Chris Kraus, Lynne Tillman, Sheila Heti, and others discuss, among other things, if there is ‘healthy narcissism’
Last night at the New School, Bookforum and French cultural institute Villa Gillet convened a panel of female writers, artists, and critics to discuss “The Naked Truth”—women’s depictions of sex and their significance. Yet the more pressing issue, it seemed, was about the significance of the panel itself.
American authors and critics Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman joined French writers and translators Émilie Notéris (also a visual artist) and Wendy Delorme (also a Sorbonne instructor and adult film actress); Sheila Heti, wrapping up a summer spent promoting her book How Should a Person Be?, served as moderator.
The Naked Truth was part of Villa Gillet’s “Bridges and Walls” event series. “We build too many walls and not enough bridges,” explained the program, quoting Isaac Newton—but building either takes work, and “The Naked Truth” was no exception.
“I don’t know about moderating panels,” Heti told me afterward—despite her experience as an interviewer (she’s the interviews editor of The Believer), this was her first time as a panel moderator. Introducing Delorme, Heti apologized for her French, which had lapsed since Canadian grade school. Language presented an occasional obstacle. And Kraus, the audience learned midway through the evening, is hearing impaired: Tillman, sitting next to her, relayed questions and wrote notes for her to read.
Then of course there was the issue of whether a panel about women writing about sex was a good idea in the first place
“All of us, one way or another in our statements have been saying ‘We disagree with the question,’” Kraus said, summarizing the brief opening essays each panelist had read. “To turn this into a topic is to just reinforce the otherness and the marginalization of female writers.”
Still, Kraus herself later offered a strong rejoinder.
“If you’re being forced into a marginal and other position as a speaker and a writer, then you have no choice but to write and to speak from that position,” Kraus said. “That certainly yields a lot of possibilities for a writer that being the sort of universal, authoritative voice in control is deprived of. There’s a lot more potential for comedy, for disruption, for going very deeply into certain things. A lot of the writers that I think that we admire most are women who are taking advantage of that position and writing from that position—exploiting the position rather than being marginalized by it.”
But figuring out how to exploit one’s position without being exploited requires a delicate balance, as Emily Gould testified when she spoke during the audience Q&A.
“All through this panel I’ve been trying to figure out—I’m sorry, I’m going to keep this really brief, if I can—why I feel so angry right now,” Gould said. “And I think I figured it out: it’s because of the Bookforum banner that’s on the podium.” Two years ago, Gould explained, when Bookforum reviewed her essay collection, And The Heart Says Whatever, they had asked her publisher for an author photo to run with the review, but instead ran an image of her in a bathing suit.
“I’ve been trying to figure out why this happened,” Gould said. “Why was the review a review of my personality instead of my book? Why was it a review of my body instead of my book? Who allowed this to happen? Who should I be mad at?” The magazine, the critic, the world, herself? “I think I’m a little closer to figuring it out now,” she concluded. "But I wonder whether the world has come so far in the last two years that now this panel is happening under the auspices of Bookforum and so everything’s fine.”
“We talked about Simone de Beauvoir in France,” Notéris said. “They made a special magazine about her work, and she was naked on the cover. So you are not the only one.”
“Years ago I interviewed the wonderful artist Meret Oppenheim,” Tillman said. “And she said to me, ‘You see, we women have to work and not cry.’”
The evening’s final question was a request that the panelists speak about “the possibility of narcissism as a feminist tool, or maybe also the limits of narcissism as a feminist tool.”
Tillman quickly relayed this to Kraus. “Narcissism as a feminist tool?” Kraus said. “Explain that! How do you think that could work?”
“Well, I mean, I think it could work in many different ways,” said the woman, who wore a bob and sat near the front. “I guess most simply just that women are expected to please others, provide for others, take care of others—and so I guess narcissism just as subverting that expectation.”
Kraus lamented that “narcissism” is so often used to dismiss women’s art. “That’s one of the first words that comes up when people want to denigrate a female writer,” Kraus said. Marie Calloway—author of last winter’s micro-scandalous “Adrien Brody,” a pseudonymous sex story—nodded in agreement. She was sitting a few rows behind the narcissism questioner.
Tillman was more practical, wondering whether a little “healthy narcissism” might help women write.
“There’s so many women in the audience,” she said, “and what I feel is the frustration of this situation for women. It’s really difficult, but it shouldn’t stop you from writing. If anything, it should kick you in the ass.”
“I was thinking about narcissism, and [Narcissus]—it’s the story of this person who is looking at himself in the water and fell in the water,” said Delorme. “But the desire is to see oneself, to see my face in the mirror. And I feel like a lot of female writing, feminist writing, queer writing, is about seeing yourself represented.” In this sense, she said, narcissism can be empowering—can be good. “But then comes the bad narcissism,” she added. “Which is, we’re really busy looking at ourselves and criticizing other people who don’t represent us. And how to make this constructive and powerful is now the issue.”
All photos by Seymour Templar.