“Gotta love this seventies bathroom,” my new neighbor said, as she showed me around the house she had purchased from her parents.
“Hey now, this is definitely an early eighties bathroom,” I replied. And I was right. I’m usually right about the era of kitchen and bathroom remodels, and I specialize in those done between 1981 and 1986. There is something about kitchens and bathrooms done in that period that just screams Cyndi Lauper at me. I cannot always put my finger on how, but I know when a contractor did the work while listening to Toni Basil singing “Mickey.”
Personally, I think domestic architecture in general took a nosedive in the eighties. I know I’m the first to say such things, but the early McMansion movement does little for me. The fact is that people can tell when most houses were built or remodeled just by looking at them. Everyone has his or her own preference. Clearly, I have a thing for the mid-1920s, given that our last two houses were built in 1928 and 1926.
I am able, however, to appreciate houses of other eras, provided they have some merits beyond being just archetypes of their periods. Not myself a big fan of houses from the 1950s, but there are many of the period that are well-designed and well-built. The problem with most ordinary houses built in the 1980s is that all they had going for them at the time was that they were new.
Now they are just dated.
That is my long and absurdly convoluted way of saying that I am down with literature being reflective of its period or being part of a new movement. But if all the book has to say for itself is that it is new and flashy, it is going to become dated, much like the house with hollow doors and floors that sag under the weight of book cases.
My friend ABF commented on yesterday’s post on Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry:
Sexing the Cherry was published in 1989, before Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), before Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991), before Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), and only two years after Spivak’s In Other Worlds (1987). I know you weren’t being literal about how Winterson wrote her novel, and I’m not saying you should like it, but it is worth noting that it came out when the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies, and queer theory were themselves undergoing transformative changes or in fact just coming into existence. What seems like a “paint-by-the-numbers” text now would not have seemed that way in 1989, or at least not because of its engagement with theories of gender, sexuality, and postcoloniality.
He is right (because he always is); Winterson’s book was part of a movement. I wouldn’t say she started the movement, although I am not a historian of the period, because given the dates, it was all being written at more or less the same time. Nonetheless, yes, her novel was a part of that recharting, and as such was fresh and new at the time.
Kind of like that 1982 kitchen with the white cabinets and the Corian countertops.
My issue is not with her selling theory as fiction. Some of my favorite writers also wrote theory (is that like saying “some of my best friends are black?”). Henry James always had his panties in a bunch trying to figure out what the hell he was doing with his work, and he wrote essay after essay trying to explain the fine art of fiction.
Winterson just seems so damned impressed with herself.
And that’s the crux of my issue. Go on, write theory, write fiction, or write fiction that is theory. But, if you are going to write a novel that is steeped deeply in theory, do not do so with the answers already in mind.
Sexing the Cherry, to my reading, comes to teach me something. She has an agenda and she already knows the answers. That’s all well and good when you are making an argument in a theoretical essay, but it has no place in fiction that is supposed to be groundbreaking. If your fiction is also theory, then I want to see you working through things, questioning and challenging. I don’t want to feel like you already know and are deigning to share that knowledge with me. (This is not how I feel about all fiction, but fiction that is also theory, which Winterson basically is as a part of a certain postcolonial movement.) If you start with a checklist of points you want to hit, then your product comes to me as finished, with nothing for me to add in my reading. So why should I bother?
I’m not arguing that she didn’t do good work or that there haven’t been strong, positive reverberations from that period. But the book? Eh.
I do not want this to be a blog that only people with graduate degrees in English can participate in. I promise, that’s not the direction we are going here, even if these first two posts feel that way. I want to hear from everyone who has something to say about books. Please, please, feel free to argue. That’s sort of the point.