‘The self-care is the writing’: Women essayists destroy clichés at the Festival of Books
“I have a problem with the word ‘brave,’” said the writer Meghan Daum during a panel Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “People who face down a harpoon for Greenpeace are brave.”
“Writing about f— is so bold!” cracked Melissa Febos, most recently the author of “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative.” They were onstage with the writer Maggie Nelson and moderator Dinah Lenney to discuss “Feminism and the Personal Essay” — a title about which they also had a few bones to pick.
Febos expanded on the theme of sexual frankness with an anecdote about a woman coming up to her at a reading of her first book, “Whip Smart,” a memoir about her experience as a “junkie professional dominatrix” (her own description), who asked, “aren’t you ashamed?”
After Nelson, whose most recent book is “On Freedom,” read the explicit sex scene that opens her celebrated book “The Argonauts,” moderator Dinah Lenney asked, “Is it deliberate, to make us sort of sit up, the writing of that scene?”
“You know, I came of age in the AIDS era, being absorbed in the work of queer artists like David Wojnarowicz,” Nelson said. “I’m much more prudish than most of my friends. I don’t see my work as a breakout or brave — I see it as part of a lineage.”
Jonathan Franzen shares some secrets, sort of, in his first public appearance for ‘Crossroads’
Jonathan Franzen offered to “vouchsafe my secrets,” discussing religion, women and when we might expect the next novel at the Festival of Books.
Before it even began, the panel was an exercise in anxiety over language. “When I got this panel assignment,” the moderator Dinah Lenney said, “I thought, ‘Oh God, now I have to define feminism!’”
But parsing this language — the way personal writing by women is categorized and named — is actually feminism in action. “I realized, I don’t have to define feminism,” Lenney said. “I just have to ask you three how it comes to the page.”
Febos picked up the thread. “I get so tired of my students’ work being described as ‘domestic’ or ‘women’s writing,’” she said. The phrase she uses in “Body Work” is “navel-gazing.” “It’s really the crudest form of sexism.”
As the panelists discussed the limitations of labels, the sound of the USC marching band shook the walls of the room. For all three writers, who also teach, their students’ ability to write freely is also an inspiring challenge — never mind that said students (and readers) often ask how writers like them can write so ruthlessly about themselves, friends and family.
“Putting the art first can get really patriarchal,” Febos said. “I put art at the top of my priorities, but then I was chastened by experience. I hate to say it, but it’s really trial and error.”
Panels, prizes and people — lots of them. Coverage of the L.A. Times’ first in-person Festival of Books since 2019 begins below.
Lenney asked if the writers consider the audience in their writing. “My first fidelity is to literary art,” Nelson said, “I’m really more interested in form. How does it sound? What does it look like on the page?”
Febos unearthed — and then contradicted — the inherent assumption that a reader is a critic waiting in the wings. “I imagine the most loving reader.”
Questions from the audience were also focused on language and identity. One attendee asked, “How do you center yourself in your stories, particularly as a white writer, without wanting to center yourself (and your experience) in the world?”
“You have to make the work first,” Febos said. Lenney concurred: “You can’t censor yourself. Don’t censor yourself in the first draft.”
Another audience member stood up and asked, “What self-care tips do you have when writing about trauma?”
The panel paused. Then Lenney leaned forward and with a casual confidence, summarized the heart of the matter. “The self-care is the writing.”
A guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles: A comprehensive bookstore map, writers’ meetups, place histories, an author survey, essays and more.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.