PART 3 (of 3): Q and A with Jaclyn Geller
There is an episode of Sex and the City that readers of Singled Out love to tell me about. I've never seen it, but maybe it will sound familiar to you. Carrie goes to a baby shower, gift in hand, and complies with the house rules dictating that she take off her pricey Manolos before entering. The shoes get stolen, the hostess refuses to pay for them, and the cumulative inequities of all of the registry gifts that Carrie has given to this woman (with none in return) start to rankle. So Carrie registers for one thing - her pair of shoes - and sends the woman an invitation to her wedding to herself.
This is a long way of saying that considering how often that episode has been mentioned to me, I guess I should have anticipated the response my last post received. That was Part 2 of my interview with Jaclyn Geller, in which I asked her if newlyweds should get all the loot. Right away, there were hundreds of page views and a lively discussion in the Comments section is continuing still. You can read that post here, and Part 1 here. Now on to the last and final part of our conversation.
Bella: One thing I did in preparing the questions I wanted to ask you during this interview was to look at the reader reviews of your book that were posted on Amazon.com. Some offered high praise, of course. The ones that I found more interesting were the negative ones. (Perverse of me, I know.) The offended reviewers seemed to dredge up every negative stereotype of unmarried women, describing you as bitter, angry, and all the rest. I think that means that your arguments were hitting a nerve. You don't stay in your place. You don't write in a reticent, deferential way, and you don't make conventional arguments. That, I suspect, drives some people over the edge, in a way that perhaps says more about them and our society than it does about you. As you look back at what was said about Here Comes the Bride over the years (not just the amazon.com reviews), what's your take on how other people reacted to your work?
Jaclyn: Bella, I tend to avoid reviews and summaries and responses posted anonymously on the Internet. That's where you find the extremes, both negative and positive. And it's such totally uncontrolled, inaccurate information that there's really no point in looking at it.
Samuel Johnson said that, in conversation with "the wits," he never felt he had hit his mark unless it rebounded back on him, and I guess that's true to some extent. The book did hit a nerve. There have been subsequent monographs that take on marriage; they haven't elicited the same hostility. I think mine may have cleared a bit of a path for other authors on this topic, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do that. People who argue for change are often caricatured as being bitter and/or personally disturbed. We take the right of women to vote for granted, but early in the century suffragists were mocked and pathologized. They were derided as "mannish" and unhappy and abnormal. So I think it just comes with the territory. At the end of the day, lack of popularity is a small price to pay for having made even the smallest difference.
When the book was first published I did a lot of interviews and I had a lot of "off the record" conversations. I was sometimes surprised at the anger that greeted my suggestion that anyone who marries at least reads a history of the institution before signing those papers. That did not seem like a controversial suggestion; after all, as Santayana said, he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it. If you want to marry, do so, but at least proceed in an informed manner. And why not take some time to learn about the legalities of matrimony in your state? But these were unpopular ideas. I guess the nature of a mystique is that it's supposed to remain unexamined --- shrouded in a romantic haze.
In retrospect, I also think that some of the more rational criticisms are accurate. The book has its problems. It's a first effort, after all, and some parts are rough, under-theorized. I want the next one to be more refined!
But the single biggest surprise about my book's reception was that people read it at all. I wrote it as a graduate student - at that time an unknown author. I published it with a distinguished small press that had a limited marketing department. It's an extended essay -- a piece of fairly dense prose. It expresses an unpopular point of view. But people read it. And they wrote to me: some were angry, some were grateful, some were ambivalent. But the letters and emails kept coming. They still do. Barnes and Noble even listed it as a selected nonfiction title, apparently, because an unmarried buyer really liked the chapter on wedding registries, in which I describe visiting the registry at Bloomingdale's Department Store as a would-be bride.
The book also brought some remarkable individuals into my life: men and women with whom I have enjoyed deep, enlivening conversations, who have pushed me to think about the subject in new ways. Writing can be a solitary business; I like doing it with collaborators. Right now I'm working, with a teacher and friend, on a volume about eighteenth-century satire. It's for specialists in our field. But I'm also thinking about the next trade project. I have written short collaborative pieces that flesh out some of the subjects touched on in Here Comes the Bride, and I'm looking forward to future projects that blend others' points of view with my own. I think even minimally worthwhile prose generates good discussion, which generates even better prose.
As far as anonymous respondents go, the most gratifying letter from a reader came from a Mormon woman who had grown up in Utah in a town she characterized as a "marriage factory." She described how women turning 20 would buy themselves engagement rings and invent nonexistent fiancés because they were so ashamed to be seen publicly without the prospect of a husband. She told me that as a result of her own thinking, and her reading, which included Here Comes the Bride, she was not going to marry her boyfriend, despite the fact that she adored him. They would live together and forge their own definition of love. That kind of response makes up for all the mudslinging.
Bella: Thanks again for doing this Q & A. And thanks again for all your great work.
Jaclyn: It was my pleasure, Bella. And thank you for your work.