Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Kipnis v. Merkin": A (Not-So-Brief) Debriefing

I've mulled it over in chambers, and here's how I make sense of the knicker-twisting debate.

1. "Knock" Slate's Book Club, not feminists (I am quoting here from Slate's weekend subhed, "Laura Kipnis v. Daphne Merkin: A Knockdown Feminist Brawl").

As I noted in my initial post, the Slate Book Club is rarely (ever?) a take-down. The premise is promising: instead of merely posting a review based on one critic's provisional response to a book, the exchange allows the critic to air his or her comments directly to the author, and invites the author to respond and comment in turn. Ordinarily two ships that pass in the media night, the critic and author drop anchor for a spell and let the ideas flow.

A lively discussion, of *ideas? How ingenious!

Well, it hasn't always worked out that way. As I implied in my first post on this particular Book Club, I've harbored doubts about Slate's commitment to the cause, as it seemed as though critics were suaded to flatter authors (to get the latter to the table?) in ways that made for a shallow swim. Add that to the fact that the Book Club frequently appeared when a book was either about to, or had just, come out, and the column may as well have been Larry King (especially in its over-weening obsequy). Overall, the genre itself had -- as we say in my business -- reified, or taken an all-too-familiar and predictable form.

As it looked as though Merkin and Kipnis were out to break the mold -- and Kipnis' The Female Thing has been out since October 1 -- I was initially enthused by their first entries and looked forward to a substantive debate. Playing the part of the "critic," Merkin challenged Kipnis on her colloquial diction, both in Kipnis's recent book and 2003 career-maker, Against Love. Kipnis (in the role of the "author") parried, claiming the time-honored strategy of imitating a given discourse in order to subvert and redefine its terms.

So far, so good, at least from where I was sitting, in that the Book Club was "selling" neither The Female Thing nor itself, but instead raising questions of method and idiom central to any meaningful cultural polemic.

But then insult led to injury, if not a pound of female flesh.

First, Merkin accused Kipnis of side-stepping questions in order to burnish her image as feminist iconoclast. (Fair play. Continue.) From this daring opening, however, Merkin went on to protest (you *could say too much) (a) what Kipnis evidently thought was a compliment -- if not grounds for mutual gal-pallery -- in designating Merkin as "bratty" and (b) Kipnis's own (obsequious?) allusion to Merkin's decade-old New Yorker piece on spanking. In effect, what started as a jibe against Kipnis's own well-honed reputation became a forum on Merkin's own, as Merkin patently refused to grant Kipnis a chair on the same dais.

(N.B.: A panel presentation does feature here: Merkin accuses Kipnis of lying about having been in the audience for a talk in which Merkin participated: in effect, what Kipnis extends as a gesture of "this is your stage, I'm only sitting in the cheap seats," Merkin rebuffs as gratuitous and insincere.)

For my part, I kept thinking of Portia's line when she enters the Venetian courtroom (crossdressed as a law clerk) to settle the dispute between Antonio and Shylock. Portia's inquiry -- "which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" -- functions to question the characters' own reified differences, and puts Christian society itself on trial, for having erected those differences in the first place. As for me, in this case, I was thinking: which is the critic here, and which the author?

Fraysters lunged ad feminem at Merkin and Kipnis, decrying their "estrogen-laced" comments as self-indulgent feminist (self-)parody; when, in fact, what was being parodied, inversely and by contrast, was the (self-)indulgence of the Book Club itself. That is, the genre assumes that a fairly well-known author will deign to countenance the solicitation (if not the solicitousness) of a (usually) lesser-known media critic (to generate book sales for the author, as well as downloads for Slate: i.e., a win-win).

Perhaps piqued from the outset that she was cast in the latter (i.e., lesser) role, Merkin emphatically wasn't on script. To the contrary, she used the occasion to decry Kipnis's own theatricality, citing Kipnis's colloquialism as a lack not only of gravitas but also, or by implication, of intellect. Meanwhile, Kipnis must have felt utterly blindsided, not only by Merkin's indisputable rancor, but also because, or *unlike Merkin, Kipnis already has in-house status at Slate. Like Antonio, who assumes a "fair" hearing in the Christian court, Kipnis wasn't prepared to have her own character put on trial.

So is it really that these two women were prickly ("bared their claws"); that feminists (of any stripe) are generally small-minded and intolerant; or even (more feasibly) that two generations of writers were shown to be divided by a common language (i.e., gravitas v. slang) -- or that the Book Club itself could not generically withstand deviations in form? Sort out the fact that it was two women writing on topics related to "feminism" or "women's issues" (or whatever label you want to give it), and what destabilized the entire exchange from the outset was its striking recasting of roles, i.e., its assigning to the more established -- though less au courant -- writer the part of fawning minion. You could fault Daphne Merkin for being ungenerous and self-interested, but, on the other hand, I think I might be a bit prickly, too.

2. A First-Wave refresher course: the personal is political.

Of course, we cannot wholly discount the fact that what gave the exchange its particular frisson was the fact that two women were trading barbs on the matter of erotic "confessionalism." To be sure, the fact that the dialogue got so personal is what made it come across, ultimately, as so petty. (And Fraysters' calls to "get the jello" -- and Slate's own sensationalist subhed [did Meaghan O'Rourke know about this?] hardly lent the column intellectual weight.) In this respect, I can hardly be the only dismayed feminist who felt as though I were witnessing a spectacular car crash (i.e., I can't look, I can't look; oh, but I have to. . .).

After all, I myself had speculated -- eagerly, no doubt -- that Merkin and Kipnis were in on it together, to call us all out on our own erotic provincialism, i.e., our own eagerness to see something "hot" in two women hitting the rhetorical mats. Upon seeing those hopes dashed, I held back on commenting any further, specifically to resist the (equally gendered) urge to "make nice" of this consummately unconsummated affair. No, if feminism (again, of any stripe) is to have any intellectual currency, it has to allow for -- nay, encourage -- vigorous debate, and even allow that debate to go absolutely *nowhere from time to time (high-minded premise of the Book Club notwithstanding). If grudges turn on sticking points, then sticking points themselves demand a ritual airing if we're ever going to get anywhere.

In this respect, the fact that the debate itself turned on the definition of terms, the meaning(s) of discourse -- or, more specifically, on the authority of confessionalism versus that of colloquialism -- shows us, for better or for worse, where we're at -- which is to say, deciding what kinds of stoops rhetorically conquer.

For the first wave feminists, the personal was political because what had passed as natural or common sense viz. labor -- i.e., "housework" versus "a paying job" -- needed to be rhetorically denaturalized (or shown as bunk) in order to make way for economic restructuring. That we are now arguing over terms may seem like progress (to some; and to others, reason to enjoy our paychecks and quit our bitching), but nonetheless testifies to ongoing -- and weighty -- imbalances when it comes to our writing.

For where Merkin and Kipnis appear to agree -- at some level -- is that powerful writing trades on techniques in withholding and revelation, concealment and display; and that female writers in particular are acutely aware of the stakes, and potential gains, of any given pose they strike.

[To keep up the Merchant analogy here: recall that Portia herself stoops before the shallow Bassanio, describing herself as an "unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractic'd," before she proceeds to pronounce sentences on Shylock, Antonio, and eventually her own husband. To what extent does her power in the courtroom stem from the gravitas of her own rhetoric ("the quality of mercy is not strained. . .") or from her *appearance as a court-appointed clerk? Tough to say.]

Arguing that the appearance of her spanking piece in The New Yorker in particular is what lent that writing both its thrill and its authority, Merkin maintains the importance of context to the meaning of any public disclosure. Yet by publishing on spanking in that particular venue, Merkin had nonetheless upheld its (pre-Tina Brown) writerly scruples, and conformed to an authorized, if not formal, register of language, even as she defied the zine's normative standards of content.

For her part, Kipnis sees in appropriating informal girl-talk a method to put a magnifying glass to its weaknesses, and (if I understand her rightly here; I have not read her books [they're in modern English!]) the possibility to imbue that talk with some credibility, if structured and accompanied by the kinds of ideas that ultimately make for a persuasive argument. A reader ("robt") just weighed in minutes ago here, to express doubts that Kipnis's freewheeling word-play will signify as *she hopes outside the semiotic recesses of academe -- which is to say, in the so-called school of life, where the word "girl" on the page still conjures. . . a girl.

Again, tough to say (especially for me, happily hiding out in those recesses), but I find it compelling that Kipnis gets the most "sympathy" in the Fray -- for having capably withstood Merkin's chaste lashing or shown her willingness to oblige her senior confessor?

Tough to say.

I have one more point to make, on the matter of erotics and language (cf. Marlowe and Raleigh, below), but I'll throw in my own towel here, for today. Like the Book Club itself, I suppose this is a serial . . .


Anonymous said...

You seem to think Merkin is a lot older than Kipnis. Actually, Kipnis is 50, according to the chicago tribune, and Merkin is maybe 52. They belong to the same generation.

Euonymous said...

Thanks for your comment. Still thinking about it . . . (as usual), more soon.


Karen said...

I read the discussion like this: Merkin sets the tone with a snotty critique of Kipnis's casual, girly language. Kipnis responds without hostility -- with humor even. Her joke (compliment) about Merkin's "bratty" behavoir rubs her the wrong way -- and Merkin then becomes defensive and weird. Like we care that she was wearing linen! (i.e. Merkin can dish it out, but can't take it). Isn't it always true that the most critical are the most sensitive?
Anyway, I don't agree with Merkin's point -- why *can't Kipnis critique girly mag language by using it? She's certainly not the first person to do so -- How about the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses? Incidentally, I think Joyce may share Merkin's love for spanking (aren't there some letters to Nora about that??).

Send me your Canadian address, GD!

Anonymous said...

Very catty

Anonymous said...

I don't think Merkin should be so harsh considering the fact that her name refers to a pubic wig worn by syphilitic prostitutes of the 1600s.

I can't wait until I'm old enough to change my name.

Johnny Merkin
3rd Grader