Thursday, June 6, 2019

The New York Times Buries Naomi Wolf's Career

Two weeks ago I reported on the kerfuffle over Naomi Wolf’s latest book. Apparently, in her zeal to prove that courts in Victorian England were executing gays for the crime of being gay, Wolf misunderstood official notations. When the judge wrote “death recorded” Wolf imagined that it meant that the execution had been carried out. In truth, it meant that the execution had not been carried out. Hardly a trivial distinction.

A BBC interviewer called Wolf out for her dereliction, to her face. But then, several media outlets, among them the New York Times, seemed willing to rush to defend her. So argued blogger Ann Althouse, cogently, as it seemed to this blogger.

Well, not so fast, bunky. Today, Times book reviewer Parul Sehgal examines Wolf’s career and her new book. Basically, she buries both the book and Wolf's career. Harsh does not do the review justice.

In Sehgal’s words:

Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany — one that might contravene any number of natural laws — and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women. Predictable controversy ensues; grouchy reviews and much attention. Over the years her batty claims have included that a woman’s brain can allow her to become pregnant if she so desires, even if she is using birth control; that women’s intellects and creativity are dependent on their sexual fulfillment and, specifically, the skillful ministrations of a “virile man”; and that writing a letter to a breech baby will induce it to turn right side up.

That her advice can contradict itself from book to book doesn’t appear to distress her (she fluctuates between regarding women as all-powerful sorceresses and abjectly dependent). The method has worked too efficiently, and at every stage of her life — as a young woman protesting beauty standards (“The Beauty Myth”) through motherhood (“Misconceptions”) and, later, the aging of her parents (“The Treehouse”), as she has grappled with her ambition (“Fire With Fire”) and her sex life (“Vagina”). Always the books are lit by a strange messianic energy, shored up by dubious data and structured around a moment of crisis and revelation as some veil — some long-held notion — falls away.

For those of us who stopped reading Wolf after The Beauty Myth, this capsule summary of her later work spares us the indignity of having to examine her writerly corpus.

Wolf believes that she has a higher calling, to propagate an ideologically-driven narrative. In that she is certainly not alone. Sehgal is having none of it.

But Wolf’s errors matter. She has backpedaled since the scandal, insisting that hers is not meant to be a “social investigation” but the analysis of a “mood” — never mind how explicitly her book argues that one year — 1857 — saw the birth of state-created homophobia, as she sees it, with ramifications that continue to this day. The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts; a long, lavish opening sequence reveals the ritual one must undertake before handling Symonds’s manuscripts. They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed — there is a hint of A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” as Wolf plays literary detective in the archives, puzzling over Symonds’s codes and concealments — I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain might be capable of such wonders as turning a rogue breech baby right side up, but it can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.

Will this kill Wolf’s new opus? One can hope….


whitney said...

How do you think wolf will react to this? My guess is somewhere along the lines of "patriarchy, waaaa!"

UbuMaccabee said...

Ms. Wolf is busy finishing off her third pint of gelato and surfing Twitter for negative comments about her career. Her dog still loves her unconditionally.

Sam L. said...

Hmmmmmmm. She's lost the NYT. Bummer. Do I hear whisperings of "Your TIME is UP?"
My Magic 8-Ball tells me, "Ask Again Later".

Anonymous said...

Has Harvey Weinstein been pardoned yet?

In the demoralization sweepstakes that's how his story "ends".

Why not hers?
Who needs facts?
Who needs good research?
I thought the science was settled.