CHRISTIAN OTH FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The author speaks with Jessica Gross about her favorite definition of feminism, ‘‘Sweet Valley High’’ and the fetishization of bad writing.
Toward the end of your new essay collection, “Bad Feminist,” you cite your favorite definition of feminists: “women who don’t want to be treated like [expletive].” Is your definition still so succinct? At its basis, I just don’t believe that women should be treated like [expletive] for being women. But as you begin to expand the definition, it’s that women deserve to have full and satisfying lives in the same way that men do. I’m very committed to making sure that we do get there somehow.
To me, the book seemed at least as much about the “bad” half of the title as the “feminist” part. You embrace your flaws and the way they influence your feminism. I began calling myself “bad feminist” sort of tongue in cheek. But eventually it was just that I wanted to own feminism and acknowledge that I’m inconsistent and human, but still, my heart and my head are in the right place.
It’s catchier than “Imperfect Feminist.” I thought the title would be an interesting juxtaposition to the actual nuance that there is in the book. It’s a way of pulling people in.
Much of the book has already been published online. But you’ve said that publishing a book is risky because your writing might find a wider audience. How so? You might think books have a smaller reach, but since my first novel was published in May, I’ve realized that, no, books have a huge reach. On the Internet, we tend to read the sites that we read, but that’s it. We have habits and places that we go, and just because something is online and can be read by everyone doesn’t mean it will be read by everyone.
Your book contains an essay about your ongoing love for the “Sweet Valley High” series. How did you become so obsessed? Growing up, I was such a nerd and so unpopular and “Sweet Valley High” offered me a lot of really satisfying wish fulfillment. I could sublimate my loneliness and angst into the lives of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. My family moved around a lot when my brothers and I were young, so it was a familiar thing. No matter where I lived, Jessica and Elizabeth were there with me.
There was a piece on Slate recently arguing that adults should be embarrassed to read young-adult fiction. What did you think of that? I think it was written by a really smart critic, but I just disagree. I think reading is reading, and I’m not going to be ashamed of a goddamn thing I read. As long as people are reading, good things are happening, unless they’re reading, like, “Mein Kampf.”
I’ve read that you started writing at age 4 — is that true? Yeah. I would draw little villages on napkins, and make up stories about the people living in the village. There was always a cemetery, and a guy who ran the cemetery, and there was a priest. It was very bucolic.
Interesting that you mentioned the cemetery first. Yes, that darkness has always been in me.
You’re also known for being very active on Twitter. I delude myself into thinking no one’s reading what I’m doing. That’s the only way I can do it. It’s a very elaborate delusion that I spent a lot of time and effort building. People ask, “What is your social media strategy?” and quite frankly my strategy is that I don’t have one. I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who uses the phrase “social media strategy.”
You have a Ph.D. in rhetoric and technical communication and will soon be teaching writing at Purdue University. What was your dissertation about? It was on the narrative in higher education about students being bad writers. I think that narrative is a fetish among faculty, not a reality. They fetishize the idea of bad writing, and they are more interested in the lore of bitching about students’ writing than they are in actually evaluating students’ writing as it is. But complaining can be a way of bonding.
So it’s almost healthy to talk about students because otherwise they’d be talking trash about other faculty members? Well, that happens, too. Oh, people are terrible.