It Is I, Not Phyl . . .

Audrey Thompson

Rick and Phyllis
Rick and Phyl

After I described postcard-writing as one of Phyllis’s areas of expertise without so much as mentioning Rick, he emailed me in protest. His shocked indignation was not unlike the outrage one encounters in academic writing when someone makes a point that another writer also made. In academia, there is not a lot of recognition that more than one person can have an idea like “People are different.”

A few years ago, a professor complained to me that someone she met at a conference had stolen her idea. “What idea was that?” I asked.

“He was making the point that whites have more power than people of color. That’s my point,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. I had been under the misimpression that this was something that people of color had known for at least three hundred years. Even then, you couldn’t really say who had the idea. It isn’t the sort of idea that belongs to a particular person. But she obviously thought it belonged to her. There was a moment of silence.

The silence made her defensive. “At any rate, I’m the first one to have said it in writing,” she amended. Even this was a two-hundred-some-year stretch, but I let it go. I’ve heard worse claims. Not long ago, a student in a colleague’s class asked where U.S. whites’ sense of superiority came from. “Oh, I know the answer to that,” another student said comfortably. “I think it’s because we were the first ones here.”

Rick felt strongly that an objective review of the facts would show that he, not Phyl, was the informative postcard writer in the family. “I must point out that it is I and not Phyl,” said Rick, “that crams 10 pages of info onto a post card.” The only reason Rick thinks that he is fitting ten pages of information on his postcards, is because he has very low standards regarding density of information. Rick’s postcards are triple spaced. Postcard, I should say, since I have only ever received one from him. The postcard Ivan and I got from Rick was like one of those size-18-font term papers with extra wide spacing and 2-inch margins, expensively bound in plastic to fool the teacher into thinking that it is a nice, long, carefully researched paper that the author spent many, many nights writing. The teacher is not supposed to notice that the paper is over almost before it begins. Unfortunately, many teachers do notice that kind of thing.

My brother does not try to fool you into thinking there is a lot of information in his letters. When Chuck sends Ivan and me a letter, he does not pretend to fill up the space. Two lines into an 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, he may sign off, writing, “Well, I see that I have run out of space.” This is more innovative than the letters you and I have written, in which we crowd the official letter-writing space with this and that — “the weather has been nice lately, though there have been a few clouds. Yesterday there was a bit of nip in the air, so I had to wear a sweater, but today I am wearing only a long-sleeved turtleneck. Did I mention that I got a good price on turtlenecks last month? I really stocked up. Anyway, it doesn’t look like I’ll be needing them much longer, the weather has been so nice lately, despite the occasional nip in the air” — so as to be able to sign off in a glow of guilty accomplishment, saying, “Well, I see that I have run out of space!”

Even authors of properly spaced term papers in a reasonable-sized font may resort to filling up the space with this sort of half-hearted rambling. Annika is writing a school report like that right now. You sense a certain impatience to get the thing over with. “Manitoba has many interesting animals,” says this informative report. “The saber-toothed cat is one of them, although extinct, I now hear. Also very interesting is the architecture. Winnipeg, in particular, has many new and interesting buildings. More of them are being built all the time. Many of them have been built since the last century. It is just that kind of place, where interesting buildings are built every century. I could go on and on, but I see that I have run out of space.”

“Informative” is not always what you want, though. Informative postcards, for example, may lack that indefinable lightness of spirit that the reader is looking for. Rather than saying, “Wish you were here,” they say, “If you were here, you would see that it is no picnic.” Mom used to send informative postcards to Grandma, ostensibly to cheer her up. “Dear Mother,” ran a typical postcard, “My sciatic nerve is bothering me and now I think I have broken my foot. Also, I have a migraine. Love, Marian.”

Rick’s postcards are not like this. Whatever he may claim, they are not in the least informative. Oddly enough, Rick’s indignation at being overlooked in the canon of postcard writers really brought out the best in him as a committed, detail-oriented writer. He sent me an extremely long, entertaining email complaining about not having gotten his due as a postcard writer. Not only was the email not triple spaced, but it ranged widely and interestingly over the highlights and sidelights of his travels — his tendency to visit formerly Communist countries, for example, and to write postcards in a vague, ominous hand so that the CIA would suspect the recipients of his postcards of receiving Communist counter-information. (This hope is perhaps a stretch, however, since there is really no information whatsoever in Rick’s postcards.)

By contrast, when academics take umbrage, they do not write long, interesting letters about it. Almost all of them write letters to the editor that start out in exactly the same way. “I was reading your review,” they say, “and was finding it very interesting, until suddenly it dawned on me that your reviewer was actually talking about a book I myself had written! How could I have not recognized my own book? Perhaps it is because your reviewer had not read it.” The language sometimes varies, of course. Sometimes the author starts out, “Had your reviewer had the elementary courtesy to actually read my book before reviewing it, she would have found that I make exactly the points that she accuses me of omitting.” All authors think that it is highly original to accuse the reviewer of not having the read the book.

Academics are famous for taking umbrage when they get an even mildly negative review in a magazine or newspaper. Writing to the New York Times Book Review or the Women’s Review of Books or the New Republic, they viciously berate both the reviewer and the magazine for allowing something so scurrilous, unethical, unprofessional, sadly misguided, and vengefully motivated as the review that claimed that their book was sloppily written. “It is to be hoped,” the author says, “that in future this publication will exercise greater caution in its choice of reviewers. Meanwhile, all I ask is that readers read my book and decide for themselves the truth of the matter.” Asking readers to read and think for themselves is a helpful suggestion that all authors make with satisfied finality, as if they were the first to think of it.

The trouble is that authors very often think that they were the first to think of everything. This is especially true in fields where no one is paying serious money for their ideas. It is one thing to be the first one to think of making Bridges of Madison County into a movie. It was a lousy idea, but it was a lousy idea that made a lot of money. It is another thing to be the first person to think of saying that you agree with John Dewey. There is not a lot of money in that kind of thing. All the same, many academics are ferocious in maintaining their firstness. One academic I know was so ticked off when I said her theory didn’t take race into account that she devoted an entire essay to saying that she had thought of everything first. “It is I, not Thompson, who first said that racism is wrong,” she wrote, adding that, “It is I, not Thompson, who pointed out that people are different,” and “I, not Thompson, am the one who says — as Thompson does not — that it is wrong for people to be oppressed.”

I am paraphrasing somewhat, but that was the gist of it. I had never seen an article written like that before, and it took me a while to know how to think about it. Ivan had never seen an article written like that, either, but he knew at once how to think about it. He seized upon it with gusto. Now when I ask, “Ivan, have you fed the cats?” he replies indignantly, “It is I, not Thompson, who first thought of feeding the cats.” When I say, “I think we can throw away this set of broken chopsticks,” he interrupts me, saying fiercely, “It is I, not Thompson, who has always advocated throwing away broken chopsticks.”

Now, when I say that I had never run into an article of that kind before, I don’t mean to suggest that I had never before run into that tone of moral indignation in academia. When I submitted a proposal to a conference in which I talked about white patterns of citing scholars of color, one of the anonymous reviews that came back was fretful and indignant. “This is vengeful and SOMEwhat immature,” the reviewer said. “In fact, it is highly immature. This author does not even know me and yet they have the nerve to suggest that I am doing things that are racist, which I totally deny, and even if I did do them, you could hardly call them racist, and how would you even know if they are without knowing me, which you don’t? This is why I call this proposal immature. I did not think it was very good at all.”

Even good reviews may betray that fretful tone. A friend of mine got a would-be supportive letter that complained, “Although this essay is good, it is by no means as good as the work of my friend Susan, who does beautiful, immaculate, and truly worthwhile work. It is not that this essay is bad. It is quite good, in its way, which is not the way I personally would write, nor would my friend Susan, but certainly it is not without promise. It is just too bad that it is nothing like Susan’s work, because then it would really be good work.”

When this is what the person has to say, you do not feel the need for them to go on and on. It would be better to be brief.

One letter I got from an editor was on a half sheet of paper and all it said was, “We already knew all this.”

Ivan got an even shorter rejection from Amazing, a science fiction magazine to which he had sent a story. The turn-around time was surprisingly quick. Almost by return mail, Ivan got a letter that said, “No.” Years later, Ted White, the editor, told him that his rejection had come from the subscription rather than the editorial office. Like several aspiring authors, Ivan had sent his manuscript to the magazine’s subscription office by mistake; there was a clerk there who took it upon himself to read all the manuscripts he received. The clerk never sent them on to the editor; he simply rejected them, firing off prompt letters that said, in their entirety, “No.”

In the arts, there are quite often creative breakthroughs to which someone should have said no, but no one did, and then people fight over who was first. According to People magazine (not all of us academics are reading Kant and Hegel every single minute, you know), artist Emily Duffy has collected approximately 7,000 brassieres donated by women from across the world and has hooked them together to create a 5' 4" ball, a feminist creation she calls BraBall. Similarly inspired, another California artist, Ron Nicolino, is making an even larger braball, this one 15 feet in diameter. When Nicolino invited Duffy to collaborate with him on the larger ball, she declined on the grounds that his version was oppressive, being taller than the average woman. People magazine reports that Duffy is now “assert[ing] her exclusive rights” to make bra balls, while Nicolino is arguing for his artistic right to freedom of expression. He is anxious to create an alternative to Duffy’s work, he says, because he considers Duffy’s BraBall too angry in “content.”

I am not going to take a position on whether the bra balls are oppressive or angry. You can’t really tell from the pictures, though it is possible that I could not tell even if I saw them up close. While you have to consider the source, it is not all that surprising if the artists involved feel that they can tell for certain whose braball is more authentic, liberatory, balanced, or thoughtful.

Frankly, it was just a matter of time before a feminist bra ball got described as “too angry” or was blamed for causing a “chilly climate.”

Apparently the arts are not that different from academia. In academia, ideas are thought to be so rare that if you happen to be lucky enough to have one, someone will steal it. Thus you find professors making elegant statements like, “The idea we will be discussing is called the Informed Professor; this idea is mine.” Of course, ideas are not in fact all that rare. People have them all the time. It’s more a question of whether they are good ideas, whether the person has anything interesting to say about them, and whether other people find them useful. Although this is really supposed to be up to the audience, I was at an academic panel a few years ago where one of the speakers felt so strongly about the exact way to interpret her points that she barked out commands for us to react in X, Y, or Z fashion. If in her view something wasn’t funny, she forbade us to laugh, and if we failed to laugh when she did think it was funny, she yelled at us for not laughing. It would have been more efficient, perhaps, to use cue cards.

Regardless of how specific you are in your statements and commands, however, people will laugh at you when you don’t want them to and fail to laugh when you do. They will misinterpret you in ways you never dreamt of. One of my favorite complaints from an academic happened just this year. Rather surprisingly taking my position on education to be anti-marriage, she said, “Not everyone finds a dismissive attitude toward marriage helpful.” That’s true, of course. Not everyone does. Actually, more people probably don’t find it helpful than do. I’m interested to hear that this is a hot topic in her circle, but I suppose that that’s really neither here nor there. If she had asked me about my views on marriage, I might have mentioned to her that Ivan and I have been happily married for twenty years.

Ivan and Audrey the night before our wedding, 1983
Ivan and Audrey the night before our wedding, 1983
Audrey and Tara
Audrey and Tara
Kelly and Ivan
Kelly and Ivan

Then again, I might not have. It is always interesting to see what people will laugh or get mad at, for themselves. There’s only so much you can do with cue cards, after all.


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