ON WANDERINGby Roan Parrish
A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay, “On Pandering” (subtitled “How to Write Like a Man”), in which Watkins reflects on her internalized patriarchal literary values; how she has found herself writing to impress the “old white men” in her head. Pandering in the sense of giving an imaginary audience what she imagines they would want—an equation built on the idea that identity is knowable, legible, consistent.
Lately, I’ve been wandering. I came down to New Orleans from Philadelphia for a month last March between jobs. Then, when plans to move to Seattle fell through and I realized any other plans I had were about as well laid as a splodge of jelly, I sort of moved to New Orleans on a whim. It was rather unlike me. Except that in being sudden and forcibly unthought through and rather unlike me, it was a pretty me thing to do.
When I’m wandering, identity feels more provisional than usual, and sketchier. The luxury and the burden of someone who is, from one day to the next, in any way consistent. It feels like the greatest privilege to shrug it off (as if that were ever truly possible), at least for a little while.
When I was in New Orleans in March, I wandered the city more literally, walking for miles and miles, my busted phone with its persnickety GPS no match for a city that fanned itself out variously along the bends of a river, its streets sitting miles apart at the water’s edge only to converge as they neared the lake across town. Easier just to walk, flâneur-like, and let the city lay itself out beneath my feet: broken flagstones, moss, buckling graves, spilled drinks, muscular roots of trees that stretched muzzily to meet the violet sky. Easier to have no expectations.
Pandering, as we see in Watkins’s examples, is all about expectations:
Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
And not just expectation about themes, but also about form. So it’s no coincidence that the form she chose for the written version of “On Pandering” wasn’t a short story but an essay, in which she can move easily from her work (“Look”!) to her life (“motherhood has softened me”).
I love the form of the essay where it shows its roots—to essay is “to attempt something”; it’s “the beginning of an effort.” I like a form with circumspect expectations. One that knows its limits and in embracing them, can often do more than it imagines. It encourages topics to be intimate with one another but doesn’t demand that their relationship be named, tied down, quantified, or fixed. A logic of rigorous intuitive association, but not enforced identity.
I come from an academic background, and in academia there is nearly always an argument. An argument requires a fixed identity, necessitates casting out the pieces that don’t fit. So, it is strong—contained and upright with a final outward gesture—and it is also weak, the way anything is weak that, in asserting itself uncompromisingly, contains already within itself its own opposite, the seeds of its undoing. I am not making an argument here. But, though I’ve left academia, it can feel as hard to let go of written identity as personal identity—of the safety that sense of unassailability provides.
Of course, genres have identities too, and the line between writing to genre and pandering is a fine and hotly debated one. I’m a longtime lover of genre, and lately I’ve been writing romance, a genre as critically maligned for its mass appeal as it is for its associations with culturally constructed femininity. The genre itself, the critical narrative seems to go, is a pander. And this evaluation collapses literary history and market desire, erasing craft, leveling variety, and assuming identity—to a greater degree than we see with critiques of other genres. As if the romance genre, by virtue of being centered around love, an emotion that most of us experience, becomes a kind of universal solvent, absorbing anything placed within it. Or The Borg, to borrow from another genre—one whose tropes are more generously read as metaphors. When did love—or perhaps emotion more generally—stop being seen as the impetus for art and begin being seen as its antithesis?
That’s the critics, though. For most of us who write and love the genre, of course, the story is quite different. Certainly romance has genre conventions, but so, it’s become more and more clear, does literary fiction. So, to whom or what does the romance author pander? For me, the authenticity of romance is found in its intimacy, and intimacy is about individual truth, the backbone of identity. Romance’s pander, then, is to generic expectations of characters finding love in specific, repeated ways; of love seeming to be only certain things and never others—a romance script without the intimacy that comes from individuation. Maintaining the bones with none of the guts, none of the specificity. It’s a pander that, to go back to Watkins’s essay, gives an imaginary audience what we imagine they want. And here it’s even clearer that this pander depends on the notion that we have an audience in mind and that, in our minds, we can know what they want.
But we can’t. An audience is made up of individual readers, and many readers’ identities aren’t any more fixed than mine is. I cannot possibly know what they want. Not really. Perhaps what romance can be when it celebrates its genre but doesn’t pander is about identity, though. Identity that can be in flux. Identity—the characters’, the readers’, and the writers’—that, really, must change from the beginning of the book to the end. Indeed, I think many of us go through a bit of a journey with each project we undertake, allowing it to change us as we craft it. Another kind of wandering.
As it happens, J–, the friend who emailed me “On Pandering,” is a lover of genre, a writer, and an academic. I saw her most recently over the summer in New York, where we talked about books and writing over tacos at Tacombi Nolita. It was the kind of clear, hot day that made everyone in the East Village look like the white-clad sylphs of an Instagram feed. J– is busy, and I was catching the bus back to Philly that night, so after lunch we decided we’d talk while we ran her errands. She laid out her nascent academic book project between stops in a posh stationary store where the sales associate assumed she had hours to spend on a craft project with her daughter (No, J– said, she just needs to write thank you notes for her birthday presents), at the coffee shop where she was picking up gift cards for the teachers at her son’s daycare, at the ATM, where she stopped for cash to buy the gift cards.
We found ourselves, as you do on days like that, magnetized to Washington Square Park, walking around and around it, the arch like a sundial. The more we walked and the more she told me about the project, the more I thought how wonderful it would be—and how useful—if her future readers could experience these ideas the way I just had. As an essay (an attempt; the beginning of an effort), an excursus of associated ideas woven throughout the stops on our walk—a nonfictional Mrs. Dalloway, both more personal than an academic article, and more flexible.
When J– sent “On Pandering” to me (and to her sister, also my dear friend; we have regular email round robins about books that are always the highlight of any day in which they transpire) she drew our attention to the end of the essay, where her sentiments, upon reading, echoed the last and most dramatic line of Watkins’s piece: “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.” My own identity has never rested very comfortably in the category of woman, but reading their responses (scathing, dark, upsetting, makes me want to set something on fire) made something clear to me that I hadn’t put in words before.
The moments when I most identify with being a woman are moments of anger.
Moments when what is constructed as femaleness is an inconvenience, a burden, a trial, a hazard. Moments when I find myself explaining what shouldn’t need to be explained, defending what shouldn’t need to be defended, eye-rolling, sighing, raging, fearing, giving up. Trying again.
Now, bereft of the pander, Watkins can’t write. She has found herself stuck in her current identity as a mother and can’t proceed until she “bust[s] up” or “burns down” the writing identity she inhabited before. She ends, as I said, on the dramatic call to action: “let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.” It’s a plea for yet another construction. A new system to replace the old, so that this time we can do it better.
But maybe the trick of writing romance—a feint and not a pander—is that it doesn’t ever end. Because love, that emotion that critics can’t help but read as rendering the whole genre literal, is never static, nor are relationships. Wandering isn’t teleological. It’s not about making progress because there is no destination. Nothing to measure it against. Any truths that we discover about ourselves in the process can be celebrated, but they won’t necessarily stick. Because then we’ll start a new book or painting or song and things will happen all over again for the first time. And that’s not good or bad. In being always provisional it’s at least slightly outside the easy economy of evaluation.
photographed by Julie Darby
What it is, though, is vulnerable. Revealing. Like wandering in the world, psychic or emotional wandering hold within themselves an acknowledgment of being not-fully-formed that is intrinsically delicate, bruiseable, indefensible. Perhaps you can’t get lost if you know you’re wandering, but you can certainly end up places you don’t want to be; you can yearn for a place where you aren’t. And you can love things that you wouldn’t have imagined.
I don’t have a neat conclusion for this essay because I don’t really have any conclusions when it comes to wandering at all. Or identity. Not at the moment, anyway.
So far, it’s just an attempt; the beginning of an effort.
All photographs courtesy of Julie Darby
About Roan Parrish
Roan Parrish is currently wandering between Philadelphia and New Orleans. When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.
Roan’s latest release:
Daniel Mulligan is tough, snarky, and tattooed, hiding his self-consciousness behind sarcasm. Daniel has never fit in—not at home with his auto mechanic father and brothers, and not at school where his Ivy League classmates look down on him. Now, Daniel’s relieved to have a job at a small college in Northern Michigan, but, a city boy through and through, when Daniel arrives in Holiday, Michigan, it’s clear that this small town is one more place he just won’t fit in.
Rex Vale clings to routine to keep loneliness at bay: honing his large, muscular body until it can handle anything, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture. Rex has lived in Holiday for years, but his shyness and imposing size have kept him from connecting with people. Though he loves the quiet and solitude of his little cabin in the woods, Rex can’t help but want someone to share it with.
When Daniel arrives in Holiday, they are smitten with each other, but though the sex is intense and explosive, Rex fears that Daniel will be one more in a long line of people to leave him, and Daniel has learned that letting anyone in could be a fatal weakness. Just as they begin to break down the walls that have been keeping them apart, Daniel is called home to Philadelphia where a secret is revealed that changes the way he understands everything.