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This letter about the London Review of Books’ coverage of women writers is straight fire

Letter in snow

Happy day after St. Patrick’s Day, everyone. Whether you’re nursing a hangover or avoided yesterday’s revelry at all costs, you can always use some new reading material. For your convenience, we’ve collected this week’s best writing on books and related subjects in one handy place. Herewith is your weekly book link roundup for the week of March 12, 2017.

I was thinking the other day about the idea that you have a reader and a writer, and they're different and they're flawed and they're fucked-up, each in their own way. And most times they're in the middle percentile of human goodness. They're just who they are. Then, in the moment of reading, the writer comes up to the surface and the reader comes up to the surface and they kiss, like two fish. That actually does happen. We know that happens. They're both briefly their best selves, or at least better selves. A flawed human being writes something and 60 years later a reader picks up the book and something in them rises to meet it.

All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences aren’t merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in “virtual reality.” They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldn’t have gotten here without them.

  • Have you read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle? It’s my favorite book; I’ve been reading it once a year since the sixth grade, and I always find new things. Last time, I read it as an argument about the history of the English novel and the clash of high modernism with 19th-century neoclassicism. But somehow it never occurred to me to read it as an argument about faith. Luckily, Ellie Wymard at the LARB is on it:

At the end of I Capture the Castle, Cassandra Mortmain has clearly responded to the Vicar’s compassionate, perceptive tutelage. Still a teenager, she is already thinking about art through metaphors and language inspired by a religious consciousness. Perhaps the secret of her enduring appeal is that together those frameworks animate her joyful plunge into the unpredictable vicissitudes of life, providing salve to our own unspoken fears.

Working out how this state of affairs comes about is a different matter, one not really within my remit. I’m unwilling to suppose that misogyny plays a part at the irreproachable LRB – even though the latest front cover trails a long review by a man of two books by men about a ground-breaking photographer with a quote calling the subject ‘that little minx’. A female subject: obviously. And even though one of the nine letters – all by men – that you publish takes a woman reviewer to task for spending some of her review of books about a male artist in discussing his relationship with the main woman in his life, and accuses her of ‘gossip’.

When it comes to women’s writing, some men aren’t listening. It is a land where women’s stories are silenced. Rebecca Solnit argues that silence is a state that is imposed upon the powerless. In Solnit’s discussion, when women’s stories are not heard, that is an act of silencing. That same oppression whose end result is the absence of women from literature is also the same oppression that results in the lack of writers of color in bylines and among authors. The irony is, women authors and authors of color do not have to be writing about women or people of color: they can write about anything.

In too many cases in the creative writing community, men are afforded the position and opportunity to tell their students, particularly those from traditionally marginalized groups, how to tell stories—and also which stories are worth the telling, publishing, selling, and so forth. There is much more we might say about the kind of shaming, silence-enforcing and exploitative abuse involved in such a breach of trust in a field of humanities presumably devoted to the freedom of expression.

Happy reading!

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