Having now had two primary encounters with ladyblogs, besides being a lurking reader at mostly Jezebel (first the Hairpin experience, and then recently, participating in the Jezebel 25) I read both of Molly F's pieces with interest. I think she had me to a point, specifically when she wrote about the interview, which I feel perhaps she mischaracterized, or did not read with much context or nuance. I'd like to wade in a little bit and see if I can contribute to, or extend this conversation, which I think is an important one, perhaps at the heart of online feminism, in all of its messy, ambivalent, nascent and still-forming state.
I think the inquiry at the center of all of this, which both Molly Fischer and myself are both invested in, is whether there can be a different sort of discourse on blogs written by women, and whether "feminine" language, which in Feminism 101 we were always taught as bad, anti-feminist, (nice, polite, superlative, emotional) can be empowering or not. Fischer seems invested in this possible utopian (Internet?) community. She writes:
The personal, the appealing, the intimate: these are qualities that have been traditionally associated with female writing, and I want to help confirm their worth. But what if I feel most intimate and exposed when I’m making an argument? What if I feel I’m revealing myself when I try to analyze how I experience the world? What if I find it empowering to create space for disagreement?
I am a little unclear how the last question in the list ("What if I find it empowering to create space for disagreement?") fits in with the previous ones, but I want to address both, because I think they're both really important. First off, however, nothing utopian happens in terms of discourse on the Internet, certainly not when you allow commenting, which is also the very mechanism that allows for discourse and community on the Internet (and I do wish, among the little magazines that have either exclusively online presences, or like n+1, have begun publishing some items online, that there was more of an attempt of a two-sided discourse, either through allowing comments, or soliciting or publishing rebuttals. If it doesn't happen online, and it's specifically about an online discussion, how are you really participating in a discourse?). In comments sections on some male-run blogs, gloves come off, people hide behind anonymity or snark, and for this reason I have always wanted to keep FFIMS, this blog, a safe space, where there should be room for disagreement, but always knowing that commenting publicly online, is a vulnerable experience.
On to that vulnerability, which was basically the catalysis and subject of how Edith Zimmerman and I came to have a conversation on The Hairpin, a moment I think of as certainly not without its flaws, but ultimately a cathartic and healing, yes, discourse. The literary contest with which Edith Zimmerman reviewed (or really judged) Green Girl was called The Tournament of Books, it was not simply a review on The Morning News site, as Molly Fischer characterizes. The idea of the ToB is to mimic the March madness basketball competition, and so it has a competitive, sometimes bloodthirsty vibe, which encourages gleeful audience (reader) participation that is a bit carnivalesque in nature, that might be fun, but isn't really about careful discourse and conversation about literary culture and books (although that can happen as well). There are celebrity judges like, this year, Will Wheaton, judges are encouraged to use whatever method possible to choose the winner, I believe one year, the winner of a round was chosen by the judge throwing both books across her yard. So it often encourages what Heidi Julavits in her inaugural Believer essay has characterized as snark, a negative dismissal of a book mostly for the witty language, the quippiness of it (Emily Gould has also written about this sort of quippiness as being a prime currency for writing for the larger blogs like for Gawker Media, one can cultivate a sort of flip cool-kid vibe, I understand this as well from experience writing and editing an alt-weekly).
Anyway, Edith Z's review of Green Girl was at times funny (recently being in London, I laughed at her quip: why couldn't she just read a magazine? in terms of my eternal claustrophobic scenes on public transportation within the novel), but it wasn't really a thorough review, and among other things, didn't mention that there was a main character of a narrator watching the main character, that she took issues with within the judgement, or that perhaps you didn't have to sympathize or like the main character. Nor is Edith Zimmerman a book reviewer (not that you need any bonafides to be a book reviewer, I'm just saying that I think of her in her mode at The Hairpin more as a smart, socially observant comedic writer, like her now-famous Woman Laughing Alone with Salad stock-photo piece.)*
Not to be all Paul Virilio about it, but an issue with this (and a larger issue of The Internet + Discourse) is not only tone, but SPEED. As my partner/media critic John helped illumunate for me in our Gchat this AM, a novel especially requires very careful (front to back) consideration, differing from the fast wit of the more mainstream blogosphere, which is about making quick connections around the Internet, and responding quickly.
But the thing is, The Tournament of Books contest definitely was a coliseum atmosphere, especially when regarding my little deer of a character and novel, Green Girl, which commentators mostly just viscerally hated (this often happens when a work of experimental literature, which has different goals and attentions than a more traditional narrative, somehow squeaks into the mainstream). So I was feeling pretty wounded from that experience. And then I saw how a few commentators also tore into Edith Zimmerman's review (although I have to say, I think that my capabilities as a novelist and Green Girl got the bulk of the criticism). I realized after reading some of the comments that both of us were feeling "intimate and exposed," as Molly Fischer puts it, and as opposed to just dismissing her, and her review, I wanted to reach out to her, as I had always admired her and thought she was absolutely whip-smart, and so I emailed her and asked if she would be interested in doing a free giveaway of Green Girl on The Hairpin, and then she quite graciously said - hey! this is totally weird! but let's talk about things and do an interview!
How can Molly Fischer think of this as anything less than a feminist, empowering, moment? I don't think of what we were doing as necessarily needing to create more of a "space for disagreement" (even though that space is of course totally necessary for discourse) but acknowledging that perhaps that previous space, on The Morning News site, wasn't one in which the discourse was happening at the thoughtful, careful, intimate, space we would have preferred, given each of our feminist ethos, where the other's feelings were taken into consideration? I think moving that conversation to The Hairpin was ultimately cathartic, and that was really the goal of such a conversation, as we talked about how weird it is to be talked about on The Internet, and the experience of being picked apart, and I think mostly recognized each others' vulnerability and humanity. And talked about vanity, and reading, and great female writers.
I really honestly don't see Edith Zimmerman as backing down or muting dissent in our conversation. I think she was, admirably, opening the space up for discourse. And acknowledging that perhaps she didn't read Green Girl super thoughtfully, but nowhere does she then recount and say she liked the book. And really, I've always been a firm believer that even if you are only reading a book on one level, if you don't fucking like a book, you don't like a book. But there is also a level, when looking at a work of literature or art that you still don't like, where you can see new aspects of the work, or understand an author's motivation, and that is being critical, which should always be a continuing conversation, and not something that's absolute and authoritative. She mostly asked me about my experiences of being an author, and having this book out, and her tone was humbled, as Molly Fischer points out (saying "you wrote a novel, I only wrote a review"), but I think because she was trying to acknowledge that on some level she was appreciative of the WORK that goes into a novel, even one she didn't dig, personally.
Do I think of my conversation with Edith Zimmerman as a huge moment in literary discourse? No. I think of it, for myself personally, as a great moment between girls, or women, or whatever the fuck you want to call us, in which we acknowledge vulnerability and the bizarreness of judging/being judged and had a conversation, about literature, about what we want out of reading, a conversation, that yes, had lots of FEELINGS. And I really don't think Edith Zimmerman was pandering to me. I think we were being careful with each other, and approached each other with mutual respect. We weren't going to have a great debate about literature - but we did have a discussion about reading and reader's expectations. It was a reparative conversation. I don't think reparative has to equal "pandering."
I really wish that Molly Fischer's first essay, on n+1, had been treated with such respect and openness. I thought she made some interesting points as to the dividedness and complexity of online feminism which I think points at the dividedness and complexity and messiness of current feminism. Because sometimes, we can be feminists, and still fucking want to watch kitty videos. And sometimes we can be feminists but want to spend all of our time looking up Nars blush colors on Makeup Alley. We are living in an interesting, vibrant, crazy time to be a girl or woman who's come of age post- the Second or maybe even Third Wave of Feminism. I feel the ladyblogs reflect that. I don't think we can read them on the same level as the women's magazines Betty Friedan, Naomi Wolf decried. Not only do I think the ladyblogs are on the whole more democratic and anti-corporate (while recognizing the commodity of pageviews), I also think it's absolutely possible now to be an oppositional consumer, as opposed to the current critical model (Tiqqun, etc.) of looking at girls as passive victims of capitalism. And as the excellent Helen McClory pointed out, in both essays Molly Fischer really doesn't take into consideration the idea of play, that there is a playfulness on this site, this play at being girly, reflected in the language and rhythm of the conversation. And yes, I think a niceness, that's often I think a carefulness towards others' vulnerability, a BFF thing, maybe. But I don't think this is a bad thing, and I think is actually a flawed yet positive outcome of online feminist discourse.
As Jane Hu writes on her Tumblr (also make sure to read her excellent more recent comment/ary that sums up a lot of my feelings) :
Some of us will entirely denounce girlishness, while others strive to reclaim it, and the rest of us left wondering if this is the moment where we’re supposed to choose. (No, no, it doesn’t have to be.)
(Can I also just say that recently I have been expanding my blogroll, as I'm wandering onto all of these other feminist blog communities, that I wasn't even aware of when I wrote Heroines? And how really thrilling it is that there's all of this feminist discourse, so much of it affective, personal, sometimes oozey, is happening online? Molly Fischer focuses on the ladyblogs, but there's so much more out there, so much worth celebrating).
I do understand what Molly F. says when she says she couldn't easily inhabit a chatty (girlish?) tone when writing this potential Hairpin piece (I too, am not sure I could write for a ladyblog, but that's probably because they're often quite witty, and I feel I almost turned off part of that writer in me when I stopped writing magazine and alt-weekly journalism, and feel in this strange in-between space). A lot of writing online, or anywhere, is about inhabiting voices. That said, I found myself having the opposite experience, recently, when I was supposed to write a piece for n+1, a publication I very much admire (like for example Elizabeth Gumport's recent quite brilliant piece on Chris Kraus, my editor of Heroines). But I found myself unable to imagine inhabiting the contentious tone that is maybe expected in scholarly public intellectual discourse, that Molly Fischer inhabits in her piece, that is very debate club to me, and in that way more of a masculine rhetorical mode, that I think can often also shut down any sort of discourse, unless you can play that argumentative game. I like how online we can counter with our feelings and our experiences, the affective reading - that it's about an emotionalism as well as an intellectualism.
I do think sometimes nuanced debate gets lost in exclamatory or superlative statements - I LOVE this book, etc., the feeling of being a fan more than a critic. This is maybe a trap I fall into? On the blog? But I also think there's something really wonderful about refusing to use a more patriarchal language. And recognizing the validity of feelings in criticism and discourse.
Part of the discomfort I have with the authoritative stance is this pretense of knowing, of already known. The thesis statement. What about a feminist epistemology? Or even an epistemology of the girl? Isn't a mode of not knowing, of doubt, of openness, of play, a more potentially generative and generous one? Why can't this girlish epistemology also be a feminist one? Why do these two ideas have to be absolutely opposed?
And to further question myself, I don't think I'm saying when I say that Edith Zimmerman is not a book reviewer, that she does not have legitimacy or authority, or that having legitimacy or authority is necessary to write about books (in fact, I think I'm saying the opposite). I'm saying that she at that point, did not make a lifetime out of carefully examining a book and then writing about it. Her Tournament of Books judgement was flip, cursory, a bit careless, as befitting the tournament's ethos and expectations. By contrast, in our interview - she was open, doubting, engaged, admitting to not knowing - I feel this is a much better, much more feminist mode.
I do think Molly F. makes a very good point, in the first half of her most recent essay, that in many ways she was disciplined by an occasionally openly hostile commentariat on Hairpin that made ad hominem comments about her, most likely out of a protective impulse of feeling like their community was attacked, although I don't know why she conflates their comments with Edith Zimmerman, like she is responsible for them. I do think there were interesting oppositional essays to Molly's, the one I can think of is by Emily Gould on her blog. But this is not good for women or feminism, this idea that we have to be nice all the time, and that there is no room for dissent or criticism, and if someone is critical, they are "mean." And then in defense, to be casually cruel, to be a mean girl, which shuts off any conversation. It's not a good thing. But I don't think necessarily, a space of disagreement, needs to mimic the old models or more masculine rhetoric/language. I don't think it's necessarily true that this "clubby intimacy" she disdains is entirely feigned. I think, I feel, that a lot of this intimacy is totally authentic. The Internet, for girls' Tumblrs, for ladyblogs, is often a space of consensus and community-building. That said, there is room for discourse and discussion, and debate, within that, there has to be.
For some reason I'm thinking about when I first really met the Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers, who I had friended on Facebook because I LOVED Tatiana the Anonymous Model and I thought she was smart as hell and wanted her to read Green Girl. During that whole hullabaloo centered around the young writer Marie Calloway, the discourse around her work that has often troubled me, mostly because it seems to be either really mean or overly puffed-up and superlative, I posted on my FB wall a link to a blog post I wrote about the discourse around MC (mostly focusing on the discourse, not really the first story), and Jenna responded, and we proceeded to have a lovely conversation, right there on my FB wall, where we at times absolutely disagreed with each other, about memoir vs. fiction, ethics, good writing, etc. but really learned from each other's points, and were ultimately totally chill and cheerful about it. The reason we recently had a conversation at Bookforum online is because the managing editor, Dave O'Neill, read that FB conversation and admired I think the spirit of our discourse.
That said, I totally admire a writer like Jenna Sauers, as well as a critic like Molly Fischer, because I have sometimes felt that I have personally muted dissent online, when I would like to be more critical, but have felt bad or like I want to be nice, *especially* when writing about contemporary writers, *especially* if those writers are female, and so have been less critical than I should be. That's not great. But I do think recognizing intimacy and vulnerability on the Internet, and criticism, is really important, maybe more important. That said, I have waded into the muck of online dissent, many times, and I'm probably wary to get involved because it can be grueling, and quite personal, and exhausting, to be involved in online conversations that sometimes go for the throat. I have had MANY arguments online, specifically over at HTML Giant, that have sometimes grown quite heated, and personal. I personally prefer commenting and having discourse over at a safe space, and I have always liked to think of Frances Farmer is My Sister as a safe space, where people can voice their ideas, AND their dissent, sometimes merged with personal history, emotions, feelings, that I also see echoed on other feminist blog communities. That said, I don't like conversations that seem pedagogical, or debate-team, or contentious. I don't allow bullying here. There's enough toxic spaces on the Internet. I have had theoretical dissenting discussions with people here, that I think was about listening and respecting. I think there's another, maybe more girly, or intimate, way to discuss, one that recognizes and respects the other, despite disagreeing. I do often get quite lovey-dovey and superlative with the men and women who comment here, much like I imagine Hairpin commenters get. But I disagree with Molly Fischer that this heartfeltness is all a false sheen of chumminess. It is perhaps codified on ladyblogs, but I don't think that makes it necessarily less authentic, or probably it's more complicated than that.
But I truly love and respect the community of writers and readers and critics who comment here. The end of Heroines is basically an oozey love-poem to them. Maybe that's a girly way to write criticism. I don't know. I like my way.
Molly Fischer, you are welcome to comment here, any time you like. I think this conversation needs to be continued. If you don't mind me greeting you cheerfully with an exclamation point.