The Fashion Magpie Weekend Vibes

Weekend Vibes, Edition No. 102: The One on the Problem of Authorship.

My Latest Snag: Where the Crawdads Sing.

Did anyone else finish the February book club pick already? I am sticking to my new year’s resolutions and turning in early to read most nights of the week, so I’ve plowed through about a book a week so far this year. I’m nearly done with Where the Crawdads Sing and while I find the quality of the writing erratic (some chapters are lyrical and captivating; others are cloyingly saccharine, as when the narrator is reunited with her brother — the dialogue was absurdly stilted and mawkish), I think it’s an important read. I’m maybe 80% done with it and I keep thinking about Circe and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and — it feels like an important, topical thing to read, as so much of it has to do with a woman in exile whose story is at odds with the interpretations of those around her. There are also interesting inflections to contemplate when holding it alongside Lauren Groff’s Florida, another Magpie book club pick from earlier this year, as both claim the wild marshlands of the coastal Southern U.S. as their settings, and both interrogate the relationship between nature and (wo-)man many times over. A stirring read, though not without its faults.

(More books to read right now.)

You’re Sooooo Popular: The UES Mom Jacket.

The most popular items on le blog this week:

+The Upper East Side mom jacket. Read more about it here.

+Such a cute sundress! (Under $100.)

+For the second week running: my new favorite tinted moisturizer. More pigmented and concentrated than the Laura Mercier fan favorite. LOVE the way it blends into my skin!

+An incredible product for delivering volume to even the limpest, finest of hair (ahem, mine). I’m hooked!

+Speaking of haircare, many of you are hooked on this! Still have not pulled the trigger…

+The best mittens for a cold snap. (Lined in fleece!)

+This tea is like catnip for me. I cannot get enough of it. So, so smooth — almost chocolatey!? I can’t explain it, but try it once and see how you feel.

+My favorite everyday bra.

#Turbothot: A Problem of Authorship.

When I finished the February book club pick, I immediately assigned it a high score within the context of my own personal rubric (1-5). Then I read the afterword by the author and did a little recon on him and found myself docking the book several points. Now I can scarcely think of it without cringing. I’ll write a full review explaining why and how my opinion of the work changed as I learned more about the author at the end of this month, but the evolution of my perspective on the book has sat uncomfortably with me over the past few weeks.

A couple of you had written in to mention that Sherman Alexie had been embroiled in multiple complaints of sexual harassment, and that his book (which is written from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old boy and is often assigned as high school reading) had been pulled from many school book lists as a result. My initial reaction was, “Well, that will provide some interesting context for conversation at book club, but it won’t — and shouldn’t — preclude me from reading and discussing it.” My initial thinking was that the evaluation of book club candidates from the perspective of whether or not the author was a good person was a slippery slope. That exercise might exclude half of the best-loved, most important books of the past few centuries. And where would I draw lines around what makes an author “good” or not? For example, would I cut the work of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves? Would I avoid Hemingway because he was a known philanderer? These authors led deeply morally troubling lives and yet — and yet — and yet. How do we reconcile the quality and importance of their work with the facts of their authorship?

There is also a danger of running too far afield, of censoring too much, of too heavily imposing my own values in the selection of books, in turn heading off healthy cognitive dissonance and debate.

There is also a more erudite angle to contend with, and it has to do with my training in the study of literature. For years, I tried on the various lenses of my professors: a gender studies/queer theory lens here, a post-colonial lens there, a new historicist take from this professor, a structuralist take from that one. Gradually, I realized that none of these professors had the entire picture of a work when choosing to favor just one approach to the text, and that there was fallibility and a very human kind of personal preference in their interpretations of the books we were reading. And so I consciously reflected on which of the many critical apparatuses I’d learned about appealed most to me on an intuitive level. I found that close textualist / formalist readings were my wheelhouse: I was at home thinking about narrative design, analyzing the various plot points and devices to understand the inner workings of a text. I preferred to think of each book as a kind of universe unto itself, with its own logic and rules and symmetries and patterns. I looked for repetitions and echoes. I was drawn to formulas and sequences. I made much of these things, all the while knowing that in choosing to look at texts through this one particular lens, I was silencing other, equally yielding perspectives.

And so, there’s a kind of academic rootedness when I say that I tend to prefer to approach a book as if it has dropped from a tree straight into my lap, and I often consciously choose not think about its provenance too carefully. I opt to consider it on its own, understand it on its own terms, react to it almost in a vacuum, guided by the underpinning assumption that readers are active participants in the creation of artistic meaning.

But — this Alexie book and its surrounding controversies came along and, man!, it’s made me re-think everything. I find myself entirely unable to — and indeed morally blocked from — disambiguating the work from the context of its authorship.

Where do you fall on this spectrum of readership? Do you find you need to understand the historical and social context of a book, or are you able to separate a book from the potentially troubling conditions of its creation?

(How’s that for casual Saturday morning fare?)

#Shopaholic: The Tailored Dress.

+Many of you asked about the shift dress I wore with Gucci tights to a baby shower (shown in Instastories) last weekend. Sadly, the dress is several years old (from Banana Republic), but this sweet dress is markedly similar owing to that cuff detail! I’d order in the pink.

+This dress is like an affordable version of the Emilia Wickstead one I waxed poetic about not too long ago!

+This rash guard is BEYOND for a mini.

+I am actually obsessed with this skirt. LOVE. The length, the fabric, the pleats! I need this!

+Such a darling (and heavily-discounted!) dress for a last-minute Valentine’s Day look for a mini.

+These seem like a good approach to making vegetables and fruits more palatable to a toddler! (Thanks, Maura — snagged this idea from your newsletter!)

+Such a pretty early spring dress.

+Love this traditional-leaning tablecloth.

+A really good price on a wear-with-everything Prada sandal.

+Major lust list item.

+Have been living in robes lately. Love this one.

11 Comments

  1. Interesting series of thoughts, and one I wrestle with a lot. From an academic point of view, I think there is something to be said about the ways in which once a text leaves the hands of the author, it takes on a life of its own. The text is not just what the author intends it to be, or wants it to be. It instead enters discourse through circulation, and becomes its own separate document.
    I thought this article was an interesting perspective on these same kinds of questions: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/books/review/edith-wharton-house-of-mirth-anti-semitism.html
    I will say, though, that academic rationales aside, in my personal time (and frankly, in my choice of academic focus, and my choice to write about and teach about women and people of color), there is something to be said about who we want to encourage (making an author the focus of a book club or of blog posts is increasing interest, and sales), and who we want to spend time with. We have a finite amount of time and an infinite amount of books — reading one book means not reading a different book in that same amount of time. When there are so many wonderful books and not nearly enough time, especially when it is a question of reading for leisure and not for academics, it seems fair to me to choose whose work we want to put our energy into, and to allow in the question of who is doing the writing. (A final caveat — not everyone is held to the same standards. Let’s hold Sherman Alexie accountable, and let us hold white male authors to the same standards.)

    1. Thanks so much for this article, and I love the way you’ve framed your approach to selecting texts. You are right that there are other implications beyond the immediate aesthetic gratification of reading a good book for selecting what we read. Thanks for reminding me of this. I know Roxane Gay would nod along.

      xo

  2. Great read as always – thank you!

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  3. Wow — this is a thoughtful, eloquently-put, interesting look at something I think about fairly often. First of all, I am so impressed that you’re reading a book a week. I think I need to stop reading multiple books at once (technically I’m reading 4 nonfiction books — egads!) and focus on one at a time.

    To get into the meat of your turbothot — I am one of those readers who finds it hard to divorce the work from its social/historical context. I think it’s so helpful to understand those relevant contexts when reading. That said, two of my favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway and Junot Diaz. One takeaway I’ve had from the #MeToo movement has been to widen my reading selections to include more women writers and authors of color. This is not to say that men’s writing, particularly white men’s writing, is not worthy of reading — not at all! It just made me stop to think that so much of what I’ve read, especially in an academic context, came from such a narrowly-defined group of individuals. And I say this having written my high school “thesis” on Toni Morrison and, in college, having taking plenty of classes on non-male writers. The focus was very much on Western authors, and I’ve tried to broaden that in the 12 years since my academic career ended.

    Anyway, I digress. I love the ways in which you get me thinking about deep stuff on Saturday morning!

    P.S. My selected color/size of the UES mom coat is coming back in stock on Monday & I’m going to go for it! Yay! Also: that Petersyn dress is amazing; love the color and silhouette! Added to my list of potential spring purchases.

    1. Hi MK! Thanks so much for weighing in on this. I can completely understand your positioning — books are, after all, in part a reflection of their times and understanding the full context of authorship can be illuminating. Separately, there has been some work recently in the way of “expanding the canon,” including in your standard-issue “gut classes,” which traditionally foreground white, male authors. It would be interesting to design/propose a new “canon” for the standard “Intro to Lit” class so many students take with a more diverse array of texts…xo

    2. MK – what you wrote here had me screaming, THIS, YES, THIS! “One takeaway I’ve had from the #MeToo movement has been to widen my reading selections to include more women writers and authors of color. This is not to say that men’s writing, particularly white men’s writing, is not worthy of reading — not at all! It just made me stop to think that so much of what I’ve read, especially in an academic context, came from such a narrowly-defined group of individuals.”

      I did the same with my book club. We select books for the entire year and when the first list came out last summer, I awkwardly replied…”ummm…. every author is a white man! can we have some other voices here?” I’m the youngest member by 25 years (which I love – SO important to have friends in each generation!), and while I was worried I had offended some, we decided as a group to rethink our list and add some non white male authors. It’s livened up our discussions and has expanded my horizons for sure!

    3. LOVE this, Anna! And love the idea that you are the youngest voice in a book club, adding your own diversity to the mix.

      You know what’s interesting? The reason why I picked Sherman Alexie for our book club in the first place was because I realized we’d read NO male authors. Every single book was written by a woman. And it’s funny that this book therefore led me to this frame of mind…

      xx

    4. Anna, your book club sounds amazing — as Jen pointed out, so cool that you’re bringing your own form of diversity by being so much younger than the other members. And good on you for pushing the diversity of the selections!

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