June 26, 2010

Dwight Garner is Trying

Dwight Garner is trying hard to avoid sexism in his review of Jessica Stern’s Denial, A Memoir of Terror. He quotes Joyce Carol Oates to demonstrate that he understands how women writers have had to fight for the right to write about violence. “Men,” Oates wrote, “don’t take women who write about [war, rape and murder] altogether seriously.”

“It is possible,” Garner magnanimously declares, “to take Ms. Stern very seriously indeed . . . and to consider ‘Denial’ a profound human document.” What is not possible for Garner, alas, is to deem Stern’s memoir “a profound literary one.”

What keeps Stern’s writing from being sufficiently literary? For one, “it lacks allusiveness and distance.” Okay. Plus it’s “hot to the touch in ways that are both memorable and disturbing.”

Hmm. Disturbing enough to inspire metaphor, but not literary.

Garner’s review is a strong endorsement of Stern’s book, which explores how being raped as a teenager led to her obsession with and expertise about terrorism and terrorists. But there’s something lurking beneath the praise, something that sounds to me like the reviewer’s very personal and very gendered revulsion at (this) woman’s anger.

He finds the book “hard to read . . . in part because Ms. Stern’s id floats very near the surface.” Anger “emerges in unexpected and jagged ways, ways that feel authentic but somewhat beyond her control as a narrator.”

Stern’s “narrative control” falters, according to Garner, when she explains exactly what she would like to see happen to the brain and penis of the man who raped her and her sister and—in part because authorities didn’t take their story seriously enough—44 others. Garner finds more evidence of this lack of control in the revenge fantasy Stern harbors against the prison psychiatrist who, upon examining this rapist of 44, declared him “not a sexually dangerous person.” This fantasy involves a wilting, shrinking penis and a bat to the skull.

As I read and stewed about Garner’s review yesterday, I found myself remembering Virginia Woolf having something to say about anger getting in the way of women’s writing in A Room of One’s Own. Would she agree with Garner’s conclusion that Stern’s anger takes away from her literary accomplishment?

I went back to AROOO to review what Woolf had to say about women writers and anger and realized—relieved—that she was talking about something else. Woolf was concerned with anger getting in the way of women’s fiction. According to Woolf, when Charlotte Bronte allowed Jane Eyre a speech about the constraints of women’s lives, she left “her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. . . . Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.” Woolf’s talking about one of those moments when fiction’s spell is broken by a writer’s personal anger.

Jessica Stern’s personal anger is central to her project, which explores the possibility that being terrorized leads some to become terrorists. In Stern’s case, it led to her becoming not a practitioner of terrorism but an anti-terrorism expert.

If only she’d been able to be more allusive, more distant, less angry. Then she’d get to be deemed literary in a New York Times review..

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