Several years ago, if a woman was referred to as "being clever," it usually meant she knew how to turn window curtains into evening dresses, eucalyptus pods into necklaces, or even Clorox bottles into piggy banks. I suppose that definition, whereby not much is turned into something significants, still holds. But for some years now, I have harbored the suspicion that here is a group of feminist writers who by virtue of living in New York, frequenting the same intellectual salons, and reading each other's material have become "clever by half." Lois Gould's latest book, "Not Responsible For Personal Articles," does not change my mind.
A collection of 27 article-essays, covering such subjects as good manners for liberated people, a case history of incest, influential women and desegregating court one at the country club - "Not Responsible For Personal Articles" is a facile piece of writing. But Gould has taken some perfectly workable feminist subjects and - in most instances - diminished them, which is a bit like turning a piggy bank back into a Clorox bottle.Cleverness inverted.
However, several chapters into her book, I decided it was time to check the word "feminist" in the dictionary. Maybe Gould wasn't getting through to me because we were ideologically opposed. But no, a feminist is simply "someone who believes in equal rights for women."
Well then, perhaps the trouble lay in the psychology of the reviewer. Were I better adjusted, less anxious, or any number of things that can upset one's metabolism and ruin a perfectly good Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie, I could digest Gould more easily. With this "if" in mind, I tried picking up the book at different blood-sugar stages. But no again, Gould refused to nourish, even when I had saved her for dessert.
What I found interesting was not Gould's book but Gould. She is very bright. She knows how to write, and in some instances, her mind and her talent take off beautifully, such as in a wonderful short piece, "All Hair the Conquering Heroine," where Gould humorously laments the role model-hair model confusions of young girls today. "The truth is, we have always had a little trouble spoting the subtle line between a heroin and a hairdo," admits Gould. She writes about Nina, who "plans to be a schoolteacher with a firm grip and frosted blond highlights."
When Gould writes about "heavier" issues, however, she loses her touch, and if tunnel vision is not quite the right way to describe the sensation that creeps over the reader, perhaps overfocused vision comes closer. Admittedly, I do not give the issue of "Porn for Women, Women for Porn" the time it deserves in my day, but when Gould makes up for my lack, her humour becomes sharp, her language tough, and we are sitting in the room with a woman who, when the jokes take a turn into the "Combat Zone," doesn't blink. Or does she?
There are several pieces in "Not Responsible" where Gould puts herself in a larger, more ambivalent environment where there are children, husbands, dogs and other bits of matter floating around the periphery, which plane down the sharp edges of Gould the feminist and hint at the fact that she is more than she lets on. But the closer she gets to hard-core feminist concerns, the less the reader gets of, excuse the expression, "the total woman."
Gould does "disprove the notion" as the book jacket says "that the women's movement lacks a sense of humor." But by and large Gould laughs herself above the point. Then too, humor's sticking power depends upon how cleverly the contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous is made, and Gould doesn't reach far enough in either direction to make that contrast. Putting the book down I thought no, that's not what most women I know are, or are thinking about. For that matter, that probably includes Gould, but it's what she has chosen to set in type here. And choice is what the women's movement is all about.