A Moment of Jen
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Tuesday, March 06, 2012
posted by Jen at 3/06/2012 11:59:00 AM

Last week Vida, an organization for women in the arts, released its second annual survey of highbrow publications and how many women they’re publishing and reviewing.

The news, predictably, was not good: The Atlantic reviewed 12 books by women, 24 by men. Harper's reviewed 19 women, 53 men. The New Yorker published work by 242 women, 613 men.

The typical hand-wringing, apologizing, defensiveness and search for solutions quickly began.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s blog, arguing that, for anything to change, women are going to have to speak up for ourselves, and one another.

And then, with my work done, I downloaded the latest popular piece of erotica that everyone’s talking about and settled in for what I hoped would be a fun read.

I love a good, fast-paced sexy book. I read Judith Krantz when I was just a lass, and kept the A.N. Roquelaure books under my mattress, and can still recite more of Shirley Conran’s LACE than you’d believe. I’m not looking for prose on the level of James or Proust every time I start a novel. Sometimes, I just want entertainment.

This book -- for a variety of reasons -- did not deliver.

On Sunday night, I dashed off a few snarky tweets, rolled my eyes, bit my lip, recommended a few other books, and went off to innocent slumber.

And woke up to a bit of a kerfuffle

I wanted to write back, You know who I am? I am a reader, who paid $6.99 for this book, and has a right to an opinion about it.

But other, more thoughtful responses kept coming. You threw another woman under the bus. You’re being a bitch. You, with all your talk of equality and fairness. How could you!

My first reaction was to get defensive. There is, I pointed out, a difference between calling a book an unreadable piece of trash that should never have been published and taking issue with specific pieces of a story -- a story that I've paid for, and taken time to read and think about.

I never said it shouldn’t have seen the light of day, or that readers don’t have a right to enjoy it. I certainly didn’t hunt the author down on Twitter and make sure she knew exactly how I felt about her book.

Did that make me a mean girl? Did that mean I was chucking another female author – and a first-time one, at that – under the bus?

Does standing up for women’s equality, for our right to be treated fairly in the book-review sections of big newspapers and magazines means that I can never say an uncomplimentary word about a woman’s book ever again?

I thought about it all day long…and I think that the answer is yes.

The problem is social media in general, Twitter specifically. It’s a new land that we’re still figuring out how to navigate, and none of the rules are clear.

To me, Twitter feels like a rollicking cocktail party, a series of overlapping conversations with friends and new acquaintances. But you arrive with an established identity.

In my case, that means I don’t get to take off the “crusader for women’s equality” cape and put on my “just a reader” hat.

I don’t get to talk about a book the way I would to my friends, if we were at lunch and the discussion turned to what we were reading...at least, not in public.

Last spring, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal right after she’d gotten the good news, she did something that I found hard to understand.

With the eyes of the literary world on her, with the spotlight hers to command, she could have celebrated her peers. She could have said, “here are five great women authors you might not have heard of.” She could have used the occasion to give other women a boost.

Instead, she used the occasion to trash women writers she didn’t like. "There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower."

It was a weird, Tourettes-y moment. My friends and I wondered (and have lots of theories) about why Egan’s mind went, almost automatically, to a five-year-old instance of plagiarism, in response to a fairly broad and innocent question (and, to be fair, Egan apologized for her gaffe, both in public and in private, to the authors she'd slammed).

But the dismaying part – in exhorting women to 'shoot high and not cower," she said, essentially, "be the kind of writer I approve of, not like those bad writers who I think are derivative and banal."

She had a chance to do some good, and she did harm instead.

I made the same mistake on Sunday night.

I could have tweeted about a book I loved, instead of one I didn’t.

I could have, as they say, used my powers for good, instead of evil.

I’m sorry I didn’t.

So, in the future, I’ll be reserving my Twitter snark for safer targets, including but not limited to reality TV stars, opponents of contraception and myself, for taking my daughter's word for it when she says she "just wants to hold" the bottle of sparkly nail polish.

Wish me luck.
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