Jessica's Reviews > Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
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Jan 05, 11

bookshelves: chicklits, groups-of-people, here-is-new-york, leetle-boys, love-and-other-indoor-sports, social-work-or-relevant, to-the-left-to-the-left
Recommended for: i DARE you to read this book if you have a penis; i bet you will like it
Read in December, 2010

I am here to tell you that I have never read Chekov, and I don't think I've ever read Grace Paley either. Hot damn.

--

Okay, so now I've read some Grace Paley (and a little Chekov too, actually), and I'm not sure what I'd expected, but this wasn't it. I think what surprised me about these stories was that they were so cool. I don't mean measured and even and emotionally restrained, I mean cool, they were cool, they were COOL stories! I mean yeah, of course they're dated I guess, being as they were written in the sixties or whatever, but they're still pretty -- well, edgy, I'd say. Edgy, stylish -- not fancy stylish, but like, thrift-store dress that's unexpectedly tight in all the right places kind of stylish. Cool. I thought a lot of these stories were kind of sexy, in this weird way. I really liked the way she wrote about female sexuality, even though the context was inevitably depressing. These stories are pretty much all about poor single mothers, which I guess isn't much of a pitch, but they were very cool, fresh, weirdly fun stories. I'm sort of surprised I somehow hadn't read them before, since there's so much about them that's exactly the kind of thing that I like. They all take place in New York neighborhoods that I know well (in much later, less cool incarnations, of course), and at least one of them is about a social worker, and another one is about a long-distance runner! Weird, right?! I related really personally to some of the material, and appreciated the stories more than someone who didn't feel that probably would. Still, this is a good book of highly readable, cool short stories, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.

I also have this Thing. That I want to say. Though I doubt most people I need to hear this will actually read it.

I know this is the kind of Thing people get really defensive about, so if you really feel like this doesn't apply to you, rest assured that you're probably not who I mean here. But some of you guys (mostly GUYS) need to take a hard, cold, sobering look at the first names on your bookshelves, and think seriously about why you read so few women writers. Chances are, you probably haven't really noticed this, but if you consider the issue, and you notice that it's true, I really do want you to stop and think about why that is.

There is no valid reason not to read women writers, but if you've been avoiding them unconsciously, don't beat yourself up about it. Lots of really intelligent people have this problem, and there's a deep prejudice against lady authors which even a lot of us ladies hold. I think this is the reason why Grace Paley's stories surprised me -- I was expecting something else, something less cool, because she's a Woman Writer with two capital Ws, and we're all scared those books are going to be like Little Women or something. Okay, I shouldn't say that, because I actually haven't read Little Women.... Little Women might be really fucking cool and raw and smart and, uh, I don't know, robust? Virile? I don't know exactly what the stereotypes of women writers are, but they're too unacknowledged and extremely powerful, and it sucks. I mean, it really sucks. It's bad for women writers, and it's bad for all the readers who are ignorantly depriving themselves of really prime cut, top-shelf, unmissable literature.

Like, I am not judging you. I get it. But I am asking you to change. I remember when this guy I used to hang out with read Toni Morrison for the first time, and he was just shocked because her writing was nothing like how he'd expected. I bet this is a very common reaction to her. Toni Morrison's books are brutal and nasty and super intense and insane and frightening. But that's not what people who haven't read her are imagining, because her name is Toni-with-an-i and because she's BFFs with Oprah's Book Club.

But similarly, Oprah's Book Club isn't what a lot of people are imagining. Oprah made all those ladies read The Road. You might not relate to most of the material on her show (I don't), but Oprah is a serious person, and she's into real literature. Hey, and newsflash: women write real literature, and they don't just write stuff you need to be female to appreciate.

I think a lot of otherwise intelligent, thoughtful men -- and also many women -- have this unexamined impression that they wouldn't like most books by women. Where does this idea come from? I think it comes mostly from some profoundly misogynistic beliefs that pervade our culture. Maybe it's partly because women writers are more likely to write about women, and traditionally female concerns, and a lot of people (men and women alike) believe on some level that this is a less interesting and important than books that are primarily about men and traditionally male spheres. I think it's also because a lot of us (I speak for myself here, and I used to be more like this), hold very negative ideas about what women's writing is like. Maybe we are afraid that it will be weak prose, or that it will be boring, and probably the reason we think that is that because on some level we believe that women are weak and boring. But women are not like that -- okay, some are, I guess; but most of us are not, and when we are, it's not because we're women. And such is also the case with women writers.

HEY, has anyone else noticed that the profiles on here note the users' gender? I remember some guy in a feedback group a couple years ago saying he wanted to be able to sort users by gender, presumably so that he wouldn't have to be troubled by hysterical Jane Austen reviews. Did the site take him up on it? Because that is so awesome! It makes me love people!!!

But I digress. Dude. Seriously. Please confront your issues, and go read some girls.
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Comments (showing 37-86)





message 86: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell She's really fantastic.


message 85: by Lynn (new)

Lynn She is much beloved among writers, I have never been able to read her.


message 84: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy She's great at dialogue.


message 83: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Chekov is great, however, best known for his plays.
Also, you have probably never read or seen Brecht, also better know for his plays, though The Jewish Wife is a great short story that gives you a taste of what he is all about. Very accessible.
Wandering, all this has nothing to do with Paley.


message 82: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Chekhov's short stories are much better than his plays, in my opinion.


message 81: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I'll be interested to hear what you think.
I like Paley, but for me, many of her stories are much the same.
In other words, she's very good but with limited range.

(okay, now someone will shoot me down).


message 80: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen You're bingeing on the short stories! Are you writing them too?

If you haven't read it yet, you might like Tillie Olsen's Tell Me A Riddle-- I always think of Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley at the same time, probably because both tend to be marginalized as Women's Studies writers, but deserve wider audiences than that.

As for Chekov, my favorite so far is a selection of the stories made by Edmund Wilson, reisssued by NYRB.


message 79: by Lynn (new)

Lynn I always think of Olsen and Paley together too, except that I like Olsen and could never get into Paley. Though maybe I should try her again.


message 78: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen I love Paley's voice, the lightness of it.

"I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified."

(I just did a search for this, and discovered that everyone loves this quote. As well they should! It's pretty great.)


message 77: by Jessica (new)

Jessica It's a great start to a good story.


Jessica So far I love this. I don't know Olsen, will look into her.

I've been on a short fiction binge but I'm getting kind of sick of it and think I need to read a novel soon.


message 75: by Lynn (new)

Lynn If you want to read a really depressing really good contemporary novel you might try Marlantes'Matterhorn. Sort of my generation's The Naked and the Dead. I started it, then got all this stuff from the library and will get back to it when the library stuff peters out.


Jessica I don't think I can read a depressing novel this time of year. Between the cold, the chapped lips, and the chronic discomfort, I'm already depressed enough as it is.


message 73: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen Yeah, I love stories too, but it can be an emotional rollercoaster to read a lot of them in a row.


message 72: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Probably why I am not reading it now either. Too depressing, but serious Literature with a capital L. I am totally involved in The Company - overslept again because I was up late again reading it. Don't think it is your sort of thing, but you did express interested in novels based on historical research, and this is an extreme example. Problem is I cannot sort out the fiction from the fact.


message 71: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Excellent.


message 70: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Good review. You might want to check out Jane Bowles if you want more edge female fiction.


message 69: by Lynn (new)

Lynn The women writers thing - you know it is so true around here. Paul will read Annie Proulx, because I never stop gushing about her and women writing non-fiction - he just finished the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Cleopatra for example and he adores Sarah Vowel, but does not buy fiction by women. I think the underlying assumption is that it is all too much about feelings or something. It works for me since I read quite a bit of his male-authored fiction (the good stuff).
If you bought the Paley, save it for me. I will try again.


message 68: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Great post--like a V.Woolf-esque protest for the age. I was having this exact debate earlier today, because a friend ran a poll asking what the '5 great books everyone should read' were. It was like stepping back into my first undergrad lit class; all dead white men, with a couple living. Harold Bloom tells you that McCarthy, Roth, Pynchon, and Delillo are the four best living novelists, and people still take this shit for scripture. Outside of and within literary studies/culture, women writers are still relegated to this ridiculous "special interest" subcanon thing, and I'm really quite fed up with it.


message 67: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Oh, and I asked Santa for Grace Paley's Collected Stories-I've only read one or two of her pieces before, so I'm hoping I was a good kid this year...


message 66: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen Lovely review. I agree with you about the Thing. And it starts early! My husband has just been reading the Little House books to our son-- they were a cornerstone of my childhood reading, but my husband is reading them for the first time, because he perceived them as girl books when he was a kid.


message 65: by jo (new) - added it

jo the school system teaches us that there is literature and then there are women's books. we only read the former. some women make it into it, but not many. like, just two or three. thanks for writing this.


message 64: by Buck (new)

Buck I have a penis (technically) and I just might take you up on your dare.

You were complaining about this Thing last year, remember? You guilted me into examining some of my prejudices, which was a real pain in the ass, but I've come to love a bunch of women writers as a result (most of them dead lesbians, as it happens, but whatever.) I never got around to thanking you. So thanks.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I agree with you and have noticed a lack of women authors in my life at various points (as well as filmmakers and at one point, long ago and no more, musicians) and sought to remedy this unconscious neglect. A thing that some males have to deal with when it comes to consciously reading more women authors is the dreaded "Oh you're just doing that to look progressive and sensitive so you can get laid by x, y and z type of woman." This is why I've stocked up on books written by women quietly in the past or refrained from gushing endlessly about liking various female artists or intellectuals to a woman who might think I'm hitting on her with a series of disingenuous pick-up lines referencing DeBeauvior or something equally awful and cheesy.

The other problem for the more self-aware/neurotic male is wondering if he's only reading and enjoying women authors merely because they're women and therefore he's fulfilling some leveling of the playing field, gender equality ideal rather than really appreciating the work for what it is. I offer these things up as possible further explanations for why some males might neglect or seem to neglect female authors.

As much as it is important to edge one's way out of the seemingly omnipresent Dead White Male canon, there's a similarly problematic syndrome (which usually hits people in college) where a reverse sort of discrimination based upon race and gender emerges and people begin to only want to read books by, say, radical feminist theorists and "people of color", etc. I think people have to be on guard against both of these habits of neglect and bias, despite their good intentions, which we all know can pave an unsavory road.


message 62: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jimmy wrote: "Chekhov's short stories are much better than his plays, in my opinion."

//chokes on tea


message 61: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "So far I love this. I don't know Olsen, will look into her."

Olsen is great, but there's only about four stories by her -- nearly all of them are fantastic, tho. There's a fragmented "novel," "Yonnondio," which she never finished. Her nonfiction book "Silences" is amazing but terribly depressing.


message 60: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Moira wrote: Olsen is great, but there's only about four stories by her -- nearly all of them are fantastic, tho. There's a fragment..."

I loved Yonnondio, unfinished as it is.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I just find it initially a bit shocking that anyone who still reads actual books these days could still say with a straight face that they don't want to read a female author because it's probably just about menstruation and feelings and stuff. But then again, I'm in a continual state of near-disbelief in the face of a lot of massively subscribed idiotic ideas, so I'm glad to have people re-remind myself and others about some of them (like sexist literary trends) so they can be worked against.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio See, it's a lose-lose situation. Either I'm sexist for not reading enough female authors or I'm just trying to look good in front of the right crowd by reading female authors and caring about shit. I often get this sense, even, maybe especially, from women who are highly attuned to gender issues and from the kind of males who seriously think that only women can be feminists or concerned with gender inequality.


message 57: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I appreciate your earlier statement. (31)


Jessica I think it's infinitely more respectable for men to read lady writers and identify as feminists at least partly in service of getting laid, than it is not to read lady writers or care about gender issues, and expect to get laid anyway. What's so wrong with wanting to have sex or get kudos from the womenfolk? If we women had our senses about us, we'd stop throwing down with men who have sexist literary tastes! I have a friend who was internet dating and she refused to go out with any guy who didn't have at least one female author on his book list. It obviously cut down her bachelor pool a lot , but I thought it was a pretty awesome standard to maintain.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Jessica wrote: "What's so wrong with wanting to have sex or get kudos from the womenfolk?"

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. The issue is when people cynically write off someone's tastes in art or intellectual contributions made by women or stances on gender equality as being false and purely contrived in the service of appearing a certain way, rather than genuinely really believing in what they're saying.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio To be clear, I'm not saying this is a problem that makes the project of getting more people to read more female authors any less feasible or necessary, just that it's something that arises sometimes along the way. It's something I've noticed and something I find myself self-consciously taking into account in certain situations, especially talking about these things with people that I don't know very well yet, unlike people who I know know that my tastes and positions are sincere and not an artificial contrivance.


message 53: by Jamie (new)

Jamie @MyFleshSingsOut

Out of curiosity, do you genuinely get the sense that women think you're trying to impress or woo them when you mention that you like women artists, or do you think this is more of a self-inflicted anxiety? I'm a gay man, so I suppose the 'validity' of my (women-artist-related) tastes is less in question, to some extent, but I don't know that that would be my first reaction to a straight guy saying he likes women writers/musicians/artist/etc. I'm just curious as to whether this is a more general assumption by women about straight men or if it contributes to, as you say, men not wanting to 'own up' to certain aesthetic inclinations...


message 52: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "I just find it initially a bit shocking that anyone who still reads actual books these days could still say with a straight face that they don't want to read a female author because it's probably just about menstruation and feelings and stuff"

Well, Franzen pretty much said he didn't want his Magnum Opus sullied with an Oprah sticker because it would get Gurly Feelings all over it and he wanted male readers (yes, I know that was a while back and they kissed and made up; that's just one high-profile example that springs immediately to mind).


message 51: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "See, it's a lose-lose situation. Either I'm sexist for not reading enough female authors or I'm just trying to look good in front of the right crowd by reading female authors and caring about shit..."

Yup. Spot on.

And if Jessica were a he, and not a she, how would this thread have run? Or if no-one knew either way?


message 50: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "I loved Yonnondio, unfinished as it is."

Yeah, it's great, but reading it's really sad. I always wondered why she didn't write more once her children were grown up and she had more acclaim, but maybe it was just too late.


message 49: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jimmy wrote: "Good review. You might want to check out Jane Bowles if you want more edge female fiction."

Jean Rhys and Anna Kavan are pretty great, too.


message 48: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jamie wrote: "Outside of and within literary studies/culture, women writers are still relegated to this ridiculous "special interest" subcanon thing, and I'm really quite fed up with it."

This debate always reminds me of this: http://www.politicalremixvideo.com/20...


message 47: by Lynn (new)

Lynn All this reminds me of the conversation with the waitress in the Dylan song Highlands:

Then she says, "You don't read women authors do ya?" at least that's what I think I hear her say

Well, I said, "How would you know and what would it matter anyway?"

Well she says, "You just don't seem like you do." I said,
"You're way wrong."

She says "Which ones have you read then?" I say,

"I've read Erica Jong."


message 46: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell HA! I'd never heard that one! http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/highl...


message 45: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 10, 2010 09:48AM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Jamie wrote: "@MyFleshSingsOut

Out of curiosity, do you genuinely get the sense that women think you're trying to impress or woo them when you mention that you like women artists, or do you think this is more o..."


I have heard both women and men make their positions crystal clear that they think certain people are merely pandering to an audience in a manipulative or otherwise phony way when they speak of feminism positively or heavily promote and/or praise female artists and so on. So it's not merely neurotic overthinking. I haven't encountered this explicit criticism directed at me personally all that much, but I've seen it both directed at others by others and even by myself, though silently, purely in my head. I'm not saying it's like an epidemic or anything, just something curious that I've noticed. One very, very small for-instance of this: the other day someone pointed out that he thinks I only like a lot of female musicians because they're physically attractive, and this bothered me a little ('though he was mostly just ribbing in a friendly way) because I feel that I genuinely love the music these women make and that their good looks are more of an incidental bonus.


Jessica I don't know that song, Mom, but I love the line "You just don't seem like you do."

MFSO, I mean, I think you're identifying something that is real and important to acknowledge -- the decision to seek out female writers IS often an artificial and self-conscious one. It takes an effort and happens for a reason. I guess my argument is that to some extent you SHOULD be trying to look good in front of a certain crowd, that this stuff doesn't just happen on its own because there are all these unacknowledged barriers in the culture to reading women writers. And like, I get that self-consciousness about it, but to me debates about purity of motives are not just beside the point but actually in conflict with it. In a way I have more respect for men who notice that they don't read women and are embarrassed to show their faces around the ladies, so they make the effort to change, than I do for guys who were raised by lesbian wolves or whatever and just naturally gravitate towards women writers.

And G N, I mean, that's why I felt compelled to write this, because I do think it's a harder point for a dude to bring up without sounding either self-congratulatory (I am enlightened male reader of female writers) or sexist (one of my main points is that I hold a lot of these negative biases myself, and I have more permission to admit that without getting jumped on because I am a lady).

You know, back to MFSO and Jamie's comments, I think this shows that a lot of the not-reading-women stuff is the direct result of pervasive misogyny that goes way beyond this issue. I've noticed a lot of times on here that when I see which of my friends has read a particular woman writer's work (e.g., Edith Wharton), the only men who come up are gay. To me this suggests that straight men don't feel they have the freedom to read women writers without worrying about the taint of ladyness; generally gay men have already grappled with these accusations of unmanliness (explicit or implicit) and come to terms with them elsewhere, so they can read what they want.

Does reading women writers mean you're a pussy? To a lot of people, yes, and I think that's the real issue. Because first of all, it doesn't, but even if it did, what's so wrong with that anyway?

Thanks for all the recommendations, everyone!


Jessica And like, I am definitely familiar with the pandering-feminist-male accusation, and I have two things to say about that. One, okay yes, it can be valid if a guy's mouthing feminist talking points to score but his actions on the ground belie a real commitment to feminism, but more often I think it's usually bullshit and either reflects a) more misogyny, punishing men for identifying with women and their struggles or b) petty, unproductive crap from women who want to feel victimized and keep boys out of their club, punishing them in this meangirl lunchroom kind of way for being dudes.

That's just my take though.


message 42: by Scribble (last edited Dec 10, 2010 10:08AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Jessica wrote: "(one of my main points is that I hold a lot of these negative biases myself, and I have more permission to admit that without getting jumped on because I am a lady)."

Absolutely. Good on you for doing it, even though it sucks for the blokes.

Jessica wrote: " b) petty, unproductive crap from women who want to feel victimized and keep boys out of their club, punishing them in this meangirl lunchroom kind of way for being dudes."

So true.


message 41: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "Does reading women writers mean you're a pussy? To a lot of people, yes, and I think that's the real issue. Because first of all, it doesn't, but even if it did, what's so wrong with that anyway?"

And thank you for bringing this all up -- I think it's real, and important.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Jessica, you characterized it well in 48.

Also, I like your point about men at least trying to improve even if the carrot on the rope is simply getting laid. It's not a way of looking at it that I'd considered before.

And "raised by lesbian wolves" cracked a smile.


Jessica Yeah, I mean, it is bizarre to me that it is socially acceptable for men to behave in a brutish, idiotic, or aggressive manner, or to ply her with gifts and meals in order to bed a woman, but for some reason listening to lady musicians or reading female-penned books as a sexual conquest strategy is supposed to be this big no-no. If a guy were interested in me and read an author I liked to try and get in my pants, I would be into that; and in fact, this has worked in the past (sorry mom).


message 38: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Not a problem. I can relate.
But I guess one has to ask oneself, "how important is it that a guy reads women authors?"
I am not necessarily convinced that a guy deciding he has more than enough to read and doesn't get into most of the female-authored fiction he has tried so tends to avoid it means that he is necessarily a misogynist. I am speaking here from experience also.
However, for the literary establishment to continue to deprecate women authors is unforgivable.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (So cool of your mom to be on GR!)

A few lady writers that I am excited to finally read and others may want to check out and/or comment on:

Cynthia Ozick
Lydia Davis
Susan Daitch
K.I. Hope
Lorrie Moore
And Ms. Paley, as I've had my eye on this collection for a bit and the one I added today also sounds really good.


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