by Mallory Ortberg)
I have gone back and forth several times over the last few days on whether or not it would be worth addressing Adam Plunkett’s New Yorker.com review of poet Patricia Lockwood’s latest book here. I don’t write much on topical issues to begin with, there have been plenty of more noteworthy stories about women’s issues in the public eye over the last week or so, and it’s not exactly hurting her career any.
Also, if I am being perfectly honest, I didn’t want to seem mean by criticizing a man twice in public. I have since overcome this reluctance.
And yet! It is such a perfect illustration of Joanna Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing that I think it merits mentioning, if only as a cautionary example for all you future New Yorker (dot com) reviewers out there. (Have you forgotten her main points? Let us revisit them briefly here. How many points do you think Plunkett’s review scores? By my count, he nets at least six out of eleven, but I’m open to a recount.)
Prohibitions Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.
Bad Faith Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.
Denial of Agency Deny that a woman wrote it.
Pollution of Agency Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn’t have been written about.
The Double Standard of Content Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.
False Categorizing Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.
Isolation Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.
Anomalousness Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.
Lack of Models Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers’ inspiration and role models.
Responses Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.
Aesthetics Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women.
Let us dive in. Have you your frilliest bathing cap, your most aerodynamic goggles? Splendid. It starts off as a straightforward enough introduction to her work — she’s a poet, she’s popular on Twitter, she writes about things like “riding down the neck of a brontosaurus until I come.” And then he starts to worry about her. She’s successful — but is she too successful? Did she achieve success in the wrong way? Is she laughing at me? Do her fans like her work too much? Will Success Spoil Tricia Lockwood?
It’s commonplace to say that Lockwood fits uncannily well on social media, especially on Twitter, but I worry that she fits herself to it. I don’t mean that I think that she tries to, only that the constant reinforcement can hardly be without its temptations, especially for someone who wrote for years without expecting anyone to read her. (The rewards are real: she raised ten thousand dollars for her husband’s medical bills just by asking people for help.) I also don’t mean that Twitter is stupid but, rather, that it rewards careful phrasing, careful impersonating, brisk readings of cultural attitudes—in short, rhetoric. Her crowd claps loudly at jokes, especially provocative ones, and the lowest common denominator feels provoked to respond, begetting further jokes at their expense.
It is very difficult, it seems, for male reviewers not to take a vested personal interest in the well-being of their female subjects.
The implication, of course, is that writing poetry that nobody reads is a good thing and writing poetry that lots of people read is a bad thing, a suspect thing, a dumb thing, particularly if you are a woman. I understand the appeal of the contrarian position — I didn’t think Jennifer Lawrence made a very good Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past; I too know what it is like to square your shoulders against the crowd — but this isn’t a critique of her actual work, it’s a hypothetical concern about Lockwood’s future ability to write without regard for either criticism or praise.
A lot of people on Twitter like her work. Fine. Suggesting that she will let this go to her head, let it sully or diminish her talent, and furthermore that this will happen to her without her knowledge (“I don’t think that she tries to, only that the constant reinforcement can hardly be without its temptations”) is condescending and infantilizing. Try though she might, poor backwoods nymph Patricia Lockwood will be overwhelmed by her innate feminine desire to please and give the crowd what it roars for: more sexts.
I don’t even know what to say about this: “I don’t mean that Twitter is stupid but rather that it rewards careful phrasing, careful impersonating, brisk readings of cultural attitudes — in short, rhetoric.” Go ahead and replace “Twitter” with “poetry” in that last sentence and tell me if the meaning changes any for you.
Can we stop and acknowledge that short, pithy phrases have existed before Twitter and will exist after Twitter is gone? There is of course a particular style of rhetoric that Twitter has popularized, but Twitter did not invent it and Twitter is not a necessary function of its existence.
It’s striking how much Lockwood’s new book reads as though it were written for an audience different from that of her first book, “Balloon Pop Outlaw Black” which was composed in obscurity and is rather obscure and abstract.
She was better before she was successful; I liked her before she was cool; she has written a second book that is not identical to her first. Got it.
Even the zany comic sexuality, unsettling as it can be, is never more nuanced than the brutish, broish caricature she tweets about and that tweets back at her. In “The Hornet Mascot Falls in Love,” for instance, the hornet is sexual aggression incarnate: “Oh he want to sting her…. The air he breathes is filled/with flying cheerleader parts.” It’s easier to laugh at what he represents—“astonishing abs,” sports, machismo—than to feel his sexual frustration and anger. “Revealing Nature Photographs,” a poem transposing onto nature the ways we objectify women, ends with a repulsive invitation: “Nature turned you down in high school. / Now you can come in her eye.” This is addressed to a man but written for people to laugh at him, even if the poem doesn’t evoke Nature well enough to think of her as any sort of woman, let alone one whom you repressed your anger toward. But the subtleties of men’s desires were never the point.
The emphasis here is mine, because I want to make sure that everyone is clear on the fact that New Yorker (dot com) reviewer Adam Plunkett is concerned that poet Patricia Lockwood is not taking the hypothetical sexual desires of a fictional bee seriously enough. She is laughing at a man — an imaginary man, an imaginary male bee — instead of empathizing with his anger and his sexual desires. And that’s the problem with Patricia Lockwood.
I find it heartbreakingly sad that the idea of a successful female poet whose work is read and enjoyed by many is a problem, that a woman who isn’t being constantly scrutinized and denigrated on Twitter is worrisome.
As if the problem with most women writers is that we don’t get enough criticism.
This is not to say that women writers should not be critiqued (“So what are you saying? We shouldn’t, like, even review women’s work? What do you want, to just hold hands and sing Kumbaya together in a field?”), simply that publicly worrying that a woman writer does not take men’s desires seriously enough and might be too popular on the Internet does not a reasoned critique of her body of work make.
This is all worth saying because Lockwood is so clearly capable of real emotional depth, even on Twitter. In fact, “Rape Joke,” her best poem, a poem that went viral, probably wouldn’t have been written if Twitter hadn’t been around.
The woman is overrated. The woman has produced only one really great work of art. The woman owes her best work to something else. The woman can’t even really take credit for her one really great work of art. That credit goes to Twitter, which is already diminishing the value of her work, which used to be good but maybe isn’t now.
The world is full of rape jokes, but there can be only one “Rape Joke.” Still, I hope that Lockwood follows its example, if not in its self-doubt than at least in its not having its ideas settled from line one. This would presumably make her more open to the emotional lives of the men she mocks, which of course would help her to mock them if she chooses to. But her talent for humor extends beyond mockery, and I wish she’d bring to all her humorous poetry the same openness she brings to “Rape Joke,” the same ability to compel as she repels. If the poems strike cultural nerves, all the better, but there are probably too few of them for her to find them reliably. And she shouldn’t have to depend on what Twitter likes, anyway. Her followers will read her regardless.
“When she writes about rape, I like her best.” When she’s not making fun of men — because she’s talking about her rape — then she’s a real artist. She should write about rape more, but she probably won’t be able to reach that level of success again.
In an unrelated matter, there have been three recent high-profile reviews of Lockwood’s work in Slate, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. None of the reviewers have been women.
Tags: advice, hypothetical bee libidos, let's be clear it wasn't in the print edition, patricia lockwood, poetry, sexism, the new yorker, women's work