Tuesday, October 18, 2016

M.L. Titsky

When I was in high school, I got somewhat of a reputation among close friends as being game for tagging along on almost any errand that needed to happen.  Gas? A card for your grandma? A pizza you're going to pick up for your family now?  Sure.

If your car was running and the radio was on, I was down. 

I'd like to blame this part of my personality for being willing to read so many things my friend Amelia suggests.  Not unlike that time Tim's eyes lit up when I started reading Freedom, these books add texture to our friendship, and keep us in a shared conversation I absolutely cherish. 

Source: this fascinatingly angry review.
It's possible I would have heard about Shrill by Lindy West if Amelia hadn't urged me to read it, but I'm not sure I would have actually gone to the trouble of doing so, for no other reason than it at first came across to me as somewhat of a "humor" book. The chances of me making it past page four of a humor book are actually lower than me making it through a duck hunt. 

That's a lie.  I've never been on a duck hunt and I'm sure I've finished a humor book, but if so I've repressed it.

Shrill, however, while making me laugh a lot, and being in somewhat of a conversational tone that could be mistaken for glib, easy prose, is full of articulate, somewhat painstaking arguments, and I really did enjoy it. 

Lindy West is perhaps best known for her online writing for Jezebel and The Guardian, but aside from seeing her name in some reviews before this book, I didn't think I had any experience with her.  Then, writing this, I realized she wrote a piece about Jonathan Franzen's response to writing about race, an article I admired and also chafed at when I first read it. 

Lindy West.  Source: announcement of her Stranger Genius Award in Literature

I also realized, while reading her book, that she was probably blipping across my radar screen more than I knew, when she described her involvement in the national discussion around Daniel Tosh's disturbing, dismissive, aggressive rape jokes at one of his shows. 

Without going into all the details of that incident and its rippling reactions that folded backlashes into backlashes, let's just say that, in her book at least, West takes credit for speaking up against this kind of behavior in what has, for a long time, been a boys club of comedy.  Here's a write-up of the initial incident, and here's West's report on people's response to her taking to task comedy's permissiveness regarding certain dangerous remarks in the name of not censoring anyone. 

What I admire most about all of this is how at the center of her narrative West remains.  I happen to really like Twitter, and I get a lot of my news from various online news outlets in addition to our quaint paper that arrives on the porch in an un-quaint manner (thwack!) three times a week, bringing me precious Parade magazine articles about actors I'd long forgotten, pages of comics, and the delicacy that is The Bargain Corner (people hocking complete junk for anywhere from $2-$300 with the greatest descriptions ever: "lawyer diorama," "leather coat: fuschia"). 

These days, with so much information coming at every angle on every screen, scandals like ones involving quasi-famous people can feel a little nebulous, and occasionally trumped-up on slow news days.  But for someone like West who works so directly in the outlets generating these articles, what floats across my screen is how she pays her rent, and her recall of those hazy-to-me stories amounts to what, in my world would look like: "First I sent that email, then I wrote that grocery list, then I got dressed, and now here we are!" Whereas it looks like one big internet dust cloud from my daughter's bed where I am scrolling my feed as I put her down for a nap, it's literally all in a day's work for this woman.

Lindy West shrilling out.  Source: her website
Granted, many of these news items we read now feel offensively non-newsy, click-baity, or just plain gossippy: Jezebel is (was?) a sister site to Gawker, after all.  I'm not here to debate how effective West is or was at moving the cultural needle, although from her point of view, she has been successful at bringing much needed attention to issues like fat-shaming, abortion-shaming, and rape culture in our country. 

What I marvel at is how explicit and unapologetic and direct she is about all of this.  Some of the book read to me as: "This bad thing happened, I attacked it in X, Y, and Z ways, and then this sort-of better thing that's not quite a full resolution but is a foot in the right direction happened."  She's saying this all very publicly, in a book where some of her publicity photos show her holding a bullhorn, and I find that remarkable. I don't even draw those lines through my successes in my journal at night. 

Also, to her credit, she seems extremely aware of her movements.  At one point in her book, when talking about the body image recovery she underwent after discovering "fat-positive" tags online which she started "furtively clicking like a Mormon teen looking at Internet porn" she writes:

"Studies have shown that visual exposure to certain body types actually change people's perception of those bodies - in other words, looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more. (Eternal reminder: Representation matters.)"

Lindy West.  Source: this article that talks about a feud that fascinated me in her book, Shrill

In the first section of the book, she addresses her body image problems as a child which she describes getting over in a humorous list so laden with peculiar turns of phrase I didn't always know what was going on.  But I soon settled into her prose and some of my favorite parts of the book were the personal ones.

I got a pretty big kick out of her mother, especially.  Of her parents, she writes:

"Dad was the entertainer, but I'm funny because of my mom.  She has a nurse's ease with gallows humor, sarcastic and dry....When I was little, a neighbor opened a small temping agency called Multitask and, in an early stab at guerilla marketing, purchased a vanity plate that read, 'MLTITSK.' Around the house, my mom called him 'M.L. Titsky.' Later, just 'Mr. Titsky.'  Empirically, that's a great riff."

I've already covered the anti-gallows-humor kind of mom I am very lucky to have, but I would definitely like to spend time in a house with the mom who comes up with that joke. 

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