Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Blog of One's Own


It’s always a pleasure for me to read a book in which the ideas come rushing onto the page almost as if they had lives of their own and were eager to escape the confines of the author’s brain to run about freely in the world. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a good example of what I’m talking about. If one had to answer the question “What’s the main idea?” it would be easy enough to say that it’s a long essay about Women and Fiction, the place of women in the literary sphere, the place of women in society as a whole, and the role of fiction in the life of the mind. It can be thought of as a proto-feminist call to arms, as an introspective examination of the historical plight of the mass of women for whom a literary calling was out of the question, even as a self-justification for the writer’s own passion about putting pen to paper.

But for me, it was a collection of rich nuggets of almost perfect prose, all of which got me thinking about something or other, topics that were not necessarily related except insofar as they sprang from my reading of Woolf’s book. When I originally conceived of Nonbelieving Literati, I hoped that some of our posts, at least, would be “essayistic rambles, ruminations triggered by ideas the book suggested to each blogger.” For me, this is the first book the club has read that has actually engendered such a ramble — or rather, a series of rambles. Some of them, not all, are responses to Woolf’s specific words. Others are notions that struck me as I paused to digest what I was reading.


When I opened to the first page, and saw the words “women and fiction,” I thought: Oh, how tedious and dated. People don’t care about the gender of writers nowadays; I certainly never think of novels in terms of the author’s sex. I just buy whatever I want to read. To prove that to myself, I looked through my fiction bookcases. I was amazed to discover that almost every single novel, story collection, play, or book of poetry that I owned had been written by a man. Yes, there was a smattering of females who were represented. Every work by Jane Austen. A few Dorothy Parker anthologies. A stack of Agatha Christie mysteries. Edith Hamilton’s retelling of Greek myths. Various single examples of work by Alison Lurie, P.D. James, Edith Wharton, Patricia Highsmith. The Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti volumes in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poetry series.

I turned to essays and nonfiction next. A few more women there, but not enough to strike a balance. A couple of books by Florence King. Three volumes of Sarah Vowell’s essays, two of Nora Ephron’s. Four nature books by Diane Ackerman, one science book by Natalie Angier. Eight or nine tomes on history, law, and atheism. Five memoirs.

I think of myself as a non-sexist person. I have as many female friends as male friends, maybe more. But I own somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 books, and not even 100 of them are by women.

... [A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction...
And a man? What must a man have? I’d argue: money and a room of his own. Of course, for Woolf those requisites were symbolic of the entire history of the subjugation of women by men, decades, centuries, millennia in which women had neither money nor rooms of their own. But Woolf means her words to be taken literally as well. And, on that level, all I could think was: me, too!

Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority — it may be wealth, or rank, or a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney — for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination — over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half of the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself.
Many of us in the Atheosphere — myself included — if we’re honest with ourselves, admit that we feel superior, at least intellectually, to theists. Even writing that sentence, I can’t keep myself from chuckling over how ironic it is that I seem to be critical of that feeling. Because aren’t we, in fact, superior? Or am I just being sarcastic?

The crux of Woolf’s paragraph, of course, is that every individual and every group likes to think that he or she or it is better than others. We atheists, for all our own feelings of superiority, encounter the tremendous “superiority” of religionists every single day. We’re outnumbered and, usually, outmaneuvered. They’re going to heaven; we’re not. They’ve got god on their side; we don’t. They control the political dialogue in this country; we can’t get a word in edgewise. The only thing we can do, as Woolf points out, is to bolster up our own self-confidence, to refuse to accept being treated by the vast quasi-theocratic establishment as if we’re godless babes in the spiritual cradle.

Perhaps that’s why we blog, why we argue about our own individual approaches to living a faith-free life, why we see the news through skeptical glasses and discuss it incessantly, why we philosophize compulsively. It’s all about bolstering our own atheistic self-confidence by reaching out to others of like minds. We want to feel that we’re members of a community. And not just any old community, but one that’s superior.

And one gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally, material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.
Sometimes, in dark, introspective hours, that’s how I feel about writing these little posts. Why do I bother? Isn’t the world indifferent to my blogging? Who needs it?

One answer is: I bother because I’m bothered. As PhillyChief’s title notes: “You made me say it.”

Another answer is: I bother because I can’t not write. My words are who I am.

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at “blue stockings with an itch for scribbling,” but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses.
Well, having written both for pay and, allegedly, for sheer pleasure, I can say from experience that I share Woolf’s sentiments. Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Years ago, I was chugging out essays like these in my job as a newspaper columnist, and being paid rather well. Nowadays, I sling the language much better than I did then, but often I feel that I’ve become a blockhead. In fact, once in a while I wonder whether all of us in the Atheosphere are blockheads. We spend hours and hours composing, commenting, replying, and earn no financial reward.

But Johnson also said, “The purpose of a writer is to be read.” So as long as we have readers, we’ve fulfilled our purpose, whether we’re blockheads or not.

[B]ooks continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.
I agree with that. Everything we read is filtered through our previous reading. And that’s doubly true of everything we write. To quote Johnson once more, “When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

By the way, you can reread Woolf’s sentence and substitute the word “blogs” for “books.” Maybe the statement is even more appropriate in that case. All of us in blogworld are part of the ongoing buzz of humanity. We may have thousands of readers or only just a handful, but we do continue each other every time we publish anew.

It was tempting, after all this reading, to look out of the window and see what London was doing on the morning of the twenty-sixth of October 1928. And what was London doing? Nobody, it seemed, was reading Antony and Cleopatra. London was wholly indifferent, it appeared, to Shakespeare’s plays. Nobody cared a straw — and I do not blame them — for the future of fiction, the death of poetry or the development by the average woman of a prose style completely expressive of her mind. If opinions upon any of these matters had been chalked on the pavement, nobody would have stooped to read them. The nonchalance of the hurrying feet would have rubbed them out in half an hour.
I like to think of myself as the chalker, the one who always has opinions on literary matters and who cares deeply about writing. But in my daily life, if truth be told, I’m frequently the hurrier. There are so many things to read, so little time to do it. On my bookshelves, I have four stacks of five or six books apiece. Each one of those stacks is the next one I’ll “attack.” I move the stacks from one place to another, and re-arrange the individual volumes within each pile, in order of their priority. That order changes from day to day, and sometimes within the same hour. And I’m not even counting the newspapers and magazines that I “have to” go through, the dozens of blogs and online journals I “need” to keep up with.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m controlled by the billions of words waiting for me on pages and screens. And, as I do whenever I want to re-assert my freedom in any arena, I rebel. Occasionally, therefore, I wake up and declare a publication-free day, a short vacation from written material.

But then I shortly find myself reading the back of my cereal box. Those proclamations of non-literate bliss never work.


Now and then I wonder: if I forced myself to read less, would I be able to write less, too. Or is writing a compulsion. Maybe I’d write more, to fill the time with the words I’m not reading. I’m sure, and everyone who knows me can confirm this, that I’d never be able to talk less.

I use language, therefore I am.

Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgment? “This great book,” “this worthless book,” the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.
I can say, almost with certainty, that our blogs, if they matter at all, matter only for hours. But I doubt that they matter even for that long, except to ourselves and our comparatively few loyal readers. And, at least in my own case, I’m not always convinced that I’m writing what I wish to write. Frankly, I’d rather be creating quality fiction, even though I doubt that I have the skill or the patience to do that.

But for me, using language, reveling in the way words can be selected and organized on the screen to communicate ideas, or to make people laugh, or to express anger and frustration about the seemingly arbitrary way the human part of the world works ... for me, that’s reason enough to write.

Here I would stop, but the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration.
This essay breaks one of my cardinal rules of blogging: Keep it short, if not always sweet. In my personal aesthetic, a good post should be only as long as a newspaper column, about 750 words. Anything over that, I feel, asks too much of a casual reader. Who am I to require such an investment of time?

However, I’ve already gone over 2,000 words, and obviously I’m not quite done. Are you still with me? (Happily for me, if you’ve actually read all the way up to that question, there’s no honest way for you to answer “no.”)

So do I have a peroration, as “the pressure of convention decrees” that I must? Not really. Instead, I’ll end with an observation about reading and writing.

There are times when I fear that reading and writing are becoming things of the past. Talk to average Americans today and ask if they read or write for pleasure, if they take some indescribable enjoyment out of seeing words marching before their eyes.

RU 8-}?

According to an AP-Ipsos poll, more than one out of every four Americans read no books at all last year. Literature — and maybe literacy, too — is slowly disappearing.

As literacy slowly disappears (or at least as I perceive that it does), I sometimes feel that my essence, my word-core, my entire conception of myself as, primarily, a reading and writing being, is threatened. However, in a small way, my own blogging and my reading of others’ blogs keeps my pessimism from overwhelming me.

As I’ve said: I use language, therefore I am. I think that was how Virginia Woolf felt, too. I was happy to spend some time with her; she’s a kindred spirit.


Lynet said...

She does write elegantly, doesn't she? When I was reading the first few paragraphs I found myself thinking (approvingly) of the dignified clarity of, say, John Stuart Mill, but when she really got going she had a fluidity of style that was all her own.

Alejandro said...

I like the impressionistic approach and you sure covered a lot of turf.

Regarding feelings of superiority, that part struck a chord with me too. I think the thing to keep in mind is that we all have to realize that this feeling of superiority fills a need more than it expresses our ACTUAL superiority.

None of us are any smarter for being atheists than for being men for that matter. Thinking you're RIGHT is another matter.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I think of myself as a non-sexist person. I have as many female friends as male friends, maybe more. But I own somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 books, and not even 100 of them are by women.

So? Is this a function of your latent sexism? Or is it because woman still have not reached a level of parity Woolf envisioned? Or is it simply a matter of taste? Or are woman not suited to writing?

I would bet that the disparity would be different if you were an avid reader of romance novels.

According to an AP-Ipsos poll, more than one out of every four Americans read no books at all last year. Literature — and maybe literacy, too — is slowly disappearing.

This is relatively meaningless unless there is a comparison with the poll taken in 1808 and 1908.It could actually be an encouraging result in light of that comparison. As it stands, 75% of Americans read at least one book last year.

The Exterminator said...

I'm not sure why I don't own more books by women writers. That's what mystifies me.

In fiction, I'm comfortable saying that my taste for classics tends to leave women writers off my shelf because -- as Woolf points out -- there were so few. But I also have more than my fair share of popular mysteries, and in that genre, aside from Christie, I guess I haven't found a woman writer I like enough to read regularly.

As far as nonfiction goes, I'm baffled.

The figures in the AP-Ipsos poll do seem to show a decline in average number of books read, although there are no completely comparable statistics for the past. You can look at the International Herald Tribune's story here.

Intuitively, though, I'd say that if 27% of Americans didn't think it was worth their time to get through a single book that year, it's a pretty dire commentary on our nation's attitude toward reading.

John Evo said...

I can’t keep myself from chuckling over how ironic it is that I seem to be critical of that feeling. Because aren’t we, in fact, superior? Or am I just being sarcastic?

I think you are entirely justified in a sense of superiority - in THAT ONE AREA. I do the same. I'm quick to accept that there are other personal characteristics that even a theist could have be beat in - hands down.

Intuitively, though, I'd say that if 27% of Americans didn't think it was worth their time to get through a single book that year, it's a pretty dire commentary on our nation's attitude toward reading

I'm with SI on this one. I'd need to know the comparative stats before getting overly gloomy on this.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of opening myself to criticism for hypocrisy (or worse), I'll confess that male authors dominate my bookshelves. Even though I could probably provide some plausible reasons for this phenomenon, I'll add that, in the past couple of years, I've been more conscientious about seeking the works of female authors. The reality is, however, that I'm not usually thinking about an author's gender when I'm reading a book, unless, as in the Woolf selection, it plays a pivotal role in the account. I've read lots of good male authors and lots of good females, and I've read lots of crappy male authors and lots of crappy females. Talent, or lack thereof, is not, as far as I can tell, assigned by gender.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Donna Leon! You haven't read her? Try her.

Um. I mean, most of the popular mysteries I read are by women, and she's excellent. Also Lindsay Davis. And a bunch of lightweights...

Also, of course Woolf thinks men need a room of their own and five hundred pounds a year (well, rather more than that nowadays) - that was the point of the section about how only Keats managed to write as a poor man. It's just that when she was writing this, men (some men) could have that; women (most women) could not.

And finally, I truly think that the age of "reading for pleasure" was a lot shorter than we tend to think it was. And mostly it was an outgrowth of leisure that, frankly, had little else to fill it.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Few classics by women? Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, the Bronte sisters, Pearl Buck, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen. I mean, just the extraordinary cannon of Willa Cather alone....

Spanish Inquisitor said...

If you are partial to the mystery genre, there are quite a few good female writers.

Laura Lippman writes a great series based in Baltimore, plus has won awards for her stand alones.

Jane Haddam writes a series based in Philadelphia. And she's an atheist to boot.

Denise Mina writes a few good series based in Scotland.

Barbara Seranella, who died last year, wrote a very good series involving an female ex-junkie automobile mechanic. I recommend her highly.

Val McDermid, another Scottish writer, has a few series, one of them with lesbian protagonists.

I could go on.

Megan Abbott, Anne Perry, Zoe Sharpe, S J Rozan (who wrote a great reaction mystery to 9/11, called "Absent Friends"), Minette Walters, Margaret Maron, Nancy Pickard, Julie Smith, Denise Hamilton, Ruth Rendell, P D James, Cara Black, Vickie Hendricks, Katy Munger, the late Leigh Brackett, ...

Unknown said...

Hmmm.. I think I have more female authors on my shelves, but I'm not certain. I haven't done a comprehensive count. In fiction, at least, women dominate. Science and non-fiction may be less so.

But I find that I'm drawn to female authors, music by females, art by women, etc. Perhaps it's my own bias playing out. I don't think women are better at any of those things, but I find I identify with them more. So maybe it's not really a bias and maybe yours isn't either.

The Exterminator said...

It's interesting that in the lists of women writers you've all mentioned, no one has given a nod to the author of what, arguably, was the most important American book of the 19th century: Uncle Tom's Cabin.

As Lincoln said (at least according to legend) when he was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe: So this is the little lady who started this big war.

Her book (and the many plays based on it) energized Northern abolitionist sentiments in ways that no other author's writing had done. I'd fault Woolf for not mentioning it, because, even though as a literary work it's melodramatic and cloyingly sentimental, Uncle Tom's Cabin is by any standard one of the greatest work of American literature in terms of its impact.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I'm not sure if social and political (as opposed to literary) impact are in any way the standard for detemining "great works". To each his own,though.

The Exterminator said...

I agree that social and political impact may not be criteria for determining great literary work. But Woolf was talking about women writing all kinds of books. And certainly, if you judge the "great" books as those which made a difference in the world -- whether in the literary realm or in some other sphere -- you'd have to count Uncle Tom's Cabin as a great book.

That being said, I think it's pretty much unreadable today except as a historical document.