The Mother of All Questions – Rebecca Solnit

There was a quote from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit in Hvordan bli en (skandinavisk) feminist, which reminded me that I meant to read more of Solnit’s books. I enjoyed Men Explain Things to Me, even though I found it sort of patchy, so continuing with her feminist essays was a bit of a no-brainer.

And to be honest, The Mother of All Questions is better. There was not a single essay in this collection that I didn’t throughly enjoy, even if I do prefer the somewhat chatty and irreverent style of the titular «The Mother of All Questions» and of «Men Explain Lolita to Me» over the more philosophical and analytical «A Short History of Silence» and «The Pigeonholes When the Doves Have Flown», still, they are all quite excellent.

The question the title and the titular essay refers to is (of course) «why don’t you have children?» (where the you is sometimes Solnit herself, but also other childfree women). I could have quoted the whole essay, there was not a single sentence that didn’t resonate with me, though our circumstances are very different in some respects.

As it happens, there are many reasons why I don’t have children: I am very good at birth control; though I love children and adore aunthood, I also love solitude; I was raised by unhappy, unkind people, and I wanted neither to replicate their form of parentsing nor to create human beings who might feel about me the way that I sometimes felt about my begetters; the planet is unable to sustain more first-world people, and the future is very uncertain; and I really wanted to write books, which as I’ve done it is a fairly consuming vocation. I’m not dogmatic about not having kids, I might have had them under other circumstances and been fine – as I am now.

(Page 5.) Now, I do have children. But under other circumstances I might not have, and been fine. And while I find individual children charming and fascinating, I have never understood the urge to define either myself or other women solely by their status as mothers. The fact of being – or not being – a mother is hardly the most interesting thing about a person, is it? At least, I’d find it horrifying were I to meet someone where that was actually the most interesting thing about them, as I have to imagine that person as something of a blank, nondescript entity.

I gave a talk on Virginia Woolf a few years ago. During the question period that followed, the subject that seemed to most interest a number of people was whether Woolf should have had children. I answered the question dutifully (…)
What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, «Fuck this shit,» which carried the same general message, and moved everyone on from the discussion.) After all, many people make babies; only one made _To the Lighthouse_ and _Three Guineas_, and we were discussing Woolf because of the latter.

(Page 4.) In «A Short History of Silence» Solnit deals with a range of issues that all contribute to silencing women (and men), not least the violent silencing associated with rape and shame.

The pandemic of campus rape reminds us that this particular kind of crime is not committed by a group that can be dismissed as marginal in any way; fraternities at elite institutions from Vanderbilt to Stanford have been the scenes of extraordinarily vicious acts; every spring the finest universities graduate a new crop of unpunished rapists. They remind us that this deadness is at the heart of things, not the margins, that failure of empathy and respect are central, not marginal.

(Page 36.) And she writes of the non-disclosure agreements that are frequently a condition of any settlement after rape or sexual harrassment:

What does it mean when what’s supposed to be victory includes the imposition of silence? Or should we call it reimposition?

(Page 44.) After Breen, it was also refreshing to get not a SWERFy condemnation of prostitution, but rather an interesting discussion on how it is one of the topics where our neat categories are not sufficient for the purpose.

Some of the most furious debates of our time come when opposing sides insist that everything in a given category corresponds only to their version of the phenomenon. In recent debates about prostitution, one position at its most dogmatic insists that prostitutes–appearently, all prostitutes–are free agents whose lifestyle and labor choices should be respected and left alone. I’ve been aquainted with a few middle-class white sex workers. They retained control over what they did and with whom, along with the option of quitting when it stopped being what they wanted to do.
Of course that experience of being a sex worker with agency exists. So do sex trafficking and the forcing of children, immigrants, and other categories of socially and economically vunerable into prostitution. Prostitution is not a category of the enslaved or the free, but of both. How do you even speak of, let alone propose regulation of, a category as full of internal contradictions? Maybe, like so many other things, it is a language problem, and we need different terms to talk about different categories of people engaged in sex for money.

(Page 130.) In «80 Books No Woman Should Read» (a reaction essay to an Esquire article entitled «The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read» featuring 79 books by men and 1 by a woman) Solnit points out how absurd it is that magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan provide (troubling) instructions on how to be A Man and A Woman respectively.

Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.

(Page 135.) And the discussion that follows about which books women should not read is very interesting indeed, and I agree with the gist of it (not having read all the authors I can’t agree with all the details). The next essay is «Men Explain Lolita to Me», and it is ever better, as it touches on the issue of «why read anything», and puts it beautifully:

This paying attention is the foundational aspect of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awsome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance to cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and are can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me. This is why I had a nice time recently picking on a very male literary canon lined up by _Esquire_ as «80 Books Every Man Should Read,» seventy-nine of them by men. It seemed to encourage this narrowness of experience. In responding, I was arguing not that everyone should read books by ladies–though shifting the balance matters–but that maybe the whole point of reading is to be able to explore and also transcend your gender (and race and class and orientation and nationality ans moment in history and age and ability) and experience being others. Saying this upset some men. Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it. They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.

(Page 142-143) Honestly, I could have quoted that whole essay from start to finish, too.

Anyway. Read this book.

Boka har jeg lånt på Trondheim Folkebibliotek.

Verda er ein skandale – Agnes Ravatn

Jeg kan vel trygt si jeg er mer begeistret for Agnes Ravatn som essayist enn som romanforfatter (og del to), og det var naturlig å sette seg på venteliste for å få låne Verda er ein skandale når den kom ut i høst. Mulig jeg var treig til å gjøre nettopp det, for det ble 2018 før det ble min tur, men til slutt fikk jeg altså melding om at boka var klar til henting.

Verda er ein skandale er en sjarmerende bok. Ravatn drar en katt-og-kaniner og tar med mann og barn og flytter på landet, riktignok midlertidig (etter planen). Ikke bare «landet», heller, men Vestlandet. Med Einar Økland som nærmeste nabo.

Det er lite som får meg til å le høyt i denne boka, men det er mye som får meg til å nikke gjenkjennende. Eskaleringen av selvbergingsfantasier, for eksempel, i gledesrus over å ha utnyttet en fiskefangst til det fulle. Jeg har også tenkt tanken at et småbruk på landet er en utmerket idé, mer hus for pengene, plass til høner i hagen og kanskje man kunne hatt hest? Heldigvis kommer jeg som regel fort på at jeg hater hagearbeid, at jeg liker å kunne reise bort uten å hyre inn dyrepassere og at jeg helst vil ha gangavstand til både (store) bibliotek og brukbare ølbarer. Men at jeg innser det betyr jo ikke at det ikke er trivelig å lese om noen som har et heldigere utgangspunkt for å trives med livet på landet enn meg selv.

Samtalene med Økland er utvilsomt med på å bære boka, men vel så ofte er det de selvironiske refleksjonene over klisjeene som leves ut som får munnvikene til å peke oppover. Som her, på side 14:

Det hadde vore fantastisk morgonsol, og frukost utandørs i tunet. Etterpå hadde eg baka brød og laga suppe med urter og grønnkål frå hagen, deretter ein pai med lokale blåbær – ja, det er krampaktig, og eg er klar over at å trykke det i ei bok berre er highbrow-varianten av å dele det i sosiale medium. Men når ingen damebladredaksjonar tar seg råd til å reise hit for å lage livsstilsreportasje om meg, så får eg nesten skrive den sjølv.

Absolutt en bok verdt å lese.

Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

It was a given that I’d be interested to read the essay that has been credited with the origin of the term «mansplain», you don’t have to hang around on Twitter for a very long time before the term and it’s definition(s) becomes highly relevant. So I started Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me with the highest expectations, and to some extent they were fulfilled.

The title essay is excellent, if frustrating, you wonder how the author got through the situations described without beating Mr. Very Important (both I and II) about the head with the nearest piece of furniture (not that I’m advocating violence). Solnit reflects not just on this tendency with some men to assume that women know nothing, but also on how this affects women’s position in society. In the postscript she sums up how the essay went viral, its relation to the term «mansplaining» and how she’s not comfortable with that term. However, she also touches on how any attempt to point out this phenomenen – whether you call it mansplaining or not – tends to bring out men who will explain that this is not an example of mansplaining or that women do this too and in general mansplain the mansplaining. Which can be hilarious, but also frustrating.

And it’s not that we don’t want people (whether men or women) to explain things. As Solnit says:

I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.

(Page 14) The rest of the essays are also very readable, with a possible exception of the penultimate one (Woolf’s Darkness) which seemed very disjointed to me, but I may have been tired at the time.

Not really related to the writing, but definitely related to the readability, I wonder how the editing decision to intersperse the text with quotes from the text – magazine-like – was arrived at. I dislike it in magazines, in books I fairly hate it. Even worse in this particular book, where the majority of the quotes are placed in such a way that they physically break a sentence apart, even – in at least three instances – words.

Who does that?

Anyway, I guess I’d reccommend this book. But do try to find an edition without the annoying quote layout.

For your amusement (or today’s reason to bang your head against a wall, perhaps) I present you with the winner of this week’s ‘having mansplaining mansplained’ award:

Folkelesnad og Stillstand – Agnes Ravatn

folkelesnadEtter å ha slaktet Fugletribunalet var det kanskje ingen grunn til å tro at jeg noensinne ville lese mer av Ravatn, men jeg var såpass imponert av språket i Fugletribunalet og av Ravatns humor i intervjuer at jeg tenkte at essayene hennes var verdt en kikk likevel.

Jeg startet med Folkelesnad, der Ravatn tar for seg det som finnes i bladhyllene på Narvesen. Essayene gikk opprinnelig som serie i Dag og Tid, og i fjorten uker tok hun for seg en ny bladkategori hver uke, fra ukeblader til porno, fra kjendisblekker til pengeblad.

Og det er en del å ta av. Norske magasiner har enorme opplagstall. Hvem er det som leser alle disse bladene? Det gir ikke Ravatn noe svar på, selvsagt (annet enn at det normalt ikke er henne), til gjengjeld kommer hun med en rekke skarpe og vittige observasjoner både om bladene og om deres formodentlige lesere.En observasjon er hvor kjønnsdelt deler av bladverdenen er. Om ukebladene:

Og no nokre ord om det påfallande fråværet av eitt av to mulege kjønn i desse vekeblada. Dei fire vekeblada [Hjemmet, Allers, Norsk ukeblad og KK] prøver nemleg å skape inntrykk av at ingen menn nokon gong har levd på denne jorda, bortsett frå tre stykk: kjendisuteliggjaren Knut Løvli, Tore Strømøy og ein far som har mista begge dei to sønene sine. Uendeleg triste lagnader alle tre. Sjølv i kontaktannonsespaltene er det berre kvinner som får sleppe til.

(Side 19.) Ukebladene er dameblader, selvsagt. Vi av hunnkjønn får dessuten både «kvinneblader» og «jenteblader» (samt utvilsomt hovedtyngden av «interiørblader», «matblader» og «babyblader» i hvert fall). Mannfolka blir avspist med kun en kategori spesifikt for dem. Den inneholder til gjengjeld Illustrert Vitenskap. Og, nei, det er ikke Ravatn som har bestemt denne kategorinndelingen, den er basert på Synovate sin inndeling for markedsundersøkelsesformål. Som Ravatn sier: «Så då veit me det: Illustrasjonar og vitskap, gjerne i kombinasjon, er ikkje for kvinner.» (Side 69.)

Jeg hikstet meg gjennom store deler av Folkelesnad (det toppet seg vel kanskje når jeg leste kapittelet om pornoblader på bussen). Ravtn veksler mellom en nøytral observerende tone og skarp satire med stort hell, og sistnevnte gjør at leseren selv ser humoren i de nøytrale «fakta». Selv oppramsingen av overskrifter i begynnelsen av hvert kapittel blir til tider hysterisk morsom, det er noe med sammenstillingen av så mange ganske like overskrifter. Du kan teste selv: Gå på Narvesen og les alle overskriftene for alle bladene i en kategori, og du ser fort at redaksjonene like gjerne kunne brukt en automatisk overskriftsgenerator på de fleste artiklene (og at en forside i stor grad kan byttes ut med en annen fra samme kategori uten at noen hadde merket nevneverdig forskjell).

stillstandStillstand har underoverskriften Sivilisasjonskritikk på lågt nivå og består også av 14 essays, også disse først publisert i Dag og Tid, men uten en så klar rød tråd som Folkelesnad. Da serien sto i avis var det under tittelen «Stillstand. Agnes Ravatn oppsøkjer stader der ingenting skjer.» Her får vi altså Ravatns observasjoner fra steder der det skjer ganske lite (med enkelte unntak, som hun selv påpeker er det vanskelig å forsvare Oslo tingrett som et sted ingenting skjer).

Jeg synes boka starta litt treigt (altså satire- og språkmessig, ikke handlingsmessig, det er jo noe av poenget at ingenting skal skje), og etter to-tre kapitler vurderte jeg å droppe å lese mer, men fortsatte, noe jeg er glad for. Jeg vet ikke helt om det er slik at det plutselig tar seg opp utover i boka, eller om de senere essayene er avhengig av de tidlige for en slags kumulativ effekt, men jeg synes i alle fall at det var langt lettere å lese de 80 siste sidene enn de 40 første. Likevel vil jeg nok anbefale Folkelesnad framfor Stillstand, i alle fall om det er latter du er ute etter.

Moranthology – Caitlin Moran

moranthologyHaving loved Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, the only logical consequense was to read Moranthology as soon as I got my hands on it. Moranthology is an anthology, with comments, of selected columns Moran has written for The Times, and the subjects range from big hair and gay moon landings to the welfare state and the eurozone.

As with How to be a Woman, Moran is both profound and side-achingly funny, quite frequently at the same time. Her explanation of why she loves to pay tax is spot on, as is the piece on why a pregnancy, especially an unwanted one, is not ‘a gift’.

In short, I loved it. Read it and learn. Or laugh. Or, even better, both.

Smakebit på søndag: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

austen33I’m making my (very pleasant) way through A Truth Universally Acknowledged – 33 Reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen at the moment. I picked it up in London in March – at the British Library bookshop. Edited by Susannah Carson, it contains 33 essays on the topic of reading Jane Austen, as well as a foreword by Harold Bloom and an introduction by Susannah Carson – also on reading Jane Austen, naturally. So far it is excellent, the only problem being the urge it creates to read Jane Austen rather than read about reading Jane Austen, but it’s a problem I can live with. I do suspect my next read will be one of the novels, though…

Today’s taster is from the first essay, by Susanna Clarke, putting into words something that has bothered me too about the way people talk about Darcy:

Darcy has somehow been redefined in recent years as a dark, brooding, romantic hero. I’ve seen him mentioned with Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester as if they were all points on the same spectrum. But that’s not how Elizabeth or Jane Austen sees him. When Elizabeth thinks Darcy is arrogant, she isn’t attracted to him. She turns him down. It’s only when she sees him as a kind friend, a caring brother, and a good master that she begins to fall in love with him. If he makes other people happy, then he is capable of making her happy too. I doubt that Elizabeth is secretly or subconsciously attracted to a «dark» Darcy. Twenty-first-century women (and men) can afford to romanticize dark heroes because their fates and futures are in their own hands — Elizabeth didn’t have that option.

(p. 5)

More tasters can be found at Flukten fra virkeligheten.

På vegne av venner – Kristopher Schau

skauPå vegne av venner fikk god omtale på, så jeg slengte den på ønskelisten, og så tilbød Tone meg å lese hennes eksemplar, og da var det jo bare å kaste seg over tilbudet.

Vinteren 2009 går Schau på kommunale begravelser i Oslo, begravelser som det av en eller annen grunn ikke er venner eller familie til å ta seg av og som derfor faller på kommunen. Av og til kommer det allikevel mange mennesker, da snur han og går. Av og til er han den eneste, utenom presten og begravelsesagenten. Ja en begravelse mangler sogar prest (med fornuftig grunn, det skal sies).

Jeg har hatt svært lite sans for Kristopher Schaus tidligere prosjekter, men akkurat dette tiltalte meg. Det er vel også av en helt annen karakter enn det han ellers er kjent for.

Han sier «Jeg ville vite hva dette var; og jeg ville være der.» Og man får ett lite innblikk i hva det vil si at noen dør så ensomme at det ikke engang er noen til å komme i begravelsen. Dette er en bok det er vel verdt å investere noen timer (og det skal ikke så mange til, den er ikke akkurat tykk). Men på sett og vis føler jeg at det mangler noe. Kanskje var ikke Schau tjent med at jeg hadde en artikkel fra Magasinet friskt i minne. I går var det nemlig en artikkel i Magasinet om en mann som døde alene, som ble begravet av kommunen, uten sørgende. Men der journalisten graver – og graver – og faktisk finner noe. Nå mener jeg vel ikke at Schau skulle tatt på seg å være privatdetektiv for hver eneste avdøde han «møter», men den artikkelen gjorde allikevel at «bare» å møte i begravelsene virket litt, tja, som å si A uten å si B, kanskje? Men, som sagt, vel verdt tiden i alle fall.

Noe av det beste med boka er forresten omslaget. Jeg er helt forelsket i det og kunne godt ha rammet inn boka og hengt den på veggen hvis vi hadde hatt veggplass til sånt (det har vi ikke, det er bokhyller på veggene våre). Det hadde vel forresten funket fint, siden boka er såpass tynn.