On Teaching the Graphic Novel
August 2, 2015 by
About once a month, I get asked by a colleague or friend for the syllabus I used to teach my seminar on the Graphic Novel at Amherst. Included below is a list of the texts that I used to teach students. In that seminar I allowed optional creative exercises and finals, and that led to me teaching tutorials in the making of comics, which led to me advising two graphic novel theses to summa honors. I’m very proud of those students, who were both also awarded the English Department’s prize for best thesis. Amherst’s English department was very generous and supportive in the teaching I did there throughout, and I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work of all of my students.
I taught the class as an experiment, even an expedition of a kind, and so it was never the same every time. I began teaching it because more graphic novels have been published in the last ten years than in the 30 years prior to that—it is without question an explosion and so I had questions about this explosion. I’d been reading into the history of comics just on my own (as a fanboy going back to age six), and found that the German Expressionist Picture Novel, an important forebear to the modern graphic novel, came of age in Germany in the age leading up to the Nazi Party’s takeover of the government. I wanted to know if there was a relationship.
We live in an anxiety about language now, I think, that has created this boom, an Age of Euphemism, and I do think there’s something about the comic that can move through the lies and subvert the euphemism in what we as readers experience as victories for truth. Linda Barry, in her masterpiece, What It Is, included here, describes an idea of art, the making of it and the experiencing of it, as part of our immune system, and I like thinking about this idea. It’s part of why I introduced the making of comics into the teaching of them.
The above, an Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Kuniyoshi, is one of the pieces of art that led me into my interest in the graphic novel. The visual pun at its center emits a narrative force, a dramatic irony—you are drawn into the story about to happen, the idea that the fox has cast this illusion around it and has not yet been caught by anyone except the artist and the reader. Comics and graphic novels at their best play with this and the other forces a visual pun brings to bear. It’s one of the things a comic or graphic novel can do that prose alone has to play catch-up with—creating in the mind of the reader simultaneous contrasts, the fox as woman as fox as illusion.
I mention this because I am frequently challenged on the idea of teaching the form, much less reading it. Also, some of my students mistakenly think of graphic novels progressively, i.e., they will write papers for me saying why they are “better” than prose literature, as if that is our class mission. But it isn’t and wasn’t. My sense of the form is that it is capable of uniquely expressing something, in a way that sets it apart from either prose literature, poetry or film. Discovering and articulating that capacity is among the class missions. There was never only one mission.
For me, Marjane Satrapi explained “why comics” best, when she said, at an appearance at Smith College, “I write what I can’t draw, and I draw what I can’t write.” This struck me as an important way to think about the artist-writer creator (a clumsy way to say “someone who can do both”). Most of the texts I taught were written by people of this category, but there are writers for the form, like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who do not do their own drawings and it would be disingenuous at best not to include their cooperative works with artists, in terms of their cultural impact, but the distinction does ask important questions.
While the field is considered new at best (it is routinely dismissed as unserious by many) the boom also means that I could have easily taught the course as a year-long class, with a “History of Comics” first semester and a “Graphic Novel” second semester, and if the post I had at Amherst had been tenure track, I might have considered it, and could easily have filled it. Teaching the graphic novel typically means you’ll be popular with students but potentially controversial with colleagues, to be clear—and on the job market, it has been both a plus and a minus, with faculty both intensely interested and intensely repulsed. It is a polarizing form to teach right now, more so than creative writing, which still suffers in the esteem of many academics, despite its popularity.
Of course, in my experience over the years, there are few things more politically dangerous within an English Department than teaching something popular with students. It makes whatever it is both valuable and suspect.
Having said that, for those interested in teaching this sort of course, or in just reading more of the form, here is…
The ENGL 74 Amherst College Memorial Reading List:
American Born Chinese, Gene Yang
Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine
Mother Come Home, Paul Hornschmeier
Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware
Pyongyang, Guy Delisle
Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan
Aya, Margaret Abouet
Blankets, Craig Thompson
In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Lucky, Gabrielle Bell
Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes
Curses, Kevin Huizenga
Life Sucks, Jessica Abel
La Perdida, Jessica Abel
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Jessica Abel & Matt Madden
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
Ronin, by Frank Miller
Night Fisher, R. Kikuo Johnson
Watchmen, Alan Moore
Top Ten: The 49’ers, Alan Moore
Black Hole, Charles Burns
McSweeney’s 13, edited by Chris Ware
Scott Pilgrim 1, Brian Lee O’Malley
Battle Angel Alita 1, Yukito Kishiro
Banana Fish vol. 6, Akimi Yoshida (Volumes 1-19 exist)
Lone Wolf and Cub Vol. 1, Kazuo Koike
Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1, Joss Whedon
The Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot
Blue Pills, Frederik Peeters
Ordinary Victories, Manu Larcenet
Prosopopus, Nicolas de Crécy
Dogs and Water, Anders Nilsen
Monologues for Gauging the Density of Black Holes, Anders Nilsen
Poor Sailor, Sammy Harkham
Persepolis, Marjan Satrapi
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Epileptic, David B.
Powr Mstrs Vol. 1
What It Is, Lynda Barry
The City, Franz Masereel
Incognegro, Mat Johnson
7 Miles A Second, by David Wojnarowicz
MOME, various issues (a quarterly journal of comics)
I taught the class using a variety of texts to the side, like Freud’s essays on the Uncanny, Jokes, Screen Memories and Dreams (Freud even made a comic called “Dream of the French Nurse” as an illustration for his work on dreams, without even feeling the need to describe why he thought comics were perfect to reflect dreams), and Simone Weil’s The Iliad or a Poem of Force (Greek gods being the early cultural prototype for super heroes).
Some caveats for those attempting to teach these texts in the classroom: Comics may be thought of as inexpensive, but 4-color art illustrations on good paper means the average graphic novel is expensive. The class was a financial burden to some students, and while some texts can be bought second hand, consider approaching your library with your list in advance and having the books purchased and placed on reserve during the class.
Also, you will attract a mix of students, typically, some who know only a few of the most famous recent graphic novels, and, as a friend mentioned with her trial class recently, a group who may be more knowledgeable than you in terms of comics history. These people may even believe a mastery of arcana is necessary to even teach the class (not true). Comics Arcana is the gang handshake of the “fanboy/fangirl” as these readers are called (and yes, I fanboy). Comics fans are a fierce claque, comparable, I think, only to opera fans in terms of the withering scorn they can bring to bear when you come up short. Just remember that with a seminar you are reading to learn as much as there to teach, and encourage an atmosphere of group discovery. A series of midterm presentations can be informative and also allow those who invariably feel they should really be teaching the class a moment to express their nascent egotism creatively. I.e., to share their knowledge base with their peers (and you). They don’t really want to teach the class—they want to learn something from you. But to do that, they need to respect you, and if you indicate you respect the years of obsessive reading they’ve done to the side of their main course work, unexpressed until this class, it’s usually a win.
Of the student favorites, it appears I made lifetime readers of Ronin, Astonishing X-Men, Scott Pilgrim, Battle Angel Alita and Lone Wolf and Cub. Epileptic was a crowd pleaser, as was Shortcomings. Anders Nilsen’s two books are the absolute favorites of the comics creators students, also Blankets, Poor Sailor and Mother Come Home—the students who wanted to make comics had very specific loves apart from the critical favorites. Student reaction to Jimmy Corrigan was mixed, with some finding it brilliant and others maddening and depressing.
Note to those setting off to teach a graphic novel class of their own: I didn’t teach all my favorites, so they aren’t all on this list. I did that partly because it’s nice to have something that is just yours, as a reader. I did teach what I think of the as the “warhorses” despite personal preferences: The Watchmen, for example, which I find a bit hammy as a reader, is good to teach, though be prepared for to also teach your students something about the Iran-Contra scandal (they won’t initially believe it happened). I teach the book because it was ground-breaking, and much of what followed was heavily influenced by it. It completely changed the way creators dealt with even the idea of a superhero. But that also must be added to, contextually–like many things that are groundbreaking, it doesn’t look groundbreaking now.
Scott Pilgrim was hilarious to teach because students initially believed it to beneath the class’s attention: “All of my friends talk like this,” one of my students said. “Why are we reading this?” But that, of course, was why: Scott Pilgrim was a story created with and even within the vernacular of their generation, something they also want to do, and so I felt it mattered, and included it.
On teaching students to make comics, I found the most important thing to do first was get them over the idea that they needed to be great artists to make comics, and focus instead on how they needed to create a visual vernacular for their story, write a script and do character design.
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The Great Recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which determines the start and end dates of U.S. recessions based on a range of economic indicators.Jun 26, 2014
The last time I looked it was July 2015; six years after the end of the Great Recession. During most of that time one party had control of the Congress and White House. As it demonstrated with the Affordable Care Act, for several years it could do anything it wanted to do. It could have raised the minimum wage for example. It could have modified the tax code and changed laws to favor economic growth. It chose not to. Instead, the Administration and its supporters chose to divide Americans, to moan about inequality and the struggling middle-class, to attack successful Americans.
Here we sit and the political left highlights all the things we have known for years with a look of consternation on their face. How did it happen that our recovery from the recession hasn’t been what it should have been; who do we blame now?
Why haven’t we been building the middle-class since 2009?
Center for American Progress
July 31, 2015
Economic Snapshot: July 2015
Christian E. Weller on the State of the U.S. Economy
Economic data continue to highlight three economic policy challenges. First, economic growth remains lackluster by historic comparison, which impedes job creation. Second, many of the people who do have jobs lack adequate wages and decent benefits. Third, some vulnerable population groups suffer more in this economy than their counterparts. Communities of color and people with less education, for example, often struggle with lower wages and higher rates of unemployment than whites and people with more education.
Many of the same policies that strengthen the middle class can also spur faster economic growth. Building a stronger middle class is only one step toward addressing the triple threat of slow economic growth, weak wage growth, and disproportionate economic struggles. The bottom line is that policymakers can do a lot more to build real economic security for families who have struggled through the Great Recession and its aftermath.
Filed under: Government, Politics Tagged: CAP, economy, recession
I’m turning OLD this year. But I’m taking it all quite well, really. There are benefits to aging of course. Social benefits, for example. And one in particular I find quite tantalizing. Since I’ve always been a tad socially-reckless — over-sharing, stirring the pot, making listeners squirm — what I’m most looking forward to with turning old is my newfound license to I-Don’t-Give-A-Shit (IDGAS). Surely you are […]
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A friend of mine, Aaron from mr-stingy.com blog, recently compiled 5 valuable opinions of investment strategies during down market from 5 peoples who established their own financial & management internet portal. Worth to note that some of them are also founders of some financial related companies. I was […]
The post How to Invest in a Down Market? – Mr Stingy appeared first on 1-million-dollar-blog.
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First off, I think it’s important to say that I do not, and have not ever primarily identified as white. On my mother’s side, I’m Native American, enrolled in my Tribe, and, to a large extent, raised in my culture. I was born on the reservation and lived on or near reservations for much of my life. Indigenous cultural signifiers are important to me – I love Coastal designs and canoes. I love to eat Salmon, attend gatherings, and socialize at potlatches or powwows. However, due to genetics (while both my grandparents on my mother’s side are Indigenous, my grandmother is light-skinned, and my grandfather, of mixed ancestry) it so happens that I am light. Like, really light. Light as a ghost, let-me-put-my-arm-next-to-yours-and-compare-whiteness light. Some people call me glow-worm because they think I’ll be florescent under blacklights.
There are a lot of ways in which it sucks to be a light or white-presenting Native American. I’m often not recognizable, even to people of my own nationality. Sometimes, I even have to perform to be seen by myself, as if by wearing turquoise and beadwork, I won’t get so lost in the Western world. Of course, it’s so much deeper than that, but it can help to have outward reflections of an inner truth. If I’m not performing for myself, it can feel as if I’m performing to others. At times, (though very rarely) others with mixed-Native heritage have compared themselves to me, as if I were on the bottom of the scale for Native-presenting-ness. “Oh, I look mixed, but I look more Native than Mistylynn, right?” This desperately begs the question, What does a Native person look like? As I’ve posed it at other times on this blog, I’ll leave that question for others to chew on. Suffice to say, the need to be visible, and to have a voice as an Indigenous woman, is important to me. Native issues are my issues, are the issues of my people. I identify as an American Indian woman.
And I have white privilege.
I’ve thought about this more and more in passing weeks. The shooting in Charleston, the death of Sandra Bland, the deaths of many, many more – all of these things have affected me on a deep level. When Mike Brown was murdered, I was so outraged that I immediately became that awkward person, jutting into a conversation not my own, all well-meaning, bumbling passion that needed to learn its place. My place, I now know, during this epidemic of police brutality, violence, and death, is as an ally. I can listen to what my Black friends share and say is their experience. I can believe them because they tell me it’s true. And I can choose to stand with them, encourage them, lift up and amplify their voices by listening, learning, and sharing what they tell me.
And part of what they’re telling me is that there are things I take for granted that I receive as a direct result of my skin color. Because I am Indigenous and I do face a great deal of challenges specific to my nationality, I have often wrongly believed that I don’t have white privilege. That isn’t true, because the larger world views me as a white woman. When I’m out and about in the rural area I live in, white people assume I am their natural ethnic ally. Police officers don’t stop me on erroneous, trumped up charges. In fact, I could, hypothetically, see a police officer, and feel either more safe, or neutral. I can look at a TV and see people who look like me. In magazines, movies, and casting calls, white is considered normal or standard. Avatar actress Zoe Saldana once said that she was turned down for a role because her skin was “too dark.” Said Zoe, “It’s only dark if you’re comparing it to something.”
But there’s more. At airports, I am not searched randomly. I can walk at stores without being followed around. With a few exceptions, people don’t tell me I’m “articulate” or say, “You speak English so well!” I can find makeup to match my skin tone. “Nude” colored products are the same shade I am. I can attend a pool party and be reasonably sure a thirty-five year-old man won’t barrel-roll in and pin me to the ground, knee against my back, constricting my breathing. I’m not likely to be put in a choke-hold. My last words will not be, “I can’t breathe.”
As painful and uncomfortable as it is for me to admit, my light skin benefits me at every conceivable social and political institution in the United States. It means everything from concealer, to skin-care products, to my very life.
But, you might think, Misty, you have had a lot of things go wrong due to your Indigenous ancestry. You’ve experienced land-theft, you’ve seen poverty, heck, the house where your brother lives had a sign hung by white folks that said, “Future Indian Ghetto.” The white folks who hung that sign saw you as an Indian. Your Tribe sees you as Indian. Even the Federal government recognizes it, and you’ve experienced persecution and racism firsthand, through the specific context of being a woman of color. How can you, of all people, benefit from white privilege?
I had a hard time understanding it, too. It all comes down to colorism: people of color with lighter skin are treated better in a white supremacist society, plain and simple. None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone, I have access to better healthcare, better education, and higher-paying jobs.
I’m writing this because I want other light-skinned people to acknowledge their privilege and admit that it isn’t normal that, by virtue of having light skin alone, one is automatically safer, wealthier, and better off in a society with institutions made to give them the upper hand. I want white people to admit to their own gross privilege, not because of shame, but because we should want equality. We should not be okay with a white girl getting her traffic violations waved by acting innocent to a police officer, but Sandra Bland dying because she didn’t use a turn signal. We can’t think Miley is cute for smoking weed, but Trayvon was a thug who got what he deserved. We cannot continue to justify police brutality by using the politics of respectability as an excuse. That’s saying, “You deserved to get catcalled because of your outfit.” We all know the outfit has nothing to do with it. But perhaps that is a clumsy metaphor as well. It sucks to be catcalled, but it would suck even worse to die.
I am acknowledging that I have white privilege, and I am demanding that all equal rights “privileges” should apply to everyone, not just those with light skin. I want everyone to be safe from police brutality. I want the wage gap to close, not just for women, but for women of color. I want an inner-city Black child to have the same access to safe, comprehensive education with qualified and passionate teachers, as his or her white peer. And for god’s sake, I want Taylor Swift to shut up when Nicki Minaj is talking.
The first step is to acknowledge, to see oneself, to hold up a mirror and really, truly look, and not look away.
I’ll close with a story: When I got to Thailand, the first big poster I saw was an advertisment for a product called “Snail White.” Snail White is a skin-lightening cream hyped to Asian women. Even here, it is considered better to be white, to be as white as you can possibly be. To be a ghost. To disappear entirely, a transluscent wunderkind, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione under a veritable Invisibility Cloak.
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Mary Frey on Photography
July 24, 2015 by
Untitled from the series Family, Friends and Strangers by Mary Frey
Mary Frey is a prominent photographer and Professor of Photography at Hartford Art School, Connecticut, USA. I first came across her work in the catalogue of Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, the influential MoMA exhibition of 1991, so I was particularly excited when she agreed to be interviewed here. Her work demonstrates a sharpness of eye and meticulous technique and her concepts, although seemingly banal, renew my faith in everyday wonder and photography’s ability to take those moments and immortalise them. For me, it was a pleasure to discover her continued devotion to photography and her considered approach. I’ll let you enjoy it for yourself.
Can you tell us about when you first discovered photography?
As a child, I loved to paint and draw and excelled in my art classes. In addition I grew up close to NYC, so occasionally visited museums to see original works of art. I always owned a point and shoot camera which I used to record special events, but never really thought about photography as a serious art practice until I was in college. I still remember that “aha” moment. It occurred during my third year of study as an art student. I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, and I was hooked- I needed to make photographs. That was in 1969, and I never looked back.
Did you know early on that it was going to be a life pursuit?
Upon graduation I had a brief stint studying photography in graduate school but dropped out because I felt my work lacked direction and I was not ready to make a serious commitment to the practice. For the next seven years I held a variety of jobs (editorial, sales, teaching, commercial) all connected to photography, while continuing to make and exhibit my personal work. At the time I was doing street photography, strongly influenced by the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus. I found teaching to be a good fit with these artistic activities so returned to graduate school in 1977 with a new commitment to photography as a lifetime vocation.
Man Fastening Pearls
Some of your early practice (Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas) is concerned with exploring photography’s role in depicting the everyday. What began your interest in these themes and what did you find?
During my second year of graduate study I visited my parents and dug out our family albums. At the time I was struck by how many of my childhood memories were formed by the snapshots taken during these events. Although not an original insight, it acted as a catalyst to explore this idea. I began by recreating either the scenes I remembered or the spirit of these events, using family and friends as actors. I also drew inspiration from sixties television, the illustrations in the popular magazines like Life and Look that I grew up with, and the writing of novelists like John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Jayne Ann Phillips. As the project evolved, I made a “laundry list” of everyday moments to photograph. I sought out people in the street whom I found visually interesting and managed to get into their homes to document these activities. All these folks (family members and strangers) became my cast of characters for both the Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas series, which I worked on for the next eight years.
Boy with Volcano Project
How was it received at the time? What else was going on in photography then that stands out to you?
Domestic Rituals was generally well received. I had several solo shows around the US, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the work in 1984. Real Life Dramas was featured in “New Photography 2” at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) in 1986. During this time there was a lot of street photography going on. Also artists were using large format cameras in many non-traditional situations- and I was looking at the early work of my contemporaries like Nick Nixon, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann and Joel Meyerowitz, and artists who explored American vernacular themes in their work such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. In addition, having studied in the MFA program at Yale, the influence of Walker Evans was profound.
The prosaic nature of many of your scenes interests me. I particularly enjoy the attention to the aesthetic of the image that your work demonstrates in a constructed way, yet still retaining a sense of documentary.
Can you talk us through your creative process? How do you find pictures? Or do you create them?
The tools I employed- a large format camera, B&W film, flashbulb lighting- had a significant affect on how my images looked, and in turn, how my aesthetic evolved. Working slowly with the view camera forced me to construct, rather than capture moments. My diffuse lighting techniques created a soft, revealing and democratic light, where everything was described with precision and all things in a scene had equal visual weight. When I approached potential subjects I simply stated I wanted to photograph everyday people doing everyday things. My working process was fluid. Often I had specific ideas about what I wanted for the photograph, but occasionally I would see a gesture in passing that intrigued me, and asked my subject to re-create it for the camera. The successful images hovered somewhere between the documentary and directorial modes, evoking the look of film stills or tableaux-vivants.
Perhaps photography works best in these scenarios; making something rather mundane into a universally resonant moment. I think it is a talent to resist the sensational in photography to concentrate on the ‘unseen’. Could you talk about your experience of / thoughts on this a little?
A photograph shows us what we know, yet contains its own fiction. That’s what excited me about Bresson’s work many years ago and the work of others whom I admire. I’ve always found it a challenge to photograph the familiar and to move beyond the image of what it is – to what it could be about.
What techniques do you use and how do you decide for each project what suits it?
I truly believe that work begets work and materials hold meaning. I often start with a simple idea and allow the photographs to inform the process to move the project along. For example, I spent over a year photographing taxidermy under studio lights with a digital camera for the Imagining Fauna series. Although lush and beautiful, these images lacked an integrity I couldn’t pin down. Then I happened upon an ambrotype and I realized this is what they needed to be. I converted the digital files into B&W transparencies and, with the wet-plate process, printed them onto black glass. Not only were these images of 19th century specimens created with an antique photo process, but the plates themselves had a physicality that acted as metaphor for the subjects and, in turn, our precarious relationship with nature.
In Real Life Dramas you introduce text as a major component of the ‘image’. What were your reasons for this and how do you see image and text working together here? Where did the texts come from?
When I began Real Life Dramas I merely wanted to see what my pictures could mean in color. I approached my subjects in a similar way to the earlier B&W work, but switched to a medium format camera. This allowed me to shoot off-tripod changing the look and feel of the images. While working in people’s homes during the day, I noticed that their television sets were always on, often tuned to soap operas. Thinking about how popular culture permeates (mediates) our lives, I began to wonder how words could affect the meaning of my images. I read mass-market paperback novels, and appropriated the feel of their language creating phrases I would pair with the photographs. Often overblown and pretentious, these words would shift and/or change the reading of the photographs, injecting humor into sober moments. The text looks like a caption, but operates against the description of the scene depicted, opening up possibilities for new interpretations and bringing into question the “truth” of the photographic image.
You are now working on Imagining Fauna. What brought you to this seemingly new subject territory?
I read an article entitled “Dying a Second Death” about how 19th Century taxidermy was deteriorating due in part to the chemicals used to preserve them, as well as the expense required to restore and house them in museums worldwide. This struck a nerve with me and my instincts took over. As I mentioned above, I spent a year photographing these creatures without a clear notion of why. It wasn’t until I discovered the wet-plate collodion process that it all made sense.
What have you learnt about yourself as a result of pursuing photography for the bulk of your career?
I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I’m unafraid of hard work, and willing to accept failure.
What keeps you going as a practitioner?
I’ve made a commitment to my practice and I feel a responsibility to my work. It has been recognized and supported these many years and I appreciate and respect that.
What advice would you give early career photographers?
Be patient, work hard, follow your passions, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail.
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On Manliness and Joan Didion
July 24, 2015 by
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[Manliness is having a moment right now. So is Joan Didion. Let’s see if we can bring the two together.]
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st Century: My daughter, who is four, came with me to the ranch this week. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off looking cute in boots and cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids. While I worked, my daughter followed behind me, chopping the ends off of cedar branches with a miniature set of clippers and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because, at home, after I get her dressed I pass her off to her mother, who does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it, readers. I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable (the only valuable?) understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, It doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness—like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now—and always have been—as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at the recent controversy regarding Cardinal Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the Church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers, or women readers, or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then—as Michael Boyle points out—those men need to grow the hell up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up. III.
Speaking of learning from women: A few months ago, one of the better “manliness” websites, the Art of Manliness, posted the commencement address Admiral William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes ten things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: ”If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven says:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech—and I really, really liked it—these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews, or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes, and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes: “The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.”
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this remarkable passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect: “In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days I need Didion the drill sergeant.
But I’m calling it: despite her sports and war and gambling metaphors, and her stories about pioneers and Indians, Didion will never appear in the Art of Manliness.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer. The girliest! Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. I joked at the time that Flanagan’s gender essentialism made me want to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem right away, just to prove her wrong. But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in “The White Album”:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.” Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, H said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized when H said that that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not—as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not”?
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in this 2007 post from Jessica at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. And if we can say self-respect is something like what the Art of Manliness calls manhood, and I think we can, then she puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s. Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides her subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings—they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is—or acts like—one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece—except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was “precisely what I want to be doing,” Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised “Serfdom” essay: “When a mother works, something is lost.” So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? “Yeah,” Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. “The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.”
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person—she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother. But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of VJW Smith’s point that I cited last week: “The experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe. Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity—the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met H, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly”; when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
“The men” believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. “The men” didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear here, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping Notebook” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that, for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings—and we all have them—that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
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