Friday Reads: All of the Profiles

Friday Reads: “Outside In” by Kathryn Schulz (on Nell Zink) & “Meaning Machines” by Calvin Tomkins (on Charles Ray) (The New Yorker) 

I go through phases with The New Yorker. Sometimes, I try to “catch up” on the pile that sits on an armchair in my bedroom. Other times, I throw away any issue that is older than two weeks, its presence an awful reminder of all the time I spent watching The Shahs of Sunset instead of reading. I’m going through a catching up phase right now and am happy to report that I am only a few weeks behind. Anyway, my relationship with The New Yorker is not really the thing I want to tell you about. (Well, I sort of do, obviously, because that’s what I started talking about in the first place, but never mind.) Rather, I wanted to tell you about profiles that I read about two different artists, both of which I’ve been thinking about a lot this week.

The first is Kathryn Schulz’s profile of Nell Zink, the author of The Wallcreeper and now Mislaid, which came out this month. She is notable for her age (51), residence (Bad Belzig, Germany), and not giving a fuck about American publishing or really America in general. (She is American.) The thing I found the most interesting about Zink is that since she was a child, she has felt inferior and incapable of writing that would measure up to novels she considers great. She wrote only for herself or small audiences until The Wallcreeper was published last year. I related to her on that level, not feeling like your work is worth sharing. Otherwise, I simply enjoyed reading about her surprising life and interests.

I also read Calvin Tomkins’ profile of the sculptor Charles Ray, which very much made me want to see the exhibition of his work that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago this month. Ray’s mid-to-late career work pushes the boundaries of modern sculpture while employing techniques from the past. And no piece speaks to this more than his “Huck and Jim,” a life-size, nude representation of the characters from from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that was first proposed for the plaza outside the new Whitney Museum and ultimately rejected. (It’s on display for the first time at the Art Institute.)  The behind-the-scenes look at how Ray creates sculptures like “Huck and Jim,” as well as the quiet story of how he became a great artist, made this profile unputdownable for me.

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And here’s what I was reading elsewhere…

This inside look at Lilly Pulitzer’s headquarters in King of Prussia, PA and the apology Lilly Pulitzer had to issue after someone noticed – and alerted the internet to – fat-shaming cartoons that were pinned up inside one employee’s cubicle. (New York Magazine; BuzzFeed)

Everything that Gawker published about the Duggars, the Quiverfull movement, and the Advanced Training Institute method of homeschooling.

Frank Bruni on Catholics and same-sex marriage. (NYT)

The Frugal Traveler’s “$1,000 Day in Paris for $100.” (NYT)

Brit Bennett’s beautiful “Addy Walker, American Girl.” (The Paris Review)

And another profile, this one on the hard-to-define country music star Kacey Musgraves. (The Fader)

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Finally, here is the video for Lil Mama’s “Sausage,” which has been overwhelming me since I watched it for the first time earlier today. Have a great weekend!

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Writing While Female

This past weekend, I finally got around to reading the Rebecca Mead’s profile of Jennifer Weiner in The New Yorker. I don’t read The New Yorker cover to cover like I used to, which I’m sure is due to the fact that I go to the gym less these days. Say what you will about my gym routine, I get a lot of reading done while “doing cardio.” But because I’m lazy about working out, I also am lazy about reading the magazines I subscribe to, so now I pick many of the articles I want to sweat on before I go to the gym, mostly because I’ve seen people talking about them on Twitter. In the case of the Weiner profile, not only had I read a lot of tweets about the article, but I’d also read many tweets about her and what she had to say about the state of fiction being written by women.

As an occasional writer and reader of fiction, the profile gave me a lot to think about. Weiner is right about many things. Reviewers and readers don’t treat fiction written by women the same way they treat fiction written by men. And we simply don’t see much coverage of commercial fiction or the fiction that exists in what New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul called “the vast middle.” I’ve been guilty of not reading – and “writing off” – certain female authors precisely because they write commercial fiction or “chick lit.” I even wrote a little bit about this last week when I talked about my relationship with historical fiction over the years and my dismissal of the genre during college as too fluffy for me, though I read Philippa Gregory novels than I had time for.

I think it’s hard to be a female writer and not care about being taken seriously. I didn’t think I could write anything at all until a few years ago because I felt that no one would care about anything I had to say. I don’t mean that I actively though that. Rather, I dismissed the idea of being a writer for a lot of reasons, and when I finally sat down and thought about it in the midst of an extremely frustrating summer as an unpaid intern the summer after I graduated from college, I realized that underneath all of the very rational reasons I had come up with for not being a writer, there was a fear of being unsuccessful. And at that point I’m sure I thought I would only achieve success if I wrote a big, literary novel.

I started writing anyway. I took a few fiction writing classes at NYU. In one of them, I found one of my biggest fans, an older Swedish poet and writer named Gun, who was a little crazy and a lot amusing. She was always positive about my manuscripts – many of which were sloppy and amateurish – and for that, I thank her. But there was one time when she said that my work reminded her of “chick lit” and I almost lost my shit. I brooded over that one for days, thinking that if what she liked about my work was its chick littiness, then maybe her liking it didn’t matter. Maybe I needed to write differently.

That never really happened, though I did start trying not to judge what I write. I’m a 26 year-old woman and what comes naturally to me is to write about things that I’ve experienced and some of those things are dating and struggling with my weight and working on my self-esteem and generally trying not to fuck up at being a person. Though it’s not totally out of the question, I’m probably never going to be a traditional literary writer. So there’s a chance that, if I do eventually write a novel, someone will classify it as “chick lit.” I won’t be mad about it though. I hope I’ll be happy enough to have written something (or to have finished writing something) at all.

Anyway, just read the profile. It’s good and you don’t need to subscribe to The New Yorker to access it, which is nice. Let me know what you think.