TheNation.com suffered a near meltdown from the firestorm of comments that erupted over Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “My So-Called Post-Feminist Lit Life” [April 29]. A few samples from the hundreds of offerings:
“Amazing article. Brava.” “Brilliant and infuriating!” “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy. Wooooooooooo!!” “After millenniums of patriarchy the world isn’t going to change in just a few decades…. Give it a couple of hundred years.” “It seems we are as post-feminist as we are post-racist.” “You have earned my respect—as a writer, a feminist, a person. This piece is fantastic and moving, and your brutal honesty deserves applause.” “It bears pointing out that anytime a woman dares to have sex and complain about sexism, it strikes the biggest nerve.” “I hope you win that ‘prestigious if controversial’ British [women’s]literary prize.” “This piece rang so many bells I’m practically deafened.” “Thank you, thank you, thank you. This. Is. Necessary.”
Some longer comments follow. —The Editors
I applaud Kogan’s courage in writing the book that came to be called Shutterbabe. Titles are stuck on books by publishers against the will of the author—it has happened to me several times. Because she is female, her book was doomed to be reduced to sexploits.
As a photographer, I’m always interested in books about photos and photographers. I recently saw a copy of Shutterbabe and didn’t even pick it up because I made a snap judgment based on my visceral reaction to the title. Now I’ll look for that book again.
I loved Shutterbabe—and so did many women I know. Yes, do start that women’s literary prize here in the United States.
This is why so many women have decided to take their writing career into their own hands and self-publish.
You don’t need The New York Times. Reviews of books, movies, restaurants are irrelevant. You can skip that part of the dying infrastructure and get directly to the people who care with your dignity intact.
This article is fraud. Well-crafted fraud that fooled me, but fraud nonetheless. It is a clever rant against people who reviewed her books negatively…. Only someone fiendishly clever could make so many people sympathize so much with the problems of an Emmy-winning, bestselling, Harvard-educated journalist from the richest country in the world. Talk about privilege.
Nation, you have really slid downhill printing the petulant complaints of a bestselling author who wishes she was a slightly more respected bestselling author. Every day I read indignant comments, articles and posts by successful, assertive, well-educated women who are kvetching that this, that or the other thing can, with absolute certainty, be attributed to the pernicious, institutional and yet somehow personally targeted sexism to which the complainer has fallen victim. Sorry, “girls,” this is just how things are. Sometimes you don’t get into the magazine. Sometimes you don’t get reviewed. Sometimes the promotion is denied you. And, male or female, if you talk about using sex as a medium of exchange, people are going to call that what it is.
“Sorry, ‘girls,’ this is just how things are.” Aw, thanks for mansplaining it to us! Our fwuffy widdle girly-brains needed that!
I was so relieved to see this essay, because it allowed me to believe that my failure wasn’t mine alone. Like Louisa May Alcott, I have been a “scribbler” all my life but have never been published. Kogan talked about the reviews in The Nation—men writing about books written by men—and I must confess that I often skip them. She also included a long list of women writers she’s been reading. My list, though not as high-brow, includes the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Rita Mae Brown, Gwendoline Butler and Mary Daheim.
New York City
I am one of the book critics to whom Deborah Copaken Kogan refers. Readers can go to nymag.com/nymetro/arts/books/reviews/4349 to see for themselves whether my 2001 review of Shutterbabe for New York magazine took Kogan’s book, and the issues it raised, seriously. I think it did. (For the record, I did not choose the titles of my New York mag reviews.)
It was in response to my largely positive review—which gave tremendous credit to the book, and which I ended on a strong critical note only because I found Kogan’s climactic rhetoric about the joys of motherhood and family, and her pity for people who didn’t have children, to be disturbingly anti-feminist—that the author twice phoned me at my home to announce that she wanted to correct what she saw as my numerous misinterpretations.
That episode ended in her mailing me a multi-page complaint pointing out all manner of sins against her book—not dissimilar, as I soon found out, to the complaints she was mailing or reciting to other reviewers and editors at the time. (Few authors that I know of have been heard out by offending reviewers and editors at comparable length, in fact.) This struck us as unfortunate: we felt that this first-time author, whose work we had all admired in various ways, was doing herself no great favors.
And so I was impressed when, five years ago, Kogan e-mailed me a heartfelt apology for the behavior that she herself characterized as unprofessional. I now find it odd that her remorse has vanished and her resentment resurfaced at the moment her latest book has received a nomination for a women’s writing award. Her desire to cast her professional disappointments as a feminist story strikes me as insulting to genuine feminist concerns.
I wrote the Salon review (salon.com/ 2001/01/29/shutterbabe) Deborah Copaken Kogan references in her essay. It is hardly an example of slut-shaming, and it is not libelous, as Kogan alleges. These are serious things to be accused of. I have two questions: Where, exactly? And, if she felt so strongly about it, how come it took her twelve years to say something?
Unlike Daniel Mendelsohn, I never received a phone call or a letter from Kogan—given his experience, I feel fortunate. As a successful author myself, though, I understand how painful it is to feel that a reviewer simply doesn’t get you and isn’t giving you, or your work, the credit you feel you are due. Contrary to what Kogan suggests, you don’t actually learn how to write a book in school—I certainly didn’t learn it that way; I learned to write my own book by doing, and redoing and redoing. After all of that, it is deeply wounding to feel that your efforts aren’t appreciated.
But that’s disappointment. That’s not, as Mendelsohn smartly points out, a “feminist story.” And what it really isn’t—or shouldn’t be—is a marketing tool by which a successful author can promote her very real achievements by casting herself as the unfortunate victim of sexism.
Thank you, dear readers. I was floored by your generous and moving responses to this essay, which continue unabated even as I type this three weeks later. Tens of thousands of strangers from all over the world—men and women, young and old—have written either privately via e-mail or publicly via social media to express some version of “This made me cry” or “Thank you for writing” or “Don’t give up.” I heard you all, even if I didn’t have the wherewithal to respond personally to each missive.
As for Daniel Mendelsohn and Janet Reitman, I’m sorry they felt the need to out themselves publicly. I purposely did not name them in my essay. It was not about them. It was about a quarter-century of working as a woman in a man’s world, in which their critique of my life choices and the unfortunate titles imposed on their work (“Battlefield Barbie” and “Bang-Bang Girl”) played just two small roles. I also don’t blame them for judging an author’s life—as opposed to her book—based on culturally ingrained stereotypes: the stay-at-home Madonna, in Mendelsohn’s case; the whore, in Reitman’s. I chose to lay myself bare, warts and all. I just didn’t expect to get judged for them.
To set the record straight on Mendelsohn’s response: I never expressed pity for childless women. Nor would I. The passage in question can be found on pages 276–77 of Shutterbabe. The “multi-page complaint” to which Mendelsohn refers was two and a half pages, and it was both a thank-you letter for the positive review as well as a correction of factual inaccuracies. I recently dug up that letter. Here are a few condensed highlights: “Let me start off by saying thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read my book, for putting your thoughts to paper both eloquently and with great humor, for the many compliments, for your appreciation of my attitudes about sex and freedom. Let me also say that while I disagree with what you wrote about the last chapter of the book and, obviously, about my choices as a woman, I can understand from whence such sentiments spring. Family life, kids ain’t for everyone. But if you read the book carefully, I never said it was. Nor did I ever say I traded a career for motherhood.”
Last, there were not multiple other letters. Just one, to the editors of Salon, in which I explained that it was offensive to call an author a stay-at-home mother and that I did not “screw half the foreign press.”
With regard to Reitman’s letter, I’ll let The Nation’s online reader response to her questions stand, with one important caveat: I did not “screw strategically.” I never—ever—used my body or sexuality to gain access to a story. To posit otherwise or, worse, to base one’s argument on this false and damaging premise is the very definition of libel.
Ironically, though I was worried about the public smearing that might ensue in the wake of the essay’s publication, it was only these two critics, Reitman’s editor at Salon, and their various social media acolytes who went on the offensive. I think it’s useful to share just one of those tweets, since erased by its author. I keep a screenshot of it on my desktop, a daily reminder of the ingenious ways we shame a woman’s voice into silence: “amen to broken records. I know Holocaust survivors who complain less than you, Deb. Genug!” For those not versed in German or Yiddish, that last word means “enough.”
DEBORAH COPAKEN KOGAN