Carolyn See, & Is This Headline Anti-Woman?

Carolyn See Scan_121468618271Carolyn See, one of the best American writers of the twentieth century, died on July 13.  Barbara Eisenberg wrote in The L.A. Times:

The celebrated writer and teacher Carolyn See, who died in Santa Monica last week at 82, was born in Los Angeles and never really left home. She described raw silk as the flannel of the desert, and wrote evocatively of her home state in nearly all her books. For her, California was the repository of America’s dreams, a place that is to America what America is to the rest of the world.

I recently reread See’s The Handyman (and wrote about it here), and  I recommend Making History and Golden Days.

2. Is the following headline for a review at The Spectator anti-woman?

peacock and vine byatt 9781101947470“Who let A.S. Byatt publish Peacock and Vine?”

I am aware that the reviewer Douglas Murray did not write the headline!  He says of Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work:

There is a moment at the start of most authors’ careers when it is hard to get anything published, and there is a moment towards the latter stage of some authors’ careers when it is hard to stop everything being published. A.S. Byatt is in the latter stage of her career, and however great the claims for her back (and future) catalogue may be, it hard to see why Peacock and Vine came to be here.

English reviewers are often acerbic, but Booker Prize-winning Byatt is one of my favorite novelists. I don’t know English  culture, but my husband says it reminds him of Hillary-bashing!  (I’ll have to read the book when it’s published here and see for myself.)

The Art of the Comment, or What Would Dorothy Parker Say?

Dorothy Parker

What would Dorothy Parker say?

“Luv ur blog!” someone once wrote at Mirabile Dictu.   I was grateful, but the schoolmarm in me demands full sentences.

There is an art of writing comments. Do I have it? No. I am neither a master of the brevity of wit, nor of the repartee practiced by Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.   If Dorothy Parker were alive, I doubt she would have blogged. But she might have chortled and left witticisms and wisecracks in comments.  Blogs would become famous for her scintillating wit.

We’re not Dorothy Parker, but it is good manners to comment occasionally.   After reading a smart post by a book blogger toiling in anonymity on the Great Plains, or a Guardian book club essay by Sam Jordison on Caroline Alexander’s elegant new translation of  Homer’s Iliad, I  should leave a hearty, appreciative comment. That blogger in Deadwood, South Dakota, really could use some praise, and Jordison is taking risks with the Iliad.

The trouble is, I can’t think of a thing to say. I can think of two things, but not one. And if I write two things, it will take too long.  When I finally do scrawl a hasty comment, it looks fulsome.  They will think I’m a  blogger in search of a pingback.

Which brings me to the point: are commenters sincere? Or are we just looking for a pingback?  (Sorry, I love that word “pingback.”)

The Roman poet Catullus had his own thoughts on comments.  He  wrote about it in Carmen 70, only I must admit he was writing about love and  I am substituting the word “commenter” for “woman” and “blogger” for “ardent lover”:

but what a commenter (woman)  says to a blogger (ardent lover)
should be written in wind and running water.

See, Catullus knew!

One of the reasons I turned off my comments three months ago was my inability to write comments.  I am cautiously thinking of turning them back on and seeing how it goes.

This means I will have to write some comments. If only I had a template!  But here are some brief notes to myself on how to write a comment if one has little to say.

Do’s and Don’t for Comments, or What Would Dorothy Parker Say? 

1. Do be brief.  It’s a comment, not a master’s thesis.  One  complete sentence is sufficient. As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

2. Don’t hit the “like” button.  It is a temptation to “like,” but complete sentences are a mark of civilization.  As Dorothy Parker says.  “I hate writing, I love having written.”

3. Do compliment bloggers on their work.   There is an interdict in the midwest against flattery or bragging–the reticence of culture reflects the flatness of the landscape.   Don’t agonize:  you’re not obsequious of you leave a nice comment once a year.   As Dorothy Parker said, “And there was that poor sucker Flaubert rolling around on his floor for three days looking for the right word.”

4. Don’t attack the blogger.  Think twice before you voice your dissent.  Is it worth it?  If you go ahead with it, for God’s sake, say something positive about another point in the blog first.  Rude or venomous comments will be deleted.  As Dorothy Parker said, “Friends come and go but I wouldn’t have thought you’d be one of them.

Comments, No Comments

peace signs yike8dMpTI am turning off my comments.

I’ve done this before.

In 2012, I had an epiphany about the triviality of online life. I am not the first person to have  had that revelation. That year I’d had to sift through so many tweets in the “live” Oscar Coverage at The New York Times that I literally could not find who had won Best Actor.

What if an editor similarly ruined the book page?  I wondered.  What if I had to read a review by Michiko Kakutani  interspersed with tweets from a rock star memoirist?  Luv the rock stars, but they’re not critics.

The internet is a narcissist’s dream.  We all love our social media:  some of us sign our names; some do not.   Even non-rock stars get the blues…err, I mean get to publish.

I prefer blogs to other social media.  But why, why, why have intelligent grown-up people taken to leaving trifling comments?  Well, it’s because we are bloggers reading bloggers, we want to be supportive, and we also try to  generate new  readership and more comments!  But I honestly am sleep-writing comments. Many of my fellow bloggers read second-tier women’s books, probably because, like me, they’ve already read the great women’s classics.   And so one commits to readalongs of the second-rate.  Did  I actually say I thought “Eighteen Earnest Eighteenth-Century American Writers Week” was a good idea? Was I high?   (Maybe on coffee.)  Did I say I’d reread Susanna Rowson’sCharlotte Temple?  Oh, pray, not!   It was bad enough the first time through.

Whoever chose this cover design WAS high!

Whoever chose this cover WAS high!

Anyway, I’m taking a break from comments!

I’ve turned off all the buttons I can think of so you don’t have to leave comments here!  Read and enjoy instead.  You can always contact me at

The Case of the Missing Comments: Lost, Spammed, or Moderated?

Anne Taintor "funny I don't recall asking for your opinions' 5398_OpinionBeverageNapkin-500x500There are magical, unexplained, supernatural things on the internet.

Having grown up on the novels of E. Nesbit, where the Psammead/sand fairy grants wishes in a really twisted way, and  a magic wishing ring is likely to backfire on you, I always find the internet fantastical.  You mean it’s not magical?  Well, can’t explain any of it!

But there are also mechanical glitches.  Unless it’s witchcraft!

For instance, I have only sporadically received email alerts lately about comments posted here.  Strange.  I always got them before.  But I am not concerned about it.

And then a reader informs me that his/her comments are not appearing on my blog.

What comments?  I wondered.  I checked spam and found one.  I retrieved a perfectly intelligent comment about Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and approved it.

I don’t know what triggered the magic spam-sorter, which apparently did not want me to know there is a fourth Titus Groan title!

I welcome most comments.

But I have the right to moderate comments.

Yup.  It’s my blog.

Some commenters believe that blogs exist to host contentious debates.  I will write something I think is perfectly normal, and then the “trigger alert” types will go mad.  What?  I don’t wish to fight with them?   How dare I not?  They WILL be heard.

Fine, okay, just not here.

I welcome comments, but this isn’t a public forum.

People on the internet do occasionally go off on strange tangents.  In the pre-internet days before the newspapers and magazines began to die, people wrote letters to the editor.  (How quaint!)  Some letters are/were published, others are/were not. Do they believe it is their “right” to be published?

In this day and age, you do have to watch out for the “trigger alert”censorship  people. They are very “sensitive”:  just not to you!  It is where the “far left” control-freaks meet the “far right” control-freaks.  And that is way too far for most of us.


  1.  Last spring some writers at PEN (not a majority, thank God!) boycotted the dinner in New York at which a special award was  given to Charlie Hebdo.  All I can say is thank God for Salman Rushdie, who very  articulately argued against this disgraceful protest and pointed out that today his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, would not have been published.
  2. According to New York Magazine, a theater group at Mount Holyoke College decided not to put on The Vagina Monologues because “the material excludes women without vaginas.” I do have a controversial feminist thought: It is a fact that women have vaginas.   People with penises do not have a right to define us.
  3. Some Christian fundamentalist students at Duke objected when lesbian writer Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was recommended summer reading.  And according to an excellent article at the Atlantic:  “some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Oh, God!  What a sad state of things!   There are many offensive things in the world:  reading classic  novels is not one of them.

Perhaps they should read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible.

The Crucible (1996) movie

The Crucible (1996) movie

Civility, Blog Comments, & Books by Women

be-nice-or-go-away civilityWhatever happened to civility?  Hospitality offered to visitors (tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies), please and thank you, no personal remarks (okay, I break that rule), and beneficence, if not positive doting, on bookstore clerks?

And then there are the comments at blogs.

If you’re obsessed with South Sudan, the Ukraine, or the Holocaust, your comment may be inappropriate for a post on garden literature. If you want to trash an author, this is neither the time nor the place.  Only I get to trash my favorite authors.  (I’m kidding:  I would never trash them.)  If you disagree with me about Jane Austen, I don’t want to alienate you.  I’ll probably allow that comment.

But it’s up to my judgement.  I delete inappropriate comments.

My own comments have (very occasionally) been deleted elsewhere, and why should I care?  Often these things are impulsive.  The bottom line is that the blogger has the right to delete it.

And if you care that much about the subject, you should start your own blog.

Civility is an issue everywhere.  Mark Nelson, a contributor at the blog, Heroines of Fantasy, recently complained about the lack of civility in the science fiction and fantasy arena (specifically at the SFWA, an organization for writers of science fiction and fantasy).  He tires of gender and race complaints.

I’m not seeing enough civility, people, anywhere.  What happened to our ability to engage in intelligent discourse without stooping to character assassination? What happened to telling a story to tell a story? It seems we have fallen into a deconstructionist pattern where every tale, essay, novel, film, speech or blog post is immediately set upon and examined from multiple perspectives by folks with pre-set agendas. This writer is a misogynist. That writer is a racist. This series doesn’t have enough people of color. That trilogy doesn’t have enough strong female characters. Not enough gay, not enough straight, not enough love, not enough blood, not enough real, not enough myth.  And so on…

I do know what he means about the endless deconstruction.

Speaking of gender, let me congratulate the New York Times Book Review on what looks like a record number of reviews of women’s books by women reviewers this week.  (I didn’t count the reviews, though.)   Seeing all those women’s names makes me think about how often I don’t see women’s names.

And here is a list of women’s books posted at the Bailey’s Women’s Prize website (I read about it at Reading Copy).  These are the books that have most influenced several (British?) celebrity women readers.  I have read all of them except three.

Baroness Amos – Beloved by Toni Morrison
Zawe Ashton – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Mary Beard – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte
Edith Bowman – The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Saffron Burrows – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Shami Chakrabarti – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Gwen Christie – I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
Grace Dent – The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Katherine Grainger – Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Tanni Grey Thompson – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Martha Lane Fox – Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Caitlin Moran – Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester
Kate Mosse – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brönte
Dawn O’Porter – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Susanna Reid – We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Jennifer Saunders – Dust by Patricia Cornwell
Sharleen Spiteri – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Sandi Toksvig – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Joanna Trollope – The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Book-Buying, No Book-Buying, & Comments, No Comments

In Lydia Davis’s “Freelance” column in the TLS (April 23, 2014), she writes of her book-buying habits,

I would rather buy my books second-hand when I can, not only to take my trade to the independent dealers, but, more generally, like the grandmother in Swann’s Way, because I prefer something old to something new, when I have a choice–something worn and with character, and preferably, in the case of books, previously owned by another reader who has, if I’m lucky, identified him- or herself on a blank page of the volume.

Although I often buy new editions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte–one cannot have too many copies of Emma or Villette–I find out-of-print hardcovers and old-fashioned Penguins equally satisfying.

As independent bookstores fail, or, that consummate sign of failure, display their shrinking stock with the covers facing out,  I seek books more often at used bookstores.  Whether I’m browsing at Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha or Skoob in London, I find out-of-print Loebs, treasures by H. G. Wells, or, indeed, even Lydia Davis’ translation of Swann’s Way.  And, though I don’t feel like the grandmother in Swann’s Way yet, I love not only old books, “worn and with character,” but books written in the previous centuries.

At our house, used books make sense because we so often read classics and out-of-print books. If I were on Twitter, I would tweet that this is the Year of the Nineteenth-Century Woman.  (Everything I’ve read lately is either by or about a 19th-century woman.) Such is the power of social media that popular bloggers and tweeters often convince others to read along.  (Often I try to read along, but at my age it is often a reread along, so I lose interest.)

My husband never reads what anybody else reads unless it wins an award.    We have tried  in vain to organize a reading of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo;  we both agree Conrad is great.  But now it looks as though it will be Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch instead, because he has heard it is the book of the year.   I am still waiting for our discussion of Book II of Caesar’s Gallic Wars–we’re all Latinists here–which I finished in 2009.

So let’s just say if we announce we will read a certain book, we are likely to break that promise.

I’m a middlebrow Midwesterner, and my habits reflect the habits of other middlebrow Midwesterners.  In our small city, online shopping is a godsend, though I’m very confused, as many are, about the consequences of shopping at Amazon:  have I somehow brought the book down by ordering online?  Does it matter where I shop now that Amazon (or possibly Jeff Bezos) owns Abebooks, The Book Depository, GoodReads, and The Washington Post?

Whatever happened to my hipster values?

At the moment I’m not buying new books.  I’ve resolved to read the 1,000 or so unread books on my shelves.  Ha!  We’ll see.


My friend Ellen says she is sorry I no longer allow comments at my blog.

At the moment I am experimenting with being “off” social media.  Commenting, like tweeting, is  often about trying to be interesting, or mischievous, or to link readers to their own blogs.  In theory, turning off the comments means I can be grittier in my posts because I’ll worry less about reactions.  Occasionally I have found myself back-pedaling in comments, trying to be a 1950s hostess and make all my readers comfortable.

I am, however, very grateful to all the commenters who recommended things for me to do in London.  I could not have found those bookstores in guidebooks.

Taking a break form social media gives me more time to do outdoors things in the spring and summer.

I’ve got to get in shape for next week’s bike ride…

Online Life, Comments, & Not My Homeboy/Homegirl

It’s the wolf that knows which root to dig to save itself
It’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea”–R.E.M., “Country Feedback”

exhausted-woman with head down at deskI’m spending less time online and more time reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection.  (I just finished it, and it’s great.)

I still spend a lot of time online.

Here’s a checklist of what I do.

Read email.

Read my homegirl and homeboy blogs.

Read Michael Dirda’s reviews at the Washington Post.

Read the TLS.

Do you read Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life at the TLS?  Beard, a Cambridge professor, historian, classicist, TV celeb, and a classics editor at the TLS, is also a lively, popular blogger.  I very much liked her book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, which I used for a unit on graffiti in an adult ed Latin class I taught.

Oddly, Beard attracts a lot of negative attention.  People criticize her looks (why, I can’t say; she looks confident, which is half  the beauty thing), trash her ideas, and are often bizarrely malevolent in comments and on Twitter.

In her recent blog, she talked about a lead-up interview in the Times to a London Review of Books public lecture she was giving on “The Public Voice of Women”:  she talked about how “women play a higher price than men if they want to make their voice heard.”

Then The Mirror and The Mail apparently lifted and paraphrased the Times interview, and emphasized a few comments she made about the image of Kate Middleton.

The resulting comments at the newspaper were half  favorable, half not, she said.  But here’s the kind of stuff she quoted, which in general is the kind of thing she has to put up with.

Leftist feminists should not comment on the looks of other women but should rather look themselves in the mirror.”, “Who is Mary Beard and who cares what she thinks ?”, “Mary Beard has very little grip on the real world, as reflected in many of her comments. She is cocooned in her safe world of academia”, “These two writers should stick to their typewriters. (They both have a typewriter vintage look.)”, “Mary Beard is to be pitied if she truly believes that she is making any contribution by being unkind for no reason other than envy”, “Cheap publicity for Beard (who does what exactly?)”,  “Mary Beard is a leftie professor who just talks nonsense like all other lefties”, “How I wish that Mary Beard would just shut-up!”

Horrible!  And for God’s sake, is she really that leftist?  I’ve never noticed, and, heavens, I’m an almost-socialist.

I am unlike Beard in all ways, but we also get negative comments here. At my old blog, I went a little over the top sometimes by nice-girl blogger standards, and some of the comments were hostile.

Mirabile Dictu has a similar traffic flow, but in general the comments are nicer.

Sometimes I delete a comment.

I can rarely think of much to say, but I try to support my fellow bloggers by leaving comments at their blogs.  I usually say something like “Nice review!”  which is true, or “I’d love to read this” (which is true), or, in the case of blogs about contemporary fiction, “I’ll skip this one, but good review!”  I wish I were a more fluent commenter.

I have many friends online, and had a wonderful three days last fall with my friend Ellen Moody, the blogger, in D.C.

Nonetheless, I discovered recently that some of my homeboy/homegirl bloggers aren’t entirely on my side.  Recently I discovered a nasty comment about me at a blog.

The truth?  If anyone had left an ill-natured comment about him/her, or any of my friends, at my blog, I would have deleted it.

When I was a freelance writer I never got negative mail. At blogs, however, you sometimes meet with a little craziness.

I must admit, I got my husband to read the negative comment at this blog (and since he thinks all blogs are stupid, he only did this as a favor).

He says, “You’re a better writer than both of these guy/gals and they want to stop you.”

He also said, “Get offline.”

Anyway, it’s good to have spouse support.

And now here’s an R.E.M. video of “Country Feedback,” because if we’re going to be online, we have to put up with some nastiness, and we might as well listen to some good music.

Who Is Dave?

Who is Dave?

Who is Dave?

At newspapers, even on book pages, the commenters are often snotty.

Bloggers are usually more nurturing of one another’s efforts.  At book blogs we  comment, “Great post!” or “I want to read this.”  There is a kind of  community.

Of course it is not always a love fest.  At my old blog, I occasionally disabled the comments feature, because I was unhappy with negative remarks.  And so I fled to Mirabile Dictu, my under-the-radar blog, where only three subjects cause dissension:  Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Angela Thirkell.

It’s nothing I can’t handle.

And I shouldn’t condemn the newspaper commenters, because I myself have come to no good commenting.  A couple of times I did at The Guardian.  You read so many odd comments that you think, Okay, I’ll join in. And then you regret it, because it is there forever.

The only good thing I can say is I wasn’t snotty.

Often when I read comments on book pages I think, Get a blog!  Bloggers think a little harder before they judge journalism or books.

The most annoying comments of all can be found in The Guardian’s “What You’re Saying” features,  which are made up entirely of comments from readers. What are the writers getting paid for?

Today I read one of the comment articles, which was titled: “Choose the best and worst 21st-century novels – open thread.”

In the very short body of the article, we are told we can disagree with Dave.  Who  is Dave?

Apparently there is something called  TV Channel Dave, where 2,000 people were recently polled about the best and worst books of the 21st century.

Dave’s best books are:

• Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling 
• Life of Pi by Yann Martel 
• The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger 
• The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 
• Atonement by Ian McEwan 
• The Help by Kathryn Stockett 
• The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
• We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
• No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy 
• Pompeii by Robert Harris

And the worst books are:

• Angel by Katie Price
• Fifty Shades Trilogy by EL James
• A Whole New World by Katie Price
• Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham
• The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I cannot say that “Dave” has very good taste.

The commenters mostly  talk about their own lists.  At least one of them mentioned Will Self’s Umbrella, which some agreed was difficult. One or two were annoyed by it.

In no particular order, here are a few of the comments I read.

It does get silly. People brush up on their obscure books list trying to trump everyone else’s obscure books. Should I mention here that my particular fave is my Sanskrit-English dictionary (Monier-Williams)?

And later:

doubt if many people have heard, let alone read, any on your best list. But thanks.  the enemy

And then:

You and TheEnemy shouldn’t be on here, you should be waltzing around spitting on the Mensa members for being cretins.

Where is the community of newspaper commenters?  More writing from The Guardian’s writers, please!