Kerfuffle

Anyone who’s trolled this blog long enough will notice that, as much as possible, I’d rather not let the real world and its pesky issues in. [A rare exception goes down Semi-Blathering Ranty Avenue, as was the case when I tried to comment on supposed “moral responsibilities” to furthering a gender’s and a nation’s literature—bullshit, basically.] I don’t talk much, because, you know, I’d rather be reading. Also because I am well aware that logic isn’t one of my strong points.

But, you know, sometimes WTFery happens. And although WTFery doesn’t necessarily get in the way of my reading a particular book, I am annoyed enough at the person in charge of that WTFery that I want to reach into the murky world of the Intarwebz to take her by the shoulders and yell, “You are so ruining a good thing right now.”

I am talking about Robin Black. I hazard saying that, unfortunately, most bibliophilic internet people would recognize her by that tonally grating, stick-up-the-ass ridiculousness that is her indignation at US President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Because, ya know, if you’re a key figure in the free world, everybody’s up in yo bidness, scolding you on the books you spend your time with. Black happened to decide she’d be the one to [unnecessarily, misguidedly] call him out on this supposed slight of his supposed gender bias, and hundreds of gasps and comments and blog posts later—of which [The New Dork Review of Books’] Greg’s is the most “yeah-uh” to me—your latest WTFery was born.

I am not here to comment on that absurd piece—not least because once I get started, this post could either descend into an oaths-and-exclamation-points orgy or an impatient dismissal of Black’s starchiness. Anyone can read what he damn well likes, is all I’m saying.

I am here to be as fatalistic. To go Chicken Little on this mess. Because, see, I read Robin Black’s short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This several weeks ago and, dammit, that was one of the most confident, most stylistically and vocally diverse, most affective short story collections I’ve ever read. You know it’s good when I wrote notes double time, and not with a little envy, examining her techniques, her story’s structures, her characters and their revelations, hoping for a nugget to help me in my own writing.

She writes good stories, dammit, she writes really well. The opening story, for example, is about a father who accompanies his blind daughter to get her first Seeing Eye dog. The emotional charge in this scenario is far from conventional, however, because we’re suddenly hit by revelations of a crumbling marriage, complete with a woman on the side, as well as a trip down memory lane, to the supposed wellspring of all this despair—the day the daughter lost her sight.

Another story is monologue directed toward a new neighbor. If I loved you, our narrator says, I would tell you this. And there are many stories she tells. About the son who does not recognize her. About the fact that she is dying, and that her husband is tired. Another story is about an old mother, hidden away in a cottage with her husband, who welcomes their daughter out of the blue. This is not a sweet reunion. Awake at night, familiarizing herself with the numbness wrought by a stroke [a stroke she has informed next to no one], she hears her married daughter sneak out to meet a lover.

Black shifts times and preoccupations so subtly, so gracefully, that there’s no reason to be overwhelmed. Instead, you feel full, you feel almost unworthy of such rich stories. Her characters are commonplace, their fates inevitable—growing up, falling in love, boredom, falling in love with someone else, being left unloved, dying—but their stories told so calmly. The calmness only underscores that suspicion that the pain these people are going through is necessary, their ugliness a matter of fact because of the stories they hold. Black is a rare, sensitive writer, and this collection of hers is more admirable when you learn that it’s a debut.

I’m not trying to say that people are so biased against her now that people will think whatever else she writes is bull—although, har, I have seen comments that went, “Well, with that title, no wonder people don’t read women writers!” Though, yes, Chicken Little here’s afraid that the bad taste her Salon article left in many people’s mouths might be a big enough impediment to get new readers to come to her.  But ya know, what I’ve really been in agony in trying to say is that, dammit, Miss Robin Black—you are ruining a good thing here. You’re a fantastic writer. No need to stir the pot, no need to smugly lecture someone on his reading choices. There is a gaping disconnect between that giggly-incendiary lecture and this beautiful and accomplished collection you have to your name. My opinion on your work stands. But, come on, I just hate having to situate you in this stupid mess you’ve made. A backhanded compliment, this “good review” has become, yes?

Ugh. You know what. I’m ignoring you. I am totally ignoring you. I am going to pick up your books—and I hope there will be a lot of them coming—but I am going to put my hands up to my ears and sing “La-la-laaaah” whenever someone mentions your name.

Unnecessary. Kerfuffle. The sky is falling!

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6 comments

  1. This is pretty interesting – if I go by Ms. Black’s argument, I was (once upon a time in high school) sexist against my own gender because I read more Jeffery Deaver and Sidney Sheldon and Tom Clancy than I did Amy Tan and Carolyn Keene. Well.

    1. I can’t imagine anyone–any average reader–who’d tell him/herself, “Hm. Today, I’ll read only books by men/women.” That Robin Black would fail to recognize that readers generally read books that interest them, that they hope they’d like–it’s boggling. President, Shmresident–a reader essentially shouldn’t concern himself with being fair. To anything. We read!

  2. I don’t understand why the lady thinks he is doing it on purpose. If he would read books because he knows people knows he reads them, he probably would buy half/half ON PURPOSE. right?

    1. Haha, I was talking to this to a friend, and we went, “Um, if it were a PR, please-everybody, move, wouldn’t it make sense that the White House would be as politic and diplomatic as possible with the released list?” He reads what he likes! It’s awesome that he reads! I hope he got to read! WHY IS THIS AN ISSUE. /breathe

  3. Great review of the book (really sounds like my sort of thing, when I’m in a short story mood) and hilarious framework to your review!

    1. Thank you, Simon. I was at a loss, faced with my irritation of Black’s comments and my relentless love and awe of her stories. Best kill two birds with one stone, eh?

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