Monday, 16 January 2012

I'm a woman? Caitlin Flanagan seems to think so: The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female. Admittedly, I don’t find Didion’s discussions of jasmine and packing lists to be the strongest features of her work. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have to be a woman to do so. Flanagan should know better than to argue from a gender essentialist position so intellectually vapid it can be refuted by the existence of stereotypical gay males. She clearly doesn’t. Her failure to recognize that she’s diminishing Didion by praising her thus leads her to statements like: Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. Calling the woman who wrote “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” a “girl” does her disservice. Calling her a narcissist and suggesting that any females who read her are similarly narcissistic does them a disservice. That Flanagan does this in an attempt to praise Didion renders it all the more appalling because, in the end, Flanagan doesn’t believe that Didion’s actually a writer: I can tell you this for certain: anything you have ever read by Didion about the shyness that plagued her in her youth, and about her inarticulateness in those days, in the face of even the most banal questions, was not a writer’s exaggeration of a minor character trait for literary effect. The contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder. Didion emoted her prose onto the page. She didn’t perform an excruciating self-analysis in the service of a journalistic ethos, she was shy so she wrote shyly. The dinner party Flanagan recounts in the article happened after the publication ofSlouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection whose titular essay is renowned for its shy lyric: We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vaccum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that society’s atomization could be reveresed …. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words. Except there’s nothing shy about...

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