The Scribbling Women Complex

In a January 1868 letter to her mother, Louisa May Alcott evaluated her finances for the coming year. “My plan will work well,” she concluded after listing her expected pay for each publication, “and I shall make my $1,000 this year in spite of sickness and worry.” One day, she hoped, she might even “see her family well off.”

Alcott’s frank treatment of money, the financial value of her creative labor, sheds important light on the current debates about women and personal writing. In these debates, young women writers today, who came of age in the midst of economic crises but with the benefits of 150 years of feminism, have been asked to consider a range of important questions. What does it mean to write from the heart for money? Can we insist on the value of experience without tethering its human value to its market value, without implying that an experience, a life, is worthwhile only if it makes money? (These questions are particularly vexing now, as the market-based economy has collapsed around us.) In facing these questions, we might do well to consider the question as Alcott does: as someone well aware of both the history of women’s work and the meager worth attributed to women’s experiences.

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I first experienced Little Women in movie form: the 1994 version staring Winona Ryder. In this cinematographic version, Little Women is a labor of love—and almost a conversion experience. In the beginning of the movie, writing means independence to Ryder’s Jo—an escape from the otherwise narrow choices nineteenth-century women faced. Her writing is as far removed from her life as a sister and daughter as possible. “The first rule of writing,” she tells Beth, “is never to write what you know.”

Instead she writes Edgar Allan Poe-like tales of murder and gore, with some success. Her friend Friedrich Bhaer, whom she meets in her New York boardinghouse, does not approve of these topics. “You should be writing from life,” he tells her, “from the depths of your soul.”

Tragedy intervenes, as it so often does. Beth dies, and Jo writes through the night to complete a new, more personal manuscript: Little Women. From love of her dead sister, and the advice of a wiser and more spiritual man, a loving tribute of a story emerges: heartfelt, honest, and unconcerned with success. The real story of the novel’s origins, I was surprised to learn, is very different.

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Little Women is not a memoir, although, as Louisa May Alcott biographer Susan Cheever—who also wrote a memoir—notes, it often reads as such. It was never a secret that the March family was based on the Alcott family and that Jo in particular was based on Louisa May Alcott. This mythology has only grown over the nearly 150 years since the book was published, and modern readers often elide any space between fact and fiction.

One of the many topics readers are likely to obscure is the practical—rather than romanticized—relationship between the Alcott family’s ideals and their economic situation. Alcott was famously raised in Concord’s Transcendentalist milieu and in the heady space of mid-nineteenth century reform movements. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were neighbors, and Emerson saved her family from financial ruin many times. Her family followed health reformer Sylvester Graham’s vegetarian diet, and Louisa’s notoriously difficult father, Bronson, once tried to start a utopian community that would remain purer than the famous and nearby Brook Farm. The family of abolitionist martyr John Brown found a welcome reception among Concord’s intellectuals and reformers, including the Alcotts.

Transcendentalism grew up in the midst of a rapidly industrializing economy, one in which the already ascendant language of the market increasingly came to govern all human relations. Historian Perry Miller called Transcendentalism “the first outcry of the heart against the materialistic pleasures of a business civilization.” Bronson Alcott’s idealistic schemes may well have been a heart’s outcry, but Miller and other early historians of Transendentalism repeated Bronson’s own mistakes if they thought those schemes existed outside of the economy. Bronson’s endeavors produced more debt than anything else. Only the Alcott women’s participation in the market economy (along with, frequently, Emerson’s generosity) allowed their husband and father to remain outside of it. Louisa May Alcott started teaching at age sixteen. Her sisters performed similar work, and their mother took in sewing.

Alcott was first paid for her writing in 1851, and by the end of the decade her work regularly found an audience. Had she known the success Little Women would become, she may not have balked when editor and publisher Thomas Niles suggested in 1867 that she write a “girls’ book.” Compared to both the melodramas that paid the bills and the Hospital Sketches that brought her fame, it seemed boring and ordinary. Who would want to read about the experiences of four girls growing up? Instead it was her father’s emotional manipulation—Niles promised to publish one of his books if Louisa relented—and compulsion to pay off his debts. She even found the finished product boring.

Literary and film audiences, however, remember Jo’s engagement with cultural production, not Alcott’s. But there’s a problem with this account, beyond its inaccuracy: assuming that Alcott’s reasons for writing were the same as Jo’s only perpetuates the idea that good writing is not done for money. But it was the public’s embrace of personal writing, and the willingness of Alcott and other Transcendentalists to sell it, that allowed them to survive and sometimes even thrive in the midst of the vicissitudes of a rapidly expanding market economy. It was, in other words, a job. Jo—and Louisa May—were not the only creative women who needed one.

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The last time I watched Gilmore Girls was in 2014, when it came out on Netflix and the Internet lost its mind, the collective nostalgia freakout that eventually led to the revival. I was thirty-two, the age Lorelai is at the beginning of the series, but still identified solely with Rory, at least aspirationally. I was never that driven, but I had brown hair, so.

I stuck with the rewatch all the way through, even into the crap last season when Lorelai marries Christopher for three seconds. I was in the the worst of several terrible semesters of adjuncting, and eating ice cream while watching Gilmore Girls was the only part of the day I enjoyed. Once, while driving from one school to another, a car rear-ended me, and all I felt was relief. It meant that I could cancel one afternoon class.

So when Rory had her senior year Yale crisis—What am I going to do with my life? How will I live?—I related to an embarrassing degree. Rory graduated from college in 2007, just before the housing crisis and then the recession hit. Ten years later, the country, and the world, look very different.

It was kind of a relief to me that the revival found Rory in basically the same spot, though many viewers and critics felt differently. One website called it “an insult to her, and all millennials.” Even Alexis Bledel was reportedly unhappy with her character’s floundering. Shouldn’t I—I mean she—have accomplished more by that age? She’s not so young anymore, after all.

Not everyone is in this situation, of course. Paris is now a doctor and lawyer with a successful fertility clinic. She takes a special glee in firing her assistant, a Smith grad. “Apologize to your parents,” she tells the bewildered young woman, “tell them you’ll pay them back for the two semesters you spent studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s effect on the feminist agenda.” Paris can’t imagine anyone studying something so ridiculous. What are these subjects worth?

The world of the show seems to agree with Paris. The show pays special attention to the so-called failures that result from abstraction or education: another character describes to Rory “a group of kids all about your age, they’ve been to college, then out in the real world, and it spit ‘em out like a stale piece of gum, and now they’re all back in their old rooms, like you.” They’re ridiculous, of course, oversensitive weirdos who are scared of loud noises. No wonder, the world spit them out—the world is an employer similar to Paris.

So like: was the Gilmore Girls revival ultimately the same thing that the rest of 2016 was—a “fuck you” to ideas and truth and facts and knowledge, and to the worth of women’s experiences? A think piece about Millennials disguised as a television series?

Maybe, but there’s evidence that suggests not; it ends, after all, with Rory writing a memoir. It was her former boyfriend Jess’s idea that she do so. Write what you’re passionate about, he tells her. Write what you know. Write about your relationship with your mom. So that’s what she does, the first three chapters pouring out of her as she sits at her grandfather’s desk.

I have to believe the Gilmore Girls folks knew that women Rory’s age watched the 1994 version of Little Women and thought that this was what it meant to be a writer, knew, perhaps, that Rory’s much-heralded specialness would be confirmed for viewers through her association with Jo. The memoir will even be titled Gilmore Girls.

It’s the lack of a how, though, that frustrates me. How will she pay for the apartment she plans to rent in Queens? How will she penetrate the glutted memoir market? Who knows. But it always works out for Rory in the end, doesn’t it? I guess the lesson is that if we just sit down and let the words flow out of us, our intimate experiences, it will work out for us, too. And that’s bullshit.

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Last year at Jezebel, Jia Tolentino wrote a scathing takedown of the connection between women and personal writing. Personal writing is based on struggle, she argued, and patriarchy provides women with lots of struggles to write about. But she grounds these struggles in domesticity, which never characterized most women’s lives. Rather, as Louisa May Alcott’s experiences show, personal writing was one among a range of market-based economic survival strategies. Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture and Anna Leszkiewicz in the New Statesman have used Rory specifically—along with Jo in VanArendonk’s case and Hannah Horvath of Girls in Leszkiewicz’s—to bemoan the ghettoization of women into the memoir field.

I think their conclusions are right, but—at least in the context of the modern American literary establishment—they don’t tell the whole story. Rather, I think that women have been drawn to this genre because for so long it was assumed that there was nothing interesting at all about their personal lives and experiences—certainly nothing that could be used to produce interesting writing.

That’s the argument that members of the 1950s literary counterculture made, anyway. In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, poet Diane DiPrima tells the story of a night with her friends Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others. When she left to relieve the babysitter, though, Kerouac yelled at her, “DiPrima, unless you forget about your babysitter, you’re never going to be a writer!” Like Bronson Alcott, the men in this circle also rejected wage labor and the market economy but were happy to let their female counterparts support them with both paid and unpaid labor.

Then, too, there were the theory-obsessed young men of the white New Left, who wielded abstract thought to shut down the concerns of their female counterparts. When the women’s liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its members insisted on the importance of their feelings and experiences. As members of the Boston-based Bread and Roses collective put it, this focus was necessary to combat the tendencies of the male-dominated left, including “the way they intellectualize everything and hardly ever say something that isn’t totally abstract” and “the way they almost never talk about themselves or their feelings except when under attack.”

I think this context, in which women’s experiences were considered meaningless to write about — the opposite of ideas or ideals — explains the emphasis on the personal. Of course women write about addiction, about sex, about the traumatic, the intimate, and the demeaning. They write about the extremes of experience because their experiences were for so long considered unimportant. There was and is something liberating and feminist about insisting on the importance of personal experience. Even if this orientation isn’t intentional — and I’m not arguing that it is — it shows the extent to which we have internalized the idea that the personal is political.

Personal writing emerged from many sources, including conversion narratives, prison confessions, and the new understandings of the self that emerged from the Enlightenment and religious awakenings. It’s not a coincidence that this form flourished in the three contexts I’ve discussed here—the Transcendentalists’ outcries against the market economy, the post-World War II resistance to conformity, and our own era of identity politics shaped by the great freedom struggles of the late twentieth century. The difference today is that we have a more fully developed language to talk about the gender politics of this desire for personal expression. In a new essay for the New Yorker, Tolentino argues that personal writing is incompatible with the age of Trump. But given the range of ways Trump seeks to silence women, might we not need memoir even more? Women in this genre may largely be writing to other women —the difficulty of convincing broad audiences that women’s lives matter and that women’s writing should be taken seriously persists — but even that might be kind of OK: men weren’t invited to feminist consciousness-raising sessions, either.

That’s the cultural side of the argument, at least. There’s also the economic exploitation inherent in personal writing, which Laura Bennett lays bare in a 2015 Slate article. In “The First-Person Industrial Complex,” she concludes that the situation is, “more than anything, a labor problem—writers toiling at the whims of a system with hazardous working conditions that involve being paid next to nothing.” Competition for the meager remuneration that does exist is fierce, a race to the bottom where the bottom is a person’s deepest, darkest secrets.

At the risk of overliteralizing Bennett’s argument, I revisited the speech to which her title nods, Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. In it, he coined the term “military-industrial complex”: the new reality that, with the establishment of a permanent defense industry, businesses depended on military spending and military conflict to guarantee continued profit. The cycle demanded more, more, more—more money, more weapons, all disappearing into the gaping capitalist maw. It can only end badly, this sort of escalation. It will never be enough; it will always demand more. If women during Louisa May Alcott’s lifetime faced speed-ups, pay cuts, and anti-union drives in textile mills, including in nearby Lowell, today’s unlucky young people toil away in content mills. The labor itself may have changed, but the relationship to the means of production has not — as billionaire Joe Ricketts’s recent decision to shut down DNAinfo and Gothamist after writers voted to unionize makes clear.

Perhaps the cultural and economic aspects of personal writing cannot be untangled. We need money, is the thing. Can we assert the worth of our work—which in this case is also our lives—without insisting that it is worth money?

Gilmore Girls and Little Women certainly don’t manage to square this circle. They don’t even portray writing as labor, but as a form of divine inspiration. Characters turning out to be the authors of the very story we are consuming further obscures the labor of cultural production. Jo, not Louisa May Alcott, is the author of Little Women. Rory, not Amy Sherman-Palladino, is the creator of Gilmore Girls. In this ouroboros of cultural production, the work of the actual creators is invisibilized, and the story is produced by the fact of its own existence.

Both Gilmore Girls and Little Women also separate “real” writing—Jo’s Little Women, Rory’s memoir, writing that comes from the heart and is based on experience and that we do because we need to—from writing we do for money. It’s as if we can’t be real writers until our motivation to put words on the page has transcended any market concerns. Do what you love, as the saying goes. To hell with the market economy, urge the Transcendentalists. Rory has no job, but she flies between London and Connecticut like it’s NBD, and she’s happy to take on unpaid gigs. And, of course, she looks fabulous. When I was young, I didn’t realize that having no money meant that you couldn’t do things. I thought you still got to live in Monica and Rachel’s apartment and wear cute clothes. I thought student loan debts just disappeared. Certainly it seemed so at thirteen, staying up late at a sleepover to watch Jo write her manuscript. But the montage starts, or the scene ends, just as the work is beginning.

Christina Larocco: Writer and historian riding the wave of ’90s nostalgia for as long as she possibly can.