A Moment of Jen
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Wednesday, October 03, 2007
posted by Jen at 10/03/2007 09:57:00 AM

Lots of talk on the blogosphere about what Oprah’s next pick might be (she's announcing it on Friday).

I am going to play it safe and vote for the white guy who’s already sold a bazillion copies. Who’s with me?

Meanwhile, it's been fascinating to follow the response toward Katha Pollitt’s latest collection of essays, which includes her now-notorious “web-stalking” piece, first published in The New Yorker (it’s the one that begins “when my boyfriend left me, I went a little crazy,” and includes details of Pollitt Googling her ex, perusing online photos of his girlfriend’s apartment, and trying to figure out his email password).

The response to Pollitt, so far, has not been kind. Basically, it boils down to: Katha Pollitt, award-winning poet, columnist and pre-eminent political thinker, is one of our heroines, and we do not want to see her whining about boy trouble.

Pollitt, writes Toni Bentley, “has decided to wave her dirty laundry (among which she found unidentified striped panties)…it’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books, or has lost it entirely.” And when Toni Bentley, author of a paean to the joys of anal sex, dings you for the overshare, suggests that you might be a crazy opportunist, and breaks out the specter of the vagina dentata, you got trouble.

Rebecca Traister has an excellent overview of the Pollitt backlash in Salon, in which she points out that there’s a double standard at work.

Boys can expose themselves in print, going on about everything from their addiction to Internet porn to their obsession with fake breasts, writing endless essays about I Am A Hipster and Changed A Diaper Anyhow and will be, at least in some quarters, taken as the literary heirs of Alexander Portnoy and his violated piece of liver.

If you’re a woman covering the same ground, you’re just a ho with boundary issues.

But there’s some evidence that things are changing.

When Neal Pollack’s Alternadad was written up in the Times Book Review, I remember thinking that if it had been Alternamom, it would have been lucky to rate a mention in the Styles section. A few weeks ago, the latest boy-authored entry into the preening pack of Everyone Look at Me Parent! memoirs was reviewed in Sunday Styles, opposite the wedding announcements, underneath a Jimmy Choo ad, which suggest that genre may trumping gender.

Pollitt’s use of the loaded term “webstalking” might explain part of the backlash. “Stalking” just has different connotations than “Googling,” or “obsessive Googling,” or “nonstop, coffee-fueled late-at-night, obsessive Googling.”

Another part of the problem might be a matter of tone (funny versus serious), or format (fiction versus non-fiction).

If you write a short story about, say, a young woman adding a vibrator to her ex’s wedding registry, and get nothing but laughs nods of recognition. If you ‘fess to similar behavior in real life, you’re on the wrong side of the charming/freaky divide.

Then there's the issue of age...and looks.

The success of the confessional memoir relies on identification; that moment where the reader says, That could be me, or That almost was me, or There but for the grace of God go I.

It’s one thing to see yourself as Elizabeth Gilbert, weeping on your bathroom floor and begging God to deliver you from your unhappy marriage. Elizabeth Gilbert gets the nods of recognition instead of the shudders of distaste, because she’s young and blonde and attractive (and there’s a hot new boyfriend waiting for her in the wings, and we strongly suspect it’ll all work out for her in the end).

But if you’re Pollitt, you’re in your fifties and you look your age (and let me stress, there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking the way she does), even though you, too, have a real life happy ending, you don’t get the same response for admitting to a version of the same behavior.

The trouble isn’t being undignified. The trouble isn’t being unseemly. The trouble comes when you’re the one un that women in the public eye are absolutely never permitted to be – unattractive. (Not that I’m saying she is!)

Anyhow. Just got back from a very exciting visit to the Coast (Mom: “Why are you flying? Are you supposed to be on a plane? Are your ankles swollen? Why don’t you just go lie down?”) More on that soon, I hope...but I can tell you that, while in LA, I snagged my sister-in-law’s copy of Cool Baby Names (complete with her list of discards in the back). A veritable cornucopia of choices!
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