Culture Diary: Kate Harding Revisits Flannery O’Connor, Loves Adele, Sees Alan Cumming Live

Starting this week, progressive leaders from all parts of the movement, from the blogosphere to the Hill, take a break out of their schedules to tell us what they’re watching, reading, and listening to. Suggestions or requests? Email AlyssaObserves (at) gmail (dot) com.

Up this week, Kate Harding: Co-author of Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere, and the upcoming Book of Jezebel; founder of the influential body acceptance blog Shapely Prose; and teacher of both fiction and non-fiction writing classes, Kate is one of the sharpest, funniest voices in the feminist blogosphere. She chronicles a week of her cultural consumption, from the New York Review of Books to In Plain Sight.

Monday, May 23

I wake up and start getting ready right after my husband, Al, does, and when I get into the bathroom, Alison Krause and Gillian Welch’s version of “I’ll Fly Away” is playing on his iPad. Al almost always has music on in the background; I almost never do, except in the car. In my teens and early twenties, I couldn’t have imagined a time when I wouldn’t care deeply about current music, but my interest in it wore off around the same time I started feeling too old to really enjoy myself at shows—which, sadly, was when I was about 25.

After making coffee, I go to my computer and immediately check Twitter, which is basically my favorite news source at this point. I follow a ton of other feminists, progressives, and writers, so my feed is always full of links to things I’ll find fascinating or funny or lovely or infuriating. For instance, this post by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, which Claire Mysko (@ClaireMysko) linked to this morning, is so right on, it hurts a little. I love reading and writing fiction more than all but a very few things in this world, yet I’ve come to the point where I have to trick myself into devoting uninterrupted time to either.

At the end of the day, I drop Al off at the train station for a business trip that will last all week, then meet up with Wendy McClure, M. Molly Backes, Claire Zulkey and Kat Falls for drinks at a bar near Story Studio Chicago, where I think we’ve all taught at some point. Claire, Kat and Molly all write young adult fiction, and Wendy is about to start working on a YA imprint at the children’s publisher she works for, so I spend 3/4 of a glass of sauvignon blanc quietly convincing myself I should try writing novels for the teen girl market—as if that would be as simple and straightforward as buying a cute pair of shoes several of my friends happen to own. (I was a teen girl! I know how to make sentences! What could possibly go wrong?)

Eventually, I remember that I have not read a single young adult book in the last twenty years that wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins or Claire Zulkey (I met Kat tonight, and Molly’s first novel won’t be out until 2012), so I’m just being an asshole. I head home early, since I’ll need to be back out the door by 5:30 AM at the absolute latest.

Tuesday, May 24

I get out the door a little after 6 AM Miraculously, I make my 7:30 flight to New York—where I am going to visit an old friend and her 3-week-old baby for the day—but there’s no time to settle in at the gate and watch either of the TV shows (In Plain Sight and The Killing) I’ve loaded up on my iPad for the journey, or start Anna North’s new novel, America Pacifica, which was my most recent Kindle purchase. But hey, I’ll have two blissfully internet-free hours on the plane to absorb some culture (Laura Miller’s review of the first-gen iPad really nails why I love mine), as soon as they let us turn our electronic devices back on.

I close my eyes for as long as it takes us to climb to 10,000 feet. I wake up when we land in New York.

The next several hours are given over to chatting and baby snorgling. I make it back to the airport for my 9 p.m. flight home with far more time to spare, so I check Twitter and at least read a couple of things about pop culture. Specifically, Tim Parks on the Dragon Tattoo series in the New York Review of Books (via Kate Sutherland, @katesbookblog) and Maura Johnston on Adele in The Village Voice (via herself, probably, or maybe Megan Carpentier?).

Adele is one of the very few current musicians I both know of and listen to on purpose, which basically proves Johnston’s point, that the idea of her as this bona fide artiste who’s managed to remain unsullied by commercial success “is—how to put it kindly—horseshit.” If I’ve heard of you, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve sold out. Still, how amazing is that kid’s voice?

I manage one episode of In Plain Sight before falling asleep on the plane. When I discovered this show about two years ago, I immediately binged on every episode that was available up to that point. I loved Mary Shannon—the perpetually cranky, acid-tongued protagonist—so much, I was beside myself. She’s rude to her family! She’s sarcastic to her superiors at work! She’s impatient all the time! She is basically me with a badge and much longer legs, in other words, and seeing a character like that on television felt like a revolution.

So naturally, a bunch of behind-the-scenes shit changed, and Mary has not only become unlikeably nasty this season (before she was sharp and witty; now she’s often just mean) but seems to be on a path toward redemption via the feminizing magic of her little sister’s upcoming wedding. Vom.

Wednesday, May 25

It was such a stormy morning, even the dog didn’t want to get up and go outside at first, so I stayed in bed and fired up the Storyville app on my iPad. For $4.99, you get six months’ worth of short stories, delivered weekly to the reading device of your choice, which is pretty much the best thing ever. So far, Tiphanie Yanique’s “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” and Emma Straub’s “A Map of Modern Palm Springs” have been my favorites. This morning brings a new one by Paula Fox.

Can we take a minute to talk about the long-form—or short-form, where fiction’s concerned—renaissance happening now, thanks to e-readers and tablets and smartphones? Actually, I don’t even have that much to say about it, except: LOVE. And I’m just so excited to see forms of writing that have long been declared dying or dead experiencing a resurgence, maybe even finding a new audience, thanks to technology that was supposed to kill everything literary and smart and good and holy, blah blah blah. Suck it, e-book haters.

I spend most of the day writing, then teach a fiction class at Story Studio, after which I only want to sit in front of the TV. We don’t have cable anymore, but we have a Roku box and an Apple TV, and we probably watch more stuff now (via Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and occasionally Hulu Plus, although that’s the last resort) than we used to—we’re just much more deliberate about it. I know it’s been said before, but this and future generations of kids are going to think the way I watched TV growing up — making sure I was home at the time my favorite shows were on, sitting through endless commercials, watching mediocre shows because I couldn’t easily find something better (except for books, which I did often turn to)—sounds pathetically primitive. It already does to me.

Anyway, tonight I get caught up on The Killing, which I recently started watching after enough people recommended it—where else?—on Twitter.

Thursday, May 26

In the morning, I spend a little time with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, which I first read in 2004 or so, while doing my MFA in fiction. During my class last night, I was feeling the need to re-familiarize myself with craft books that have influenced me, because I have a bad habit of quoting famous writers to my students, but not being able to recall which ones I’m quoting. Here’s a gem from O’Connor: “I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality, and it’s very shocking to the system.”

These Bridesmaids outtakes at the Atlantic Wire made me die five times, as did the movie. I know everybody’s all about the backlash now, but screw that. I loved it. I honestly didn’t dare hope it would be half as good as it was, and I was crying at the end partly because I’m a sap, and partly because someone finally, finally made a movie about women who seem like they belong on the same planet as me, and it really did live up to the hype. More Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in everything ever, please and thank you.

I’ve run out of new episodes of The Killing, so tonight the dog and I watched the latest Doctor Who, which was kinda meh. Yucky monsters with excessively complicated backstories are my least favorite part of the show, which I like pretty well but never would have watched it before meeting my sci fi nerd husband. Put it this way: I described this episode to Al as “like Cylons in a medieval monastery or something.” He asked if I meant Cybermen, because he assumed I was thinking of old-school robotic-looking Cylons from the first Battlestar Galactica, because that is the sort of reference point that leaps to his mind. Me: “No, I mean there were evil clones who woke up in bathtubs.” That’s as deeply as I get into sci-fi shows. But I do like the characters, and I love the one hokey episode a year where they go back in time and hang out with a famous author.

Friday, May 27

Via Heather Havrilesky (@hhavrilesky), I read this terrific Adam Sternbergh piece in the NYT Magazine, “The Hangover’ and the Age of the Jokeless Comedy,” which articulates many things I have long wished I could, and is also substantially funnier than pretty much any recent mainstream comedy other than Bridesmaids. Short version: “Hollywood has once again locked the door and pulled the shades, so we’re right back to that same sense of comedic claustrophobia, except now we’re trapped in there with Russell Brand.”

I also loved this Kate Christensen essay in Elle (via @JamiAttenberg) about writing male characters in order to, among other things, “vent [her] rage and spleen and thwarted ambition in a way that’s generally considered unseemly for women.”

Al got home tonight, and we went out to our corner bar, where we ignored various sports on the TVs and played a few of our jukebox standbys, which include Nirvana, Bill Withers, Gorillaz, Daft Punk, Sly and the Family Stone, Dolly Parton, and the Beastie Boys. That’s by far our most common weekend cultural activity, although tomorrow night, we’re going to see Alan Cumming’s one-man show, “I Bought a Blue Car Today”. (Note: I’ve liked Cumming for years, but holy crap, I never would have thought to put him in the Rahm role on The Good Wife—my other favorite lady-protagonist show of the moment—and I want to make out with whoever did. That was genius casting.)

I often wish I took more advantage of the theatre and live music options in Chicago, but you know, I often wish a lot of things. When I heard about this show (via The Chicago Reader on Twitter, @Chicago_Reader), which is only here for one night, I clicked over and bought tickets before I could get distracted. I should probably make a point of doing that more.

If I’ve learned anything from keeping this diary, it’s that I need to make a conscious decision to step away from the internet for a few hours a day if I want to absorb or participate in cultural offerings beyond blog posts and YouTube videos. But having said that, I love that Twitter leads me to so many interesting things I might not have found myself, and new stories appear once a week on my iPad, and I can buy genuinely good TV shows a la carte online instead of paying for channels full of crap to get the one program I like.

So yes, as every writer over the age of about 26 has noted publicly, the internet can be a major time suck that keeps you from normal human interaction and the creation or appreciation of art—but it can also expand your social circles and substantially increase your exposure to cool shit. As with just about everything else, the trick is finding a healthy balance. I’ll let you know if I ever do.