“I don’t read as many women as I’m told I should be reading. I don’t like doing what I am expected to do.” (Annie Dillard from the March/April 2016 issue of Poets and Writers)
I tried to let it go. I tried to let it go because I couldn’t quite put words around the bitter irritation I felt when I read the above quote in Poets & Writers. And then this morning, birdsong through the open window, a cup of hot coffee on the bedside table, my computer in my lap, Amazon.com on the screen as I peruse books suggested for me, it pops up, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard, and I am tossed like a soured dishcloth right back into the seamy, acidity of pissedoffedness.
Yes, I’m pissed off. I want that damned book. I want it so badly. If I hadn’t read that article in Poets and Writers a couple of weeks ago, the book would be sandwiched between two sheets of bubble wrap ensconced in a cardboard box and traveling in a squared off brown truck to my house right now. Much to my husband’s dismay, I have one-click ordering enabled. Truth be told, that fucking tome would already be in my bookhungry little hands because it came out on the 16th.
How could one of the greatest writers of all time (in my opinion the essays of How to Teach a Stone to Talk and the dizzying array of questions asked in For the Time Being comprise some of the most compelling writing I have ever read) not know how to answer this simple question–What about women, are there any women writers you like? I am angry because I am not stupid. I know what it means when Dillard says, “I don’t do what I’m supposed to do,” as if reading women writers is a chore.
It’s not a fucking chore.
Annie Dillard couldn’t answer the question Garnette Cadogan posed–“Are there any women writers you like?”–with a name or two. She was coy and dismissive. We are to suppose that she’s a freer spirit, unbound by dictates that the rest of us women and men have imposed upon ourselves concerning women writers.
Why am I so pissed about this? It’s the opinion of one writer in a world with many opinionated writers. Why do I want to take Annie Dillard to task for her outdated and outmoded beliefs; after all, I’m sure she doesn’t consider herself to be a feminist, and she certainly doesn’t give a shit what a curvy menopausal feminist writer from the midwest thinks about her interview.
Do I believe the Annie Dillard owes me something–me as a woman writer? I don’t think I do, and I could silence myself pretty darn quick if that was all there was at stake, but there is something else in her statement–I don’t read many women writers. I suppose I don’t like to do what I’m supposed to do–a disdain and discomfort with women writers. John Freeman doesn’t call Dillard out in the interview, no he goes on to tell the reader that “you can almost hear the pops and fizzes of combustion as the flue clears and Dillard’s mind gulps down the oxygen it has been feeding on for years–books. It’s something to behold.” What am I to take away from this but that the brilliant and awe-inspiring Dillard must be right when she can’t come up with a name or two–you know, women’s names–because there are no women worth reading.
Dillard’s dismissal stings. But really, Poets and Writers, your dismissal stings too.
I’m not pissed because my hero has fallen. No, that’s not it. Listen, I think it’s total bullshit that she created the fucking cat in Pilgrim which won a Pulitzer prize. I think it’s bullshit that she was living at home in suburbia with a husband and the narrative reads as if she is living alone–you know, the pilgrim schtick–out in the wilderness. She wasn’t. I knew all of that before I read the book, so there was no falling involved. I took her as she was–brilliant and flawed. I could let that go because the other writing, Holy the Firm, Teaching a Stone to Talk, For the Time Being was so damned good.
But now it’s not good enough. That might seem like a short answer, one that doesn’t take into account the above-mentioned brilliance, but as a woman who writes, a woman who has chosen to read only women writers in this 50th year of life, a writer who needs, wants, loves the voices of other women, voices that have been shut down, shut out, discounted, pissed on, and choked at the tiny tendril where voice occurs; for this woman there is no longer room for women (or men) who find the voices I find so essential to be a chore.
Dillard writes into a tradition of great male writers and thinkers. And apparently, there is no room for women (other than Dillard herself) among them. Listen, I am not discounting those voices, those great male voices. But like all other great things, those voices came to life on the backs of the voiceless. I find Dillard’s comments grossly ignorant and mean. Yes, mean.
So I’m not buying her new book even though I love new books, collections of great writing between hard covers. I love nothing more than flipping through the unread pages, deciding where and when I will begin to read, catching glimpses of awe and wonder. But Annie Dillard is not the tradition I want to write into. I want to write into a tradition that has within it the silenced, the brushed-off, the disregarded.
I don’t like doing what I’m expected to do either.
You not only wrote eloquently about an issue most dismiss these days (even though sexism is alive and well), you made me mad as well.
Thank you! I love to make my people mad!!!
I’m so glad you voiced what I felt reading that article. Annie Dillard came across as arrogant, cold and shockingly small-minded. An old-fashioned sexist. A woman who values male art as the gold standard.
Thanks Cindy. I’m glad to hear that. I was so angry when I read it. And I couldn’t get over it.
Holy shit, I am SO glad you wrote this! Thank you! I was pissed when I read it, and I thought, “What a blissfully ignorant bitch. She’s bought into the status quo systemic oppression of women, and she thinks she’s going against the grain.” And that was the extent of it. I was not so eloquent, it seems. But you–you have put what I felt into words. Thank you! This should go viral.
You know, I have no doubt that Dillard is a brilliant and very knowledgable conversationalist, and yes crusty and blunt. What bothered me so much about this is that she has made her living being careful with words. Her work is a testament to how the right words can make such a difference which makes her very blasé refusal to name even one woman writer all the more significant. It aggravates me. Thank you for your enthusiasm.
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Hi, could you help me? I can’t find the original article, and want to understand the context better before commenting. Had she just named a number of male writers? What preceded the statement you quoted at the top? Thank you.
Hi, I would be glad to help out. Here is the link! Thanks so much for reading!
Okay, thank you! I do have some alternate thoughts on this, but I’m a former student of hers to whom she has recommended several women writers, so I do have a different perspective. I wrote a long thing, but I feel a bit hesitant to go so public with it (not quite sure why)—would you mind if I sent it to you by email and you could just do with it what you will? It may inform your perspective—or not :). Thank you! (If you have an email addy you don’t mind sharing—or you could email me at mine. Thanks again!)
Hi, I emailed you. I would love to see your response! 🙂