Monday, May 20, 2019

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Nepotism and Novels at the National Post

The July 7th National Post started off with a thoroughly idiotic headline suggesting that 36 percent of Canadians back two-tiered health care. Scary at a glance, it turned out to be based on a specious interpretation of a poll that had found that in the continued absence of adequate funding for Medicare, 36 percent of us would reluctantly accept a degree of privatization. Now, since I find most of the writers who appear for the Post more entertaining and less pension-obsessed than the writers at the Globe, this sort of illustration that the paper remains a journalistic laughing stock is faintly disappointing. But it was nowhere near as disappointing as its editorial decision to serialize the opening chapter of Danielle Crittenden’s first novel. As far as I can see, Crittenden’s only qualifications for literary serialization are that she’s on Conrad Black’s cocktail party guest list, is a right-wing female and has a well-connected-within-the-flat-earth crowd husband I’m going to wait as long as I can before naming.

But hey, I’m a reasonable guy. I read the extract with an open mind. If Danielle Crittenden can construct a work of fiction with a reasonable degree of competence, what’s the problem with employing a little nouveau riche nepotism to scoot her novel past all those polyester leisure-suit wearing suckers who’ve been standing patiently in the hallways of the Writher’s Union queuing up to get famous. Crittenden is a NeoBush Republican and an intimate of Stockwell Day, but at least she hasn’t written a children’s book.

Still in the spirit of fairness, I went into the Web to re-familiarize myself with Crittenden before I read the novel excerpt. I’ve been assuming for some time that she and unnamed husband fled to Washington in disgrace after helping to mastermind the Canadian Alliance and Stockwell Day’s brief emergence as the savior of things FourSquare, Christian and no-wanking white. The first thing my surf-search turns up is that Crittenden and litter-mate have been in Washington for quite some time, and that she’s been as busy as he has. She’s also having some impact, too, at least socially: a November 1999 Internet society column in thenation.com has her as "cool and polished" and "half of one of the capital’s pre-eminent power couples."

The official Internet biog., featuring the same pert left-cheek-parked-on-anorexic-forearm photo used by the National Post describes her as "…the author of Amanda.Bright@home, OpinionJournal’s [an Internet offshoot of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page] first serialized novel. She is also the author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (Simon & Schuster, 1999), and a regular panelist on CNN’s ‘Take 5’. A former columnist for the New York Post, she is also the founding editor of The Women’s Quarterly, published by the Washington-based Independent Women’s Forum."

Both the Quarterly and the Forum reveal themselves, with a very small degree of pursuit, to be the organs (so-to-speak) of DC Republican ladies interested in things like whether or not women should have sex before 30, and other pre-Jimmy Swaggart Christian moral fixations. I note Ms. Crittenden is no longer listed on the masthead of the Quarterly, but we can, methinks, safely assume it is dedicated in large part to her ideas if not her private campaign to become the next Barbara Walters.

An exerpted chapter from Crittenden’s non-fiction book reveals her as a woman writing for other women of her class (or more precisely, just-below- it-but-presumed-to-be-gazing-hopefully-upward) who’d have to have dropped about 50 IQ points and have grown up in a Convent to find what Crittenden has to say newsworthy and perkily topical. Throughout her How-To-Be-a-REAL-Woman volume she lurches from cliché to consumer opinion poll back to cliché, blithely—and with a vaguely depressing sort of accuracy—using the royal prerogative as a synonym for middle-class and upper-middle class women with education, degrees, and both societal and professional ambitions similar (but inferior!) to her own.

At very least, that’s who she’s writing for, which is good because it’s hard to imagine anyone else reading her from cover-to-cover. The assumptions she makes about her demographic will be distasteful to feminists and either distasteful or quaint to others who hold what used to be called "progressive" opinions. I found her neither distasteful nor quaint, but I did find her curiously distressing. What I found distressing is that she thinks wholly in clichés: grandmothers who’d chosen husband by the time they were twenty, contemporary women who choose husbands in their late twenties, and think of marriage in terms of "soap powders, screaming infants and frying pans". Hidden in plain sight behind all these clichés is an immensely privileged, shallow woman who thinks she has everything figured out. The independence that women—feminist or not—have struggled to achieve is, in Crittenden’s parlance, an overrated trap. A woman unmarried is for her a failure, probably a lonely, desperate one if she’s slipped past the age of 30 without a man.

Only faintly less disturbing is the abstract view she presents of men—receptacles for womanly bio-and social ambitions. The total effect was only a little less contemptuous than most of today’s feminist tracts, and only slightly less violent than Valerie Solanis. I never got the faintest hint that she thinks there’s anything about them to desire or even like or be entertained by, and it’s not clear whether this is a backhanded commentary on her real-world power-couple husband or simply a function of her being unable to think in terms other than Republican clichés. Take this passage, chosen at random:

"We strengthen a muscle by using it, and that is true of the heart and mind, tool. By waiting and waiting and waiting to commit to someone, our capacity for live shrinks and withers. This doesn’t mean that women or men should marry the first reasonable person to come along, or someone with who they are not in love. but we should, at a much earlier age than we do now, take a serious attitude toward dating and begin preparing ourselves to settle down. For it’s in the act of taking up the roles we’ve been taught to avoid or postpone; wife, husband, mother, father; that we build our identities, expand our lives, and achieve the fullness of character we desire." (typographical and/or syntax errors are in the original)

The novel excerpt published in The National Post and by the WSG editorial website has similar strengths and weaknesses, with better copy editing. Like What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, it is framed by stereotypes that move, act, and are acted upon by cliché, beginning with the title character, Amanda Bright, who is a young married mother who wants to be something more than that, even though her husband Bob heads the Department of Justice MicroSoft anti-trust team (Crittenden cunningly calls MicroSoft "MicroByte). Crittenden doesn’t delay her self-gratification long before she introduces Bright to a woman named Christine Saunders, mentor, role model and the particular Jones Amanda Bright has to keep up with. Saunders bears a suspicious resemblance to, um, the person Crittenden probably imagines others see her as. She’s portrayed as a removed-from-the-work-force Intellectual Property lawyer so brilliant that Bob Bright’s "colleagues at the Department of Justice still cited an article Christine had written 10 years ago for the Chicago Law Review". Equally revealing, Saunders has a husband whose domestic persona likely resembles that of Crittenden’s real-world husband, although the fictional husband is described as ferret-like and not as a pot-bellied pig.

In the novel, the first thing we see Amanda Bright doing is sitting around a swimming pool with her mentor sipping Chardonnay, whining about their kids, and feeling inadequate around the lovely, languid rich folks nearby, who are described as "…gilded figures on Egyptian sarcophagi, their wrists and necks banded in gold…" and/or "prized thoroughbreds retired from the track." Bright is, by comparison, seriously downmarket. When she goes to her "narrow disorganized house" her two bumptious children disobey her commands, make noises, run around without clothing and strew toys about that "screamed lawsuit". She and her husband Bob, poor as Washington, DC republican church mice can get, have been forced to make humiliating sacrifices, such as not trading in their Volvo for a minivan, and not dining on takeout every time Amanda wants to stay late at the club to ogle the rich.

The opening chapter manages to deliver all these whopping clichés—and many more like them—without a single self-conscious wince. It ends with Amanda interrupting her housewifely chores to answer the phone. It is her husband asking her to arrange a baby-sitter so they can celebrate his appointment as the head of the anti-Microsoft team:

"And it was exciting, yes. But as Amanda struggled to untangle the vacuum from the hall closet (stepping over the weeping Emily and ignoring the yelling upstairs that was growing closer and louder) she wondered why Bob’s news left her feeling suddenly bereft…"

Is this exciting prose? No. It is embarrassingly amateurish, right down to the problems with pronoun reference that seem to crop up every few paragraphs. Thrilling fictional construction? Only if you’re interested in how an female human being devised wholly from cliches, invented by Danielle Crittenden and with most of the blinding privileges Crittenden has enjoyed her entire life, can achieve the sort of happiness that is politically and morally acceptable to Crittenden without being married to David Frum. From my perhaps jaded point of view this has the same sort of interest as reading a novel about sexual fulfillment written by Jimmy Swaggart. With the Swaggart novel, I wouldn’t for a moment believe the moral universe in which it which it takes place, but I’d be entertained by the intellectual and moral contortions by which the author would forge—so to speak—the plot points—and by the utter certainty that the author would be the only one getting off. Same goes for Amanda.Bright@Home.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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