On Bad Feminist

I just finished reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I gave it two stars on Goodreads, which feels uncomfortable.

Without giving anything away (it’s running in January), I recently wrote a review of Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money, the gist of which is that little frustrates me more than good ideas expressed sloppily. Again, without giving anything away, Lowrey’s work is brilliant; like a cool breeze in the middle of a self-righteous progressive Santa Ana. She writes beautifully about important things when countless others don’t. It means more because I believe in her arguments: she writes that poverty is a wealthy society’s moral failure. When I go into a book or article knowing that I’ll very likely agree with what the author is saying, the bar against which I measure the language is suddenly higher. That is, in part, because an opposing argument has intrinsic value.

When I read something with which I agree, I’m less likely to learn from it. Progressives are more likely to think like me, read like me, speak like me, believe in the same things I do, and value the same arguments. Therefore, the arguments themselves – the way the words are strung together, the cleverness of the phrases, the exact way in which the facts are deployed – become much more important. If they’re unimpressive or poorly articulated, then the disappointment is powerful. Perhaps it says something about me that I get more from ideas I oppose, articulated beautifully than from good ideas, thrown together. But there’s also the matter of my emotional investment in an argument.

A disappointing portrait is sad: eyes closed, light harsh, execution blurry, background cheap, and frame clumsy. If it hangs on the wall of a neighbor’s house, a subject with whom I’m unfamiliar, then its sloppiness is a technical matter. If my wife’s face is poorly rendered, a Christmas gift for her parents or decoration for our living room, then the disappointment is altogether different: personal and emotional.

Giving Bad Feminist those two stars was uncomfortable because I agree with much of what Gay says. Most of the book would be classified as cultural criticism; she writes about sexism, politics, race, and other social problems often through the lens of pop culture. Her points are valid but delivered in a haze of fluffy idiosyncrasies and turns of phrase, convoluting what might have been expressed succinctly. My twelfth grade English teacher would’ve written something sarcastic in the margins about padding the word count.

For the first ninety-three pages I wondered if I was missing something. My tastes are particular, my opinions about writing style strident, and NPR, Boston Globe, Newsweek, and others all crowned Bad Feminist one of the best books of 2015. But the ninety-fourth page began with the following assertion:

“Normally I do not care for epigraphs. I don’t want my reading of a story to be framed by the writer in such an overt way.”

I raised an eyebrow, paused, and flipped back a few pages to the beginning of the essay to read the epigraph that Gay had inscribed underneath its title. Lest the contradiction be taken for tongue-in-cheek, I checked the chapter before. Another epigraph. This oversight is little more than a nit to pick but it exemplifies in a clear and demonstrable way a hasty quality that I couldn’t shake and that pervades the criticism. The unconventional voice for which Gay is praised is something different, though they overlap considerably. Small as it is, the odd slip on page ninety-four confirmed that her free-wheeling style, at least in part, conceals something else.

But a couple essays sparkle: they all could. That they don’t is all the more disappointing. Her beautiful analysis of the infamous Rolling Stone profile of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, her meditation on the death of Amy Winehouse and the terrorist attack in Oslo, and her witty personal essays reveal the slapdash of her criticism to be a choice rather than a limitation.

Style is a matter of preference and, when it comes right down, my opinion of her criticism is just that. But it’s all the more disappointing because I believe in her arguments, sympathize with her politics, and want to hear her stories and perspectives. Next on my list is Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. How’s that for irony?

I should probably stop talking.