Thoughts: Learning to Drive, and other life stories, by Katha Pollitt

I really wasn’t expecting this one to be anything special. I put it on the list because we got the film at Sneak sometime in 2015 (arghhh so behind) but I knew it was based on a short piece and they’d changed a good few details for the film that I didn’t immediately see a decent reason to change (and still kind of don’t, except that it helps to think of the film as “inspired by” and not “an adaptation of”). The film was nice? I can’t remember a huge amount about it, but I’m bad at remembering films and it was two years ago (oh god so behind) so I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

What really gave me misgivings (misgave me?) were the reviews of the book lined up proudly on the back and in the first few pages, which I read through because eh, why not? They had lots of alarm bell words in them, like “confessional” (I didn’t think people actually said that! The first I heard of this women’s writing being confessional thing was in a Guardian article!), “searingly honest” (ugh), “wise” (UGH), and worst of all, “Unafraid to say what others only think” (the only one I wouldn’t necessarily associate with female writing), which wasn’t even from a review but from the blurb itself, and my god, doesn’t that make you think the worst of someone? Maybe I’ve been burned too many times by Those People who assume that Down The Rugby Club lies a microcosm of all the mystery of humanity’s secret thoughts.

The thing is, none of those things are even bad! They’re meant to be compliments!

It’s just that they have such connotations now, of tryhard triteness and this awful trend of mining one’s past for the worst trauma the writer can rip out of their chest and throw, still wet and twitching, at the feet of their readers for no other reason than because not to do that makes you less confessional and less honest.

There’s a reason this book came with those tags, though.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s because Katha Pollitt writes in the style that those tryhard blogger-essayists are trying to imitate.

I’m not going to let this whole post be about my feelings on the feminist blogosphere (I’m sure it’s not just feminist blogger-essayists who are trying to master this style, but it’s pretty much the only blogging realm I’ve spent any time in), but I do have a lot of feelings about it, so I’ll get them mostly out of the way now.

Here are the reasons Katha Pollitt is better at this style than the hundred feminist blogger-essayists out there who’ve discovered present tense and not-using-contractions and now describe their writing styles as ‘lyrical’.

1. Sometimes she does use contractions and that makes all the difference.

2. This isn’t a style suited to rage, or the denouncing j’accuse tone of the many, many opinion pieces about why pop culture is anti-feminist you guys. All it lends to the cheap sadness of “my heart hurts” pieces is an air of even thicker melodrama. Pollitt’s essays (as you can tell by the title) are “life stories”, and the style suits them perfectly. I think “life stories” is a really good description of them, actually, because not only are they about her life (derp) but they aren’t just straight autobiographical retellings, either. They’re written like short stories, using the sorts of devices you’d see in fiction. And she would make a good fiction writer.

3. She’s interesting.

4. But wait, that isn’t enough! I’m not saying that the hypothetical feminist blogger-essayist isn’t interesting. But it’s like being a translator. Knowing a language is cool, but it doesn’t make you a good translator. Everyone has had experiences, but not everyone can make interesting writing out of them.

5. She doesn’t link every tiny experience of her life to sexist talking points. She writes consistently through an overtly feminist lens, but she doesn’t make facile connections between This Thing That Happened and This Conveniently Topical Talking Point, Look How Relevant The Very Path Of My Life Is. I probably sound like an awful person at this point, but this is a thing that people do, and when it’s done badly – or tenuously, just to sound relevant – it’s harmful to your causes. And you know what? If you do do it tenuously just because something is a talking point at that moment, you’re actually hindering the efforts of people who know what they’re talking about. I know everyone likes to sound knowledgeable, but the amount of things I end up reading that are clearly knocked together because the writer felt like they had to be talking about This Issue even though they know nothing about it. It’s terrible. Stop it. Link us to pieces written by the knowledgeable instead of cluttering up the tubes with your own rushed opinion.

OK, done.

So, I think Pollitt is at her weakest when she is taking a more prescriptive tone (End Of, I Let Myself Go) but even here there are elegant points to be taken. In general she’s so gracious that she can hint at her opinions without saying “I decree that this is wrong” – she comes across as very aware of the subjectivity of opinion, even her own – so there’s not much of a “get off my lawn” feel even when she really is talking about ageing in relation to how the world moves on. Like Leonard Cohen’s oblique mentions of abortion, I did have the occasional uncomfortable feeling (towards the end of the book) where I wondered, What are you saying, exactly, here? And part of it may well be the age difference. Either way, she’s intelligent and well-read, and you rarely if ever get the feeling that she’s drawing pat conclusions just for effect. She can argue her case – but she never does it bluntly. As I’ve said, she has a very light touch.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t talk about difficult subjects – she does. I suppose she doesn’t break much new ground, but there isn’t really much new ground to be broken in feminism, is there?

Reading In The Study Group and Good-bye Lenin reminded me a bit of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, which I read a couple of years ago, and which also deals with the daughter of communists (though fictional, and in South Africa), and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to give it a go. Good-bye Lenin is about Pollitt’s father and his FBI file, and if the personal is political, then sometimes the political is personal too. This was one of the most moving essays, definitely. Tied with Mrs Razzmatazz. And if you think it’s facile that the two most moving essays are the ones about the dead parents, then I suggest to you that you probably have no soul and I can be moved by anything I want, because you are not the boss of me.

I’ve been trying to think about which of the essays is my favourite and can’t answer. Learning to Drive worked so well as a proper short story, giving us a lot of background between the spaces in its narrow, well-chosen focus, that it was easy to forget Pollitt was talking about her life. Webstalker was one of the “searingly honest” parts I suppose, where Pollitt describes a time in her life when she acted with… less than dignity, but she analyses it so sincerely that it becomes much more than just a funny anecdote. In The Study Group is just a fascinating glimpse into the sort of life I used to dream of living, and a really incisive analysis of the Left’s habit of philosophising itself into a useless stupor. I could go on. But I’ve already rambled for many words, so I won’t.

I think this is the last political book on my list for a while, and though it’s partly a relief, I’m a bit sad as well. I feel like I’ve been learning a lot.

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