If you don’t want to know, it’s TMI to you

September 27, 2007

In one of those little intellectual synchronicities that occasionally pop into the life of a graduate student of literature, this week I’ve been reading and reading about feminist autobiography. That’s not really the synchronous part, b/c what week these days doesn’t pass without a little bit of feminist autobiography in it? No, what surprised me with its recurrence was the question of how much self-revelation is desirable in writings by feminists.

It started on Monday when my creative nonfiction workshop discussed the first half of Alix Kates Schulman’s Drinking the Rain, a memoir of her life after 50, which includes long periods of living alone on an island off the coast of Maine, an extended outhouse scene, and a curiously disengaged attitude toward her husband. What I found surprising about this discussion was how many of the women in the class either 1) flat out didn’t like the book b/c they didn’t like the Schulman they met on its pages or 2) liked the book but didn’t like her as a person, and that was okay with us. I was part of group 2. I wasn’t sure the author/speaker of the memoir was someone I’d hit it off with, but that didn’t keep me from admiring both her undertakings and her writing, and feeling that there was a lot I could learn from reading it. And I’ll say that by and large it was the self-consciously feminist or at least slightly radicalized members of the class who fell in category 2 along with me… and we felt no apparent contradiction between saying we didn’t like Schulman/the speaker and saying that we admired her. When I noticed that, I did ask myself whether I had committed a crime against solidarity, though.

I needn’t have worried. The real women on women lit violence came Tuesday, this time over Katha Pollitt’s new book, Learning to Drive. I haven’t read it yet, but its review by Toni Bentley in the NYT and Rebecca Traister’s meta-review in Salon caught my eye, in part b/c they echoed the very same convo we had on Monday. Bentley says Pollitt’s being flaky by publishing such an unrigorously argued and predictably personal book, and Traister’s questioning her own cringe factor at what Pollitt shares. When does personal information become TMI when it’s coming from someone you already respect in other spheres? And if you’re a feminist, does telling people that you have occasionally done things that feminism would not recommend hurt the movement/set us back/give the enemy too much fodder?

The tizzy seems a little misguided to me–none of these are really books that promote themselves as feminist. It’s a strong undercurrent in all, but it’s not the driving force behind their creation and publication. In the case of Pollitt and Schulman, the distinction is even more emphatic–they have other tomes devoted to more intellectual considerations of feminism and American society. These books were explicitly something else, something much more personal. So the question becomes, do these books documenting that the authors have often lived in ways that seem contradictory to the ideas and arguments they have in other venues espoused and made parts of their living doing so weaken those other ideas and arguments?
My gut reaction is, no, of course not, but I can see how it’s a question that hasn’t exactly come up much before. Writers whose reputations are made in one way or another seem to have relative freedom to write all different kinds of books, and this includes memoir which is inherently prone to the unveiling of details that would be irrelevant in less self-oriented forms. I can think of plenty of good reasons for writers to do both though, and not just to make extra money, the chief of which being, it could be really entertaining.

But then came Wednesday, where in my southern lit class we finished discussion Selu: Seeking the corn mother’s wisdom by Marilou Awiakta. Last week we were all in love with this book, and this week we were all in hate. What happened? TMI. To radically simplify Awiakta’s text, the multi-generic form of the book was “double-woven,” meaning, it had a first half and a second half. The first half presents the main ideas about a Cherokee perspective on what’s missing in our culture and how to put it back, and the second half revisits these ideas and goes deeper into them. The first half I could pretty much get behind (she has a great scene where she explains why biology might be destiny, but for her it’s not the destiny that you think), but the second half just got a little too… exhortatory and biased… and coincidentally, it was more personal. I pretty much tuned out when she get to the part about how her mother told her abstinence was the only sound policy (okay, well, I guess, but not for the same reasons) and how women are naturally good cooks. Ugh! Keep it to yourself! I’d believe you more if I didn’t know you thought those things!

So, maybe calling a respected writer out for TMI, like most things in life, really is more about us–specifically, what we’d prefer to know or not know to keep that person in the box we can use her in. If memoir, feminist or any other variety, is clearly useful for anything, it’s definitely for being forced to confront the reality that human beings are much more complicated and self-contradictory than any theory they help create.


One Response to “If you don’t want to know, it’s TMI to you”

  1. S.O.S Says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with your conclusion. I think people have philosophies/theories they do their best to live by, and if they are not in lock-step with those theories in every moment of their lives, that doesn’t necessarily mean the conviction isn’t there.

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