For Valentine’s Day earlier this year, Bill got me a Kindle. It was actually a Valentine’s Day/Birthday gift, but it sounds better if I just say it was Valentine’s Day gift. (Come on boyfriend, you should be showering me with gifts every chance you get.) I was thrilled to get it, and it’s since become my single favorite object. Every now and then I’ll swoon over how wonderful it is and I tell Bill, “I just love it so much. I want to tell everyone about it.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that I use it everyday or that I carry it with me everywhere I go. I’ve only forgotten it twice, and both times, I found myself stranded without reading material and having a minor panic attack until I realized I could read books with the Kindle app on my phone.
Since I do most of my reading on my Kindle, Amazon has a good record of the books I like. To find new books to read, I usually look at their recommendations for me. Chuck Klosterman, Chelsea Handler, Tina Fey, Stephen Clarke, Amy Sedaris, Kathy Griffin, Augusten Burroughs, Sarah Silverman, Elizabeth Gilbert…the list varied quite a bit. Having decided to really dive into the personal narrative experience, I wanted to see what other women were writing. The list presented to me seemed pretty unpromising. While Chelsea Handler might be a good guilty pleasure read (ie, when I want to feel morally superior to somebody who documents one night stands and her weird obsession with midgets), she’s not somebody whose work I hope to emulate. Tina Fey, also, while charming and hilarious, has gained popularity for her work not as a writer, but as a comedian, as did Chelsea Handler, Amy Sedaris, Kathy Griffin, and Sarah Silverman. And actually, I find the latter four irritating. (Just because she’s David’s sister, Amy does not get my affection.) Also, I hate Augusten Burroughs, and if there’s a way I can block him from every showing up on my Amazon recommendations list, I’d love to learn.
What’s frustrating is that female writers have a difficult time being funny without looking like bimbos. I brought this up to Bill once, and he asked me what I would think if I found an essay written by David Sedaris had actually been written by a woman. The fact is that it would still be good. His essays are funny and self-deprecating without trying too hard, because while he laughs at himself, he also realizes his error. I’m thinking of the first essay in Courduroy and Denim, “Us and Them”. He writes about his fascination with a family in his childhood neighborhood who didn’t have a television. He comments on how strange it must be to grow up like that, not knowing how and when to do things. They’re so clueless, in fact, that they go trick or treating the day after Halloween. His mother makes him and his sisters get their own candy to share with the Tomkeys so they don’t feel as if they’re in the wrong. In a desperate attempt to save his good candy, David stuffs as many candy bars in his mouth as he can. His mother comes in his room to find him with chocolate falling out of his mouth, and she tells him, “You should look at yourself, I mean really look at yourself.”
…it was hard to shake the mental picture snapped by her suggestions: here is a boy sitting on a bed, his mouth smeared with chocolate. He’s a human being, but also he’s a pig, surrounded by trash and gorging himself so that others may be denied. Were this the only image in the world, you’d be forced to give it your full attention, but fortunately there were others. This stagecoach, for instance, coming round the bend with a cargo of gold. This shiny new Mustang convertible. This teenage girl, her hair a beautiful mane, sipping Pepsi through a straw, one picture after another, on and on until the news, and whatever came on after the news.
The essay entertains you by creating this funny image of a child, but it also illustrates the ugly selfishness of humans and how we find both distraction and solace from our hideous selves in television. It’s brilliant!
Try to find something that works on multiple levels in a Chelsea Handler book. I dare you. It’s self-deprecating to be self-deprecating. It doesn’t provoke thoughts beyond, “Yeah, I guess midgets are pretty entertaining.” And I guess you could say that’s a difference between a silly book and a literary book – it does more than entertain a reader.
I’ve since read a few collections of essays by women – both of Sloane Crosley’s books, Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, Elisabeth Eaves, Sarah Vowell, Lucy Grealy. Those are books I’d recommend. (For a point of reference, I would not recommend Emma Forrest or Laurie Notaro.) I’m not saying every piece by these women is magnificent. I’m not saying every piece David Sedaris writes is magnificent.
I’m not expecting perfection. I’d just like to see a female essayist write with intelligent humor. But it might be an entirely different obstacle to overcome: are women who are self-deprecating automatically seen as bimbos? Can a woman poke fun at herself without looking incompetent and undeserving of respect? Or does the problem lie in the fact that women’s experiences are generally perceived as sillier than those of men? Do I have time to even begin discussing this? Not really, so I’ll leave this post unfinished and return to it at a later time.