Conversations

Emily Ogden and Dana Spiotta

Reckoning with middle age and complicity

Emily Ogden
and
Dana Spiotta

What does resistance look like for the artist in middle age? When the artist is also a parent, a teacher, a homeowner, a manager, and deep in the system—indeed, keeping the whole system running? Writers Dana Spiotta and Emily Ogden address this question and other issues of midlife—motherhood, menopause, abjection—in their conversation for The Yale Review, conducted over email in the late spring.

Middle age is rich territory for both writers, who delve into it in their recent books. In Spiotta’s fifth novel, Wayward, a menopausal white woman, shaken by the 2016 election, leaves her husband and teenage daughter to find a new way to live outside the comforts of

suburbia. But one of the hard realities of the seemingly unraveling world is her own unshakable entanglement. In her essay collec­tion On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays, Ogden also takes on the settled questions of midlife and seeks to unsettle them. Imparting lessons from experience with a healthy skepticism, her essays affirm resistance to authority—even and especially one’s own—as a lifelong project. The middle is the most substantial part.

the editors


emily ogden Last time we corresponded, you said something that really stuck with me. It was about fiction’s possibilities for writ­ing about privilege and complicity, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation. You said that in fiction, one can present complexity without having to resolve or reduce it—fiction can “twist, revise, and twist again,” you said. I’ve thought about that so often, whenever I’m writing an essay and bridling against what feels like the genre’s demand that its speaker be one person and not several—maybe even a person with a definite opinion. Becca Rothfeld has written critically about “sanctimony literature,” novels that take pains to let us know they’re on the right side polit­ically. How do we go about writing, instead, complicity literature?

dana spiotta It’s definitely a challenge that motivates me. We are bombarded by reductions and certainties rendered in received, inert language. Countering and undercutting those is part of a pro­cess, for me, of identifying questions or tensions I want to engage through fiction. And then, in the writing (in the language, in the particularity of characters, in the structural patterning), I’m often discovering different, deeper questions. Don’t you find that the closer you look and the longer you look, the more paradoxes you discover?

It reminds me of a Joy Williams quote: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” In that earlier correspondence of ours, you wrote that it is difficult to avoid “self-expiation, piety, obliviousness.” I want to pin that to my bulletin board. Art shouldn’t be used to exonerate yourself.

eo I want to pin that to my bulletin board.

In your newest novel, Wayward, the main character, Sam, does something those around her are inclined to condemn: she abruptly walks away from her husband, her daughter, and her middle-class domestic life. But she also doesn’t go far. She stays in her home city, Syracuse, and impulsively purchases a dilapidated house. You tend to be interested in flights inward, not outward, to freedom—for example, your novel Stone Arabia is partly about the secret free­doms of garage bands in suburbia. Is there something we see more accurately when we attend to these contained acts of rebellion? These characters who are in, but not of, middle-class American life?

ds I like that framing, “in, but not of.” I wanted Sam’s leaving to be emphatic, but I also wanted there to be the opportunity for backsliding, and for the painful awareness of her own backslid­ing/hypocrisy. There is no such thing as a clean break. One is very invested in the self and the status quo by middle age.

eo Were you thinking about models of midlife crisis as you wrote? I was reminded of the film Wanda, Barbara Loden’s rediscovered classic, in which a woman gives up custody of her children, loses her job, and ends up on the road with a second-rate bank robber. Stories of female bildung as female dismantling.

ds Right, the inciting refusal of Wanda but older. Interesting how a woman leaving still feels so transgressive. Sometimes when I begin a novel, I think more about what I want to avoid than what I want to achieve. I wanted to work against the clichés of a woman having a midlife crisis. I didn’t want her to have an affair. I didn’t want her to mourn her lost beauty. I wanted the confrontation with aging to be a mortal, moral one. Part of that was being ruthless about aging. I deliberately set out to write about the menopausal body. I also did not want the book to be marriage-centered. I took pains to make the marriage not terrible. I didn’t want Sam to be blameless. It seemed important that she be reckless, perverse.

One model I had in mind was Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, in which the aging protagonist spends a sum­mer away from her not-unhappy marriage. It does involve a very strange affair of sorts, but I thought of it because it places her in a distinct post-’60s social and political context. It tries to interrogate her privilege, which is also something I wanted in Wayward. So that began as a subtraction—or like you said, a dismantling. My character’s sense of self is in flux, and she wants to know who she is if she subtracts her identifiers: her money, her marriage, even her motherhood, her daughterhood, her geography.

I was playing with this notion of invisibility, which you hear aging women discuss. They gradually become invisible, not just to men but to everyone.

Of course, real subtraction is difficult. She still sleeps with her husband. She still takes money from him. She still kind of stalks her daughter, and she buys an expensive mattress for her little aus­tere nun’s bed. It is hard to extract one’s self from one’s context—a version of this occurs more seriously in the book in the separate storyline of Clara Loomis, a fictional early feminist who runs from the constraints of Victorian-era Syracuse to what she perceives is a place of alternative liberation. It gets to the American folly that one can reinvent oneself.

In your book of essays, On Not Knowing, you write about how we are shaped by the culture into which we are born, the “cultural placenta” and the “structuring matrix.” Would you argue that one can’t escape, but one can be conscious of, this shaping force? Not just the context of culture and history, but also the family and the body. Do the body’s boundaries (and the porousness of those boundaries) profoundly shape an experience of self?

eo I have twins, as you know, whose birth and nursing I talk about in the book; I also had a miscarriage when they were one. All of that—birth, lactation, miscarriage, early childcare—happened in the first two years of Trump’s presidency. And so my body’s erod­ing boundaries, the sense of the country’s erosion—those definitely felt like shaping forces I couldn’t escape. I also felt only intermit­tently or partially able to be conscious of the latter. It’s a struggle to get your situation into view, politically speaking, while also waking up to pump every two hours around the clock, but that was a strug­gle I wanted to get onto the page.

ds In writing about a menopausal body in Wayward, one thing that struck me is that when the corporeal asserts itself—as it does for some people in menopause with hot flashes, insomnia, and hor­monal fugues—one is forced to confront mortality. No matter how fit you are or how you look, you are reminded that your life is finite and going in one direction. Only now do I see that this is weirdly analogous to the election of 2016: what was and should be obvi­ous about the country (and the world) became undeniable. The vanity gets ruptured. Trump’s election was like a giant horrible hot flash, maybe.

eo It’s interesting how various forms of complicity are figured through the reproductive body. In my book I write about The Matrix, the image in the movie of the human farm, in which uncon­scious humans are being amniotically supported each in their own transparent pod, and at the same time they’re being “milked” as an energy source. Meanwhile, the world as we know it is an induced hallucination used to pacify them. It’s the filmmakers’ nightmare vision of our enmeshment in power—and, essentially, just a rep­resentation of pre-and postpartum infant care. I was much more able to see this as horror before I gave birth, or for that matter, before I was enmeshed in a large institution, as a tenured professor. Now it’s hard to clutch my pearls about being “hooked up” to a sys­tem of nourishment or production. “Something / cunty, something used,” is one definition for the mother that Brenda Shaughnessy tries out, in her poem “Liquid Flesh.” There may be misogyny hid­ing somewhere in the dream of non-complicity.

In Wayward, when Sam “escapes” her context, still she is “some­thing used”; she has responsibilities to her daughter, her elderly mother. It seems women are always deeply implicated in our soci­ety, indispensable to the care work that supports it—even as they’re sidelined, especially in midlife, in menopause.

ds I was playing with this notion of invisibility, which you hear aging women discuss. They gradually become invisible, not just to men but to everyone. It is a loss of power, no longer being the cen­ter of attention—but was that attention ever good for them, really?

eo And maybe being outside the center allows for great perspective. Abjection is clarity.

ds Yes! I often thought about abjection when I was writing. There’s one character who wants to put the bodily details of her life in everyone’s face; she sees in that the potential for liberation.

I wonder about the structure of your book, its origins, with the chapter titles that all start with “How to.” The headings are inviting in the way of a self-help book, promising to tell you secrets. But then the book’s title, On Not Knowing, inverts that. It seems that the essays often begin with something from your own experience you want to investigate, and then things shift, evolve, recur, until you attain a clarity, but one that still feels volatile to me—mysteri­ous and honest and beyond the limits of the self.

I guess this takes us back to where we started this conversa­tion: the shared ambition of building on questions to arrive at a deeper place of not knowing. How did you find the form the book would take?

eo The book started out as a set of essays about modes of unknow­ing: surprise, irony, innocence. But early readers of those essays, especially Alan Thomas, my editor at University of Chicago Press, made it clear to me that there was a bit of a performative contra­diction, arising from my scholarly stance of impartiality: I was adopting an attitude of knowingness about these states of not-knowing. The unconscious doesn’t really have a place in scholarly prose, but it needed a place in this book. It arises through figura­tive language, through motifs that thread the essays together on a level other than argument. Minnows come up a lot; also whales, milk, animal husbandry, birds taking flight.

I never wanted my own childhood to make an appear­ance, because I didn’t want any moment where the narrative voice was innocent.

ds There’s a way in which the ordering of the essays creates its own kind of argument. We get stories of your sons throughout, for example, but not their father. So the narrative of your experiences with sex and men is often traumatic until late in the book, when we get to the essay about John the Revelator and also the twins’ father, John. It is a beautiful, moving piece—and maybe it lands so well because of its late placement.

eo In an early version of the table of contents, the essay about John came first, because its main question is also the book’s main ques­tion: how do you avoid routinizing your desires, thus maintaining space for the unknown? But I didn’t want this problem to seem like one that was narrowly a shortcoming of monogamy. And so I wanted the essay about marriage to follow other essays about sex. One-night stands can be a routine, just as marriage can. The issue isn’t that we fall into routines but that we might leap into them; a deadening routine might be a temptation.

The psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle referred to “the risk of ‘not yet dying.’” It’s risky, and difficult, to stay alive to the sur­prises that genuine otherness may present, because the surprise could be a bad one. I wanted the essay to say not simply, “at middle age we have to figure out how to get out of a rut,” but something more like, “middle age is just the most obvious, the paradigmatic instance of our lifelong attraction to ruts.” So it had to follow other stories of routinization in youth and turmoil.

ds That makes sense. Which also gives the book a sort of life-cycle arc.

eo Exactly. Though not necessarily an autobiographical arc. The essays having to do with childhood, for example, are about my children, are from the perspective of being exhausted and frus­trated by—but also passionately interested in—the weirdness of infant care. I never wanted my own childhood to make an appear­ance, because I didn’t want any moment where the narrative voice was innocent. I wanted that more complicated, more complicit not-knowing of new motherhood.

Maybe that takes us back to the idea of not using art to exoner­ate yourself. Of wanting, instead, art of self-implication.

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DS I would say that self-implication is always the task for me. Sam is, in many ways, not me, but a lot of the satire in Wayward is directed at my own demographic. Punch up instead of punch down, sure, but punch self first. There is a moment early in the novel in which Sam is at a “resistance” meeting in which Trump’s win is blamed on older white women. And Sam admits that the state of the world is in fact “on them” precisely because they have been alive long enough that they have failed to do enough, given their privileged position. She has, as she is well aware, very comfortably inhabited this compromised world. And in many respects the world is worse than it was when she inherited it. So she feels responsible. At the same time, she also reads into the election the particular contempt the culture holds for older women (specifically the body realities of older women) and the odd experience of feeling that contempt herself because of her own internalized misogyny.

EO I think this may be one reason I was drawn to write about sex and birth. It was part of the process of situating the voice of the essays in a limited persona, rather than in a neutral voice. In the process of writing, I think I realized as a practical matter something I had known as a theoretical matter for a long time: that the neutral voice was not a voice that had had bad sex, or had given birth. So to write somewhat graphically about these things is to begin to abject oneself, to begin to disqualify oneself for certain kinds of authority.

DS You describe the problem of white womanhood in your essay on Blossom Dearie, the white jazz singer of the ’50s. You quote James Baldwin (“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience”), which reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s advice that the writer write “truthfully what he sees from where he is” via “concrete observable reality.” Which, as you say, is “a fearful piece of news for a white American.” So where does that lead a white woman writer? It leads to the subject of complicity. (And the case of O’Connor herself, who, despite her genius, was unable to over­come her own racist attitudes.) Blossom Dearie has one approach, but how do you write in good faith about the complexity of com­plicity, without, as you say, “petitioning for forgiveness”?

EO I think of that process of subtraction that you described at the beginning of our conversation. In my case, rather than avoiding certain familiar novelistic plots, I wanted to avoid the memoiris­tic plots of self-exculpation. These are many and various and they tend to sneak up on one. Anything that struck me on rereading as an attempt at exculpation through self-awareness, I cut.

I remember being sixteen. It’s a danger­ous time, because your mind is as acute as it will ever be, but you don’t know what experience teaches you.

ds Right. For me, the narcissism of Sam’s self-implication was also a central tension. She is highly self-centered, self-reflexive, particularly at the start of the novel. The apotheosis of this is the scene of her doing unfunny standup, in which she confesses her self-loathing. But it doesn’t go the way she imagined it might. The drama of fiction often comes from unintended consequences. Good intentions, good faith, but so what? And her engagement with the trauma of the world beyond her own concerns is ineffec­tual. The best she can muster is to bear witness. As I followed her, I discovered the thing the novel ends with: her acceptance of the world without her and her glimpse of the time between now and then. So the question becomes: you are not the center of every­thing, and now what? The subsuming of herself and her narrow concerns into some unknown (unknowing, as you say) place leads to more questions.

eo You’ve written beautifully about motherhood in fiction and in nonfiction. I wonder how motherhood connects to narcissism, and also to imagining the world without us.

ds Sam’s attachment to her teenaged daughter, Ally, and to her own mother is partially the thing that gives her life meaning, but also the thing that makes her unable to see beyond her own narrow interests. I guess I’m curious about the blinders of fierce affection. And how the cult of motherhood, the narrowness of family, can become another capitalist trap. In functional terms, in the novel, Ally needs to be her own person, find her own way. This is banal, but the hardest thing about parenthood for me is letting my child make her own mistakes when I can clearly see them happening. Our children are not our corrections, a better version of us. But when they are little, there is such intense intimacy, and then one has to let go. Motherhood is difficult.

eo It’s impossible.

How has it changed your political outlook to have a grown daughter? I ask because I’m trying to get at something unique about Wayward’s perspective, the way Ally is used as a secondary perspectival character, with Sam and Ally representing the political judgments of each generation on the other. Ally’s generation, for example, thinks Sam’s is racist; Sam’s generation thinks Ally’s is naive about the transactional nature of sex. Yet Sam alone seems to understand the force of both viewpoints, as if mothers take daugh­ters’ criticisms to heart, whereas daughters dismiss mothers as out of touch.

ds When I started the book, I only had Sam’s point of view, but I found it a bit oppressive. When I added Ally’s voice, the book opened up. It became a way to critique Sam, to see how she is judged by a precocious child. Partly this was inspired by my daugh­ter’s very accurate ability to pinpoint my own compromises and contradictions.

But here is the thing: I remember being sixteen. It’s a danger­ous time, because your mind is as acute as it will ever be, but you don’t know what experience teaches you. You also don’t know that to be middle-aged is to still be that sixteen-year-old. She is still inside you, with all her righteousness and idealism, and so to be middle-aged and to be a parent is, of course, humbling. You see how those younger ideals played out over a life.

eo I’m struck sometimes by how external the transition to middle age is. I’m not really any more or less involved in the hierarchies of the university or the family now than I have ever been, although I’m higher up in them. I still feel like the same person I was twenty years ago. But because I’m a professor and not a student, a mother and not a child, I am the legitimate target of complaint. Not because my generation hasn’t changed anything, even if that’s true—personal responsibility is beside the point. The point is that now you occupy the position of authority through which, alone, people can confront power. “If man will strike, strike through the mask,” as Ahab says in Moby-Dick. Middle age to me is like, you’re Ishmael, you’ve always been Ishmael, but now someone has inex­plicably given you Ahab’s job.

ds Yes, exactly, having a job as a tenured professor is in many ways great for a writer but also makes one a cog in an institutional sys­tem. It becomes much harder to retain the vanity of seeing yourself as a resister, and I think grappling with that in your creative work is essential but not sufficient. Another humbling aspect of aging is the horror of knowing that, in significant ways, you are in charge— you’re the captain, as you say—and realizing that it doesn’t feel empowering at all.

Emily Ogden is an English professor and the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism and On Not Knowing. @ENOgden
Dana Spiotta is the author of five novels, most recently Wayward.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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