Do the French offer us a solution?
Last week in Taos, New Mexico—my favorite town on the face of this earth—I walked into the great independent bookstore, Moby Dickens, to promote my new book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, and had the good fortune to meet the store’s new owner.
He told me that the French, at least in Paris, are leading a revival of independent bookstores by collaborating, focusing one kind of book—mysteries, for example—in one bookstore in a neighborhood, with other specialty bookstores within walking distance. The stores would promote each other and guide customers to the appropriate choice.
This initiative promises to attract a small group of readers to each store, rather than spreading them among competing bookstores which must each carry a large stock to meet an indiscriminate demand.
I’m counting on the fact that women writers would not be relegated to a bookstore featuring women; one of my disappointments, always, is that so few men buy my books. Often when they do so, they explain that they will give my book to a wife or sister…
This reflects an age-old issue: women read books written by men and men read books by men. Some women read books by women, but we all read books by men, the majority of books published. Is this one of the causes of continuing misunderstandings between us?
I’m in New York City today to do two Blue Box events. I walked into a new bookstore, “Albertine”—Proust surfaces again—on Fifth Avenue at 79th in the highest-tone and highest-priced neighborhood in the city.
A stunning space at the back of an opulent 1880’s townhouse, the bookstore has sofas and chairs for reading, French and English books spread on large tables, and bookshelves stocked with an admirable variety of authors: well-known U.S. writers, translated or in the original English, and French authors, often in the distinctive white paperbacks that always look more solid and substantial than the paperbacks U.S. publishers produce, perhaps because there is no cover art and no photos of authors, taken decades earlier.
I don’t know contemporary French women writers; so much of what I gather about French women has to do with their ability to tie their scarves.
One collection of essays caught my attention: Lydie Salvayre’s Sept Femmes (“Seven Women”), its bright turquoise cover marking it out as a Points edition, with the inevitable cover illustration of a feather pen.
Must we always be associated with ancient gentility?
Leaving that to one side, I bought the book because Salvayre writes about some of the women writers I most admire: Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath.
Salvayre’s take on these women may be distinctively French; it is certainly distinctively combative.
Noting that nearly all these women suffered “um destine malheuruex” in spite of their great gifts. Salvayre seems to blame them for their unhappy outcome because they rejected or discounted their own giftedness.
And, she exclaims, they were all “fou”—mad—which we in the U.S. would probably avoid because it is what we have so often been called: “The Madwoman in the Attic,” a title bravely chosen by Gilbert and Gubert for their enormously important study of women writers.
Now, as I discussed with my class on memoir writing Tuesday morning—really the writing of history, grounded in women’s letters—we have an obligation to be fearless, never leaving out “the good parts,” those hidden parts of lives that are of most interest to all of us, for compelling reasons: it is in “the good parts” that the essence of a human life is often revealed.
And so, to fear describing ourselves, as women writers, as “mad”, may be counterproductive, and as ineffectual as complaining about a feather pen on the cover of a book written by women—unimaginable on the cover of a book written by a man.
For we are mad, in most views. We work in a field that seems increasingly marginalized; we can’t make a living without work; often those closest to us don’t read what we write, or are scandalized by it if they do. Our books seldom find their audience, which is not all women but which may be hidden, outside the big cities, dependent on word of mouth to find what they may want to read, or off the network of information for other reasons—poverty and racism top among them.
Can the French teach us to embrace our madness as a useful wildness?
Can the French teach us how to help independent bookstores thrive?
The best questions are those that can’t be answered.
The women in my class represented hope, which may be a form of madness: hope that the treasured letters, the remains of the lives of ancestresses, may be of interest to someone, and that they may have the power and the fearlessness necessary to write about them.
Only one woman, it seemed to me, was likely to succeed, because the ancestresses she will write about are already well-known, linked to powerful men, and footnoted, at least, in their biographies.
But all this material is essential to our understanding of history.