Monday, February 7, 2011

Poser: Sadly, The Joke Inferred by Its Title Isn't Really a Joke, It's Painfully Accurate

Note from Spike: It's not my intent to review a lot of books here. I do hope to run plenty of Q&A's with writers. And when I read really good books, I do want to mention them. But today I am posting a really negative review and part of me feels bad about it. One reason I'll never make it as a professional critic is because I prefer, overwhelmingly, to direct readers and theatergoers to stuff I LIKE. Why waste time bashing the bad stuff when there is so much good stuff out there-- that's the motto I try to mostly stick with. But I just finished listening to Poser, the audiobook version of a memoir that's getting a ton of press, and I am so fucking annoyed by it that it's haunting me. And so here I am, trying to capture my thoughts. I sort of want to apologize to the author because I want to think that she really put her best into it, and it pains me to strike out against that. Still, in the interest of complaining about larger awful trends-- which this book symbolizes-- I present my thoughts.

It’s been days since I finished listening to the audio version of Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser, and I am still so fucking annoyed with the book that as I woke up this morning, as I came to the surface, I found myself continuing to waste time dissecting it, trying to get to the root of why it chaps me so.

First, in the interest of fairness, let’s address a major problem for which Dederer cannot be held totally accountable. I understand that whenever I choose the audio version of a book, I am quite possibly signing up for a very different experience than the author intended. Sometimes this works out great. I recently listened to Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Under the Dome by Stephen King. Both were astonishingly great books and, on top that, each was read by an extremely talented actor that took the tales to new heights. But sometimes a reader totally (or partially) fails an author. For example, while I eventually developed a tolerance for the narrator of Jennifer Egan’s excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad—I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed the book better if I’d read it from the page.

As for Poser—which I should toss out there is allegedly a memoir about yoga—it was read with such a heightened and sustained sarcasm throughout that I wanted to scream. I have no idea why I didn’t just quit listening. Maybe my insistence on going through to the end was a combination of my admitted masochistic streak, and a hope that it would get better—that either the narrator would adjust her tone or that Dederer’s words, which I now think probably are just as sarcastic on the page, would adjust her story/attitude You know, the old formula—redemption at the end, the Grinch’s heart grows, Dorothy taps her red shoes together and has an epiphany, etc. But no, the sarcasm never lets up, and I don’t think it was just the narrator’s interpretation. Look, I know from sarcasm, I’m a Yankee and that is my native tongue. But there comes a point when enough is enough and any cleverness demonstrated by sarcasm is overcome by the pure stench of too much. Okay, so Dederer can be cleverly biting, we get it already, but did she ever really gain any insight? And do we gain any insight as a result of reading the book? I would say No and No.

Before I get to the nuts and bolts of problems in Poser, I want to cop to another thing for which Dederer cannot be held responsible: the professional jealousy I fully admit to suffering whenever another one of these flimsy memoirs comes out. I see how hard this book is being pushed by marketing forces—a huge ad inside the cover of NYT Book Review, not one but two articles dedicated to the book itself in NYT and another one that refers to it in NYT Mag. I recall my own first memoir getting orphaned when my editor left Simon and Schuster before it was published, and the editor who inherited it had less than no interest in seeing it through. There was no marketing budget for my book. So okay, let us include that factor when weighing my own criticism.

When I think about the massive marketing efforts put behind books like Poser , my mind jumps to the topic of Connections in the Book World. (Aside: If you are wondering if I’m actually going to review Poser here, the answer is maybe. I’m not sure yet.) I picked up Poser for a few reasons. First, I read the NYT Book Review review. Even though I winced a bit when I got to the part about Poser being a mommy-memoir—few words turn my stomach more than mommy as a modifier for writing, which I find so patronizing, well, even still the reviewer strongly suggested the book was worth a read. When am I going to learn to stop trusting reviewers? Once I got to the part in Poser where Dederer describes her work as a book reviewer, I could not help but suspect that anyone reviewing her book would—perhaps subconsciously—go easy on it. Fear of retribution in a future review? I’m sure I’ll catch flack for this conspiracy theory but Poser reminded me of another book that got a total NYT blowjobI Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. That author (whose name I’ve forgotten and who I’m not even going to bother to look up) had some big connections at NYT and no one will ever convince me that this did not have a hand in the glowing story that ran about her, which duped me into buying the book. Her book, for which she got something like a quarter million dollar advance, read like an unsolicited 300 page email from a former high school friend you purposefully fell out of touch with but who tracked you down anyway via FB and insisted on telling you about her incredibly boring dating life with a few pasta recipes thrown in.

So with Poser, I want to know, does Janet Maslin really think the book is that good? Does Dani Shapiro really like it that much? Or is this all part of a bigger world of you stroke mine and I’ll stroke yours?

I mean, really, am I the only one who thought Poser was utterly contrived right down to the Elizabeth Gilbert blurb touting it as the next great thing? I’m pissed at NYT and I’m pissed at Elizabeth Gilbert (whose EPL, whether you loved it or hated it, at least had real substance) for misleading me like this.

Listening to Poser, I kept coming back to the nerd-rap song a friend told me about recently. It’s called First World Problems and there’s a line in it where the rapper bemoans not being able to find his Ambien. So, okay, Poser should be called First World Problems to the Nth Degree. Because Dederer whines about so many things that so many of us could never even dream of accessing in our lives. She bitches and moans about the “rules” imposed by being part of a hipster mom set in Seattle, by which she means, I think, white, well-off, living in a really nice place with far too much time on her hands. She pays lip service to wanting to be less judgmental but that set off my bullshit alarm. She’s judgmental throughout.

And now, as aside about feminism. Or maybe an aside about my personal life. You know, I fucking hate it—HATE IT—when supposedly intelligent women writers perpetuate the so-called Mommy Wars. I do buy into the theory that much of this “war” is a creation of the media to divide women, stir shit, and sell papers. It always gets broken down to the Stay at Homes vs. the Working Moms and who is “better” and whose kids will be less fucked up. I never read about the very real gray areas, or the people like me—a single mom who worked AND stayed at home. It’s an option, you know? If these women would spend less time advancing the myth, they’d have far more time to just kick back and enjoy their kids. 

Lisa Belkin has articles that seem to run like clockwork where she tracks down, say, a group of women with PhDs or who are CEOs who “give it all up for their kids!” Then the article is followed by an onslaught of letters to the editor where women defend their own choices and attack other women's choices. Fuck it. Fuck these Lisa Belkin backstabbing, war-perpetuating pieces of nonsense. And fuck this Dederer Poser crap, in which she tries to have things both ways, tries to pretend she’s somehow above the people she makes fun of for pretending to be above her while all of them seem to, at their most “difficult,” suffer from not being able to decide which private pre-K to choose for the children. Worse, these children, at least by Dederer’s description, seem at once to be overly coddled and somehow resented as a major imposition (before then being exploited as a writing topic).

She bashes attachment parenting, then eviscerates and exploits the life and choices of a so-called friend who adhered to attachment parenting until she changed her mind and then jumped ship and—the way Dederer describes it—bailed on her kids. As if this one woman’s behavior—or Dederer’s interpretation of her behavior—is “proof” that attachment parenting is “bad.” She makes fun of those of us who would breastfeed for more than a year or share our beds with our kids.

To each her own but must we continue to bash each other? Full disclosure: I breast fed my son for two years, let him sleep in my bed for three, but did not adhere to some rigid doctrine that required following specific rules at all times. You know, we also ate crap food, watched BH 90201, made a lot of mistakes along the way. Because we are HUMAN. Most importantly, there was not the kind of judgment among the mothers I knew about "how" to mother. Look, I'm not saying judgment is non-existent, I am saying it continues to be exaggerated to the extreme by these fucking "mommy writers" (BLECH) who know it's a hot button, and who keep setting up the false argument, keep backstabbing each other. When—I mean fucking WHEN—will these women just shut up and be grateful for their kids, and they joy they bring, and the fact that we have running water and houses and daily bread and paying work? It's a goddamn PRIVILEGE to have kids and a PRIVILEGE BEYOND COMPARE 
to have the luxury of having enough time to sit around and waste time wondering if one's parents' failed marriage is a reason that one prefers cafe au lait over double fucking frappucino.

I think this is where Poser begins to fall apart for me—which is to say at the very beginning. Dederer sets up this straw man: “Oh the pressures are too much to bear on me as I deal with my hip which is sore from carrying my baby and which I have to much time to worry about since my husband is the main breadwinner!” which she somehow uses as an excuse to write about going to yoga.

During the yoga parts of the book—which are vastly separated by the story (yawn) of her childhood and marriage (yawn yawn yawn)—she again makes fun of others: white people who dare have an interest in the Eastern side of yoga, fit women who hop from studio to studio. And yet she becomes the very things she criticizes, or at least pretends to become “enlightened” by allowing her lily-white ass to dip a toe into Eastern philosphy as she hops from studio to studio to studio.

You know what? Even as I sit here writing this, I’m thinking, “Jesus Christ, I wasted ten hours of my life listening to that audiobook and now I’m wasting another two critiquing it and you know what? My life is too fucking short. I do not want to let this woman or her work steal any more precious moments from me.”

But then, a small lament creeps in. The thing is, I wanted to like Poser. Like Dederer, I’ve been doing yoga for a dozen years, I’ve raised a kid and I’m a journalist. There should be so much that resonates, right? And there are spots where her writing sings—not like a virtuoso, but like somebody who is pretty good at karaoke. When that happens, I found myself thinking, “Cut her some slack, she’s a pretty good writer.”

But then, there she’d go again, screeching off on some tangent about how she just has to escape her mother who commits the ongoing sin of wanting to be involved in her grandkids’ lives.  

In the end any good writing and borderline keen observations are far outweighed by what never stops feeling like an utterly contrived work—one that uses yoga for a framework not out of sincerity but to continue to exploit this practice that Dederer makes fun of others for exploiting. And she tries to shape the story of her marriage into a magnificent arc of a tale when, in fact, the biggest obstacles they seem to face are an unpinpointable smell in a rental house, her husband’s depression (which she decides ultimately to dismiss—is this part of her enlightened attitude?) and perhaps an unspoken drinking problem: I lost count of how many scenes revolved around boozing it up.

We should all have such First World Problems of being financially supported by someone who will also babysit the kids while we fussily set out to find a yoga teacher that we deem worthy of our holier-than-thou selves.

But wait, that was sarcastic, wasn’t it? And didn’t I complain about too much sarcasm in Poser? Okay then, how about this, and I mean it sincerely: it will be a really awesome day when skilled women writers (and Dederer has the potential) quit bashing the shit out of each other’s mothering and quit lamenting the burden of marriages. If you hate mothering, don’t have kids. And if you’re worried about being trapped in a marriage, for fuck’s sake, don’t get married. But please, please spare us another fucking memoir about how everyone else is a fake for trying something like yoga but how you—you and your terminal uniqueness—are somehow the one single person in the universe who transcends.



  1. Well, damn, Spike. I love this.

    Especially as I am wrapping up final edits on my own memoir (which laments in a sense, my dissatisfaction with the perceived paradigm that is marriage - my book is about choosing an alternative to that by opening my marriage,) this review is a reminder to convey that, as you said, we ARE privileged to be able to make the choices we do. And that everyone is going to continue to have conflicting values about matters of importance, and thats okay. But whining about it is not. Or at the very least, it's fucking annoying to listen to.

    And this will also serve to remind me not to read Poser. Thanks for the heads up.

    xo~Sadie Smythe

  2. Spike- I'm a 45 yr-old mama of a 5 & 7 year old, started doing yoga in LA in 1990 before there were even any classes on the east coast, bartended in super-hip NYC bars, blah blah blah, am today a SAHM hopefully becoming a WAHM who has surrendered to the love and beauty and gift of living this pedestrian/mundane/sacred life with my children and the community that we are building here, one mama/papa/grandmama/sister/baby/toddler/big kid at a time. Disclaimer - I'm an API group leader and a homeschool mama.
    I dream of writing the essay that puts the kibosh on the "mommy" wars once and for all. I'll ask my friend E how she works full time and homeschools and loves both. I'll ask my sister who LOVES HER JOB and loves that she doesn't go into work until 3pm so she has the best of both worlds the best she can.
    Anyhoo, this is supposed to be a comment, not a tome, and a note to say "Rock On Spike!" and that I think I'll go tangential on my blog right now.

  3. Damn! that review got me all hot and bothered about a book I would never read in the first place. I also like how you start to write a review of your review. Let her have it Spike!

  4. I don't think she'd like me. I have never practiced Yoga but have studied the Eastern aspect of it. My kids slept with us until they were 6 and 4. Both my wife and I at some points in our lives keep the kids while we did and didn't have jobs. And my wife is very much involved with her twin grandsons. Where, oh, where did I go wrong?

  5. Thank you for pointing out yet one more example of someone s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g to write a memoir. What's next, "Pilates:My Life in 300 Cycles Per MInute?"