Strolling through those colleges past those ancient halls the roughness of the present seemed smoothed away; the body seemed contained in a miraculous glass cabinet through which no sound could penetrate, and the mind, freed from any contact with facts (unless one trespassed on the turf again), was at liberty to settle down upon whatever meditation was in harmony with the moment.
Spent a really charming day in Oxford with Caroline and got to attend a sweet baby shower for Emily. It is a majestic, lush place. Woolf was on the money (and yet you can still feel those remnants of exclusion and separation).
(The sky really was this insanely beautiful. This is not a joke.)
Kelsey’s bachelorette weekend in the misty mountains = Lots of good, edifying conversations; lots of loving on the very sexy bride-to-be. I felt like it was really intense woman time, because it rained every day and so we were all stuck in a tiny house together, which fostered many good conversations, many gin and tonics, many viewings of many very bad movies*.
Even though I very much missed my husband and my German shepherd dog, it was very pleasant to keep the exclusive company of women for a chunk of time. Being cooped up in the cabin with 10 other women made me think of Emily’s poem about our harem, the girls’ bedroom at my parents’ house—a harem in the sense of a separate sanctum for women, not as a storehouse for one’s concubines. A separate, exclusively female space, but not A Room of One’s Own—rather, a female space intended for community, for sharing. I liked how this weekend felt like that.
I had also just started The Second Sex, which is maybe why the weekend hit me the way it did. Even amid Simone’s tangents about the implications of asexual organisms on historical feminism, I felt content, easygoing, unencumbered. How nice it is to be a lady, to keep the company of ladies.
We went on a long, beautiful hike up to Carter Mountain on Saturday with Win, Bo, and new friends Joseph, Lauren, and William. The day was a flawless example of the beauty of this area in early autumn.
Remember when you were 12 and you and your friends would exchange e-mail personality quizzes? Or you’d post them on your baby MySpace or Xanga pages? Well, this is kind of like that. Except for semi-grown-up bloggers. (Found at the lovely blog The Lighthouse Keeper.)
Ambition: To live on a small working farm with my husband and raise a few children and a pack of dogs. I would also like to continue my education as a writer and editor, whether that includes graduate school or moving up the publishing industry ladder.
Bad habit: Judging people or things extremely quickly. Flying into microscopic rages when tiny things don’t go my way.
City: Well, Charlottesville, because we love it here, but I think my spirit city is Denver. I adore Denver. I think my body gets a rush of endorphins whenever I remember my summer there.
Education: B.A., summa cum laude, English and Journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill. Currently engaging in wishful thinking about a master’s degree in English.
Food: Mainly fruit. Not enough vegetables, but I eat them daily (lately, we’re into asparagus, kale, potatoes, and bell peppers). I could also live on a steady diet of pasta and cheese.
Guilty pleasures: Trawling breed rescue agencies for dogs I can’t yet adopt. And Justin Timberlake.
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina, although I tend to claim Davidson, because it’s more interesting and it’s where my parents currently live.
Ice cream: The Four C’s from Chaps Ice Cream on the downtown mall (chocolate, cherries, chocolate chips). Or anything that involves chocolate.
Jonesing for: A dog! Or an unlimited supply of perfect watermelon.
Lookalike: Hm. I don’t know. My theory is that people can’t really differentiate the faces of women with curly hair, and so that’s why people tell me I look like Emmy Rossum or Keri Russell. It’s just because we all have curly hair. We don’t actually share a resemblance. I wish my lookalike was Gwyneth. Or SWINTON.
Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums will always have my heart, 100 percent.
Nicknames: Abba, Shabbage, Shabbarge, Flabby, Shabs, Abigail, Abberini, Abs, Bob.
Obsession: Making lists. Dogs. Reading, reading, reading.
Perfume: I don’t wear it that often, but my sisters got me a bottle of perfume from the Tokyo Milk line called French Kiss. I like it. It makes me feel glamorous.
Quirk: Pulling my ears back like a dog when someone makes me angry.
Regrets: Not being more open-minded and generous in high school.
Starbucks: No, thanks.
Talent: Reading! I can read real good.
University: UNC-Chapel Hill.
Vacation: Anywhere in the mountains. We live in the Blue Ridge mountains now, but I still can’t get enough of them. My perfect place is a great field at the foot of a row of folded mountains.
Wine: Malbec or a dry white wine. I still can’t remember the names of the white wines I actually like…
X: X to living in fear.
Zen: I have a few notions of zen. 1) Outdoors with my husband and my (future) dog; 2) Reading or writing in a room of my own; 3) The Compline service at the Chapel of the Cross.
OK, now it’s your turn. Go! See, isn’t it fun to be in middle school again?
Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)
Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?
As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.
Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.
It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:
Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”
It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.
This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.
Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.
I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?
And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.
So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)
Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.
— A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
If I am honest with myself, it was this paragraph from A Room of One’s Own that inspired my honors thesis on Woolf. Her chain of argument was fascinating to me, particularly when I saw it woven into her novels. Women have been poor–in station and in economy–for thousands of years. Women’s poverty has a direct correlation to a woman’s ability to create. And if women are to create, women must have a space to call their own. A strange series of points, perhaps, but I ended up writing about 120 pages on these basic ideas. My thesis turned out to be a statement on mothers as artists in Woolf’s novels and I think this paragraph is largely to blame.
I am returning to these ideas now, nearly nine months out of the university bubble, because they still ring true to me. In fact, I feel like I can see these ideas more clearly even now that I have been removed from the thrilling–if naive–atmosphere of amateur academia. Living and interacting with “real” women (not just my undergraduate peers), I feel like I have actually met the women that Woolf was writing about.
The women that I interact with are not necessarily hindered by poverty, but they do still face the limitations of privacy and space. Most of the married women I know have their homes as their personal dominions–they make the decorating decisions, they upholster the furniture, they keep it clean–but being an “Angel of the House” is entirely different from having a room of one’s own. Woolf writes about this as well; she points out that men may have their libraries and studies, to which they may retreat without interruption, but a woman has no such space. Even in the drawing room, she is open to constant interruption and distraction. No intense creative work can be accomplished in the family room or kitchen or even in one’s bedroom.
Therefore, women must have their own rooms–their own studies or work spaces. I feel like this is especially important for stay-at-home moms.
I think of my own mother. She sacrificed her career and her personal interests to stay at home with us and homeschool the four of us. Even though she always insists that she’s “not creative,” anyone who knows her knows that’s not true. She has a gifted eye for interior design and is a talented chef, gardener, and dresser. She fits the pattern of a lot of Woolf’s mothers, actually: the women who are creatively gifted but are forced by their domestic lifestyles to seek creative expression through alternative, non-traditional means (like caring about paint swatches, fabrics, and the symmetry of plants).
Mom never had a room of her own. How could she? At one point, she had four children under the age of 7. When would she even find the time to retreat? Dad had his study and his garage and now, his Man Cave, but Mom didn’t have a space of her own. She made our house a beautiful, open, and calming environment, but I found myself wondering where she went to regenerate from all of this beauty-making.
Today, now that most of her children have gone, I feel like she has made her garden her “room.” Dad built her these impressive tiered plots on the sides of the house. She finds a lot of joy in making things grow and digging in the dirt. On sunny days, you can find her rooting around in her gardens, taming plants and fretting about voles. On wet or cold days, she lurks around the windows and shouts at the squirrels who dare to disturb her bird feeders and bird baths. (Aside: I got an e-mail from Kelsey that said that Mom had recently acquired a rather extravagant birdhouse; Dad has been calling it the “Ritz-Carlton” of birdhouses. Apparently the Ritz-Carlton birdhouse has also brought out Mom’s inner elitist; Kels caught her chiding an ugly cardinal for daring to take residence there. The drab bird was not fit for such a home. Not fit, I say!)
I find myself rejoicing when mothers get rooms of their own; I feel like it’s a victory for womankind. I think of my friend Catherine’s mother, especially. Janet went back to law school after her kids had left the home and is now a devoted student and tireless advocate for the care and conservation of a local lake, Falls Lake. She turned Catherine’s old room into her study and it is a paean to Rooms of One’s Own everywhere; it is spacious and light, outfitted with a wide desk and a comfortable armchair and a basket of books and magazines. On the door, she even has a sign that reads, “The Falls Lake Center for Social Justice.”
In my own life, I have experienced the deep necessity of a Room of One’s Own. This opportunity came, quite appropriately, when I was thick in my thesis. During my senior year, I moved into a big house on a lovely street with six other girls. Yes, six. I shared a detached shed in the back with Caroline. The Shoebox, as we came to call it, was a gross, mostly dilapidated, and occasionally stressful place to live (construction at ALL hours of the day, not kidding. The dump trucks arrived at 4:30 a.m.).
My sanity was a bit wobbly my senior year, but the one thing that saved it was my closet in the main house. There was a white walk-in closet on the second floor of the house. Some of the other girls offered it to Caroline and me, since we definitely got the shaft as far as living arrangements were concerned. Caroline said she primarily studied in her room and so I was only too happy to take up residence there. I borrowed a tiny desk from my then future-in-laws and outfitted the room with books, stationery, pretty photographs, and an orchid. I did all of my best writing from that little room and I daresay I spent more time there than I did anywhere else. It absolutely saved my senior year and gave me unparalleled peace of mind. I took to calling it “ARMO” (A Room of My Own) and the moniker stuck.
Our current apartment is too small to accommodate my having another ARMO. We do have a small room with a desk in it, but this space has become Guion’s, since it is primarily occupied with his musical instruments, tools, and beer supplies. I keep my stationery and calligraphy supplies in there, but I don’t use the space that often, since I don’t have sole possession of it. But one day, one day, I keep telling myself, I’ll have an ARMO again. And then, perhaps, I will have a dog’s chance of writing poetry…