Reviewing is a strong word for what happens here

Martin McClellan

May 09, 2017
One day, on the Seattle Review of Books Slack channel:

martin [2:40 PM]
Hey, you got a minute?

paulconstant [2:42 PM]

martin [2:42 PM]
I think we’re going to need to hire someone else to write this Claire Dederer review.

I mean, I want to, and it’s not that I don’t like the book — I liked it quite a bit. But, I have some reservations about digging into it as a critic. We should absolutely run a review of this book, but it absolutely be written by a woman.

paulconstant [2:43 PM]
Why’s that?

martin [2:43 PM]
Well, I think part of it is that I’m too close to her. I don’t know her personally. But, I’m on a Facebook music sharing group with her run by a mutual friend. And I posted a mix there once that was inspired by this remarkable article she wrote for the Atlantic called “Why is it so hard for women to write about sex?.”

It’s funny — the music thing is maybe one reason I should write about this. We’re from the same aesthetic landscape — old Seattle where music was a signifier of specific outsider culture. We were tremendously snobby, in a very unexamined, streety sort of way. A deep bench of obscure music love was always a certain societal marker; a shorthand of taste and a measure of cultural acuity that could forge instant trust and friendships. Oh, you’re into Wire, too? Are you going to the U-Men show? Did you go to that crazy Survival Research Laboratories event where you had to sign a waiver saying it was okay if they killed you? If there was enough overlap in your musical graphs, turning a new stranger on to a band they didn’t know about, but came to love, was a powerful enough foundation to forge marriages.

I also know her brother, sort of. He used to get guitars and gear at the Trading Musician when I was managing it. They even gave us a gold record of that first Presidents album, which was awfully generous of them. He’s a nice guy. The most unrockstar-like rockstar you’d ever want to meet. And I guess he worked at Morningtown, the vegetarian joint I worked for three years, although we didn’t overlap in our tenures.

Anyway, that kind of cultural understanding is maybe a reason that Dederer and I could theoretically be friends or something, but it’s a terrible reason to write about her book. I mean, maybe I can offer some checks as to the verisimilitude of her recall (consider it checked. She got it dead on), but other than that, I can’t really address the central thesis of her book.

paulconstant [2:44 PM]
I mean, in terms of a conflict of interest, that doesn’t seem like an issue. It’s pretty tenuous. But, you know, our philosophy is to disclose those ties. It’s no reason why you shouldn’t write about the book.

martin [2:45 PM]
Sure, but I think that’s the least of my worries, really. It’s more about this discomfort with being a man and writing about a book that is really aimed for women, you know?

paulconstant [2:48 PM]
Well, and I understand that. Sometimes it’s important to give the space for a woman to respond to a work that’s for and by and about them. But other times, it’s okay to come forward and say “this is what I think.” Again, I think transparency is important. Finger-wagging is bad, but communication is a good thing, right? A book review can’t ever be more than one personal perspective on a text, after all. And I assume that she wanted her book to be read by as many people as possible — men and women.

martin [2:48 PM]
Yeah, good point. I mean, if I could sum up her point, I would say it’s about a grown woman confronting her more-or-less unexamined younger self. It’s a very feminist story, and a very female story: “Maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” she writes early in the book, which is ironic because as a character she did a lot of sitting around, but as an author, she obviously does stuff. A person who doesn’t do stuff doesn’t write self-examining memoirs, right?

You know how we talk a lot about how books are engines of empathy, and yes, here I am a dude (middle-aged, going through my own mid-life evaluations), learning and being empathetic, and maybe Dederer here could be a kind of proxy for the girls like her I knew and now can more fully grok, and even the young girls I know now that may face similar challenges as they come to their own adolescence. But it still feels intrusive. I’m not reading the book to understand my own past, as some women might. I’m reading to understand hers, and that voyeuristic gaze is what feels intrusive.

Because given her topics, I worry that I’ll come across like the wolf trying to understand the sheep. And who wants to read a review by a wolf about how tender, funny, and beautiful a sheep’s writing is? But, insomuch as men are a part of her story, and male energy is a draw for her that causes a lot of the love and trouble, maybe it’s not a bad thing to have a man reviewing the book?

oh, and there’s this great quote:


The hard-on is man's original slapstick. There's always something going on down there, even if it's nothing. Marriage is essentially plotless, but a dick has a plot. Something happens or doesn't happen, and suddenly you're in a story.

paulconstant [2:50 PM]
That is very funny, and very smart.

I think that you’re generalizing a lot here, with broader ideas of men and women. What I’m more interested in is what this book meant to you. Along with the whole engines-of-empathy thing, I’m a big believer in the thought that every book — even a very bad book — has something of value in it.

So you might think the book has something of value in it, and maybe that’s different than what a woman might get out of it, but it’s still, you know, value.

martin [2:52 PM]
Well, the part that really struck me was her examination of how obsessed with juvenile girls pop culture is/was. There are always men interested in much-too-young girls, and the culture of the 70s and 80s both excused some men’s predatory interest in pre-pubescence as somehow natural, and encouraged girls to present worldly facades beyond their age-based abilities; as if they were mature, worldly women who just happened to be caught mid-puberty in a girl’s body. As if they were Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver.

Dederer looks closely at this through her own experiences with creepy men, and the casualness with which they came into her life (with her brother acting as guardian, understanding something more acutely than her, at that time). More pointedly, she writes open letters to Roman Polanski, eviscerating any defense one can find of his actions as a rapist. She does it through empathizing with his target, and finding threads between Dederer’s younger self, and Polanski’s victim.

Even so, I wasn't some disembodied aesthete. My body felt good to me. I had a trick of making myself feel like a movie star. A classic move: I did it now, on the beach. I lay on my back, one leg extended, the other leg bent at the knee. Sunglasses, of course (Vuarnets purloined from my brother). It was a kind of a cult drag I was trying on. I was enjoying the grown-up music, the grown-up book, the grown-up feeling of looking like a seductress. But that didn't mean I was seductive or that I wanted to seduce. These were, insofar as I thought of them at all, terrible words to me: seductress, seductive, seduce. They were the words for someone who must make an effort to be desired. That was not my plan. My plan was to be loved for who I was, for my own self. There would be, when the time came, no need for seduction. I was sure that I myself would prove to be sufficient, when the time came, just like Elizabeth Bennet, who certainly had no need to seduce.

I say on the one hand that I was used to male attention, and on the other that I was a kid with a kid's innocence. Does that confuse you, Roman Polanski? Does that make you feel like I deserved what I got, or that somehow I was more of a woman, more of a sexual being than I realized? I can tell you that as I lay there like a darling Lo, leg bent, sunglasses on, I was just goofing around. I wasn't wishing for sex or even for love. I was perfectly at peace, as the tide came in, washing the almost-transparent bright brown sheaves of seaweed over the barnacled rocks.

This is why you hear people call Dederer fearless. She’s writing about a girl’s sexuality (internal, external) from a full lifecycle: from male interest in her before she’s ready or aware, to her taking a more active roll in sexual activity when she was older. She’s looking at it without a romantic or judging eye. Her task is to understand, not to condemn, herself. She’s very kind to that searching girl who was yearning for something real, and looking for something authentic.

According to a chart inserted in the pages, her happiness declined in exact proportion to her sexual activity increasing, as her interest spiked and took on its own momentum. She follows it through to her middle-aged self, in love and connected to her husband, but still open to the attention of a more famous writer who turns his lighthouse gaze to her.

She faces her ... and what term should we use here? Dederer herself only uses the word “promiscuity” twice in the book — only once in relation to her younger self — and that sparingly used word with this topic strikes me as very deliberate, so I want to avoid that loaded word as well. Maybe we put it like this: she faces her own young, eager, interested, and confused sexuality, as it became exposed to a wider world of boys and men.

This part of the book, which is the heart of the book, is potent. You both cheer for young Claire’s independence, and worry for her safety (emotional and physical). You sit next to adult Claire, in her writing studio, lying on her bed unable to do anything, talking to friends on the phone about their days, as she comes to terms with the younger self she turned from years past.

paulconstant [2:55 PM]
I love all that. And I can’t wait to read what women have to say about this book. Maybe we should publish that, too. But it sounds like the book got to you, and that’s something worth parsing out, I think.

martin [2:56 PM]
Yeah, there were really only two places I kind of fell away from the book: The modern-day Claire, as she listlessly lies around in her island home reading her vintage journals and despairing, felt less compelling to me as the time spent with adult Claire actively reckoning her younger self. I wanted more — more from the journals, more exploration, more understanding of what happened then and the complex feelings of the young Claire.

Also less compelling was that subplot of an almost-affair she has with a more famous male writer. She forges a connection, seeking to feel attractive and desired. Her husband, who expresses full trust in her, asks her to be careful and leaves the whole ordeal in her hands to manage. But the story is not a love story, or that strong a caution. It feels like a device to further this idea of why she need to examine the past. It’s less like the past came knocking at her door, and more that she was pushed into a room of memories, and when the door was closed she was unable to open it to free herself, only finding later that it was left completely unlocked.

paulconstant [2:58 PM]
Do you think some of that has to do with the imposition of a narrative onto the story, to make it feel more like a memoir?

martin [3:00 PM]
I do. I mean, she is very playful with form here; her chapter headers are hilarious. She employs devices, but they feel like play, mostly, except the affair-ish subplot. And it’s so damn funny. Here’s something she wrote about the Seattle spirit: (edited)


"We don't cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though driving is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle."

paulconstant [3:01 PM]
Sounds downright Where’d You Go, Bernadette-y

martin [3:02 PM]
Well, yeah, in that, like Semple, she has a real gift for a punchline that lands, and feels unforced.

So, anyway, as a man I think it’s weird for me to review it. I think a woman should take a look at it — I mean, it will be a shame if it just gets tucked away as another “women’s” book, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be marketed that way right now. So maybe my reaction to it is more my problem than hers?

But still let’s find someone else to write it. Someone who can dig deeper in way that’s not creepy or wolfish or whatever. Yeah? (edited)

paulconstant [3:04 PM]
It’s a good impulse. Though I have to say — keeping in mind that I’m a dude, myself — that you don’t sound creepy or wolfish to me. It sounds like the book really hit something resonant for you and maybe you should pursue that yourself.

martin [3:06 PM]
Ugh. Maybe so. I’ll take a crack at it and see how far I get. But man, even if I do review it, I would love to hear from women who have a different take on it, or maybe a more personal and nuanced take. I mean, there's nothing that says we can't run two reviews on a single book, is there?

paulconstant [3:06 PM]
Nope. Nothing at all.

Books in this review:
  • Love and Trouble
    by Claire Dederer

    May 09, 2017
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound