Literary Links: Women and Ambition, Jealousy and Privacy


Here at Flavorwire, we pride ourselves on not only writing some of the best content on the Internet, but keeping an eye on all of the great writing that other folks on the ‘net are doing, too. And since our audience (and we) love books in particular, we thought we would share a weekly roundup of some our favorite bookish writing from around the web. I spent a lot of this week reading long essays by women writers about Women and Writing, and nodding extremely vigorously. A sampling of those essays follows.

To begin with, the fallout from Elena Ferrante’s “unmasking” has unsurprisingly brought forth some great ruminations on women and privacy. At The Millions, Marie Myung-ok Lee writes about “occupying” her author photo and replacing it with a sketch.

But, even as I had the photos done in a chilly loft in Chelsea, knowing I was posing for pictures, I didn’t feel like I looked like me. I don’t wear makeup, that was part of the problem. But it went beyond that. Makeuppy me didn’t look like the me who wrote the book. I also didn’t want my spouse to take a picture — I didn’t want the self I save for my friends and family out there for public consumption. After what happened to Elena Ferrante, I feel that more than ever. I needed a buffer, a filter, a conception of an author that would be a stand-in for me.

Lee’s piece points to a problem faced by all women, not just literary celebrities like Ferrante; what Jia Tolentino calls a need to “strip-mine” the self in order to be secure in ambition. “As it relates to non-celebrities, at least, the problem is not so much about what happens to women after they become established and successful,” she writes, responding to Ferrante and Kim Kardashian’s recent trials. “The problem is that a woman retains so many obligations to so many people that she must, almost always, strip-mine her selfhood to achieve that success and security in the first place.”

Continuing on to an appraisal of Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck, Tolentino looks critically at the idea that the treatment of female celebrities and high-profile “trainwrecks” has some sort of bearing on womanhood writ large:

This rhetorical mode risks locating some large part of a woman’s cultural worth in other people’s hatred of her—or at least making those things seem inextricable. This may be true for celebrities. But I don’t know if the paradigm that surrounds famous women is as relevant to the rest of us as it’s so frequently made out to be.

What is relevant to the rest of us, writes Elisa Albert in a stunning longform piece for Hazlitt, is how to reconcile today’s standards of ambition to our own lives and desires. Hers is essentially a piece “against ambition,” and argues for other standards — care, fulfillment, doing the work. As a new mom delighting in simply making it through each day satisfactorily enough, it gave me a lot of comfort and courage to read this:

I mean: ambition to what? Toward what? For what? In the service of what? Endless schmoozing and worrying and self-promotion and maniac flattery and status anxiety and name-dropping are available to all of us in any artistic medium. But the competitive edge is depressing. That thinly (or not at all) disguised desire to win. To best her or him or her or him, sell more, publish more, own the Internet, occupy more front tables, get tagged, have the most followers, be loudest, assume some throne. Is it because we want to believe that we are in charge of our destiny, and that if “things” aren’t “happening” for us, we are failing to, like, “manifest”? Or is it because we are misguided enough to think that external validation is what counts?

She comes up with an answer that is reminiscent of the viral 2012 New York Times op-ed, “The Busy Trap:” “Perhaps it’s because knocking on doors like we’re running for damn office is a lot easier and simpler than sitting alone with our thoughts and knowledge and experience and expertise and perspective, and struggling to shape all that into exactly the right form, during which process we take the terrible chance that we might get it right and still no one will care.”

Part of the fraught landscape around female ambition involves jealousy, especially in the literary world. This week, Jami Attenberg asked Maria Semple about jealousy at LitHub and got a fabulous answer:

Maybe I lack imagination, but every time I try to go down the road of fantasizing about possessing another person’s success, it breaks down before I can get off on it. What does that even look like? I’m living my life but I’m writingtheir books? I was just talking to a writer who was all envious of Jonathan Safran Foer and his expensive house and movie star girlfriend. I said, “You want to move to Brooklyn and live in a giant house and have everyone hate you for it? Where are your wife and kids in this?” I’m sure I sounded like Spock but I couldn’t make it compute. For those who are jealous of other writers, here’s a hint. Envy is based on your false belief that the other person possesses something magical that exonerates them from the rules of reality. In other words, you’ve created a false construct where you think, “If I had money, I’d have no problems,” or, “If I got a rave in the New York Times, it would wash away the pain of the past, present and future.” Once you realize that problems are an inescapable aspect of reality, envy melts away.