Blog Post, Essay, Personal, Politics

On Civility

On Civility

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

― Henry David Thoreau (“On Civil Disobedience”)

Recently, a restaurant owner politely asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the restaurant because her support of this administration’s homophobic and racist policies made some of her staff feel genuinely uncomfortable. Imagine, after all, hearing your own President call your people “rapists” or seeing his justice department argue in court that you don’t deserve the right to be treated equally in the marketplace, and then having to wait on and clean up after the woman who reports that information to the world.

The backlash from media pundits and republican leaders was swift, and even the President of the United States thought this civil request, following his own Supreme Court majority’s decision to deem it Constitutional for a bakery to refuse service to gay patrons on religious grounds—so despicable as to tweet lies about the restaurant’s supposed dirty/unsanitary conditions in retaliation. In response, Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it clear that any member of an administration that makes telling lies commonplace and that holds equal justice in contempt, should be prepared to face public consequences, such as protests.

Conservative politicians and main stream media, and even many prominent democrats, responded by sharply criticizing Representative Waters’ position and by calling, in some cases genuinely but in most cases opportunistically and hypocritically, for a “return to civility.” Such civility was demonstrated by President Trump and conservative actor James Woods, for example, who responded to Maxine Waters by calling her “low IQ” and threatening that she had better “watch out” (Trump) and by telling their followers to go out and “buy guns” because the war is coming (Woods). Oh, to find such practitioners of civility in our body politic, guiding the way for all of us.

The reality is, this group has no real desire for civility except from and only from the other side. What I mean is, these are the perpetual “victims” who tell themselves, and each other, that they are constantly under attack and therefore it is their right, their responsibility to fight by any means necessary; and yet, when anyone rebuffs them even in the slightest, most harmless sense, they cry foul. These are the bullies. These are the manipulators. These are the people, from Fox News and the Trumps, from the Huckabees to the father of it all, Newt Gingrich, who must have everything their way at all costs, who refuse to acknowledge the valid opinions—even the humanity—of anyone unlike them, and who created and perpetuated our culture of fear and divisiveness and now wish to sit comfortably in their power while claiming continued victimhood. They are, after all, in control of the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and more than half of U.S. Governorships and State Legislatures, and yet they think they are being oppressed.

We have seen this kind of behavior in society and politics throughout history. We know that authoritarian governments rise by preying on peoples’ fears and doubts, by othering easy targets, like the Jews, the blacks, the Mexicans, or the gays. They lie about their opponents, usually projecting onto the other political party exactly the kinds of things they are guilty of doing, such as being “uncivil.” Take the anti-choice crowd, for example. They stand outside of clinics terrorizing women and men who are consulting medical professionals, a situation which should be wholly private and safe. They get people like Bill O’Reilly, a man with a massive audience, to denounce abortion-performing doctors by name, calling them “baby-murdering Nazis,” night after night on television, until someone shows up at that doctor’s home—Dr. George Tiller–and murders him. Other right-wing conspiracy theorists on Fox News, Breitbart, and InfoWars, such as Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones, spout ridiculous stories like the one about a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, and claim that a former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate is a part of it. They say it over and over and over again until someone shows up at that pizza parlor with a gun, demanding to be taken to the “baby sex basement,” only to discover the building does not even have a basement. Not only does republican leadership refuse to denounce these things, but instead, people like Steve Bannon become a part of the President’s staff, working in the Oval Office. And people like Sean Hannity speak to the President on the phone every night. Is this civility?

After republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who calls NFL players exercising their first amendment rights to peacefully protest, “sons of bitches”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who calls Mexicans “rapists and murderers”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women and using his power to keep them quiet; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who refers to cross-burning, Nazi- and confederate-flag waving, crowd-attacking white supremacists as “very fine people”; when republican leaders and base republicans continue to support a man who insists all Haitians have AIDS, all “black countries” are “shitholes” and all Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from our country; after republican leaders stood by, and base republicans railed about, “birthirism,” called Michelle Obama a “monkey in heels,” performed public hangings-in-effigy of President Obama; and when republican leaders and base republicans say they “don’t care” about immigrant kids in cages, that we should “stop trying to get [them] to cry about” children who have been torn away from their parents by our government, and that the immigrants are “lucky we didn’t assassinate them,” now. . . now they call for civility. Why? Because the President’s mouthpiece, the one who presents all of this to the world, was asked politely to leave a restaurant. That was civil.

I have to admit, I have always been reluctant to be uncivil. I try to be a kind person, above all else, which makes the idea of civil unrest and confrontation extremely difficult for me. But I realize now, even though I did not vote for this administration and even though I tried to explain to everyone in my circle of influence why I felt this administration would be a disaster for us all, I may have, indeed, been “too civil” about it. I may have been quiet when I should have spoken. I may have wanted to keep the peace with friends and family, rather than stoke a potentially permanent and irrevocable animus. In retrospect, I think I was wrong. That time is over.

  • I was civil after they called him “Kenyan Muslim.”
  • I was civil after they hung him in effigy.
  • I was civil after they called her an “ape in heels.”
  • I was civil after they murdered a doctor for doing his job.
  • I was civil after they mocked the disabled.
  • I was civil after they cheered a “pussy-grabber.”
  • I was civil after they called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches.”
  • I was civil after they allowed a foreign government to influence our elections.
  • I was civil after they called white supremacists “fine people.”
  • I was civil when they chanted, “lock her up.”
  • I was civil when they inserted religion into the state and elevated just one above all.
  • I was civil when they mocked a dying Senator by calling him, “irrelevant.”
  • I was civil when they cozied up to dictators.
  • I was civil when they called our neighbors rapists, murderers, back-stabbers.
  • I was civil when they walked away from human rights.
  • I was civil when they lied about the disaster in Puerto Rico and continued to refuse aid.
  • I was civil and they gutted healthcare.
  • I was civil and they made corporations “people.”
  • I was civil and they came for social security and Medicare.
  • I was civil and they attacked our free press as “enemy of the people.”
  • I was civil and they threatened to end due process and violate international law.
  • I was civil and the First Lady wore an Italian pro-fascist slogan (“I really don’t care”) on her jacket.
  • I was civil and they stole children from their parents, then lost track of them.

Here’s the thing about “being civil,” my friends. There are two types of people who, in environments like these, respond to basically civil protests with calls for civility and decorum: The first is made up of the type of people outlined above, those who call for civility but who have no intention of ever practicing it. They use it as a tool against the very people who do crave a fair and peaceful society for all. The second group is composed of the type who generally agree that something is wrong, but who do not want to “rock the boat” too hard. These folks, like David Axelrod, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer (all of whom criticized Waters, a black woman, for her call to action), tend to be white, wealthy, and politically privileged. So, while they believe they are on the right side of the fight, there is only so much skin they are willing to put in the game. To do more would be to threaten their own basically comfortable place in the world. I think, also, they have not realized or accepted just how much our body politic has changed and just how irrelevant they make themselves with these attitudes about the resistance, which has been incredibly civil (they lied, we marched. They murdered, we marched. They called us godless, immoral, criminals, anti-American, and we marched).

In many ways, with people like Pelosi and Schumer, I am reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone replaces Tom Hagen as consigliere. Michael loved his brother Tom. He respected Hagen, and he knew the man to be brilliant. But Hagen could no longer be effective in the new environment. We need a war-time consigliere. We need to go to the mattresses. Here’s what I believe, now: I can remind kind. I can remain good. But I can no longer continue to be civil in their fashion. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

I began with a short quote from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” and I would like to end with one, too. But let us also remember that over the course of history, justice has been won not only by statesmen in board rooms and at tea parties, but by the hard work and persistence of the people. People in the streets. People disrupting injustice. People sabotaging authoritarian plans. People marching, yes, but also people raging, storming, shouting, and standing up, at all costs, until their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, and the rest of the world could not ignore the cry anymore. Until they, too, recognized the danger and revolted against it. These were people who were told, “if only you could be a bit more civil,” and realized this was a lie.

Bullies will cry foul at the first encroachment into their dominance. If given a concession, they will take more and more and more, until they are stopped. They will not listen to reason because they do not respect reason. They will not be swayed by justice because they believe in only the justice they create and that favors them above others. They will cry for civility because they know the people they are dealing with want civility, desire justice, believe in a moral imperative. But remember: the bully, the dictator, the authoritarian, they do not believe in these things and they will not accept them willingly.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

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Blog Tour, Culture, Essay, Literary Theory, Literature, misogyny, Politics

Reading Literature Causes Misogyny?

Parnaso 09Recently, Electric Lit published an essay by Erin Spampinato titled, “The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement.” In it, the author argues that a culture of reading and privileging “white male” (para. 5) texts has resulted in the modern-day incelmovement (note: the term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibates.” It is most often used by white, male, heterosexuals online who claim they cannot “find love/romance” because of contemporary culture’s “demands” on their gender [read: supposed emasculation]. The term is now often used as analogous to misogynist because these self-described incels believe they have a “right” to sexual intercourse, without condition).The author names titles such as Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried, to support her point that much of our school-taught canon (aside: I was not required to read any of these in school) is made up of books whose protagonists are sexually frustrated, then connects that literary frustration to modern-day “young men [who think] that male pathos is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute” (para. 1). Just a few sentences later, she connects that sentiment to the dawn of “the incel,” a “monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture [and] a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all” (ibid). 

While I find much of Spampinato’s argument regarding the tradition and its still-too-exclusive canon compelling and accurate, the leap she makes between reading literature (even literature of the white male) and becoming a violent misogynist and/or internet troll, is tenuous at best. Consider two prominent incels (I refuse to use their names, but they are easy enough to find) who made headlines for their violent attacks in North America: one, a self-identified incel who carried out the recent Toronto van attack was 25-years-old; the other, described as the Toronto terrorist’s “hero,” murdered six people at a University and was 22-years-old. Isn’t it just as (perhaps even more) likely that the dominate narrative exposure these young men had was not from literature, but from, say, streaming television and social media? 

In addition, study after study suggests that reading classic literature/literary fiction, among other genres, makes people more humanist and empathetic. In addition, study after study demonstrates that people are reading less and less (especially “literature”). People having these conversations (writers and readers of articles like this one) are discussing these very ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, race and class, nationalism and colonialism, patriotism and religion, in literature and elsewhere. Are we to believe that these “incels” are reading literature and also having these discussions? Reading these books but ignoring their themes or interpreting them differently? Treating The Awakening, for exampleas a story about woman who got what was coming to her, rather than an example of a courageous woman who boldly demands her sexual freedom in a time when that was nearly impossible? And, assuming they are readers, what’s to say they’re not reading someone like Ayn Rand?

I take Spampinato’s point that we must continue to diversify the canon and discuss what gender (and other) disparities in reading and publishing have done to readers, writers, and cultures to date; however, I think the author’s primary thesis is unsound and no evidence is given to support her major claim, that reading classic literature causes misogyny. Do we have statistics, for example, on incel members and their reading habits, including choice of texts, frequency of reading activity, or favored genre? Where does the writer’s assumption originate, that literature causes these tendencies rather than helps people realize them? After all, without any data, isn’t it equally possible that these men simply do not read literature and therefore are less empathetic because of lack of exposure to humanistic ideals; or that they have not studied literature and therefore lack comprehension skills and global awareness? 

Indeed, while some kinds of reading might make human beings “better people,” other genres seem designed to do the exact opposite. How do we know these men are not instead being influenced by, say, classic westerns or true crime novels, or comic books? (no shade meant to these genres!) Spampinato suggests that the problem is classic literary fiction, specifically, and its focus on male sexual superiority, that causes cultural sexism/misogyny, but fascinating textual analysis aside*, where is the evidence that would support this claim? As a part of the larger context, certainly our literature is a contributing factor to how we think about and communicate with the world around us. But to claim it is the root? 

Perhaps, if we accept that these “incels” read classic literature/literary fiction, we should also look at the difference between “reading” and “comprehending” (or learning). If we are to grant that what she says is true, an overabundance of white male literature that privileges male sexuality is to blame for misogyny, must we then jump to the conclusion that it is because young men are simply reading a lot of these stories? Or is it possible that they are reading without understanding (or discussing) the issues? Here’s an excerpt from the essay: 

The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. (para. 6)

I have highlighted two sentences in this excerpt because they are profound personal post hoc reflections from a thoughtful and critical reader (although she problematically provides just one scene/motif from each representative novel, all of which are arguably complex, and then suggests that these books are “about” that scene/motif). I think it is important to recognize, however, that while I believe she is accurate and honest in what she describes here as her own experience and edification, the anecdotes are also being presented in such a way as to suggest a generalization about larger reading outcomes for other groups/populations. I am not a female-identified reader, so I cannot speak to how broadly the author’s personal experiences translate to other women, but I believe her. As a gay man, I certainly felt the lack of LGBTQ representation (or at least the acknowledgement of it) in my own classes, even throughout college.

It seems important to acknowledge, however, that literary criticism itself has existed for generations because of these very individual interpretations and analyses, and that attempts to assert cultural causation (with any kind of media, really) have been regularly and resoundingly defeated. In other words, Spampinato’s personal reflections on and responses to the assigned reading she was given in school are an important and valid part of this conversation, but I am reluctant to accept them as examples for causation between reading literature and becoming “fill-in-the-blank” (in this case, militantly misogynistic), if only because it stems from a projection of her experience onto others’ reading experiences (all the while assuming that these other people have done the same reading and absorbed the same messages). It is also reductive to say that the incel movement is born in any single thing (i.e. “a product of Anglo-American literary culture”). Perhaps this is hyperbole to generate discussion about our (this community of readers) reading habits, or to illustrate just how systemic and institutionalized the problem of misogyny is; but if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly.

In the rest of this passage, Spampinato suggests that reading a number of texts that include, for example, rape fantasies, results in a kind of acceptance of or resignation to rape culture. If this is true, is that not a fault of the teaching and study of literature, rather than the literature itself? Perhaps that is too fine a distinction, but for those few remaining high school programs teaching classic literature, the question would seem highly relevant. It reminds me much of the debates over teaching books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people object to based on its use of racial slurs (despite that fact that reading in context would and does reveal a great deal about why Twain chooses to use those foul terms, and about history itself). If “we choose to teach our children” literature that is violent or fascinated with white male sexuality, does that mean we accept those features as good, necessary, or normal? In other words, does “reading make it so?” (Et tu, “violent video games create violent people”?) Do we look at every other feature or theme in literature independent of its context, whether classic or some other genre, and suggest that reading a lot of it makes us think that only those issues are important or that only that way of thinking is the right one? Or is teaching these texts an opportunity to have these very discussions? To reject them, question them, teach alongside them? And is that happening? 

Spampinato gets to these same questions near the end of her essay. She asks us to think about why we almost intuitively recommend Catcher in the Rye to a teenager, but not The Bell Jar. She suggests that we do not need to eliminate all these white males from the canon, but we do need to change the conversation and we do need to add more diverse voices. With all of these suggestions, I heartily concur. But just as we should avoid unexamined and habit-based recommendations in literature (casually or in the classroom), so too must we be cautious in suggesting, especially without evidence^ and in this age of anti-education, anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” that the activity of reading literature is damaging us morally, socially, or otherwise. That seems, to me, a leap too far. 

*Her analysis of this theme in the texts she provides is interesting and provocative. I would like to read more.

^No evidence is presented that incels are reading classic literature/literary fiction of the types addressed in the article and no evidence is provided that reading literature causes negative socio-cultural behaviors (indeed, most studies seem to suggest the opposite). For a comprehensive study of this phenomenon and why “the answer is not simple,” see Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (John Hunt 2017).

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Culture, Essay, Gender Studies, Non-Fiction

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.

The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.

What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.

An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).

But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:

“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).  

In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.

Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?

And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.

“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.

Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.

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Essay, Feminism, Non-Fiction, Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race

I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, but I do remember thinking, “I need to read this soon.” As a white male feminist, I am always trying to listen more and talk less, both about race and about women’s issues. I don’t mean that I’m silent about issues (far from it). I talk about equality, social justice, etc. all the time, and rather loudly, to the chagrin of many of my social media followers, I’m sure; but I prefer to listen to the voices of women when there is a conversation about women’s issues, to the voices of black men and women when there is a conversation about race, to the voices of native Americans when there is a conversation about indigenous peoples’ rights, etc. So, I have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, by the rampant misogyny exposed by our most recent presidential election, and by the racism and white nationalism that is becoming ever more public and present in our society, to make conscious efforts to listen harder and to read more, so that I can be informed about others’ experiences and what I can do to be an ally (the same consideration I hope folks give to LGBTQIAA+ issues).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a title from an intelligent and accomplished black feminist woman who said she has stopped talking to white people about race. Who needs to hear the message more than white people? How could she do this? Why is she giving up? All of these rather selfish and short-sighted questions arose immediately upon seeing the title, so I purchased the book in hopes to find answers. What I got, however, was not just the writer’s rationale for turning her attention elsewhere, but a host of thoughts on issues about intersectionality, race, gender, class, and British history. In addition, there was excellent insight as to what I can do as an ally, personally, but also how I can encourage positive ally behavior in others. I don’t know if these last benefits were even intended by Eddo-Lodge, but I hope to take the lessons and run with them anyway.

The book itself stems from a 2014 essay that the author first published on her blog. So many people begged her not to stop talking. Others completely agreed, understood, and supported her. And still others tried to turn the conversation and make it about themselves (no surprise to anyone with a history of feminist thought or activism, right?) I think the most important feature to come from the expansion of the post into a more formal, critical work, is the exposure of Britain’s deeply-rooted institutional history with racism. In many ways, Eddo-Lodge’s analysis of British history reminded me of what our own history of race has looked like in the United States, especially our issues with structural racism and the misunderstandings about it. The real damaging power of racism is not what happens on the individual level, but within all the systems that our citizenry, society, government, politics, and economy rely on to function.

In every area, white people (and white men, especially) have had an advantage. But the conversation keeps stalling at the point where individuals feel targeted. When we mention “white privilege” or “male privilege,” to someone who benefits from these, for example, they often take it as a personal attack and feel offended that we are blaming them for something they have no control over; on the contrary, where the conversation needs to go, Eddo-Lodge says, is beyond the personal and to the structural: we are not talking about your racism or your gender, but about the systems in which we all exist and where some people have a distinct advantage because of race and gender (and class). So, how do we help advance the conversation and encourage people to move beyond their first reactions based on their own personal and identifiable experiences (I was poor, too – I worked three jobs – I paid for my own college – nobody gave me the promotion, I worked 10 years for it –  my family came from nothing – etc. etc.), and toward the bigger issues?

I’m not sure Eddo-Lodge answers the question. I’m not sure there is any single answer to this question. But perhaps writing books like this one, reading books like this one, and encouraging others, who would not normally pick up books like this one to do so, is as good a start as we can possibly make. Have the hard conversations. Welcome people into the difficult and sensitive conversations.

Michael Oatman once wrote, “it’s odd to educate oneself away from one’s past.” History, written by the winners, is a powerful tool, and it hasn’t often told the whole story. Maybe the best thing that allies can do is to begin helping others, and themselves, to fill in the gaps and widen the lens. I hope people like Reni Eddo-Lodge keep talking, and writing, because their voices are crucial to this goal, and to the eventual possibility for a more just society.

Notable Quotes

“When I talk about white people, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (87).

“White support looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations. Support looks like white advocacy for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces. White people, you need to talk to other white people about race” (215-16).

“Combing through the literature on clashes between black people and the police, I noticed another clash – one of perspective. While some people called what happened . . . a riot, others called it an uprising . . . I think there’s truth in both perspectives, and that the extremity of a riot only ever reflects the extreme living conditions of said rioters. Language is important” (53).

“When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people. The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands easily, like a water-snake toy” (64).

“I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional [racism] because I think it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions” (64).

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Aristotle, Classics, Criticism, Essay, Philosophy

Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Biography, Criticism, David Shields, E.M. Forster, Essay, J.D. Salinger, Literary Theory, Mini-reviews, Non-Fiction, Shane Salerno, Terry Eagleton, Theory

Mini-Reviews: Salinger, Forster, and Eagleton

Hi, folks!  I have been pressed for time, lately (lately? Please. This is nothing new, and we all know it) and I am way behind on reviews.  I “definitely” have four book reviews outstanding and “technically” have another three as well (texts I assigned to my composition students, which I have naturally read and should review at some point…).  Anyway, the only way for me to get to them, at this point, is with some mini-reviews or less-than-organized thoughts.  I recently read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, too, for which I do hope to provide a full review (because it is on multiple of my challenge lists for 2013).

The following three are all works of non-fiction (one biography and two literary theory type texts) so I feel it is somewhat appropriate to present them together.  Here we go!

1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno — 4.0 out of 4.0

This is perhaps one of the best biographies that I have ever read.  No, in fact, it is probably the best biography I have ever read, as the other works which come close, in my mind, are actually autobiographies (Mark Twain’s, for instance).  The authors spent eight years researching Salinger’s life and works in order to get at the truth behind this brilliant but troubled writer, and their exhaustive studies have resulted in a masterful portrait and new understanding of the man who was Holden Caulfield.

The book is divided into four parts, and these four parts directly correspond to the four steps of Advaida Vedanta Hinduism.  These four steps included “Apprenticeship” (Brahmacharya); “Householder Duties” (Garhasthya); “Withdrawal from Society” (Vanaprasthya); and “Renunciation of the World” (Sanyasa).  Separating the biography into these sections, which clearly, then, correspond to chronological portions of Salinger’s life (personal and writing lives), helps the reader to make sense out of the mystery that was J.D. Salinger.  Why did he retreat from society?  But, more than this, Shields and Salerno dig deeper and expose the sometimes hypocrisy of Salinger’s self-exile – including the ways he would stay in touch with the world, though on the fringes, and the moments when he would reappear for just long enough, and in only the “necessary” ways, in order to refuel the flame of public interest.

What is truly wonderful, too, about this biography is that it is not titled too far toward fanatic praise (such as the Paul Alexander biography) nor toward outright personal animosity (such as the works of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, as well as the Ian Hamilton biography).  Ultimately, the two biographers, here, present a notably balanced picture of the man and writer.  Much of Salinger’s history and personal relationships are either related for the first time in this work or presented with corroborating evidence such as has been missing in previous works, due to the fact that no one would speak about Salinger while he was alive.

Some have experienced mixed feelings about whether or not to read this biography, as it seems to be an invasion of the privacy Salinger held so dear.  I would argue, however, and I think the two authors of this work would agree, that Salinger did not intend or expect his life and work to go unexamined forever – just while he was alive.  Part of his religious teachings included the commitment to one’s art, without the fame or fortune which might come with it.  Evidence suggests that he did continue writing, and likely very much, over a long period of time, but he chose not to publish that writing for  variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his religious beliefs (though there are other elements to this decision, as Shields and Salerno mention).  Ultimately, it seems Salinger left instructions for many works to be published following a certain posthumous waiting period.  Since this is the case, one can, I believe, feel comfortable reading this intimate, sometimes expose, knowing that Salinger was likely perfectly aware that, following his death, his secret world would come out.

The structure of the work might work more for some than for others, as it is set up similar to a screenplay (which is perhaps appropriate, considering the documentary and the book were planned together and developed together, as a kind of single entity).  It worked well for me in certain parts, but at other times I found myself wishing for a traditional narrative form.  Ultimately, though, I find myself with very little to criticize. As a fan of Salinger (so much so that this very blog’s name is inspired by his work), I can and do highly recommend it.


157995922. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster — 3.75 out of 4.0

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel heralded the now enormous scholarship on theory and criticism of the novel and the writing process. In this work, which, like Virginia Woolf’s incredible A Room of One’s Own is actually a series of lectures, Forster lays out his now infamous set of seven elements of the novel: Story, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern, and Rhythm.  This is also the work responsible for bringing to readers and writers the idea of “flat” versus “round” characters — yes, those terms, unlike many, are actually traceable to a source!

In his lectures, Forster discusses in length, and from many perspectives, the differences between readers and critics, including their different purposes, the approaches they do (and should?) take, and also their abilities.  He says, for instance:

“The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events i the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency” (13-14).

This passage, I think, captures the essence of what Forster is trying to do, which is to separate the critic and the artist – to acknowledge the importance of a more artistic approach to reading, rather than a technical or historical one – to validate, in fact, the personal relationship a reader has with individual texts.

He does much more than this, of course.  He is teaching writers how to write, without having them write a word.  He gives numerous examples, from Dickens to Proust, from Woolf to DeFoe, to explain how and why certain writers do certain things.  He examines beauty and fantasy – he explains, like none other have been able to, how Virginia Woolf is indeed a “fantasist” who writes with “deliberate bewilderment” (19).  Why was the world of beauty closed to Dickens?  Why is it so hard to define the term “story” and, upon defining it, what is its importance?  Why do we tell stories and how are we more truthful, more connected, in fiction than in real life?

Some of Forster’s greatest insights, I think, come in the section on “People.”  He says that “a character in a book is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden” (63).  From here, he explains why this is and how it both strengthens a work and benefits the reader’s experience with it.  “A novel is a work of art,” after all, “with its own laws, which are not those of daily life.”  Whether we are reading a work of fantasy or realism, naturalism or postmodernism, what we should be looking for is the rules of the particular world at hand, and how are those rules governed, followed, or broken?  For me, this approach has opened a number of doors – has made it much easier for me to accept the unacceptable (except, of course, in stories which are just downright bad).

In addition to specific evaluations like the one above, Forster also discusses elements such as allegory, mysticism, and symbolism, among others, with direct references to works and writers who employ them well.  He even compares to writers or works who might both be mystics, for instance, and talks about how they do what they do – how it is different, perhaps, but equally effective.  For a student of literature, the approach is, I think, wonderful and helpful.

Some of the references are outdated, and some of the language, too, but though these lectures happened decades ago, one can understand why they were the foundation for schools of thought which have cropped up and built upon them ever since.  For any serious reader, Aspects of the Novel is a must.


160732983. How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton — 3.5 out of 4.0

I just love Terry Eagleton.  He certainly will not appeal to everyone (in many of his works he is overtly political, which some readers will find put-offish, even if they agree with his politics, but especially if they don’t.  I do happen to agree with most of his politics, and I think the guy is hilarious.  And also a damn good writer – engaging, entertaining, and yet seriously knowledgeable.

This particular work, his most recent, is like a user-friendly introduction to literature and to many of his other works.  He, like Forster, separates his text into themes: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value.  Within each section, he elaborates on how to effectively read and understand certain aspects of these themes by giving great examples of writers doing it well.

Of particular interest, to me, were his explorations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (found in the section on Interpretation) and also his exploration of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (found in the section on Character).  In both cases, his examination of the texts and how they work added much to what I had already taken away from them in my original readings (or to what I understood about the writer’s particular talents).  In fact, it made me want to re-read both right away – which, sadly, I haven’t found the time to do!

Eagleton also gives some helpful, if not overly academic distinctions between “a book” and “a text,” for instance.  Those who have traveled far in their literary education may find this book somewhat superficial; however, for those who are newly interested in literary studies or who are avid readers but do not necessarily know how to “talk the talk” – how to dissect a work of fiction, this could be a wonderful place to start.  And, honestly, even for those with decades of experience, many of Eagleton’s examples are witty and transferable (I am using some in my own classes in the future, for instance) and his dissections of classic novels are always, always worth the ride.


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Book Review, British Literature, Essay, Favorites, Gender Studies, Literature, Modern March, Modernism, Non-Fiction, Virginia Woolf, writing

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

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