Friday, October 17, 2014

On Being an Aging Woman

This is a review of a new book of essays by Ursula K. LeGuin. I need to order it at once, if only for this essay:
I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time...

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.
I think I understand her. I am younger than LeGuin by 13 years, and that may make a difference. I don't feel quite as much that I am a second-class male. But I certainly remember growing up with society telling me all the things a woman couldn't do, including be a good writer. My mother and her sisters were feminists. My favorite fiction writer was probably Jane Austen. My favorite poet was Emily Dickinson. None the less, the social message was powerful. I can remember being heartbroken sometime in high school, because I wanted to be a poet, and women were not good poets.

As it turned out, I am much more of a fiction writer than a poet, though I still write poetry now and then.

I remember the message that women were second-rate men. I'm not sure I bought it entirely, thanks to my mother and her sisters.

LeGuin also writes about getting old:
Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

...If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.
I need to think what messages I have gotten about aging. Not good ones, I imagine. And I need to get the LeGuin book. In fact, I just ordered it.


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very good

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