H.L. Nelson and Joanne Merriam (eds.): ‘Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up To No Good’
Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2015
Fiction Review by Bethany W.Pope
Published in The Ofi Press issue 45
Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up To No Good is a collection of feminist literature that is occasionally philosophically problematic but whose contents sustain a generally high level of quality. As the title indicates, there are a lot of writers in this book, so I will focus on a chosen few who run the gamut in terms of quality.
In the preface, editors H L Nelson and Joanne Merriam state that their intentions revolved around redressing the badly skewed ratio of publications between male and female writers. That’s fine, and true enough — men are disproportionately represented in literary publications — but they go on to say that they chose to focus on publishing the medium of the short story because they classify it as a ‘female’ form. They say that the form is female because it is ‘small’. They indicate that this is what women have been ‘left’ with. This is a problem.
In her introduction, Susan Parabo confirms and reaffirms a great many of the beliefs of the editors, ascribing the dubious ‘fact’ that women ‘primarily’ write short stories to the limitations of their societal role:
In an interview following the awarding of her Nobel Prize, Munro said, “I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.” While it’s certainly true that this sentiment may resonate with lots of male writers, I believe it will resonate with almost every female writer. Often the most obvious and immediate “someone else’s needs” has to do with raising children—we must feed them! we must clothe them! we must drive them to swimming lessons!—but women without children regularly find themselves attending to the needs, and deeply investing in the lives, of parents, siblings, friends, students, neighbors, and colleagues, in ways that are profound and sustained.
While it is true that women are often perceived as having a limited role to play in society, and they often have to pay the price for that faulty perception by having to work three times harder (while being three times better) than men to achieve the same level of status and recognition, the rest of Parabo’s argument is based on a fallacy. Short stories are not a lesser form. They are not something that can be knocked off between changing diapers or feeding a spouse. A great many unmarried, child-free, unattached people (of all genders) participate in the creation of this art. Some people write short stories because that is what they write.
The way that the editors classify women, as a group, is also problematic. Writing together, they state:
In life and in fiction, whether we’re women by choice or biology, our respective lives are our own. We must choose wisely. Many of the main characters in these stories are only up to no good insofar as they have the audacity to be their own women—their own people.
The phrase ‘women by choice’ is a misstep, implying that trans-women are men who have chosen to ‘become’ women, rather than women, full stop.
The introductions performed exactly contrarily to their authors intentions, reducing my anticipation for the rest of the book. Luckily, the first short story out of the gate was Diane Cook’s wonderful ‘Moving On’. I first encountered this story in Cook’s terse, beautiful, slightly surreal collection, Man V. Nature. Cook is often described as a twisted Margaret Atwood, but personally I think her work is more reminiscent of Angela Readman’s eerie, wonderful Don't Try This At Home.
This particular story is set in a world where women can only exist through the auspices of men. If their status-lending husbands die, divorce, or leave them, they are corralled into re-education camps, forced to forget (or pretend to forget) the lives they had before, and wait until another man decides to rescue them.
Cook’s writing is acerbic, sharp, and deeply sad. Here, she describes the daily life of the women left behind to wait:
‘We are allowed outside for an hour each day, into a fenced pen off the north wing. It is full of plastic lawn chairs, and the women who have been here awhile push to get chairs in the sun. They undress down to their underwear and work on their tans. Other women beeline to an aerobics class in the far corner. The fences are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in booths and observe. So far I’ve just walked inside the perimeter and looked through the chain link. The land beyond is razed save for the occasional stubborn stump. Weeds and thorny bushes grow everywhere. This is a newer facility. Decades from now, perhaps young trees will shade it, which, I think, would make it cozier. Far off, the forest is visible; a shaky line of green from the swaying trees. Though coyotes prowl the barren tract, it is the forest that, to me, seems most menacing. It is so unknown.’
The ways in which the lives of women are limited by men is a recurring theme in this anthology. It is a thread that the mysteriously-named xTx picks up and runs with in the short, melancholy ‘Today I am a Wife’. In this story, a woman is buried by a man who doesn't choose to see her. xTx writes, ‘Today was Sunday and I woke up not feeling so good. I kept this to myself because it doesn’t matter.’ As the day progresses, this nameless narrator finds her thoughts constantly interrupted by the internalized voice of her husband who, in every sense, minimizes her suffering:
‘There were some new action movies that opened on Friday, so after I was done getting the cars washed and doing the groceries, I got to pick which one we were going to go to. “Lady’s choice, Ann!” Lucky me. I still really wanted to take a nap but we were already planning to go see a movie so that was the plan and you always have to stick with the plan. “Always stick with the plan, Ann!”
I tried to nap during the movie but there were too many gunshots and explosions. This didn’t seem a problem for my husband.’
I thought revealing that even ‘her’ choice of film was tailored to win her husband’s approval (all those guns and explosions when all Ann wanted to do was sleep) was a nice, subtle twist. The husband isn't being abusive in this story. He’s playing his socially-accepted role. And so is the narrator. The roles, those performances, believing the lie, are the destructive elements in their lives.
Not every story is totally top-notch. Aimee Bender’s ‘Broke’ is a piece of flash-fiction that relies on a rather clichéd femme-fatal persona to carry the day, rather than an actual character or plot. Here, the narrator describes a man-eater in the most rigidly-traditional terms:
‘If you looked closely enough—if she let you—if you were her lover and lucky enough to see in that intently—you could, on a summer night, find Orion near her left pupil. The great hunter. Watch out. Those seven little dots glittering, scattered on the iris, were like brands of longing on the heart of the looker, and she never left a man complete.’
The woman is a ‘hunter’, stalking sex. The woman is goddess-like in her connection to nature (represented by the literal stars in her eyes). The woman eats men, and unmans them. Luckily, this kind of writing is an anomaly in an otherwise very strong anthology. I would have enjoyed it more if I had skipped the previews and gone on to the stories.