The “Real Thing” of Women’s Writing: A Note for Stephen Marche

by Sarah Nicole Prickett

No new novels I love more than those by women: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers; Micheline Aharonian Morcom’s A Brief History of Yes; Veronica Gonzalez Pena’s The Sad Passions; and Americaneh, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also love a couple of new(ly translated) novels by the same man (Karl Ove Knausgaard) in the same series (My Struggle), but not half as purely. It was always like this for me, this natural selection bias. I have read and will always read plenty of great novels by men, but it’s writing by women I need.

Stephen Marche is not a woman. I do not say that to take anything away from him. The Esquire-ist, infamous for his ability to write a thousand-plus words in his own pre-cum, says so himself, twice, in a new excregesis of Marie Calloway’s new book, what purpose did i serve in your life: “…[O]f course I am a man,” ends one sentence. Then: “So you will have to take my comments in the context of the fact that I am a male critic, and hence one of history’s monsters.”

While I do wish Stephen Marche were one of history’s monsters, it seems impossible not to notice he’s still with us. And, he seeks desperately to prove, “with it.”

Easier intimated than done, it turns out. On the writer Tao Lin’s latest (best?) novel, Taipei, Marche has nothing a) good; b) at all to say, because Lydia Kiesling already wrote “the perfect review.” Which is probably true. Also probably true: Marche is lazy, didn’t read the novel, or both. On 23-year-old “alt lit” sensation Marie Calloway’s new collection of printed materials, however, a middle-aged ladmag writer is our very first authority.

“The Internet commenters and the New York Observer profiler missed something kind of important about Marie Calloway,” Marche writes, “which is, to put it simply, the work itself.”

If you missed not only that something but everything else about Marie Calloway — the putative Jean Rhys to Tao Lin’s Ford Madox Ford — then go catch up with Michelle Orange at Slate. As for Marche’s column, good luck reading past this: “Almost everyone who was educated in the nineties, in the middle of the triumphal march of identity politics, believes that the job of a critic is to fit an individual artist into a standardized martyrology and establish his or her precise victim status as a prelude to critical appreciation.”

Almost everyone who was educated where? The Stephen Marche Institute of Grandiosely Ersatz Claims? His ridiculous point is made altogether risible when he quotes from one of Calloway’s stories, which ends with, “I collapsed onto the floor and curled up into the fetal position and began to hyperventilate and sob.”

In other words, oddly like how a self-positioned victim-as-narrator might end a stultifying tale of sex work.

Marche’s one point worth taking outside Calloway’s text concerns “purity.” See here:

What is so refreshing about what purpose did i serve in your life is what is most hidden from its stories of abject degradation: Its purity. When you see Calloway’s pieces gathered together you recognize what this young woman has been doing, what her plan has been from the beginning, which she has executed, without error, right to the end. She has been submitting herself to horrific sexual experiences in order to write about them. That’s how much she cares about writing. That’s how deeply she is willing to sacrifice to be an artist. I must say that I find this, whatever its motives, profoundly worthy of respect.

“Purity” — ugh, it rankles beyond reason. It pretends to concern artistry while speaking from and of class (and within class, of gender). As an idea, “purity” is as stupid as it is insidious, conservative, and common.

Every writer in my world who’s done sex work is lucky enough, like Calloway, to have chosen it over other kinds of work, and so each of us have heard, over and over and from all the good liberals, “but you’re doing it for a story, right?” The tone says, “if you’re doing it for money, ew” and/or, “do it so I can do it vicariously.” Marche says so, too, when he burdens Calloway’s choices with his respect. He is comfortable with her sex work, if not with the sexuality itself, because he sees it as performative — sacrificial, even! — or for reasons of art. That “art” is more important than “work” is often questionable, but never more so than when I’m reading sentences as artless and un-startling as Calloway’s. Her documentation strikes fresh awe into this Romantic Dad not because it’s original, but because — I will bet my entire gchat log — he’s never used Tumblr, heard of Constantia Phillips, or read Mary MacLane.

Like the middle-aged men who watch Hannah Horvath disenjoy herself on Girls, Marche has found a female writer he can love specifically because there’s fuck-all to fear. Calloway’s plain, stated vulnerability poses no threat to virile hope. Her willful naïveté won’t wilt his intellect. At one point in Adrien Brody, she writes, “I’ve never been able to figure out why I get off on being used as on object.” To this, as a writer who cares about girls enough to want them to grow up, I would say: Try. Or else: Decide your sexuality is something visceral, pre-verbal. If old words don’t suffice, make new. Try. The purest thing is really to work.

Calloway, I think, believes in writing and yet does not seem to believe in her own. It’s easy to accept from her what is not, in form or in function, a challenge. Marche couldn’t keep up with a Kushner. He’d cower before Katherine Angel’s Unmastered. But Calloway, whom he images as a martyr-virgin with a “minor masterpiece,” the “success” of which he suspects — prays — she won’t spoil by attempting to repeat — yeah, she’s the one. Why recognize your equals in women (or your superiors, for that matter) when you can flatter an unproven writer half your age?

If only Marche were alone in reading like he wishes he could date, but no. I’ve heard Marie Calloway explained by a few too many men who want to protect her from other men, and it seems to me that in the moment we’re really talking about female sexual want — a year also and not incidentally full of great, complicated, filthy-rich novels by women — it is a little bit obvious of such guys to be suddenly concerned with what’s “pure.” The “real thing” of women’s writing is not what’s desired, but which desires; which has conatus; which is not pure at all, but is good.

Photo via foresthistory/flickr.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a contributing editor at The New Inquiry and a writer for The Globe & Mail, Hazlitt, Vice, BULLETT, The Aesthete, and more. She lives in Chinatown and tweets at @snpsnpsnp.