I gave birth exactly one week ago (happy one week birthday, baby!), and as it’s taken this long to post a blog update… well, I expect to be on a blog hiatus for a while longer.

I’m on and off Twitter and Facebook, which are currently the best ways to reach me. Email is backlogged and probably will be for some time. The first set of grandparents will arrive next week, so we’re enjoying some family time that’s rare given distance!

 

I haven’t posted Friday link round-ups in two weeks. I’ve been in thinking and journaling but not blogging mode.

One highlight from the past two weeks: A & I went to Zurich to see our first opera. We picked a good one — Handel’s Alcina starring Cecilia Bartoli. While it was cool to see her live, she actually wasn’t my favorite performer. She didn’t sing out as much as the others, so while she had the richest, most complex voice, she held back as if trying to save it. She was good, but a couple of the performers went all out and were fantastic. The first act sets were also really fun — multi-level structures that moved. Opera’s supposed to be spectacle, and this one had the plot of a Shakespearean comedy, so it was fun. I don’t think A & I realized it until the second day, but we really needed a weekend away in a city where we could just go to a show and eat good food and chill out for a bit.

And now, here’s some of what I’ve been reading over the past two weeks that have been making me think:

1) On gender — This is an older piece (from 1993) called “Marked Women, Unmarked Men” (via Debcha) that describes how every aspect of a woman’s appearance comes across as a statement (long & short hair both mean something, wearing makeup and not wearing it both mean something, etc.). However, men can have “unmarked” states and only become significant when they somehow break the default (ex: hair dye or piercings). As a counterpoint, here’s an opinion piece on how “There’s no such thing as a ‘real man’.” The default definitions of masculinity are damaging to both men and women.

2) Race/culture — “For the first time, a majority of American children under age 2 are now children of color  — and 1 in 3 of them is poor.” I’m fascinated by the changing demographics in the US and what they mean and also horrified by the extent of poverty today in a country that’s supposed to be the land of opportunity. On the culture side, Tiger Mom Amy Chua is back with a new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, which she co-wrote with her husband. I thought this piece in Time Magazine about cultural exceptionalism and racism did a good job of deconstructing some of the issues (via Amitha Knight & Mitali Perkins).

3) Literature & Elitism — Speaking of elitism, Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old who won the Booker Prize for her book The Luminaries, wrote about the relationship between readers and writers and consumerism. Is it snobby to use difficult language? Does that limit audience? Does it matter if readers are turned off? This isn’t a new discussion, and it always reminds me of one of my favorite professors, the poet Geoffrey Hill (currently Oxford’s Professor of Poetry) who’s infamous for writing “difficult” poetry. He argues that difficulty is democratic while oversimplification is tyrannical. From a spectacular Paris Review interview on writing, democracy, self-knowledge, and criticism:

We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.

Can you see why I loved his class?

4) Moving from one terrific interview to another, Buzzfeed of all places did a terrific interview with author Olivia Laing, whom I’ve mentioned several times as a brilliant writer (and not just because she’s a friend!). Olivia writes a blend of biography, autobiography, criticism, and travelogue. In her latest book, The Trip to Echo Spring (which was short listed for the Costa), she writes about alcoholism and writing by looking at the lives of six alcoholic writers and her own family’s history of alcoholism. The bigger theme across her work is on loneliness, creativity, and transgression, which is the focus of this interview. She’s such a good writer because of her empathy — she gives full pictures of the people she’s portraying without pathologizing or deifying them. Anyway, it’s a brilliant interview, and her books are even better, so check them out!

All right, now I can close tabs and start the week with a clean slate :) Hope it’s been a good weekend!

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Last week I posted about the Kellers, who decided to use a specific cancer patient’s use of social networking as hooks for their respective thought pieces. Both faced a huge backlash for singling out one person and treating her rather carelessly in their attempts to write about a broader trend.

This week brought another story with a similar backlash, and three of my five links pertain to it. Grantland published a long feature called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter: The remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club.” The story begins as a review of a cool new putter that then turns into an investigation of the inventor and an exposé of her life. The reporter discovered that the inventor’s credentials were false and then found out that she was a transgender woman. Dr. V. committed suicide before the piece was published. This is mentioned in the essay, but the reporter’s potential role in her death was not addressed, so it came across as an irresponsible piece of “gotcha” journalism in which Dr. V’s trans identity was equated with professional fraud.

The writer and Grantland both faced a massive backlash for outing a trans woman to an investor, for then outing her to the public, and for general lack of empathy. Maria Dahvana Headley wrote an excellent blog post describing what went wrong in the reporter’s handling of “a hostile subject”: SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing. Mostly she focuses on the importance of Subject vs. Story. Writers are often told that Story reigns supreme, but this is false. Stories have real consequences, and writers must treat their subjects with empathy and care.

The editor of Grantland wrote a long, reflective piece about what happened and what exactly went wrong in The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor: How “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” came to be published. Essentially, none of the story’s editors or readers knew anything about the trans community and the problems they face, and no one made an effort to do basic research or to vet the article. This was a fundamental problem of privilege — those who had it didn’t see the potential effects of their actions on someone with far less privilege.

This week and last have highlighted how crucial it is to have empathy when writing. In fact, empathy leads to nuance, which makes for a better story. People aren’t all good or all bad. We all have faults and flaws and goodness, and that’s what’s interesting. Saying that a cancer patient tweets too much and should die with silent grace is far less interesting than trying to understand why she tweets and why someone else might prefer not to (besides the former being completely judgmental, and who’s the writer to say what’s appropriate?). So this is my call for greater empathy both in writing and in daily interactions.

And now to completely change the subject for my final links –

Romance writer Courtney Milan wrote an excellent post on print sales of historical romance, and she unpacks several issues that affect print sales, especially for minority writers. This is pure publishing biz geekery with real numbers. Good stuff. (via Gwenda Bond)

And the art kick-off for the weekend — old Media Lab friend Scott Eaton art directed a piece for the Olympic Games at Sochi that’s being called “a Mount Rushmore of the digital age.” Click through for some spectacular pictures.

Happy weekend!

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