Michelle Orange vs. the Philosopher Kings

What makes a cultural essay “great”?

Illustration by Danny Gregory

A great cultural critic is a bit like a philosopher king. By reading him, we (the literate) give him dominion willingly, even gladly, over our thoughts. We read him because we want a leader, because the world is too big, the thoughts too many. He is superior in wisdom, but also subject to his own laws (the critic of language must, himself, use language well). He is precise (like James Wood), he is sensitive (like John Jeremiah Sullivan), he is righteous (like Ta-Nehisi Coates), he was blessed with ecstatic genius (like David Foster Wallace). He guides us with seeming benevolence, and we follow him, wherever in his mind he leads us.

That figure—that leader, that philosopher king—is also a particularly male one. I say this to the extent that I can (being female myself) without judgment of any sort: value or political or moral or rhetorical, or anything. There is not a practical circumstance in which this observation could matter, except to say that there are fewer women writing cultural criticism than men, and have been for a long time.

Michelle Orange’s new essay collection, This is Running for Your Life, brings that fact (and it is a fact) into the starkest light. But the implications of making that observation and stating that fact are murky. What do I mean by that, really? Am I saying that women have been underrepresented as cultural critics? And if I am saying that, whose fault is it? The editors’? The world’s? What do men do that women do differently, or better, or worse, or can we even say? Orange is a woman, and an accomplished—at times, wondrous—writer, but by no means a household name. And so I ask, why?

Orange‘s essays unspool more than they develop. Her most ambitious pieces—on fantasy and the female sex symbol; on fame and mortality; on photography and memory—rush past big ideas, then turn around and point out the highlights. In an essay on Beirut, Orange wanders the city—“a peanut-butter-colored, art deco suburb built up around crumbling mosques and churches”—directionless. She sees a mosque, which “appears blown from blue and gold glass, as though it were set down among a ragged sandbox city and could as easily topple or be taken away.” She goes to the Virgin Megastore (“found on all tourist maps of Beirut”), “because it was adjacent to Martyrs’ Square, the memorial I had hopelessly been stalking, fended off by an intimidating show of barricades and wire.” The city is a large thing, you see, and Orange is small. She can only wander and hope that she bumps into something meaningful.

This brought something back to mind: I was unemployed for a period of time last year, just a couple of years out of college, and during that time I tried supporting myself as a freelance writer. I found myself feeling my way around in a similar manner—not in Beirut; in Brooklyn, but no less small- and lost-feeling. I’ve always felt that the arts and culture were in dialogue with one another, and that that dialogue is as serious and meaningful a thing as you could write about, but how to translate that feeling into a career I had no idea.

I sought out the advice of other, successful women. The best way to get assignments, I heard, was to pitch stories on war, politics, the economy. Those are the kind of stories that magazines need women to write; you’ll have less competition among other women, and you’re more likely to land on the cover. Avoid stories on food, family, or fashion: There’s too much competition and too little seriousness there. I know nothing about war, politics, or the economy. I know a few things about fashion, a fair amount about food, and nothing about family except what being a daughter has taught me. Why, I wondered, was family not just as important as war? As respectable? As serious? As illuminating about our culture? I found a job before I could find the answers.

My favorite of Orange’s essays is about family. In “One Senior Please,” Orange visits her grandmother, Rita, at a nursing home in Nova Scotia. Rita struggled with the duties of being wife and mother, battled crippling depression, and reinvented herself as a world traveler following her husband’s death. As a child, Rita maintained a distant relationship with Orange, but they grew closer in Orange’s adulthood. The essay is framed by thoughts on air travel and its relation to mortality; the senior care system; death, life, and their overlap. In the course of the visit, Orange promises Rita that she will try to “tell her story,” and sometime after that—while in the act of writing this essay, Orange tells us—she learns that Rita has died. She stares at her work. “Had I lied to her when I said I would tell her story? Does even trying amount to a sort of lie? Perhaps all I can offer is the setting down of a space, one whose highest aim is that you might roam, however elusively, within its borders.”

One way to describe Orange’s book is to say that it gives you a sense of the vastness of the modern world; another is to say that it reflects her confusion about it. Both are fair. Orange seems to be without ego in her writing, and terrifically vulnerable. (From the Beirut essay: ” ‘Is no one waiting for you?’ I told him no, or rather yes …  It’s not Beirut’s fault, I wanted to add. No one is waiting for me in general.”) She writes to understand the world. In 2010, Orange wrote a review of the forgettable Justin Long-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Going the Distance for Movieline that included the following dig at Long: “How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight is a mystery … we are increasingly asked to accept onscreen.” Long brought the review up on a talk show, and a month later, Orange wrote a nervous, 3,000-word piece for the Rumpus on writing negative criticism and the costs of the critical lifestyle that was much better than the review itself. Orange can be better at observing her own thoughts than she is at observing the world.

Author Michelle Orange.
Author Michelle Orange.

Courtesy of Trevor Ross

Certainty is exhausting. Orange’s abashment is refreshing. Sometimes while reading, I have visions of certain writers flexing their biceps at their desks; sometimes I hear the sound of chests bumping in midair. When they get lost in Beirut, it is the crux of their experience, and they fucking tell that story, like it’s just that easy. But I like that Michelle Orange questions herself. I like that the things she experiences aren’t inevitable. The unspooling of Orange’s thoughts is what I loved most about reading This Is Running for Your Life, even if it did made her writing less muscular. A (female) friend of mine who’d also read the book said that it was like “listening to a good friend tell a story.”

But the philosopher king is not our friend, he’s our leader. The world he shows us is the world that is. But why is a cultural critic like a philosopher king? Why is she not like a docent in the world of thought? Why war, politics, and the economy? Why not grandmothers, movie stars, and boyfriends? Family, fame, and love? These questions transcend Michelle Orange, whose introspection is more powerful than her observation in the end. Although I wonder what kind of book she might have written if we all valued our private selves as highly as our public selves. But now my thoughts are getting away from me. Someone, lead me back.

This is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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