Saturday, August 19, 2006

Virginity or Death! Book Review

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, by Katha Pollitt, is a collection of short essays - almost 90 of them - originally published in The Nation, spanning the years from 2001 to early 2006. While waiting my turn for my library's copy of Virginity or Death!, I went ahead and checked out an earlier collection - Reasonable Creatures (it didn't have a waiting list) - which I enjoyed so much that I thought it was pretty unlikely that I wouldn't like Virginity or Death!. And I was right.

The essays are intelligent, sharp, insightful and timely. Furthermore, Pollitt exhibits something that not all feminist ideologues manage to manifest - an abundance of common sense, and a wicked sense of humor.

Soon after I heard about the publication of Virginity or Death! and put it on my library request list, I saw the feminist blogosphere erupt over Anna Marie Cox's New York Times review, Woman of the Nation. And although I thought some of the reaction to the review was a bit overblown (I didn't see Cox as totally panning the book, although she didn't say much positive, either), after reading Virginity or Death!, I just found Cox's review weirdly off the mark and unsatisfying. Here are some of Wonkette's (i.e. Cox's) criticisms:

[Pollitt is] "stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women's rights in the Middle East."

"There's a certain preserved-in-amber quality to some of the thinking here."

"But when feminists start lecturing about wrong choices, it lessens their numbers. I wish I had an easy answer about how to navigate between stridency and submission. Then again, I wish Katha Pollitt did too."

Pollitt is pretty stubbornly unapologetic about championing access to abortion - in one essay ("If Not Miers, Who?"), she even makes a joke about her views as "a matter of endless, possibly even tedious, record". But at least 80% of the essays make no mention of abortion at all. And as for the essays on the Middle East (which were definitely not all on women's rights) - well, she writes about Abu Ghraib and cluster bombs and.... Damn, there just weren't that many essays on the Middle East to complain about. And that part of the world is rather relevant to "current political issues of our time", so shouldn't Pollitt write about it?

I couldn't see any "preserved-in-amber" qualities that really date Pollitt's work, either. I'm 43, though, so maybe my (liberal feminist) cataracts are interfering with my views of fossilization.

And strident? Not "that old chestnut", as my nine year old says when my husband makes a particularly bad pun. Sometimes Pollitt is assertive, but compared to many of the socio-political essayists I've read, she hardly qualifies as overwrought. She isn't obnoxious, she is often gently self-deprecating, and she never patronizes her readers, which I appreciate.

Now choice. That's the buzzword in feminism these days, isn't it? What Pollitt actually says is that "Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about." As much as I support personal choice, I have to agree with Pollitt that not all choices are equally good. That kind of extreme relativism is just ridiculous, and I thought that Pollitt balanced choice vs. absolutes (not exactly the same as submission vs. stridency, forgodsakes) fairly well. Unlike Linda R. Hirshman, to pick another feminist I'm reading right now.

Pollitt's response to the Cox review was highly entertaining and right on the mark (and unfortunately no longer free online unless you're an NYT subscriber): Thank You for Hating My Book.

Now for a bit of criticism, since I don't just want to be a fawning fan here. To my surprise, I didn't enjoy Virginity or Death! quite as much as I did Reasonable Creatures. Partially because many of the pieces in V or D! were less timeless and eye-opening for me than those in Pollitt's earlier work (just her essays on literature reading lists in college and "difference feminism" in Reasonable Creatures made me vow to buy a copy for myself soon).

The essays in V or D! were also usually much shorter. Plus, her chronicles of the last five years' politics - well, let's just say reviewing the screw-ups and creeping disintegration of civil rights perpetuated by the right wing, not to mention the war - isn't always a huge barrel of laughs. Though to give her credit, Pollitt does manage to find the (sometimes dark) humor where she can.

I managed to snag a virtually free copy of Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture on, so I'll have to see if reading Pollitt's take on the late 90's is any more fun than the first part of the 21st century. I'll let you know.

1 comment:

Becky said...

I just read Virginity or Death! and loved it. Only thing I didn't like was that, well, I read several of the articles before. I also read Subject to Debate. Excellent as well.