The next exciting panel that I attended was at 10:00 Sunday morning and featured five brilliant and experienced white women: L. Timmel Duchamp, Susan Palwick, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Pat Murphy, and Eileen Gunn. I will do my best to recount what my notes indicate: be aware that, as ever, there's lots of paraphrase and tentative recollection of details.
DUCHAMP began by reading from a set of notes that Chip Delany had sent a Creative Writing grad student a few days earlier and passed on to DUCHAMP: criticizing the student’s novel, he’d written,
I enjoyed reading your thesis very much . . . the writing is witty and beautiful. Nevertheless, there are structural realities that underlie narrative and give it its ideological weight, import, and—yes—message. You have to work with these as well. There is a path of least resistance, which, if you follow it, will make your narrative put forward the dominant hegemonic ideology:DUCHAMP went on to discuss three problems for the writer and to repeat the great Joanna Russ passage, “Without models, it's hard to work; without a context, difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly impossible to speak." DUCHAMP asked the panelists, then, in that context, to discuss pitfalls that each of them had had difficulty in avoiding.
I don’t for a moment think that is the message you want to put forward in any way, shape, or form in your writing. But this is the message we all—radical or conservative—pick up from the range of narratives around us. Now and again, one story or another will have an element that contravenes this ideology: Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Russ’s The Female Man, even Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Villette, or George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But though one or another of them succeeds on one front, often they fail on two or three others, and the result is the communal story that we end up taking in—the model that we all end up internalizing—is the conservative, traditional, dominant one.
- Men are full human beings.
- “Western” men are more completely human than “eastern” men, and more recognizably human than “eastern” men.
- Women are half-human beings.
- Women of the “East” are more completely partial (and far more satisfied with being partial) than their “Western” sisters, etc., etc.
That’s the one that, if we don’t fight it, intelligently and conscientiously, will take over our narratives. That is because it has always already taken over our desires and wants and aspirations. Even if we know it isn’t particularly “good for us” (whatever that means), on some level—no matter how infantile—we want Prince Charming [read: the Good Daddy] to sweep down on his flying horse and save us from the hell of unfocused confusion that is, finally, all our lives, and with a sweep of his sword put order and justice into the world that we can now live in comfortably, having put out no energy of our own. Or, we want to sweep down and, with a single grab, rescue some creature supremely helpless and unbearably beautiful who will find us dazzling and who will say, “Now, because of you, the world makes sense, and I know you are the sign of only that which is valuable in all things, for your existence itself is the sign of God’s Love and Strict Order.” Even if we have decided we definitely don’t want either role for ourselves—because, yes, we see that they cannot hold coherent before any sophisticated view of reality—the fact that we can know the story at all means we understand it and, because we understand it enough to rebel against it, means we have internalized it enough so that it is there to control our fictions at any point we are not conscientiously doing something else with them.
PALWICK: I love Chip Delany, and we’re old friends; but I don’t agree with any of his generalizations there. A lot of us have grown up being taught to be very critical of the type of narrative he’s talking about, both in our writing and in our reading. A lot of people who don’t like my work think it doesn’t adequately reflect that “hell of unfocused confusion” and/or aren’t comfortable with my belief in the web of small-scale benevolences that holds reality together. Now, as a teacher, I think it’s important to avoid Delany’s habit of telling readers or students what to think about a work and instead to open up the discussion and let them come up with their own reads. Look at Nancy Drew: a lot of us would think that Nancy Drew has nothing empowering or feminist to say to us; but Susan Griffin recounts the story of a little girl who saved herself from suffocation in the trunk of a car by thinking “What would Nancy Drew do in this situation?” And where would she be if we’d thrown Nancy Drew out?
DUCHAMP: But you can’t really imagine Chip Delany criticizing Nancy Drew, can you? He loves nurse novels!
PALWICK: When I was an impoverished grad student making a tenth of what he earned, Chip said to me “I’m more marginalized than you are,” thanks to my being white and his being black and gay. Now, you have to stay in touch with the place where you’ve been oppressed, but why not use it for compassion rather than for a competition of oppressions?
MURPHY: Carolyn Heilbrun in Writing a Woman’s Life said, “You can only live the stories you’ve heard, and the stories that became a part of you.” What has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control; women are also forbidden to admit that their success came neither from luck nor from the kindness of others.
But in addition to the pitfalls in our writing, we see pitfalls in the world: for my latest novel, Wild Girls, one of the pitfalls in the world has been expectations –it’s a quiet story, and many reviewers respond with, “This isn’t what I expected!”
GILMAN: I write both fiction and history, and find that narrative is almost more dangerous when you’re writing the latter. Taking the path of narrative utility –that has not always been the case. We encounter cultures in which narrative is not the organizing principle: other cultures have different ways of organizing time. In a cyclical time, events never get any farther away; and people are judged not by how they change things but by how they reinforce the cycle. People who break the pattern are seen as people who’ve wasted their lives. But we are motivated and empowered by thinking of ourselves as participants in a story, which leads people into accepting fallacies, manipulation, and indoctrination.
GUNN: But there is in American life a very conservative and cyclical daily pressure to stay in your place, be like your parents—in writing fiction, that becomes the pressure to write stories like other stories. The more you break out, the more commerce and criticism will get back at you. My tactic for avoiding the repetitive narrative is to not know what I’m doing. And I don’t know if narrative is indeed more dangerous in history than in fiction –in fiction, it’s below the surface, so it may be harder to pick out the lies. Looking at drafts of my own work, I always find those normative clichés of the sort Chip warns against.
DUCHAMP: The seductions of narrative itself are dangerous.
GUNN: What entertains us is the combination of repetition and something new.
DUCHAMP: Standard narrative arcs, according to Peter Brooks, serve to exalt the sovereign subject. Do you agree, Susan?
PALWICK: I volunteer as an ER chaplain and am working on a Med School faculty to put Narrative Medicine into the curriculum, and it’s been shown that narrative helps people to heal; it helps people to get control over their lives.
DUCHAMP: But Brooks’s point is about narrative in fiction from the 18th century on?
PALWICK: We do have to be conscious of these patterns. [asks DUCHAMP to explain “exaltation of the sovereign subject”; DUCHAMP does] And this is a bad thing, why? [DUCHAMP explains the perils of voluntarism, individualism, and the denial of interconnection and structure] But it can exalt the power of community –and it can promote compassion or reflection by showing someone, not attaining sovereign power, but ground down like Bigger Thomas. [exchange about definitions]
PALWICK: Look at the example of Stephen R. Donaldson. Thomas Covenant’s job as sovereign subject, once he gains power he’s never had before, is learning to be responsible to the job in which he’s found himself. The trick politically is to see it as power with, as opposed to power over. Look at stories of heroism as the renunciation of power –the struggles of Frodo, for example: Tolkien has a more subversive side than people give him credit for. And one can learn to be a subversive reader whether the writer is subversive or not: as a reader, one can find what’s oppositional in the text.
GUNN: Well, there’s an autobiographical side to Donaldson’s novel –he’s dealing with being a rape survivor himself.
PALWICK: It helps to use narrative to reclaim your agency, to write at the top of the paper I Am The One In Control Of This Story.
GUNN: Donaldson only explained that about his own experience in response to feminist detractors.
MURPHY: Writing stories is a way of figuring out the meaning . . .
DUCHAMP: Can you think of a particular strategy that you’ve used to subvert the standard narrative arc?
MURPHY: I’m thinking about Wild Girls . . . does “Before and After” [explaining the story in question] have a narrative arc?
MURPHY: The narrative arc is there apart from the structure.
GUNN: But the structure is complex, with the presentation very deliberately different from the chronological sequence of events.
MURPHY: Does that structure subvert the narrative arc?
GUNN: It reinforces it.
GILMAN: You guys have just demonstrated the reader-generated side of a narrative!
GUNN: You put two events, as Forster said, or better yet, three, together, and the reader will make a story out of it.
Audience: For those of you interested in Medical Humanities, I have a few copies here of Marion McCurdy’s The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma. [They are quickly snatched up]
DUCHAMP: Readers must read subversively, but it helps when authors help.
GUNN: Pat is a kneejerk subversive. I try to do things with structure and expectations –I originally wrote “Fellow Americans” as all linear, a series of three different narratives, and it wasn’t working, and I called Bill Gibson, who said, “Well, I think it’s time for you to interrogate the text.” And Bill knew enough about what I’m like and how I operate that he gave me the perfect advice. He said, “Print out the story, and lock it in your file cabinet. It’s safe now, it’s unmolested, nobody will do any harm to your story. Now go to your keyboard and try something different with the bits you have.”
DUCHAMP: How does that induce the reader to read subversively?
GILMAN: It induces the reader to read interactively.
PALWICK: When my students are resistant to revision, I give them the same advice that Gibson gave Eileen.
MURPHY: I unconsciously subverted convention twice, first –as readers have pointed out to me—unwittingly reading Bilbo as female in There and Back Again . . .
DUCHAMP: Is it generating a new story out of the old one?
Audience: Is fanfic a subversion or an appropriation and misuse, or is the distinction just about the quality of the writing?
Audience: Susan, you introduced an 800-pound gorilla into the room early on that no one’s commented on, and it needs to be noted, and I’m going to be confrontational about it. In response to Timmi, you criticized Chip Delany –and that’s okay, I think more people should criticize Chip Delany –but instead of an argument, you offered a narrative that presented Delany in a negative light. It was very emotional in its response to Timmi’s analysis, and it was about his character. And you were appropriating his account of himself, and I think we’ve seen enough of this conflict of black man/white woman who’s-more-oppressed in this election!
PALWICK [Clearly shaken by the intensity of her accuser’s rage]: Well, first of all, I haven’t been following the election at all: it would make me crazy. This exchange with Chip occurred in 1994. And secondly, although I responded with narrative, it did have an analytical point, which I obviously didn’t make clear enough: it’s that in the 1990s, we were playing the more-oppressed-than-thou game, and we shouldn’t have been. Now, in terms of my telling a story about him constituting an appropriation, there is some level on which our narratives don’t belong to us.
GUNN: Susan told a story that she’s emotionally involved in rather than directly answering Timmi’s question.
PALWICK: It’s what I do. And I’m sorry if I did it clumsily, or if I was unclear, or if I raised sensitive issues; but as to having told the story, or using narrative that way –I’m not going to apologize for it.
DUCHAMP: How do we make new models for which the narratives don’t exist?
MURPHY: Carol’s got to answer that question –she does it all the time.
EMSHWILLER, in Audience: Do I? If I do, thank you.
GILMAN: This brings up the use of narrative in politics –journalists insist on imposing narratives on us, but narrative is not explanation: it stimulates explanation –once the narrative has been established, then explanations follow. But narrative promotes other fallacies –it stresses competition and conflict, as we see in the election; and it encourages the post hoc fallacy; and it tends to stress the personal and private and project it onto the public and collective . . .
PALWICK [Still smarting from having been accused of being “emotional” by an intelocutor who was herself virtually steaming with anger]: Academic jargon can suppress and marginalize emotion, which is a classic misogynist strategy . . .
DUCHAMP: I’ve been enjoying myself so much up here that I neglected to allow time for questions. Are there any? Yes, Josh?
ME: Okay, I was going to start out by saying something mean about Chip myself, but now I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Still, there’s been so much going on in this panel that I have about eight questions or ideas or connections or theses that I wish I could raise . . .
Audience: Choose one.
ME: Right. Susan, am I right that you think Chip’s advice to his student excludes too much?
ME: And the prescriptions and exclusions in a piece of advice like that can leave us with too rigid a view of what's . . .
DUCHAMP: I’m sorry: we’re out of time.
ME: Okay, I’ll write up my reflections in an essay and send ‘em to Liz Henry.
DUCHAMP: Great! I keep forgetting to tell people to do that.