Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

twitter-censorship

This week has been a worrying one for twitterphiles like me.  The social media site was blocked by the Government in Turkey, in a seemingly blatant attack on Turkish people’s rights to freedom of expression.  Today a court proposed that the ban should be lifted. As they wait for confirmation that it will be, Turks are using creative means to get round the ban, such as installing   Tor browsers and tweeting via sms on mobile phones.  Whilst representatives from twitter the company did speak out against the ban by Turkey’s authorities, they are not quite perfect ambassadors for freedom of speech. In 2012 twitter.com put their new policy into practice, allowing them to block tweets in particular countries, when they censored output in Germany from neo-Nazis. I’m not a fan of racism in any form, but a social media company making political decisions to restrict access to content concerns me. This seems particularly ironic when we remind ourselves how heavily the actual Nazis relied on censorship  and repression of certain points of view in their regime.

There have also been observations by twitterers that sometimes suspension of individual users can be the result of pressure from groups who dislike them, rather than for any violations of twitter.com’s terms and conditions. I am surprised I’ve never been suspended myself, actually, considering the various political and personal cliques who don’t like the cut of my jib on twitter! (I hope I’m not giving anyone ideas *stern look*). But whatever its faults, I am inclined to agree with Paul Bernal, an  academic who studies privacy, media law and Intellectual Property, that twitter provides great opportunities for freedom of speech:

twitter

I also agree with Dan Hannan, MEP, that whether it is at state or individual level, the calls for banning, censoring and punishing people are always made in relation to other people. A  ‘troll‘  is always someone else isn’t it?. But the kind of rhetoric that demands ‘tougher penalties’ for ‘cyber bullies’ and the values it espouses could have a negative, restrictive effect on us all.

twitter_DH

I have considered leaving twitter a few times in the last couple of years. But there are too many reasons to stay. Apart from the excellent friends I have made, and apart from my ‘professional’ reasons (for that read: ego) for using twitter, illustrated by recent praise for my novella  and for my critique of feminism, Leaving The Sisterhood, I think it’s too important to abandon. I know that I am no different from the majority of twitter users, in that my ‘output’ is often frivolous, or boring, but its my self-expression. My chance to contribute to discussions and debates, to see the events of the world unfold in real time, to learn and expand my horizons.

A lot nearer to me than Turkey, we also learned this week that restrictions have been put on prisoners receiving books and other gifts. Their freedom of expression and freedom to learn is not just curtailed by their incarceration, but now by further, draconian regulations. Even in the comfort of my own home, it is all too clear to me, that my right to talk shit on the internet is not something to take for granted. And it’s certainly not something to give up. They’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming away from that little blue bird, I’m afraid.

 

edna-st-vincent-millay

Over at Brainpicker, a wonderful source of all sorts of literary and other titbits, I read this piece today about the poet Edna St Vincent Millay. Apparently, the 25 year old Edna was banned from her graduation at university. The reason: for staying out partying with her pals! Her friends rallied round and she was allowed to go to the ceremony in the end, where some of her poetry was used in the programme.

My favourite Millay poem, Pity Me Not, hadn’t been written yet when she graduated with her cherished ‘AB’ (like our BA degrees now). I like the last two lines particularly.

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.

This love I have known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

Shulamith Firestone,   radical feminist and author of Dialectic of Sex, died this week. And, it appears she died having lived her last years quite isolated and miserable.

The accounts of her death remind me of the latest film by Carol Morley, Dreams of A Life. More than a ‘true story’, Dreams… is a documentary about a British woman who, like Shulamith, was found dead in her flat. But not days or weeks after she died. This young woman was not discovered till THREE YEARS later.

Shulamith is part of a generation, which happens to be my parents’ generation, which is on its way out. My stepfather died eighteen months ago. My Dad goes to more funerals than weddings. I feel death hanging over me in a way I never did before.

And with the demise of this generation, comes the demise of its ideologies and politics. Shulamith joins a growing roster of ‘dead feminists’ that includes Marilyn French,  Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly.

These women were part of what we call ‘second wave’ feminism, which was at its peak in the late sixties, early seventies. I have a very strong, VERY ambivalent relationship with second wave feminism, because I was born into it. My mum did not go to yummy mummy cafes and pilates classes in her spare time when I was little, she went to Women’s Liberation conferences and ‘consciousness raising’ groups. I am still recovering, literally, from childhood trauma that I can’t separate in my psyche from that period of feminist history. And when I was still a feminist I was often lonely and isolated, even when surrounded by my ‘sisters’.  Shulamith’s life and death reminds me that feminism is not a ‘cure all’ or a guarantee of being  successfully integrated into a group who share an ideology. It isn’t a guarantee of anything at all.

I am not celebrating individual deaths. Unlike feminists such as Cath Elliott, who cheered when Sebastian Horsley, who she believed was a ‘misogynist’ died, I feel sad when anyone shuffles off this mortal coil. At the risk of mixing my quotes up too much, do not ask for whom the bell tolls and all that.

But I am glad that second wave feminism is a dying creed. The ‘sisters’ who in my view invented concepts such as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘all men are rapists’ and the idea that one solution to gender inequalities is eugenics, have a lot to answer for.

A couple of years ago I might have finished this piece on a positive note, saying that the new generation of ‘third wave’ feminists are changing things, and making feminism into a more positive, more diverse, less man-hating movement. But as most readers will know, I won’t do that now.

Third wave feminism in some ways, takes the basic, misandrous tenets of second wave feminism and turns them into ‘memes’. Any thought or philosophy is removed and all we are left with is a bunch of white women screaming ‘RAPE CULTURE!’ and STREET HARASSMENT! and ‘MISOGYNY’! Technologies producing social media sites such as facebook, twitter and tumblr have meant political campaigns become very simplified and do not allow for intellectual debate. All you have to show your support is press the ‘Like’ button. This ‘dumbing down’ of feminism makes it particularly crude and lacking in rigour.

On some particularly dark days I even miss Andrea Dworkin!

However there are positive aspects to our contemporary world, in which radical feminism is seen by many as a joke. It does not have quite the power it did when I was a kid. But its younger, more manicured, less well-read sisters are dangerous. And I am stuck with them till I die.

 

‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.’  –  Oscar Wilde

Being lectured by Susie Bright about sex is not my idea of fun. So maybe choosing to read a book, about sex, introduced and curated by the American sex positive ‘sexpert’ and activist was a mistake. But non, je ne regrette rien, and this is why.

The collection of 24 essays, with forewords by Susie Bright and the editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel, is interesting, political, occasionally sexy. But I have a few criticisms of the book which are as follows.

The main problem I have with the overall tone and emphasis of Best Sex Writing is that it presents what I think is a false, dangerous dichotomy: sex/sex positive ideas = good v chastity/abstinence ‘anti-sex’ ideas =  bad.

This dichotomy is presented, too, in more than one place in the book, as a contrast between atheist and religious perspectives. The chapter for example called ‘atheists have better sex’ is infuriating in its smugness and its prejudice against religious people.  Ironically, as I have found with many atheists and sex-positive people in general, this determination that ‘sex is good and atheist sex is best’ is actually an ‘evangelical’ message, and ‘Best Sex Writing’ reads like a religious tract in places.

Also typical of sex positive narratives, Best Sex Writing positions women’s experience and femininity as more interesting and worthy of study than men and masculinity. Amanda Marcotte’s defence of the Slutwalks (feminist marches protesting against a Canadian policeman’s remarks about how women should not dress as sluts if they don’t want to get raped) is an example of this. As is Tracy Clark Flory’s admittedly interesting and humorous account of a workshop devised to unleash the female orgasm. In a piece about some nefarious goings on amongst politicians, Katherine Spillar literally pitches ‘good’ women campaigners against ‘bad’ men politicians and their advisors. As an active non-feminist I am not impressed by this bias in the book.

These criticisms of Best Sex Writing though, do not detract from the quality of some of the contributions. I particularly recommend some of the more personal stories in the book. Rachel Rabbit White, one of my favourite ‘sex writers’,  paints a wonderfully evocative portrait of Latina drag artistes and changing times. Marty Klein educates us about men and circumcision, and manages to be funny and sensitive at the same time. And, maybe a little surprisingly to me, Hugo Schwyzer’s honest account of his sexual experiences with men is touching and, I have to say, quite hot!

Maybe if the book was called ‘Best Sex Positive Feminist Writing’ I might be more generous about its contents.  And whilst I don’t like being lectured by anyone about sex and sexuality, not even Susie Bright, I have learned from it. But I wish it had more lines in it like this, from Hugo Schwyzer:

‘As I lay beneath him on that lumpy hotel mattress, the dim light of the TV flickering in the corner, he said the words I can still hear nearly thirty years on:

You’re so hot you make me want to come.’

‘In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in “The Golden Bowl” that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is “overreacting” to what she sees. James’s is a true report. The facts of imaginative literatures are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.’

from Janet Malcolm, The SIlent Woman (Granta UK 1996), 155

I don’t know if  Foucault’s Daughter  would agree. In my novella I documented the ‘death of the author’ and I deliberately left many stones of the narrative unturned. I think there were alternative scenarios to the one I suggested. But none I guess beyond the reader and the text. Nobody could come back from the dead, or from ‘real life’, even if I’d mentioned them or used their words in my book, and tell me I was wrong. They were figments of my imagination.

Whereas in non-fiction, some people  will have a different  story to tell, and a contrasting  version of reported events. They will be able to refute the contents of the work. In fiction you can only read it differently.
http://daviddobbs.posterous.com/janet-malcolm-on-truthiness-in-fiction-v-nonf

I am delighted to find that the marvellous James Maker has been shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize with his searingly honest and sparklingly funny memoir,  AutofellatioAnd I am equally pleased his achievement has been picked up by the press. None other than our favourite Lesbianic Literary Lush (I mean that in a good way) Julie Birchill gave Autofellatio a rave review in the Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/julie-burchill/julie-burchill-selfpity-is-now-an-art-form-2359427.html

But I have to take issue with Julie’s parting comment:

‘Amazingly, this wonderful book – shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize – began life as a self-published e-book before finding a publisher; think Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard finally finding Mr DeMille on her doorstep and you’ve got it. But with better shoes.’

This is a very outdated idea. That ‘paper publishing’ is higher in status and economic clout than e-publishing, and that everyone who self-publishes online does so whilst waiting for that elusive ‘deal’. Just ask Amanda Hocking, she will put you straight.

Even Susan Sontag, that other Lesbianic Literary (maybe not Lush) Lady, acknowledged the demise of print publishing back in 1996, when she wrote a letter to J L Borges, who’d been dead for ten years:

‘books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic”. Of course, it means nothing less then the death of inwardness – and of the book.

This time around, there will be no need for a great conflagration. The barbarians don’t have to burn the books. The tiger is in the library.’

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/susan-sontag–a-letter-to-borges-666700.html

The ‘tiger’ in the ‘library’ was a reference to Borge’s surreal poem which could also be read as a lament for the demise of ‘literature’:

I think of a tiger. The gloom here makes
The vast and busy Library seem lofty
And pushes the shelves back…

http://thefloatinglibrary.com/2008/09/03/the-other-tiger/

But here’s the thing. The only reason I came to read Autofellatio, on Kindle, was due to a review even more glowing than La Birchill’s, on Mark Simpson ‘s blog. And it was on that blog that I also read a review (which inspired me to buy a hard copy)  of  Where The Stress Falls, the book by Sontag, including that letter to Borges.

So my appreciation of the literary merits of James Maker, Susan Sontag and J L Borges, have all been enabled by internet and electronic media and publishing. There has barely been a book involved.

The Tiger Is In The Library.

We can either sit here crying over that fact, whilst the beast ransacks the shelves and destroys the archives, or we can learn to live with it.  And find a way to keep alive ‘the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects’  in the actual world that we actually live in.

We are the tigers. It’s up to us.