Note to a Couple in the Second Row
The Author of And Now You Can Go Reviews the Audience at a Recent Reading in Seattle
Does everyone in Seattle have good posture? Or is it just the people who shop at Elliott Bay Book Company who have good posture? Or, like church pews, do those bookstore chairs with the blue seats and the wooden backs force you to sit up straight?
These and many other questions have been on my mind since Julie Orringer and I read in Seattle two weeks ago. Julie and I both live in San Francisco, and since our books were published a week apart from each other (her short-story collection is called How to Breathe Underwater), and we are around the same age, and have become friends, our publisher decided to have us go on tour together. The night before we drove up to Seattle, we read at Powell's in Portland and went to see the Shins play afterwards. We are obsessed with the Shins. We listened to the Shins the entire drive from Portland to Seattle. But enough about the Shins. This is supposed to be a review of the audience so I'll get that out of the way first. Then I'll ask my questions.
I give everyone in the audience a high rating because they laughed and they seemed to be paying attention. I can say this--that they were paying attention--with some assurance because I read from a passage of my novel (And Now You Can Go) in which the female narrator mentions that she has a freckle on her lower lip and as soon as I read that line, many eyes shot right up at me--particularly toward my mouth. I interrupted my reading to say: "No, I don't have a freckle. The character does. See, we're not the same, me and this character. She is not me." I said this and the people with good posture who had jolted their eyes up at me laughed because they'd been busted, and, because, as I said, they were a good audience and laughed readily.
They laughed when Julie read her story "Note to Sixth-Grade Self." I noticed that they laughed when she read the line: "When Ms. Miggie comes out, do not look at her enormous breasts." The word breasts was what got them. They laughed when she said it again: "Breasts like those will never grow on your scarecrow body." People also giggle at stuttering. In that same story, Julie has a character who stutters; she acted out the stuttering and audience members couldn't stop themselves.
After Julie and I read, we took questions together, rewarding people who asked questions by giving them cellophane-thin fortune-telling fish that you place in your palm and that react in different ways to body heat. We found them at a great zine store in Portland. Do we write poetry? the man in the center row wanted to know. While Julie handed him a fish, I said I couldn't write poetry to save my life. Julie then took the microphone and said she didn't write poetry now, but asked if the audience wanted to hear the first poem she wrote. They did. The poem was entitled "Mammals" and Julie recited it perfectly, and very seriously. I thought I got a glimpse of her at age 12, the way she would have delivered it then: proud and shy and with a profound love of bats.
Midway through the questions, a woman in the front row raised her hand to inform me that there was apparently something written about me in that week's edition of a local paper (not this one) saying something about my being married to another writer, a more well-known writer, and suggesting that that explained my success. (I have not read the piece.) The woman wanted to know how I felt about accusations like that one, or another one I hadn't heard, but found entertaining: that my husband looked over my shoulder while I wrote.
I found this interesting on many levels. For one thing, my first book, Girls on the Verge, which grew out of my MFA thesis at Columbia, was published before my husband's first book was written; it was sold, if you can believe this, years before we met. For another thing, it's curious that the same paper--now suggesting I owed skill with language and thus any minor success I've had to my husband--years ago reviewed Girls on the Verge and called me a "good writer." What happened between the time when my first book came out and my second? I got married.
I recently wrote about the Spanish writer Javier Mar'as in the August issue of The Believer, a monthly magazine of book reviews and interviews I co-edit with Heidi Julavits and Ed Park (two of my classmates from Columbia). In my essay about his six books that have been translated and published in America, I questioned why it is that Mar'as is not more popular in this country, when he's very widely read in the rest of the world, particularly in Europe. One of the conclusions I came to is that we're a country of literary tourists--we can accept one writerly representative from each country (Jorge Amado from Brazil, Michel Houellebecq from France, Haruki Murakami from Japan, Milan Kundera from the Czech Republic) but not more than one into our consummate reading list. Well, lately I've been wondering why, similarly, a few people seem to have difficulty accepting that there can be two writers from any one marriage. And why it is we have trouble accepting that they both--especially if one is female--can write on their own and be published on their own merit.
And how often do we hear it when the genders are reversed? Do we hear that Glen David Gold owes his success to his wife, Alice Sebold, or that Ted Hughes owed his to Sylvia Plath? Of course not. But sometimes we allow a certain middlebrow sexism when a woman is married to a man. That a woman would try to spoil a reading by two female fiction writers with such an observation is especially depressing. Are this woman and that newspaper so surprised by and suspicious of any woman who gets published that they have to tramp down the road of conspiracy theories?
This is the first time I've come out and said anything about this subject, which fortunately for the progress of women (not to be too dramatic about it) hasn't come up more than a few times. And fortunately, the lives of women writers we've known and read have proven that women can be writers and be married to other writers. Or that (in my case) they can publish their own books and then date writers who haven't yet written books. Or that they can drive trucks, or wear pants, or have gerbils, or be writers and not be married at all.
Oh, on the subject of being married: In the Elliott Bay audience there was that couple I liked watching--a woman in a green Patagonia jacket wearing a ponytail and the man she was sitting next to. I liked that she grabbed his arm at one point during Julie's reading: Was it a moment of recognition? I wanted to ask her: Was it something in the story that made you turn your knees toward him and link your arm through his? Or were you thinking of something that happened that day? When are couples inspired to hold hands, or link arms during a reading? Whatever the answer, I liked seeing it.
Vendela Vida is the author of Girls on the Verge and the novel And Now You Can Go, and is an editor at The Believer.