The three main problems I had with Laura Kipnis’s essays on men

On a process level, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation is a successful essay collection. Kipnis is a fluid writer with an eye for the mot juste; she varies her sentence structures with grace; nothing she writes ever feels forced. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because (alas) I have a lot of problems with the sentiments Kipnis expresses in her elegant prose. Here are the main three:

1) So. Much. Freud. Lady, you are aware that further work has been done in psychology since the mid-twentieth century? Kipnis’s references to Freud, Oedipal complexes, and psychosexual development are so numerous they would make an excellent drinking game condition, an idea I am sorry I have only come up with now because I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I had been a bit drunk for it.

Sometimes this leads to interesting insights — there’s a reason Freud’s giant shoulders are the ones everyone’s been standing on — but as a theoretical framework, it’s sharply limited, and you run up against the limits fairly quickly. The essay about Dale Peck and how his harsh reviews are his way of enacting the same abuse scenarios to which he was subject as a child is armchair psychology of the most simplistic variety.

2) Perhaps this is my own limitation, but Kipnis doesn’t seem to be in conversation with much of modern feminism. She does have an essay about outrage culture (framed as a cutesy confession of her own tendencies to moral relativism, gag), but it’s mostly about something else, and in a later essay she says this:

Yes, Dworkin reads like a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bouncy pro-sex post-feminism. Feminist anger isn’t exactly in fashion at the moment: these days, women just direct their anger inward, or carp at individual men, typically their hapless husbands and boyfriends.

Er. What now? There is certainly a strand of bouncy post-sex writing, but — like, Amanda Marcotte, Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, Anita Sarkeesian, Mychal Denzel Smith, Lindy West, Jamia Wilson? I’m not even trying hard to think of names of fashionable feminist writers who regularly express anger about feminist issues.

And relatedly:

3) Kipnis has an air of being above the fray when it comes to many of the issues that occupy feminist writers and thinkers. Since she’s written this book, it’s clear that she isn’t above the fray; but she gives the impression that she is far too cool for your petty problems. Her reaction to crappy behavior (whether it’s Norman Mailer being a shit or Harold Bloom hitting on students) is frequently along the lines of “How can you be mad at them when all they want is attention? I just find it rather endearing!”

Well. Neat? I guess? That you feel that way? But that sort of reaction elides and perpetuates the troublesome power dynamics at play. It tells the people who are bothered that they are wrong to be. And it tells the people doing the bothering that they are okay to continue behaving that way, as everyone will just chuckle indulgently. And that, my friends, is how we all end up jumping over missing stairs.

To return to the Harold Bloom example, Kipnis has a lengthy essay about the absurdity of sexual harassment policies at universities. Much of her alarm over these policies feels like received wisdom, given that she admits upon reading her own university’s guidelines that they are “far less prohibitive than other places I’d been hearing about” (where are these mythologically prohibitive universities?). She goes on for a while about how when she was in school everyone slept with their professors and they were totally happy about it, because actually the power was quite balanced: The students had the power of being young and beautiful and desirable, and the professors had the power of, you know, actual power over the students’ futures.

Kipnis feels that the tricky part of sexual harassment is that you don’t actually know until you have already groped the student whether that sexual advance is “unwanted” (prohibited in school guidelines). So what is a professor to do? Here’s one idea, just off the top of my head: perhaps professors could try the radical strategy of waiting until the class is over and grades are handed out, and then to hit on their students by saying “Now that class is over and grades are handed out, I wanted to tell you that I think you’re swell, and I would love to take you out for dinner sometime if you’re interested.” And if that is too much of an emotional challenge for the poor wee vulnerable bunnies in the professorial field, I submit that they perchance should find something else to do with their genitals.


Review: In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm

For my second entry in Ana and Iris’s Long-Awaited Reads Month, I read Janet Malcolm’s book In the Freud Archives. When I discovered Janet Malcolm back in October 2011, In the Freud Archives was the book of hers that appealed to me the most. For one reason or another, I didn’t get to read it until Christmas vacation.; and I think I might have liked it better if I’d read it sooner.

I am not exactly disillusioned with Janet Malcolm, but I’m not not disillusioned with her. Her writing remains as beautifully clear and elegant as I ever thought it was. She is still the person I turn to when David Foster Wallace has worn me down with his ceaseless locutions. Lo:

Human nature is such that when we are suddenly taken up by someone whom we consider superior and admirable, we accept his attentions calmly, whereas when we are dropped we cannot rest until we feel we have got to the bottom of the person’s profound irrationality. Nor can we easily accept the verdict sent down to us through the mortifying silence of someone who has found us wanting and has packed up and moved on. We protest it, each in our way — our futile ways, since the more effective is our protest the more surely do we drive away the person whose love we have lost not because of anything we did, but because of who we are.

Good, right?

On the down side, I am finding that Malcolm’s acknowledgement of the ethical problems posed by journalism does not inoculate her against those problems. Whereas the controversies she covers in her literary biographies remain interesting and relevant — we won’t stop caring about what sort of person Sylvia Plath was, or about the inherent problems of someone like Bronwyn Hughes controlling Plath’s letters and estate — something like In the Freud Archives feels pointlessly petty and gossipy. Viz.:

[Jeffrey Masson said,] “Wendy [O’Flaherty] was even worse, in her way, though I thought, Well, at least she’s a woman. I remember once trying to touch her, and she looked at me and said, ‘Frankly, I don’t think you’re man enough to have an affair with me.’ I ran into this sort of thing everywhere I went at Harvard.

and much later in the book:

[Wendy O’Flaherty said,] “I gather from other people that [Masson’s] not nice to anybody, but he certainly has always been beastly to me. I wouldn’t sleep with Jeff, and he might have regarded that as a kind of gauntlet.”

This sort of thing feels like a waste of Janet Malcolm’s — or anyone’s — time. So much of In the Freud Archives — and this was true of The Crime of Sheila McGough and The Journalist and the Murderer as well — is spent in quoting long, complicatedly self-justifying speeches from people who feel they have been dreadfully wronged. Malcolm cycles through various interviewees and their feelings of having been wronged — Jeffrey Masson, denied curatorship of the Freud Archives following an ill-advised Times article; Kurt Eissler, who comes off rather sweet actually in his Freud apologetics; Peter Swales, also taken under Eissler’s wing and later abandoned when he proved to be insufficiently fond of Freud.

And, just, why bother? Most of the people you meet in the world could probably be drawn on to talk about Wrongs Done to Me by People I Did Not Realize Were Terrible Until Much Too Late, but that gets wearisome pretty quickly — as do, to my infinite regret, a number of Janet Malcolm’s books, including In the Freud Archives. (But not The Silent Woman, which I still really love, and maybe it’s just because I’m more interested in troublesome literary executors than I am in scholars who went around scandalizing Freud’s name in the 1980s when Freud was still (sorry Freud!) relevant to mental health practice.) Wearisome and not worthwhile.

British cover
British cover
American cover
American cover

Cover report: I like the faux-wrinkly business the British cover has going on, but I think the American cover is more visually interesting. I am also fond of collage where pieces of the collage have writing on them. So that is my bias. I will accept counterarguments.