"So Please Don't Pretend..."

Imagine reading a book, a book with a strong argument, forceful, demanding, uncompromising. Infuriating, in a way, because it seems so uncompromising, but provocative, enough so to keep you reading. Imagine yourself reading this book, as you do most things you read, in a kind of silent dialogue, a dialogue with the text. This dialogue may seem as if it is between you and the writer, but of course it isn’t. It remains in your mind, between you and the words you read on the page. This is the stuff of reading, the interaction that takes place between you and what you are reading, the back and forth within yourself of what’s being said here, what do I think of it, what does it mean.

Imagine, then, reading this book and having, as you usually do, some reaction to what you have read. A strong book, dogmatic even, it has aroused some reaction in you. You are near the end of the book, nearly two hundred pages, and you encounter this: a list, a list prepared by the writer of this strongheaded book, a list of what you are not, as reader, allowed to think about this book. “Please,” writes the author, though please as a concept, as a manner, feels new to the book at this late point, “please,”

don’t change the words or meanings of this book in order to be able to contain them. Please do not claim that I said or believe any of the following things….

What follows is a list, a list of six items we are not to believe about the book, that what the author has claimed about people, about families, about straight people, about gay people, that each of these things that the author has claimed with much fury, much confidence, and I would say, rather a heavy hand, is not actually true about all of those people.

Which is odd, odd for me, at any rate, at this point in the book, because each of these six things on the author’s list  I have in fact thought as I read the book. I have been provoked, and stimulated and intrigued--yes, let’s admit I’ve been infuriated as well, but is that so bad--and yet I have wished many times that this provocative book were more careful in its’ arguments, less reductionist, less absolute, less black and white, how shall I say it, more nuanced, yes, that’s it.

And then I read, in the very next paragraph,

I am not making any unnuanced arguments that are without exception. So, please, don’t…pretend that I have in order to disqualify my work.

I put the book down. I really don’t know what to say. Have I ever read such a thing in a book before? A writer who anticipates a reader’s reactions to her book and shuts down those reactions before the book is even finished? Not only shuts down and rejects those reactions, but more, puts their very authenticity in doubt. “Please don’t pretend,” the author admonishes, not think, or claim, but pretend, she writes.

So, not only are the reactions I had to this book wrong, they are also made up, I have created them to conceal what I am really thinking. Here is an author, a professor, an activist, dictating the terms in which the reader is to read the book. The discussion, all of that interior dialogue that was going on in my head as I read this book, was invalid. The author is telling me, I suppose, that I am making up these reactions so that I do not have to accept the bitter truths she knows and is exposing for me.

Sarah Schulman has written a provocative book. I didn’t agree with it all, but it was fascinating, I was given this book and I am glad to have read it. But I suspected from the very beginning of this book that the only way I was expected to think, as a reader, as a gay man, as a reasonably intelligent person, was the way Sarah Schulman wanted me to think. I felt this from the very beginning, but I didn’t expect to have it laid out in front of me so explicitly in the concluding pages.

It’s odd, really. A lot of this book is about power, and the misuse of power, and the way power is concealed as the source of so much pain. In the dialogue that ran through my head as I read this book, I wondered about my writer.  She wrote so much about her lack of power, and yet, she seems to me to have quite a bit of power: “nine novels, four nonfiction books, numerous plays, a recipient of a Guggenheim and a Fulbright…,” a professor of English at three universities, so says the jacket.

To be honest with you, I think she could have handled anything I could have given her back, anything I could have come up with, as her reader. She could have dealt with my questions, my confusion, my objections. And she could have at least respected me enough, her reader, not to have decided I was pretending, making up those reactions, before I’d even had a chance to voice them.

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ellyn said...

Hate to say it, but maybe you need to be a woman (and a lesbian) to really GET Sarah Schulman. Sure, she's difficult, but she's right.

Paul said...

Well, let's for a moment say you're correct and I can't "get" her because I'm not a woman/lesbian. Don't I, as a reader if nothing more, at least get to be part of the discussion?

Frank said...

I don't think that's what she meant by the ending at all. I think she meant, instead, that you should do what you actually did while reading it: maintain a dialogue with the text rather than simply writing it off as crazy, etc. It's the dismissal that she is asking you to skip, not the engagement. Don't fall into the trap of letting your feelings of being "controlled" get in the way of the conversation. You wrote at length about those last lines when what I'd find more useful are your thoughts and feelings about the specific ideas in the book.

Paul said...

Thanks for the comment, Frank. I actually think, however, that the author's fears of being "dismissed" got in the way of the conversation. Schulman's is not the most controversial or difficult argument I have read recently in a book, but it is the most strained in its fear of how its' readers will react. That said, you are right about the narrow focus of what I have written and I will try and come back with a more measured reaction to the author's argument itself. Thanks for reading and reacting!

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