“Did we feel then, or do we feel now?” is the first question in No Regrets—n+1's new book of discussions with twelve female writers, editors, academics, and artists—that comes from a participant, not the moderator. There are two important words in that question, both of them said twice. “We” establishes a unity among the participants, and “feel” establishes that that unity comes from being women.
Dawn Lundy Martin, a poet, asks the “we feel” question in response to moderator Dayna Tortorici’s first question about books the participants wish they had read or thought they should have read. I know Martin doesn’t mean, in asking the question, to redefine what Tortorici asked about regret and reading. But by swapping out “think” for “feel,” she changes the question from an intellectual to an emotional one. Even if you find no difference in the statements “I think” and “I feel,” there is one, albeit subtle, and it’s important: It’s the reason “I feel” is so popular around grad-school discussion tables—because you can’t feel the wrong thing, but you certainly can think incorrectly, improperly. And though it’s dangerous of me to say (both because I haven’t done the proper research, listening to countless hours of boring literary-theory class discussions about normativity and why talking about the author is just plain wrong, and because I am generalizing [never generalize!]), I will say it: “I feel” is feminine, and “I think” is masculine. Martin’s swap makes the question stereotypically feminine. Women feel things suddenly, women have crazy emotions, women are full of regret and might not even know what they feel until their feelings are seen, as tears and blushes. Women feel, women don’t think.
Of course, this whole book runs counter to that kind of anti-intellectualist misogyny. N+1 is nothing if not intellectual and feminist. That’s served the little Brooklyn operation well, helping it grow from a quarterly literary magazine, launched in 2004, to a full-blown publisher a couple of years later. The title “No Regrets” is a response to n+1’s second book, What We Should Have Known, in which writers and editors at the magazine talked about books—those they’re glad to have read, those they regretted reading, those they regretted not reading. Like that book1, No Regrets is made up mostly of conversations between white people from the East Coast. The main difference, aside from the year, is that the first book was men and women in conversation together, and this book is only women.
Tortorici chose to have conversations with only women, she writes in the introduction, for a few reasons: 1. She already knows what men have read. 2. The question of what you should have read is, unlike Martin’s question, deliberately feminine, drawing on the way telling women what they should do has been used to subjugate them structurally and, conversely, to liberate them through feminism. 3. Women talk to each other differently when there aren’t men around.
This last point is the most troubling. Troubling whether it’s true or not, troubling whether you think it’s true or not, troubling whether you feel it’s true or not. My gut reaction tells me it’s not always true, that it’s similar to the assertion, made frequently in the book, that men and women fundamentally read differently2. Sometimes they do, of course, but it depends on environment and the individual reader.
But maybe there’s always a sliver of difference, because, after all, books are from the outside world, and the outside world is so explicitly and obviously sexualized and gendered3. If the latter is the case, and I suspect it is—I suspect the fact that most novelists considered “literary” are men, the fact that, like cooking, poetry is feminine until one reaches the professional level, the fact that we grow up learning to identify with male protagonists far more often than we do female protagonists—if the latter is the case, then we’re all at some point, women especially, reading incorrectly. I mean that if you’re a woman and you, unlike most of the people in No Regrets, enjoyed Hemingway and Roth and didn’t get angry or feel objectified or find yourself subjugated, you did something wrong. Is the something reading, or is it being a woman?
Rachel Z. Arndt is an MFA student in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, and an editorial assistant at The Iowa Review.
No Regrets: Three Discussions
n+1 Foundation, December 2013
- Also like that book, No Regrets is likely read by the same hyper-educated Brooklyn writerly sorts who subscribe to n+1. It is part of the same “secret canon.” Carla Blumenkranz: “Whenever you’re put in a university or even just in a group of people, there’s always a secret canon that everyone’s referring to….It’s just a reference point. There’s a collection of books that will tell you so much about the microculture you’re in and that’s the secret canon.”
- Astra Taylor: “I think a lot of people, young women especially,… feel they need to know everything, to have read all the literature and gathered all the facts and figures and have the appropriate degrees and validations, before they can take a stab at creating art, or participating in the broader cultural conversation, or putting themselves forward for a job, or whatever.”
- The em-dashes in No Regrets, when they come at the end of sentences, are feminine.* When they come at the end of sentences, the em-dashes signify interruption, and they are jarring (though also rare). Maybe they are jarring because, despite the book’s intentions to subvert what it means for a bunch of women to sit around chatting, it’s impossible to not read bitchiness into all-female interactions. We see a group of women talking about books and, try as we might, we see a henfest, albeit a literary-minded one.
*Emily Witt: My dad’s a journalist, so in my house it was always like…the ideal writer in my house, to my dad, was Jon Krakauer or Sebastian Junger. Super plot-driven, masculine—
Emily Gould: Fighting sharks and stuff?
Emily Witt: Um…
Emily Gould: And like climbing mountains?
Emily Witt: Yeah, or—
Emily Gould: Toting a Kalashnikov…