Friday, September 16, 2016

An avalanche of opinions

You would think a cover review of not just one but two infertility-related books in the Sunday New York Times's Books section would be a good thing, right? Who wouldn't want to see their book featured in the NYT?? and at the same time, shed a spotlight in a well-read and respected publication on an often-ignored and misunderstood issue.

It's not a good thing, however, when the reviewer is as seemingly clueless about the subject and lacking in empathy as Rachel Cusk appears to be.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review of Sept. 4 featured Cusk's review of two infertility-related books. The second was a new book by Belle Boggs, "The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood." The bulk of the review, however, focused on "Avalanche: A Love Story" by Australian novelist/filmmaker Julia Leigh. 

I had not yet read Leigh's book when I read Cusk's review, so I was not in a place to comment on its merits or shortcomings, as a work of literature or as a representation of the infertility experience. But Cusk's review nevertheless left me -- an infertile, childless woman reader -- slack-jawed. Gob-smacked, as the Brits sometimes say. I decided that regardless of not having read the book, I needed to write about this, now. (I've since read the book -- I'll be posting about that next week -- and I got sidetracked by life over the past few days -- but I'm still sufficiently hot under the collar about the review that I decided to publish this post now anyway.)

Cusk opens her review with a rambling comparison between her creative writing students -- students wanting to be writers -- and women embarking on IVF. 
Some of them [her writing students] had been longer in pursuit of that goal than others, and for these more thwarted individuals I sometimes felt fear — that they would spend all their money and time on what would in the end prove a fruitless ambition, and more, that they had started to idealize “being a writer,” to detach it from what writing really was or ever could be.

Then I read this:
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t have children” is a statement that crops up frequently in the literature of I.V.F. A definition of subjectivity might be the failure to see what was given, and to understand thereby the meaning of what was not. The wisdom of experience is perhaps a wisdom of givens; but how can a parent — for whom the business of having children represents an accumulation of experience so colossal that it’s almost impossible to imagine what her world would have looked like without it — understand someone locked in the moment where the original impulse to have a child occurred, a moment that to them has become almost irrelevant? All parents know is that in that moment, they knew nothing at all.  [emphasis added]
Ouch. This is the ultimate sort of Smug Mommy remark, the kind of throwaway comment ("Oh, I can't IMAGINE my life without my kids...!")  that cuts infertile women to the quick and still has the power to smart, years after treatment has been abandoned. The condescension practically drips off the page. Poor deluded crazy infertiles, obsessing over something that clearly was not Meant to Be. Thinking they know what parenthood is going to be like, when they clearly understand nothing of the sort.

When conception & pregnancy come easily, I suppose it's easy to dismiss that initial impulse/desire to have a child as "irrelevant." And I am sure all parents, in retrospect, realize how little they knew when they first set out to have a child. As I wrote recently, there's a big difference between thinking you're knowledgeable and prepared and then finding out, in the thick of things, how very little you actually know about any given situation. I was writing about infertility treatment and pregnancy loss, but it's also completely applicable to parenthood. I can understand that parents might find the naivete of prospective parents-to-be amusing.  Most of them, though, have the good grace to keep their mouths shut about it.

Leigh's assumption that she will be able to combine motherhood and a creative life also seems to raise Cusk's hackles: is surprising to hear her dismiss in a couple of lines — replete, what’s more, with clichés — the honorable testimony of female literary history regarding what very much is the rocket science of combining artistic endeavor with family life. Her tone reminds me of the recent blitheness of the Brex­iteers, assuring they would “find a way” to make British independence work, despite the evidence to the contrary supplied by people who knew what they were talking about.
How dare she!! Right?

"Who is to blame?" Cusk concludes (!):
If one were not interested in the question of accountability, it would be simple merely to say that I.V.F. didn’t work for Leigh and her husband. But what is most distressing about “Avalanche” is also what makes it important: It is the work of a palpably weakened author, a testimony of personal suffering whose legitimacy — on this telling — seems to have gone outrageously ­unquestioned. [emphasis added]
Wow. Just... wow.
I was not alone in my reaction to Cusk's review. "What On Earth Was The New York Times Book Review Editor Thinking?" asked fellow childless-not-by-choice blogger Pamela Tsigdinos in Medium: 
...readers and reviewers may agree or disagree on the merits of the book. Does it engage? Illuminate? In my estimation it does both. Those, however, were not the questions answered or explored in The New York Times Book Review. Rather, Ms. Cusk’s review oozed with personal judgment.
Parenting writer Elissa Strauss offered a deft critique of Cusk's review on Slate's Double X blog, calling it "a lesson in how not to write about infertility:"
Cusk’s sideways dismissal of the experience of women going through infertility treatment, the sharpest corner in a largely amorphous piece, is a great illustration of why we need more writing on the subject. The review may not be an endorsement of the books themselves, but it stands as proof as to why they are necessary. Our collective understanding of reproductive challenges is so limited, so lacking in nuance, that even the most perceptive thinkers land in hackneyed, and insensitive, terrain when exploring the subject.... 
Infertility treatment  can be physically, emotionally, financially and, sometimes, ethically trying. It can be hard to know when to start, and even harder to know when to stop. To take something this complex and reduce it to an act of myopia or selfishness is really to miss the point.
(Thank you, Ms Strauss!)  

Interestingly, Cusk's was actually the second review of Belle Boggs' book published by the Times in less than a week. The first, printed a few days earlier, was written by Jennifer Senior, author of "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood," which I reviewed here. Senior's review was much more sympathetic, albeit not entirely positive. She made a few well-considered points about how Boggs' book could have been better -- a lack of diversity, a rote rehash of certain topics. Fair enough. I would have liked to read HER review of Leigh's book.

Why not read the book(s), judge for yourself and let the rest of us know what you think? Pamela is hosting a book tour on Wednesday, Sept. 21st, where different bloggers who have read "Avalanche" will offer up their opinions -- and their questions for the author. I will be one of them :) and I hope you'll consider joining us! It's not a long book, so there is still time to participate. Check out the details on how to participate on Pamela's blog.

Pamela has already written about "Avalanche" for Huffington Post

Mali also reviewed "Avalanche" on her blog earlier this summer.


  1. I was fuming from Rachel Cusk's review. Especially given she's come under heavy fire for her writing. If nothing else, she demonstrates very clearly why we need to talk about infertility. Just as Cusk has defended her own life choices (becoming a young mother, choosing to divorce, being a working mother), so too is there the need of understanding why couples faced with a disease would chose (or not chose) treatment.

    In a weird way, Cusk adds power behind Belle Boggs and Julia Leigh's books. So many people remain willfully ignorant of infertility. Just like we've done with any other disease, it's time to smack some sense into them. Starting with telling them to check their privilege.

    Ms. Cusk: Shame on you. Check your privilege; apologize for you bigoted words.

  2. I haven't read this book, but I'm appalled by the review. Talk about coming off like a jerk. (I'm editing my own language for polite company right now.)

  3. Whoa. I read the review (thanks for linking) and holy hell, did that make me mad. I downloaded Avalanche to my Kindle today, hoping I can finish it in a day or two. But I don't think I have to read Julia Leigh's book to feel the outrage in the way it was reviewed by this Rachel Cusk. I could feel her looking down on me and my ilk from the print, at how misguided I've ever been to look at parenthood as someone who isn't yet a parent. That somehow I don't know what I want because I don't have it yet and may not get the chance? EVERY parent idealizes parenthood before it's a reality, that's not just a luxury of the infertile. I just can't believe that someone could have written something so judgy, so lacking in empathy, so cutting, about an experience that is 1 in 8. ONE IN EIGHT!!! Not a rare few. Argh. I think I may need to go do something to lower my blood pressure.

  4. Could not agree more, Loribeth!!
    Love the 'check your privilege' comment, Cristy!
    p.s. Many thanks for the shout outs and reminder about the blog book tour. Look forward to the participation this week. xo

  5. Agree 100%. I haven't read Avalanche, but I do have Belle Boggs' book. How do these reviews work...did Cusk ask to write the review or was she assigned? So smug and self-important.