Spinster (Kate Bolick, 2015) / Live Alone and Like It (Marjore Hillis, 1936)

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Many months ago one of my brother’s girlfriends was reading this Bolick book, so I picked it up, and inspired by this LA Review of Books article read it together with the Marjorie Hillis. In the end, the Hillis was much more interesting to me; it is a guide for women living alone in the 1930s, and provides the dual joys of strange cultural assumptions and gritty practical advice about how to enjoy solitude when possible and, when not, how to make the best of it. Hillis takes it for granted that most of her readers have been taught to define themselves by men, and sets about arguing that this is not only unnecessary but counterproductive for women who, by choice or necessity, are going to be living alone. She tells her readers to develop passionate interests in things (not people) outside themselves, finding one hobby they can do within their own home, another which will be certain to take them outside of it; after all, Hillis says, “the more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you will be.” She has no pity for women who mope, or who single-mindedly chase after the married state, but she does not assume that a woman living alone will be devoid of male companionship; she presents time with men as a choice, possibly pleasant, but simply one more option amongst many. I loved her insistence on both self-care and self-discipline and her belief that solitary women can live rich, fulfilling lives, discovering that they “are more of a person” than they may have once thought. It is a short, fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Spinster… well, I found Bolick to be an interesting author, and I enjoyed some aspects of her search for self-identity, but much of it was quite frustrating, the sort of book where I want to sit down and have a long talk with the author about all the things she seems to be missing. As best as I can tell, Bolick’s “spinster wish” that inspired the book is simply the desire to be a fully adult person, self-sufficient and competent, able to ride out the emotional challenges of her life without falling apart. A noble goal, certainly, but Bolick’s struggle towards adulthood is not inherent in being female, despite the many ways in which contemporary U.S. society still infantalises women; it is instead a problem that lies at the intersection of her whiteness, her upper middle class background, her family that has enough wealth and leisure to support her emotionally and financially whenever she wishes it, and her sense of entitlement that underlies her belief that her life must satisfy her in all ways or is otherwise flawed. I was floored by Bolick’s enthusiastic approval of Floyd Dell’s essay “Feminism for Men,” in which Dell argues that women should be allowed to work and be self-supporting so that men will have no responsbility for children and can thus live unfettered lives of adventure. People are, of course, complex, and everyone has values that they do not live, but for Bolick to sing the praises of this viewpoint while returning home to live with her father after a failed relationship is not just ironic, but signals a self-absorption which mars the book for me. Bolick seems unable to connect her emotional ambivalance about modern womanhood to the broader feminist struggles which have been going on for centuries. Women have not only fought for hundreds of years to live without the support of men, but to survive alone when forced by necessity to do so, and to have their lives respected as fully meaningful no matter how they end up living. To be a spinster does not have to mean (as Briallen Hopper puts it in that fantastic LARB essay I linked to above) being “a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.” It can be about living in a lesbian commune, or being asexual, or deciding that celibacy is the way to meet other goals, or it can be a bitter disappointment of never finding anyone interested, or anyone who interests you — and that is just the merest sampling. Women can live a thousand different ways, and for Bolick to position herself as the voice of spinsterhood without considering how unrepresentative her white upper-middle-class urban experience is annoys me to no end. If the book had been titled ‘My realisation that I can have a boyfriend whom I don’t live with’ I might have enjoyed it much more. As it is, I can only hope that the fuss around her work demonstrates to publishers that there any book about actual spinsterhood will have no problem finding an audience.

Lazy Sunday Reading Collection #2

Having navigated my way through my daughter’s first week of kindergarten, complete with uniforms, packed lunches, and a new Frozen-themed backpack, I am looking forward to my lazy Sunday reading in bed more than ever. Here are the links I’ve been saving for this morning:

I just discovered Electric Lit’s new series, The Writing Life Around the World and I am intrigued. There are two essays so far, on Guatemala and Ukraine, and I am looking forward to both.

I have been thinking more about this question of difficult reading, so I am curious about Sam Allingham’s essay on different kinds of difficulty — especially since he seems fond of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, a book high on my TBR list.

Another book high on my TBR list, Helen Vendler’s H is For Hawk gets reviewed by Dinah Lenney in the LARB.

I love to make food, eat food, and read about food, so I am eager to read Matthew Kang’s review of To Live and Dine in LA.

This Oliver Sacks piece leaves me without words.

Links for my Lazy Morning

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With two small children and a cat and a housemate and a partner who lives with me and another one who lives on the other side of the continent, I am very, very busy, and yet I write every spare moment that I can. So when do I read? Usually at odd times: when the children are home but very occupied in their own worlds; lying in bed at night before sleep; waiting to pick people up at train stations or from school. The usual lot of the working mother, I think.

Reading in this way means I start many articles I do not finish, getting a paragraph or two into something and then having to put my ipad down to go attend to the latest crisis. Fortunately for me there are Sunday mornings, on which my partner takes the children out on an expedition — and I may sleep late and then lie in bed reading and drinking coffee.

Here are five articles I’ve been saving for this morning:

The cultural conversation about reading continues with Joanna Scott’s thoughts on The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.

Shirley Jackson wrote deeply disturbing novels in the cracks between “wondering what to have for dinner tonight that we didn’t have last night, and letting the dogs in and letting the dogs out, and trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it, and driving children to dance class and French lessons…” and also found time to give lectures on writing.

I have been fascinated with the Bloomsbury Group ever since I saw the movie Carrington in 1996 — so I am looking forward to seeing what Susanne Berne writes in the LA Review of Books about Viviane Forrester’s Virginia Woolf: A Portrait. I really do not need another book about Woolf, and yet…

Also in the LA Review of Books, Ben Parker argues that literary “realism” is that it is not a descriptive term at all, but a period: roughly 1830–1895. Really? I must read it and see.

Finally, will Meredith Turit’s article in Vanity Fair talk about the entrenched sexism which relegates women’s history to footnotes? Will she mention any of the work that Second Wave feminists did to recover this history? Or is the wheel to be re-invented again? I am, of course, hoping for the former.