Jo: I have just seen one of those roundups of the year in celebrity scandal and I was absolutely astounded to see how rich the texture of that 2023 fabric has been. Much happened at the surface level of culture this year—Gwyneth Paltrow ski trial, Diana Nyad the long distance swimmer getting exposed, Britney’s book. Very nasty deep structural stuff happened too, like the war our taxes help fund. Not sure about the middle, though. Have you seen the middle anywhere?
Danny: Speaking of celebrity scandal fabric, I’ve been very much enjoying the alleged sweatshirt salvos between Jodie Turner-Smith and Lupita Nyong’o over Joshua Jackson. Not since the days of Julia Robert’s “A Low Vera” have I enjoyed breakup clothing semiotics! (Note to Jo: Please confirm I am using the word semiotics correctly. I’m almost sure I’m not.)
J: Confirming your correct use. I have not seen this and I’m filled with glee, can you recap me on the sweatshirts’ copy?
D: AVEC PLAISIR. So Jodie Turner-Smith filed for divorce from Joshua Jackson (Pacey to you) this year. Shortly after they split up, Joshua Jackson “debuted” his new relationship (I love it when gossip magazines refer to like, holding hands at the grocery store as “debuting” something. It’s so chic!) with Lupita Nyong’o at a grocery store near Joshua Tree earlier in December (Lainey Gossip called it a “hard launch,” which I don’t like as much as “debut”). They both looked incredible. They dressed like matching tomboys, like Erik Von Detten and the butch girl from Brink! And Lupita’s sweater read “IT’S OKAY TO CRY,” which some took as an indirect dig at Jodie Turner-Smith, who a week later “stepped out” (celebrities are always “stepping out” in tabloid parlance) to run errands in a “DECISION TO LEAVE”-branded sweater, which some took as an indirect riposte. Women who may or may not be wearing sweaters at each other! I consider myself an amateur scholar of plausible deniability. I’m very happy. I think wearing a sweater trumpeting your triumph at having scored Pacey is a wonderful thing to do with one’s celebrity.
J: Well. That copy is so much better than we had any right to expect or read. The way Turner-Smith came back with a message of fewer words, with no articles in it—like a label instead of a message, or a declaration—is … I’m struggling to find the word. Good? It’s simply of a very high quality. Like “good” in a catalogue of used books, when it means amazing. “Fine,” like fine cashmere, not “fine, I’ll do it.” When we refer to “A Low Vera” I think it’s clear we’re dealing with a completely different category of poet, here.
D: Yes, that’s true. There’s very little plausibility, to say nothing of deniability, in “A Low Vera.” (Remember how her only follow-up was “I stand by my shirt”? We used to have stars.) I think one of the reasons I enjoy this kind of thing is it acts as a necessary bulwark against that wan moralizing about “pitting women against each other,” which I almost exclusively see deployed as a way of blunting the possibility of women’s hostility and rivalry, which I think is a cheat. Sometimes it’s wonderful and interesting and invigorating when women are pitted against one another! You don’t have to do it, of course, and to be sure there are times when solidarity and cooperation are preferable to duking it out, but let women have hobbies (fighting other women through the medium of sweatshirts over an ex-boyfriend), as they say. Of course other things have happened this year as well.
J: Absolutely right: You only pit people or animals against each other when you are confident enough in their ability to win the fight that you will bet money on it. “Pit” is a great word, it has so many meanings in English now but all of them come from the idea of a hole in the ground (Old English pytte), like the noun pit. You put the cockerels or the dogs in the hole to make them fight, so we call them pit-bulls and we pit women against each other, the pit of hell, pit of the stomach (meaning the dent at the solar plexus), the word “puddle,” any tiny indentation on the surface of anything. I mean that the verb is from the idea of betting on the entities that are in the hole.
“I stand by my shirt” has exactly the same kind of raw declarative power that I feel in the word pit. Maybe it’s because all the words have Germanic roots. Pre-Norman Conquest type of statement—always implying the fact of hastening, oncoming defeat.
That’s what pitting women against each other is about. Birthing the nation and one day the evil empire.
D: This isn’t really connected, but I wonder if 2023 was the year we lost winter (in the Northeast, anyhow)? The last two winters have both been consistently warm and light on snow, but this year outpaced them both. Winter feels like a humid exhalation from a cat’s mouth now. I wonder if that’s just how it’s going to be from now on!
J: Could be, could be, but I’ve definitely declared the end of winter a few times already in my own lifetime so I’ve used up my calls. All it takes is one snowfall and you’re looking like a lemon, like how you lose the War on Terror as soon as somebody gets nervous.
D: No, that’s such a good point. It’s always tempting to declare the “end of something,” especially in one’s own lifetime, on account of original sin (I prefer the framework of “original sin” to other frameworks like “everyday trauma” but that’s just my own preference), but what scientific expertise am I using for such a judgement call? Some tweets I’ve read, and a general sense of “isn’t it supposed to be colder”? It’s been a warm winter, and global warming is a serious problem; beyond that, I have no idea when the end of anything will be. I made a really terrific pilaf last night. That was a highlight of my 2023. What was one of yours? What have you written this year that you’re especially proud of?
J: Yesterday I made a ginger butternut squash soup that went particularly well because I took a nap and only had 35 minutes to cook it in, so all the separate elements got the slightest bit burned with undercooked middles which somehow is exactly what you want from something with ginger and garlic in it to feed a household under the weather.
This year I had the extreme pride of finally going to a swimming place upstate with the three friends of mind most ideally placed to praise me for always bringing goggles. The water was clear, running over a kind of slowly graded waterfall, so the rocks under the water were smoothed and punched through with deep holes with fish swimming in and out of them. The goggles are something I carry out of habit since I first saw something really amazing under the water and resolved not to miss any of that kind of thing. Usually it’s pointless to have them at the beach in New York or in one of the lakes that are tea-colored from the minerals, but this swimming hole had visibility. Everybody got a go on the goggles while me and the dog sunned on a rock in expectation of the many compliments we would and in fact did receive.
I might have also actually started writing the book I’ve been sort of pretending to write for a long time, but for the same reason as winter I don’t want to make any declarations. But I’m doing it fully for myself, which is what I wanted to try—that sounds a bit nothingy but I’m proud of it!
The Stopgap makes me proud but more importantly, this year it gave me something to do that does not actively sap my money, life force, or precious convictions. And I’m so proud that I get to derive secondary credit from your writing, as co-publisher—in particular, your ongoing translation of the Divine Comedy. Technically I did part of that.
Where does the Dante project fall on your own scale of pride from this year? You’ve had some scorchers in 2023 …
D: I am always so impressed by your ability to swim. I swim badly and I dislike it. Out of respect I will avoid asking questions about your book here; I don’t want to scare the project. I’ve enjoyed the Stopgap very much this year, and share your pride in it! I like the kind of noodle-y writing it makes room for, and it’s nice to have a project I don’t have to worry about trying to make money from. I love the Dante project! I intend to get back to it in the New Year, since it’s dropped off a bit in the last two months or so. Finishing the Women’s Hotel novel was very exciting; I’m proud of that. I’ll feel more proud when it comes out and feels real, but in the meantime a little pride won’t go amiss. I’m very proud of you, as it happens; I like talking to you and I like what you write and I like trying to write things that will make you laugh. This morning I woke up and decided I want to try to write a play called GONERIL this year. I don’t know if I will or not. But it was a nice idea.
J: Thank you! Your belief in me gives me great courage. And your approach to writing, too: I love how this year you started dropping critical essays in the NYRB, and, like, good ones (secondhand catalogue “good”). Why not! Just write it! The Daniel effect.
D: The real Daniel effect came from my wonderful editor there, Daniel Drake. Being edited is terrific!
J: In 2023 we’re proud of Daniel Drake. That was very good work on his part. I’m so excited to read your novel, I have it visually laid out in my mind already—it’s like The Corner That Held Them mixed with Barbara Pym-style social activity, there’s a whole colour palette.
D: Both listed in the “comps” section of my book proposal! Also the entire fourth chapter (I think it’s the fourth) is just a character going to church and thinking about church and the history of that particular church and then a flashback to going to church earlier. So plenty of Pym. Not that it’s as simple as “put a woman in church” and there you have it, there’s Pym. You have to work harder than that.
J: Omg! The perfect subject. No of course not, I meant Pym like whatever is happening, including church and its related social events like teas and jumble sales, told as an assassination-filled spy plot from pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Let’s bask in the glory reflected off this blog’s infancy for a moment. Would you please list for me your favourite Stopgap pieces by: you; me; other?
D: For mine it’s “You’re not allowed to call anything a Green Man nowadays,” for you it’s “Beowulf,“ for us it’s “Why we’re leaving the left.” Yours, please?
J: For mine it’s finding the copyright-free archive of sexy selfies by Edward Munch, for yours it’s the “You Can't Keep Blaming Everything in the Past on Ergot Poisoning” series, for other it’s Sahar Tavakoli’s obituary for farmer poet Irio Scalabrelli and first English translations of his poetry.
D: I also met a wonderful lizard this year. Named Nanners. Here’s hoping 2024 brings more of the same.