Apr

4

LectureHop: Great Writers at Barnard Series

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Bwog daily editor Mariela Quintana peers into the insular, feminine world of insular, feminine authors on a Thursday night at Barnard.

Yesterday evening, I crossed over to the other side of Broadway and made my way to across the Barnard quad to attend a reading hosted by Great Writers at Barnard Series featuring authors Myla Goldberg and Elizabeth Benedict. With the help of some emphatic arrows, I was guided to the event in Milbank’s Ella Weed Hall. Given the abundant signage, I expected to find a crowd at the reading. But when I arrived in Ella Weed, the audience was small and seemed to be predominately comprised friends and colleagues of the authors. Ella Weed’s den-like atmosphere, complete with a fireplace, warmly painted walls and soft lighting, however, made a lovely setting for this intimate reading.

In many ways, the reading felt like a glimpse into the lives of Barnard and Columbia professors and the academic social circles they inhabit. Goldberg and Benedict are both currently teaching creative writing courses at Barnard and Benedict is an alum. Given their familiarity with the ins and outs of our collegiate community, it makes sense, then, that much of their writing is inspired by if not directly pertaining to both the Barnard academic ethos and their experiences with it.  

Goldberg read first and offered the audience a taste of her newest work. Her delicate frame matches her delicate writing. Her sentences merge the poetic and photographic and convey sensitive auditory and visual detail. Her words are easily accessible and lend themselves to her audience. In a different setting, however,  removed from Goldberg’s engaging presence and quirky intonations, I question whether a reader would be patient enough to sift through her generous descriptions.  

Reading a passage from Almost, Elizabeth Benedict showed a simple and descriptive style similar to Goldberg’s.  Her narrative is strongest in the candor of its distinctly female voice. The novel appropriately opens with a quote from Elizabeth Bishop, the pioneering poetess and eternal subject of Women’s Studies seminars. Reading from Almost, Benedict’s consistent and confident voices gave the audience easy access into the often uncomfortable topics of femininity, sex and frustrated desires.  Sexual tension culminated in a description of both the highs and lows of a forty-three minute session under the sheets. “I don’t want you to think I traffic in the smut,” she said of her book, The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. “But this is Erica Jong’s college,” She recovered, “You can take it.”

Next Benedict read from a recent essay titled “Why Not Say What Happened?” It seems all too fitting this essay profiles the personal and professional life of Elizabeth Hardwick [ed. note: Apologies. Corrected.] , Benedict’s professor, inspiration and object of admiration. The essay is essentially a current Barnard professor  writing as a Barnard student on a former Barnard professor. The effect, as can be imagined, is almost awkwardly insular. Benedict’s writing is pure and unassuming. But given her subject matter, her lengthy essay, which she read in its entirety, came off as obvious, if not unimaginative.  

Detailing the modest lessons Hardwick imparted on to her as an undergrad, Benedict emphasizes the importance of listening to and reading the works of others. These are certainly important aspects of a writer’s development, but in Benedict’s case they seem to overshadow personal ambition and innovation. Despite their attempts to dispel the stereotype stamped on many female writers today, both Goldberg and Benedict’s work seems to perpetuate the demure and comfortable genre typified by popular female fiction.  Perhaps a more accurate title for the Barnard’s Great Writers Series would have been Barnard’s Rather Nice Writers Series.

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7 Comments

  1. oi!  

    Lottery numbers are out!

  2. condescending  

    It's Elizabeth Hardwick, not Hartwick.

    The last paragraph of this post is unnecessarily condescending--perhaps readers would be better served by a discussion of the nuances of Benedict's essay about Hardwick's work and her exraordinary influence outside of Barnard. Hardwick helped found the New York Review of Books and was the kind of attentive writer and critic who would have skewered the writer of this post for damning these writers with faint praise about how these writers' work is only "demure and comfortable." Benedict's work has never struck me that way, and Hardwick's criticism and fiction is certainly neither of those two things. (I haven't read Goldberg's work.)

    Or the writer could have talked about particular moments she'd recommend (or not recommend) from the books. But moving immediately to the assessment mode with overwrought lines such as "conveys sensitive auditory and visual details" makes the whole LectureHop sort of pointless, as she just ends up judging vaguely something many readers don't know about rather than giving something to take away--other than condescension.

    Here's an interesting Benedict interview:
    http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum176.php

    • thanks

      I agree this report could use more concrete takeaway rather than mere impressionistic observations. from this coverage, I come away with the assumption these writers are rather like the character parodied by nicole kidman in "margot at the wedding"...I'm sure they're more complex, but I'd like to hear a little more before resting comfortably in either presumption.

  3. my review  

    Her delicate frame matches her delicate writing. Her sentences merge the poetic and photographic and convey sensitive auditory and visual detail. Her words are easily accessible and lend themselves to her audience. In a different setting, however, removed from Quintana's engaging presence and quirky intonations, I question whether a reader would be patient enough to sift through her generous descriptions.


    but, you have beautiful writing and sharp argumentative structure; it's such a relief

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