Sigal Samuel reads sexist books so you don’t have to (but you should anyway)
Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel about Montreal, Kabbalah, and family secrets. She is working on a middle grade novel about a boy named Zeno who goes to a hotel and discovers that it has an infinite number of rooms – it’s based on a real paradox in math called Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel. Are my kids middle grade yet? Visit her at sigalsamuel.com and follow her on Twitter.
Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, has so much going on that I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering who might have influenced it. In hindsight, the multiple narrators, the prominence of place, the middle-class neighbourhood, the failing patriarch, the young man coming of age, and yeah, even the queer female protagonist, should have tipped me off. This novel has Franzen written all over it.
It was Samuel’s essay, “What Women Can Learn From Reading Sexist Male Authors“, that alerted me to her FranzenFriend status. She questions the mass writing-off of Franzen’s work, particularly by those objecting to his supposed sexism:
Franzen, whose character Denise’s storyline in The Corrections is among the best depictions I’ve encountered of queer female desire? Whose first 50 pages in Freedom form one of the strongest indictments of rape culture I’ve ever read?
(Note to self: reread the first 50 pages of Freedom.)
The essay is a response to Rebecca Solnit’s essay “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” itself a response to an asinine list of “80 books all men should read” that appeared in Esquire a few years ago. (Esquire has since responded with an all-female list of 80 books all people should read, and honestly, the most offensive thing about both lists is that they are slide shows.)
Rather than presuming to prescribe specific books, à la Esquire, or satirizing those lists, à la Solnit, Samuel examines what readers gain when they read outside their ideology. She also argues that to imply women shouldn’t read certain books is actually pretty darn sexist:
It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works.
Sigal Samuel kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Franzen, sexists, and The Mystics of Mile End. Check out this review by Buried in Print for more about Mystics; it’s a great read.
Sigal Samuel: I absolutely count Franzen as an influence. I think I’ve learned a lot from him, both on the sentence level (remember that “crepuscular”sentence near the beginning of “The Corrections”?) and on the structural level. The opening section of “Freedom” — the way it starts with a bird’s eye view of a neighborhood, then zooms into one person’s perspective, then swivels horizontally into a neighbor’s perspective — directly inspired the structure of the closing section of my novel, “The Mystics of Mile End.”
RIB: Franzen is know for alternating perspectives between multiple narrators. How important was it to tell The Mystics of Mile End from multiple perspectives? Did you ever think about telling it from a single point of view, and if so, whose?
SS: So, yes, following from the last question, multiple perspectives are very important to me! I did actually start by writing “Mystics” entirely from one perspective — that of Samara, a twentysomething university student who’s climbing the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. But it began to feel pretty claustrophobic to spend 300 pages inside the head of one increasingly insane narrator. Plus, it seemed more interesting to be able to show how other people in Samara’s life were perceiving her obsession, and noticing clues that she was missing, and vice versa. I’m always most interested in drawing connections between people, and across time and space and ideas, and alternating perspectives allows you to do that.
RIB: You wrote about how reading sexist literature can be instructive. Have you ever read a book where the sexism was just too much? How does a book (or author) cross that line?
SS: You know, a friend of mine asked me this question recently and was surprised when I answered that, no, I’ve never encountered a book where the sexism was just too much. That might be because I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish world. If I can get through the Bible and the Talmud, with all their deep-seated sexism, and still manage to appreciate them as great works of literature — well, I can probably get through anything!
And then, in a moment of Franzen in February zen, she had a run-in with the man himself earlier this month:
I love Samuel and highly recommend Mystics. Such a great book. I didn’t pick up on the Franzen influence, but that’s life. And I’m reading Purity right now. Definitely giving me the uncomfortable feelings. But more on that later.
Ooo can’t wait to hear what you think about Purity!
I thought I liked it but now I’m not so sure. And still 500 pages to go!
Sexism is out there, so people are going to write about it (knowingly and unknowingly). It’s ridiculous to think that women shouldn’t read something just because it’s sexist.
Samuel wrote a great article (I think I’ve read it before). I really have to read her book soon.
You should! And maybe your kids are old enough for her upcoming middle grade novel. It sounds so cool.
They are! Do you know when it comes out?
It sounded like she was still writing it, so maybe not for a while. I will keep an eye out.
Okay, I totally love this Franzen in February thing. And “crepuscular” just happens to be one of my top-five favorite words, so I guess I’m going to have to read The Corrections now.
If I get you to read The Corrections I’ll consider this whole event a success 🙂
I just read the “crepuscular” part in The Corrections! What does it mean that this word keeps appearing in my life? I haven’t heard of Sigal Samuel, but I enjoyed your discussion and her books sounds fascinating.