The XX Factor

Julie Powell: Too Bad, Critics, I’m Writing About My Sex Life

The Cleaving reviews are rolling in now-I imagine they’ve in fact peaked and will begin to fall off here in a bit. There have been some raves, and some respectful mixed pieces. And then there have been the pans. Which is where it all gets … interesting.

Reading bad reviews of your own work-and I assure you there have been more than a couple in my case-is not the most fun way ever to spend one’s time. I tend to do it by staring at my laptop with my fingers in a lattice across my face, horror-movie style, as if psychic blows could be evaded by squealing and squeezing my eyes shut. But I knew what I was getting myself into with this (well, sort of), and I’m a big girl. I can handle it. Besides, bad reviews can be enlightening, and not just because I’m a welcoming sea-sponge for constructive criticism. Somehow, it seems to me, there’s something particularly eye-opening about the pans for Cleaving , some way in which writing about the book seems to reveal as much or more about the reviewer as about the book being reviewed.

Take, for instance, Peter Gianotti’s piece for Newsday . Never could I have imagined when Julie & Julia was released back in 2005 that such a viciously negative review would make me giggle rather than cringe. In an oddly personal attack that opens with the condescension that most male critics seem to consider de rigueur when discussing “chick-lit” writers and then moves into a tone of righteous ire, Mr. Gianotti uses words such as “unhinged” to describe me, and is equally put off by the depictions of butchery (“an offal experience”) and those of sex, “rough and otherwise.” Peter clearly has very little regard for my prose, and that, of course, is the sort of thing it is the reviewer’s job to point out. (Though I would perhaps quibble with the literary taste of anyone who throws the “awful/offal” pun around as painfully as he does.) But he also seems to have taken violent offense at me. Which pleases me immensely, I was surprised to discover. Who knew? I wound up posting the review on my Facebook page as one of my favorites. I found that, as a writer, I was thrilled that I’d hit a nerve, and I called that one a win.

Several friends, snarkier than I, made some emasculating remarks about what in Mr. Gianotti’s past had caused this particular book about meat and adultery to get him so riled up. I’ll not speculate as to that, myself. But it is interesting to contemplate, in going over these reviews, what exactly it is that rubs some people the wrong way. There are a few different things, I think, and in the next few days I’ll try to address several of them, but I think a major issue is the TMI Problem. Apparently, I have tendency to overshare. Which seems to me, at first glance, a rather odd thing to be rubbed wrong by when reading a memoir. I mean, do you want to read a memoir by a person who under shares? I’ve been a professional oversharer for seven years now, so the label’s not news to me. I guess what is news is how surprising it is to everyone else.

Some have seemed to get enraged by my penchant for giving too much information; in others, I seem to awake a sort of passive-aggressive maternalism. One of the most hilarious examples of this perspective came from Addie Broyles of my hometown paper, the Austin-American Statesman . I’m on good terms with Ms. Broyles, or at least I was the last time I checked. But it’s fair to say she’s not a huge fan of the TMI either. “There’s something to be said about modesty when it comes to writing about extramarital sex, the painful details of which I’m too embarrassed for her to share, just in case her family or friends are reading this.” Now, in full disclosure, Addie has met my mother, and so I can understand her worry that any incendiary information might, printed in this local newspaper, fall into sensitive hands. What I really love, though, is the phrase, “I’m too embarrassed for her … .” As if I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe or spinach in my teeth; as if, in other words, I wasn’t actually aware I’d written a book that contains explicit sex and other personal revelations. As if I needed to be protected from that information.

Now, of course I understand that we say this all the time. “I was embarrassed for her; she was acting like such a jack-ass.” But how can we be embarrassed for someone who isn’t herself embarrassed by her actions? I can empathize with someone who is keenly feeling humiliation. But if a woman, say, blithely walks down a red carpet in a dress shaped like a swan-to choose an example that betrays my age-any discomfort I might feel is not something I’m feeling on her behalf. It’s something her appearance is eliciting in me. Something about me.

Which brings me to a third response to TMI, one that writers and bloggers who use their personal lives as subject matter will recognize as more flattering, but also occasionally more unnerving: overidentification.

I’ve by now spoken to quite a few people about their reactions to Cleaving , in both a professional and a personal capacity. And among a small minority of them I have noticed a certain energy cropping up, a … vibe, I guess you’d call it. Mostly, though not entirely, it’s been men I’ve gotten this vibe from, for whatever reason-with Julie & Julia , it tended to come from women. None of these people have been crazy; the conversations have all been above-board and beyond reproach. But there creeps in an intensity of focus, a buzz of empathy, one might say intimacy. Aroused by what they’ve read about in my book. About what I’ve “confessed.” Though confession implies a singular event-a priest, a screen, a booth, a whisper. Not a book being distributed around the country. And it makes me wonder. What if the next person who identifies is actually crazy? This is where stalkers are born. And I’ll have brought it on myself. I have shared too much information, perhaps. Not everything I write, even what I write about me, has to have as its goal to crack myself open like a lobster and expose my quivering insides. I can observe, report, keep a distance. Protect myself from unwanted intimacy, and others from being forced to deeply into my experience. Like so:

I’m propped up in bed in my room at the Savoy Hotel in Tulsa. In the room there is a dishwasher (though no dishes), a painting of a Gibson girl with a pair of salukis, a Parcheesi game, and a VHS tape of the original Little Shop of Horrors . There is no mini-bar, nor a liquor store within a couple of miles-I’ve checked. The pillows are goose down and the quills of the feathers stick out and poke into me. I’m drinking some Folger’s coffee, and am feeling a bit off because I got my period for the first time in three months while I was on the plane from Houston and it’s like I’m having some kind of internal hemorrhage-oops. That one got away from me …

TMI Girl strikes again.

Photograph of couple in bed by Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images. Drawing of butcher knives courtesy of Julie Powell.