Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Open Letter to an Anonymous Punk-Ass Reviewer

Dear Anonymous Punk-Ass Reviewer from Way Back:

In yesterday's Brutal Alternate Q and A, Karen Sayler McElmurray mentioned a review of one of her books. It's a review that I'll never forget. The book in question was Surrendered Child, a beautiful, heart-wrenching memoir about McElmurray's teen pregnancy and the child she gave up for adoption. The memoir has an astounding twist at the end, one no reader could ever forget.

And YOU, punk-ass reviewer, dismissed the memoir as "labored womb-gazing." I read that review and felt sick.

First of all, it was a sick joke. I heard you in my head saying, "Labored -- as in labor, get it? And womb-gazing, like navel-gazing, right? But a funny twist and the opposite, right? Get it?"

I got it. I got it and I couldn't let it go. The term "labored womb-gazing" stuck in my head and wouldn't leave. I wrote a letter to the publication. When Fence Magazine asked me for a commentary on publishing, I aired my grievance. But there it was in yesterday's Q and A, and everything flooded back to me.

My God, the memoir was about a teenaged girl -- alone and shut off from her mother -- getting pregnant, forced into a marriage, going through labor, and giving that infant away.

Labored? Screw you, dumb ass. Hell, yes, it was labored. Do you think McElmurray should have written it blithely? Could have?

Womb-gazing? No, womb-gazing is not the same as navel-gazing. The navel isn't really worthy of much gazing -- linty, sure, your own little swirly imprint, inny or outie -- hence the meaning of the expression. But the womb -- you stupid punk-ass -- is where cells divide, where life starts, where the heart first ticks and the brain first fires its synapses.

It's personal -- deeply and irrefutably personal -- and political -- deeply and irrefutably political. Do you know some of the personal and political issues of the womb? Surely, one or two have pulsed across your radar.

Maybe you're saying, hey, what's it to you? It wasn't even a review of one of your books. Why are you getting so heated?

Except that it wasn't about a book at all. It was about the validity of a subject matter -- the womb, pregnancy, motherhood. And your review was saying that this subject matter didn't merit the writer's gaze and therefore didn't merit our attention as readers.

But here's the thing. Years have passed. There's a chance, dear reviewer, that your life has changed. There's a chance that you've found yourself nine-months pregnant, in a hospital gown damp with your own sweat, on sheets awash with your own blood, screaming under the fluourescent lights, a mirror pointed at your spread legs, a child's head edging out of your own body.

There's a chance, too, that this wasn't you. (I've certainly imagined you as a man.) But instead the woman in the hospital bed is the woman you love. And you're the man, standing there at her side, feeling mute and helpless and useless as your own child -- ruddy and purplish is forced out into the world, slick and new, and then the baby is rubbed and wrapped and put in your arms.

And your life changed forever.

And you got it.

And you weren't thinking "labored womb-gazing" because why would you? It was just a review of some book in a long unending assembly line of reviews you were grossly underpaid to write.

But maybe later, in some quiet moment, when the woman you love -- still clotting and bleeding is being helped by a nurse in the bathroom -- or maybe later, some night, three months down the road, when you're pacing the floors with an infant that you didn't have to surrender, one you got to keep, those words rattled back to you from some dim recess of your mind and you thought -- I was wrong. I got it all wrong.

That's my hope. Today, that's what lets me move on.


Julianna Baggott