Saturday, July 16, 2005

Dear Sarah Vowell,

Dear Sarah Vowell,
You are a very smart woman. You have worked hard to establish a successful career in a male-dominated world of media commentary. You are not afraid to fly your freak flag and loudly proclaim your love of all things 19th century American politics. My god, girl, you've actually managed to get people buzzing about Pres. Garfield. I read your books, I listen to you on NPR, and because of it, I am a different person: I now think about the Civil War more than I ever imagined I would, and I often interrupt road trips to stop at random roadside attractions because you've taught me about their importance in reifying previous generations' ideas about what is worth preserving and revering in American culture. I think you're pretty cool, and I was really happy for you when you did that cross-over bit in The Incredibles.

But your guest columns in the New York Times are bumming me out. I know it's not your fault that there is so little representation of women in media commentary; just because you are a woman who gets the chance to talk doesn't mean you represent all of us, or that your writing should reflect THE singular, liberal, educated woman's point of view. But the fact is, you ARE a woman who gets a chance to talk, and you're talking to a different audience than the This American Life folks, and so you need to think about ditching the cuteness and using your platform to be clearer, more straightforward, and more focused than you've been in the past.

The last few Saturdays and Wednesdays, I've skipped my usual routine of reading the entire front section in order, saving the Op-Ed section for last, and have instead turned immediately to the back page, eager to read what you'll say. We're listening, Sarah, and we trust that you have good things to say. We believe in you.

But you're kiling us here. Please, just for the next few weeks, stop using phrases like "Way, way, way dumber," and "one measly" speech/second/anything. Try beginning your columns with a clear thesis. Tell us what the column is about immediately. Don't make us read all the way through and then try to piece your point together for ourselves. I can do that. I do do that. But that's not what the op-ed page is for. This is not a forum for creative non-fiction; it's a place for cogent commentary. Give us a clear thesis, and then back it up with strong supporting points. Don't meander through your alloted words.

I know you have a signature voice and style, and I get that it's not cool of me to ask you to tone it down for this forum. Why shouldn't your cutesy approach to contemporary politics be okay if that's who you are and that's how you see the world? But you're not just you right now; you are all of us women who think and read and write and hunger for the chance to speak up. You're in a unique and precarious position here. Don't Mary Engelbreit your way through it. Life is not a chair of bowlies, and you are not a powerless, wide-eyed pixie, drolly commenting on the way, way, way bad guys and their super stupid actions.


Blogger jo(e) said...

Are you sending this to her?

I think you should.

2:33 PM  
Blogger La Lecturess said...

Goddamn. I'm with you all the way on this one.

4:39 PM  
Blogger dc said...

i totally agree with you AND jo(e). send it! send it! (and welcome home)

10:44 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

Hey, dc. I was wondering how you'd feel about this, you being such a huge sv fan and all. Not sure where I'd send it, though.

11:33 PM  
Blogger dc said...

Everyone I've talked to about the Vowell columns has the same basic opinion that you do, but you've articulated it much better than most. So, why not send it to the NYT? They must be getting the same comments. Who knows, they may publish it as an open letter...or at least forward it to her.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with you on this one, Margo. Come on--give her some credit for her iconoclasm. Criticizing the Texas state house for its celebration of the Confederacy and the Alamo? Praising Jimmy Carter for speaking honestly to the American public and comparing him favorably to 43? There are few op-ed pages that I read regularly because I get tired of the thesis-driven, earnest arguments. As a result, I love reading writers like Molly Ivins who can puncture the self-importance of any politican with a few well-aimed barbs. So Sarah Vowell periodically uses phrases that make her sound like a teenager. Perhaps our students will actually read her and recognize the ludicrous state of contemporary American politics rather than swallowing whole the bs that they're fed. CD

9:19 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

You're right about her topics--they are original and interesting and important. But the Molly Ivans comparison doesn't work and your making it pushes me to think more clearly about why these columns bug me.

I always know what Molly Ivans is talking about, in part because she is, in fact, earnest, and not, as I perceive Sarah Vowell to be in these columns, playing cynical, slouching, super-cool New York wunder kid. Molly Ivans comes out fighting and she makes her points boldly. I never wince when I read her.

And no way am I going to play the "but our students will read it if it's in their language" card. First of all, the media already panders to them enough; I want to read a grown-up Op Ed page. They can learn to read what the grown-ups are reading, or continue to get their politics through song via Ani and Bono if they swing left, or through Chris Martin, if they swing right. Secondly, if they do read the NYTimes, I want them to know how to read good writing, which this is, quite simply, not. One of the examples you point to, the column which points to the irony of the Texas courthouse celebrating the Alamo and the Confederacy is precisely the column that made me lose patience with her, because it was so convoluted that her very smart point got lost in her meandering style and overly-cute tone.

But you reinforce my main point when you concede that she sometimes uses teenage sounding phrases: no male columnist would ever write like a teenager and we certainly can't afford to have a female columnist do so.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous AMBIG. GAY BROS. MN said...


12:01 AM  
Anonymous Will said...

“But you're not just you right now; you are all of us women who think and read and write and hunger for the chance to speak up.”

Imploring Vowell to be a better example for women writers seems to mean a better example of what YOU think a woman writer ought to be. Vowell is has achieved success not merely as a representative of her sex, her age, or any of her fixed characteristics, but by speaking in a unique voice that is not necessarily indicative of any of them. You limit creativity when you define someone as simply a representation of a given characteristic they possess.

And not for nothing, but it's spelled "killing". You have to be careful, Margo. After all, you wouldn’t want people to think that all women writers can't spell.

3:36 PM  

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