I am not going to comment on why. But this work of women has been keeping our children and families feeling whole, happy, safe and sane. Why is working outside of the home and bringing in money more valuable than that? Why are the problems of the world bigger and more important than the microcosm of the home and family, when all the world’s bigger problems stem from here? Why do we, women, always try to change ourselves to fit some external, male-generated value system instead of realizing that maybe we are not that flawed and maybe we can change a tiny bit of that system so that it incorporates our point of view too? There is nothing inherently wrong with us, is there? Our perspective is just as valid and valuable as any other.
I believe women writers need to write about whatever makes their lives full, be it yoga, politics, healthy diets, fashion, economics or war. I don’t think we need to feel embarrassed of denigrating labels anymore and just do what’s right for us. That is how value is created. Change will happen and real value will become visible. Someday. Right now, let’s just start by folding our legs in armchairs and telling ourselves that we are not broken and what matters to us is important and serious, and it simply matters.
THE MYTHOLOGICAL HERO FROM INSIDE THE KITCHEN
Interview with Rae Joyce, author of Escape Behaviours
Rachel Fenton is an award-winning writer of unique talent. She writes poetry, fiction and (because, she is also a graphic artist) she is making her way into the graphic literature scene, as Rae Joyce.
Her work is characterized by complexity and depth, but also playfulness, joy and what seems like unlimited creative energy. Her writing is fertilized by a unique, honest, straightforward and uncompromising view of the world. She is also an exceptionally warm and generous human being, which makes being inside her mind, while fascinating, also safe and not intimidating.
Escape Behaviours is a work of graphic poetry that you might find different from anything else you’ve ever read. Rachel Fenton is an author whose writing is so creative and exciting to experience that it often challenges the reader: you cannot be absent minded or multitasking while reading, and you cannot just browse her work. The effort, however, is always more than worth it.
I asked her a few questions about her work and, as she always does, she gave this interview a lot of thought and her answers reach far beyond anything I had expected.
Photo by John McGowan.
Escape Behaviours is a work of graphic poetry. I am a literary snob and I have a hard time relating
to the genre. Why does poetry need graphics? Can you make the case for graphic literature to help
someone like me warm up to it?
RF: First of all, Lori, thank you for inviting me to talk about Escape Behaviours and for having me at your place, it’s smashing to be here.
I’m so glad you asked me this question; I have a hard time relating to the genre too but I’ll expand on this a little more in a moment.
Why does poetry need graphics? Well, the simple answer to that is, it doesn’t. Masses and masses of poetry out there is doing just great without graphics; there’s masses and masses of imagery out there, also, that strikes me as being poetry without words, and that’s doing fine. But there isn’t really much in the way of graphic poetry – Google it, let me know what you come up with. For me, the form was dictated by one very important factor: my target readership — my husband.
Now, back to your first point and I’ll try and wrap it up with your last one. I think it’s difficult to avoid falling into the trap of being a literary snob when so much of what we perceive to be our choice in literary matters is actually the result of our having little choice, which isn’t to say there aren’t myriad books out there to appeal to all tastes – there are – but I think there are two factors which push us to make limited choices as readers.
Firstly, peer pressure; we want to read what others say is great. We are easily swayed by emotive and well written reviews, and we don’t want to be the odd one out. Fair enough. However, the second influential factor (and there are others but I’m simplifying), is capitalism; business and profits is why we choose the books we choose because they are the ones that were chosen to be published because they are the books the vast majority will buy because the vast majority want to read what has been deemed worthy. And another notch on the worthy post is a so called literary book. The literary book is the marketing coup that makes the consumer believe they’re a reader. If you read graphic literature for no other reason than to broaden choice – for the love of reading and expanding your experience (and not profits) it will be worthwhile.
Sorry that’s a whopping response!
Is there a place for women in the graphic literary scene? I was under the impression that the way women are represented in this genre is not very flattering. I bet if many women writers infiltrate it, the situation will change dramatically. What are your thoughts on this? And why is your hero naked throughout Escape Behaviors?
RF: There definitely is a place for women in the graphic literary scene, even if we have to sweep a blumming path through the hordes of superhero lovin’ dudes to make it. Sure, in terms of the genre’s history there’s a definite male trajectory at play but there are women sending the stereotypes off course (typically my brain goes blank here). I think, for starters, the genre is broad, so women such as Marjane Satrapi, (great interview about Persepolis here) whose work I love and seems to have been the inspiration behind Mari Naomi’s graphic memoir graphic novel, have paved the way. Sarah Mensinga, Lee-Yan Marquez, Andrea Offermann, and Sarah Laing are doing it for the comics; the ones who spring immediately to mind, the ones whose work I like for varying reasons, and there’s interesting cross genre stuff being published such as Alex Wilde’s The Constant Losers. Oh, and Posy Simmonds…wow, the more you think, the more women come to mind… I don’t really like graphic novels or comics, to go back to your first question again, but I think I could, given an opportunity, a choice, if the form dares to amble a little farther from the current genre norm.
I hope more women become as prominent as Neil Gaiman, for example, that would be good; to know their names outside of the graphic scene. I’d like to see the form change; I’d like to see more graphic novels getting the critical acclaim afforded to other genres; I’d like more realistic and non-sexist depictions of women – then I’d read more comics and graphic novels – so, women who represent real women would definitely figure into this. And domestic life; I’m infuriated by authors who say they are sick of domestic fiction then go on to lambaste women who perpetuate the notion of women at home. To these people I say, you are lucky, that you do not have this kitchen orientated life, but for the vast majority of women – the women I identify with – the sink is the norm. And yeah, I’d love to liberate women from domesticity but that won’t happen if we only present the world with fiction where women are not recognisable to the majority. And, it comes back to choice – women so often do not have the choice to leave their domestic orientated lives yet the myth we do is all around us. Give me a woman I can relate to and show me how she changes her circumstances.
My hero is naked for several reasons. As a work of poetry, and confessional, self-referential, (memoir?) poetry at that, I was already presenting myself naked metaphorically. So, the hero’s nakedness is, in the first instance, a metaphor for my baring my-self. But beyond this it’s an expression of freedom, of choice and right.
I’ve long been interested in representations of women and the body in art, and particularly sculpture. I’ve read extensively about Camille Claudel, Rodin’s contemporary, about how women were not allowed to draw naked subjects in life class (men were), and how her work, for all its skill and artistry, was deemed too sexual if it revealed too much of the human form in realistic detail. Conversely, the more explicit of Rodin’s sculptures were not criticised in this way. This prejudice still exists. Escape Behaviours is as much about taking authorship of my-self as it is a nod to the body in art. The hero’s nakedness is also an act of defiance against modesty.
I think modesty has become the control word for women. All women may not have spouses or partners to give them permissions because they have other people (too often, other women) to moderate them. Society says, you can sell your product on a naked woman’s body, you can make her a celebrity, a music star, you can bombard her with thousands of images and messages each day about what a beautiful woman is and how she should look, you can have polls on who is the most beautiful woman, but a woman cannot call herself beautiful, cannot present herself in her naked form by free will, cannot tell YOU what she is without waiting to be asked or told as this is deemed, if not immodest, then arrogant; arrogance seems to be the opposite term, the negative counter to modesty for women. If a woman presents confidence, she is arrogant, if a woman puts herself forward, suggests she is qualified for a position of high status without waiting to be told she has that worth, she is arrogant.
What is the genesis of Escape Behaviors? Can you tell us a few words about what made you write this story and why you chose this form for it?
RF: Escape Behaviours started out as a series of provocations to get my husband’s attention – no mean feat when your husband a) doesn’t like poetry and b) doesn’t read anything you write. But he will read comic strips and graphic novels (of which my daughter is a huge fan), so I had over a hundred poems addressed to my husband in some way, either about us or the great white elephant in our lives, his stutter, and I wanted him to read them. Putting the words into pictures achieved that.
As the project progressed, I realised the images brought extra elements to the poems I hadn’t envisaged, and at times I left out the words and let the images do the communicating. I saw a relationship between the image and what the poem was trying to express that I hadn’t noticed before. It excited me.
I love the ending of Escape Behaviors: “In every home, forgotten, every woman’s a hero, muse, and goddess.” It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. What hope do you see for a forgotten hero?
RF: Ah, see, that’s a tricky question. Can one be an optimistic nihilist? And, of course, there’s that rotten forgotten; you can’t hold hope for what you don’t remember, can you? And if she’s not really forgotten, well, then you’ve called the whole thing into question….I think society likes to raise select individuals up and make heroes of them but I think this is perception. By turning the page around you could view this same act as society squashing the masses down a little more to reveal these heroes. The hope, then, is for perceptions to see all women as raised and all society equal. I think when a phrase like the one you’ve quoted has no impact, no power at all, when the need to stand out at all is gone, that’ll be the time such a hero can be forgotten.
I think that your work has a very strong feminine imprint. Many women writers of today and yesterday have tried to hide their gender under pseudonyms and have considered a great praise to be told that they write just like a man. Escape Behaviors does not disguise its gender in any way. How do you feel about that?
RF: I don’t think there’s any chance of equality while ever we assert a myth that men have greater intellectual worth. Escape Behaviours is definitely a celebration of womanhood – however bittersweet my personal experience may have been – and I’d like to think this comes across. I consciously used a contraction of my own name to emphasise the point, Rae Joyce, which, if you say it fast comes out rejoice.
Do you want to add anything else that you feel is important for the readers to know about your work?
RF: I’m not trying to be didactic. I think my work presents a picture of a formidable woman; this wasn’t and isn’t always so. But if we all, each of us, support one other woman, even if that’s by not criticizing where before maybe we’d utter “silly woman”, however harmlessly it was meant, then, I think, good things can happen, and you don’t need a cape, pert tits or superhero abs!
Rachel Fenton is a writer based in New Zealand. Her poetry has appeared in Horizon Review, Blackmail Press, Otoliths, Brief and more, and it was longlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Award. Her fiction was longlisted for the Sean O’ Faolain Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the Fish One Page Prize, Binnacle Ultra Short Competition. This year, her short graphic fiction “Alchemy Hour” won the AUT New Zealand Creative Writing Competition. You can find out more about the author on her Web page, Snow Like Thought.
2012 Interview by Lori Tiron-Pandit.
The Thoughtful Dresser is a book that I wanted to like. It’s one of those themes — women and their clothes — that can be deeply interesting because there is so much negativity attached to it. I also have strong feelings about the topic and I was hoping to find more thoughts in the line with my own.
It started like that. The book seemed to have had many good intentions in the beginning, but somewhere it failed to deliver any sort of deep message beyond: beautiful clothes are a pleasure that we should not deny ourselves. Which is not a bad message in itself, but which, at the same time, is not enough. There are pleasures and there are pleasures, and wearing beautiful clothes is among those pleasures that we are not sure what to do with, like eating and sleeping. It’s among those pleasures that we blame all our misfortunes on and not among the pleasures that we keep in higher regard, like watching team sports. I think that making clothes and putting together outfits the reflect a style and various moods, are forms of art, an art with immediate and strong impact on various psychological levels. But this is not the direction of this book.
All the time reading the book I felt excitement at the beginning of the chapter, and as the reading continued I was let down, time and time again. No, this is not an enlightened book that will leave you feeling entitled to own and wear that beautiful dress while still viewing yourself as an intelligent and valuable individual in the world. If that is what you’re looking for, then you need to keep looking. This book only reinforces old-time tales of women’s imperfect bodies that need cover and designer clothes that are an ultimate cover which sadistically will never fit our bodies.
A large part of the book is dedicated to the story of Catherine Hill, a holocaust survivor who became successful in the fashion industry owning several stores and having known well many big names in the high fashion world. Sure, I told myself, now the revelations will come, from the experience of this extraordinary woman who had been through the unimaginable and turned to clothes to make her life beautiful again. Unfortunately, even that line of the story fell flat. We are left with an image of Catherine Hill wanting to cover women’s imperfect bodies, because the cover had been denied to them in the camps at different times, and that had been unbearable to them. As much as this might be a powerful message, I do not want to be left with the idea that I need to cover my imperfect body.
Maybe I found the book distressing also because the message was often contradictory. For example, on one page we are told that designers don’t care about us, the women who would buy and wear their clothes. They only care about themselves and what’s in their minds. On the the next page we are told how lusting for designer shoes is just normal and OK, and going for glamor is all that is left for a woman over 40 (one definition of glamor being the designer label).
The parts that I did like were those few incursions into fashion history, Christian Dior’s thoughts on the New Look and Coco Chanel’s preference for simplicity and cheaper, comfortable fabrics (jersey, yes!). But I am sure there are many other books that discuss these issues to more depth.
The book could also have used a better editor: many ideas were repeated several times throughout, for example how you can tell the age of a photograph by looking at the clothes the people in it are wearing, or how the author inherited her thick ankles and thick wrists from her peasant Russian and Polish ancestors. Throughout the book you can feel the author’s sense of displeasure with herself: her body, her aging, her inability to wear designer shoes. Don’t we have enough magazines, commercials for cosmetics and surgery that show us how much our bodies are lacking? I personally do not feel any need to also read books that reinforce these ideas.
One question this book did leave me with: who is the thoughtful dresser? Certainly, it is not the reader, because the readers do not get any insight or advice into how to put more thought into their dressing. No. The thoughtful dresser can only be the writer herself, who put some thought into writing this book. Unfortunately, the book’s relevance does not extend beyond her person either.
The book, originally published in 1990, is written around the case studies of four women managers from different types of organizations, like the Girl Scouts of America, a broadcasting company, a contractor business and Ford. The author follows these women throughout a typical work day and notes down their methods. Some of them give a very headstrong and direct vibe, some are more subtle and creative approach. The analysis and discussion around the observations gathered by the author is facilitated by the comparison with a similar study of the workday of men managers done in 1968 by Henry Mintzberg, which became the basis for the book “The Nature of Managerial Work” in 1973.
Two things have remained with me after reading this book. One is that women in power tend to see themselves in the center of a net, while men managers place themselves at the top of a hierarchy. I think this is a very interesting distinction, isn’t it? Women have a more integrative view of the world, where we are all interconnected and interdependent, while men need a more structured world, classified, prioritized, one way. I am sure there will be many perspectives in between and this involves a lot of generalization which is not fair to everyone.
Anyway, the other particularity of women’s way of managing a company and their work that fascinated me was that all the women schedule frequent breaks in their work day, while men just go on and on with their long workdays. The way the author justifies this difference is that historically women’s work has been one that never ends. Nowadays is the office/home/children trilogy that never lets you catch rest, earlier was the agrarian type of work as opposed to the hunter men, who could clearly see the end of their efforts, when the game was loaded and carried back home.
Another intriguing difference observed by the author is is that the women managers considered important to disseminate and share the information, for the good workings of the company, while men managers tended to gather as much information as they could in their no-break workdays but would have a difficult time sharing that. Men managers also tended to identify with their work completely. Because of the overwhelming nature of their work and the fact that they all tended to sacrifice family time to and personal interactions to strictly work-related activities, men could not separate from their job, while the women, being mothers, could not afford but to see themselves (and their employees) as complex individuals and would allow time for personal matters during their encounters and workdays.
This was a fascinating read. I’ll probably mention it in conversations for a long time — it’s that kind of book.
Copyright 2018 Lori Tiron-Pandit