Katha Pollitt is my latest hero.
I wasn’t even familiar with her work until I heard her on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. An American feminist writer, Pollitt is perhaps best known for her column “Subject to Debate” in The Nation magazine.
But all that means squat to me. Ms. Pollitt is my new hero because she has balls.
Her new book, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, includes essays about discovering her boyfriend was unfaithful and her subsequent response, which included web-stalking him. Her friends cautioned her about publishing these stories. What kind of self-respecting feminist tells stories like these?
Discussing her motivations for publishing, Pollitt articulates something anyone who writes personal essays or memoir knows is true. Here is Katha Pollitt on Fresh Air (probably within the first 6 minutes of air time):
In American literature now you can tell the most horrible things about yourself — you can be a heroin addict or a sex worker (not that those things are so horrible, but let’s just say) — as long as the arc of the story is, “I used to be bad and now I’m good” [or] “I used to be sick and now I’m well.”
But what you can’t do is really present, in a full detailed emotional way, what it feels like to be in an ordinary loser situation and just tell what it was like.
There has to be a moral in American literature. This is one of the big problems.
I have felt these same things approaching some of my essays. As an unpublished writer with few political affiliations, the stakes are much different for me than for Ms. Pollitt. But even with little name recognition, anyone who writes honestly about their lives puts it on the line in a way that other writers never really do. I am glad Ms. Pollitt had the courage to publish her work, even if she risks losing some of her luster in certain circles.
Of course, Katha Pollitt had balls long before she chose to publish Learning to Drive. Here is my favorite Pollitt story from a quick scan of the Web.
Citing Pollitt’s lack of patriotism, Bernard Goldberg named her number 74 in his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. This was because Pollitt wrote a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Put Out No Flags, in which she argued for restraint. As if calling for moderation in autumn 2001 wasn’t gutsy enough, she responded to Goldberg’s criticism by writing, “Memo to self: Must try harder.”
What a great gal.