How Do You Know You’re Right?

“How do you know you’re right?” When I was starting out as a critic, I asked this question to a male friend of mine. I really wanted to know the answer. I was 22 years old at the time; despite having three degrees from top universities and some intense training in the arts by then, I didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem. I didn’t know if my opinions were smart, or correct, or even worth thinking about. The few high-profile female critics I knew of — people like Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael — seemed a bit mannish, as if they had to give up a female part of themselves in order to compete. “How do you know you’re right?” I appealed, again. My friend shrugged, and said, in his lackadaisical way: “You just know. You don’t have to be right; just say what you think.”

I thought about this for a while. I really didn’t know. I did my undergrad work in neuroscience at MIT — a university which, at the time I was there, was something like 70 percent male. The entire place seemed set up for men, and a masculine perspective. There were fewer womens’ bathrooms than mens’ bathrooms on campus. In order to be taken seriously in math and physics classes, I felt as if I had to act more male than I was. I hacked my hair short and wore an military jacket, and pretended I was a boy.

When I was a teenager, I wanted things to be in black and white. It seemed as if women tended to mull things over more; they tended to overthink things, to wonder, to question, to worry about what they did wrong. This is a sweeping, brash generalization, to be sure, but I say this because I have 30 years of experience in being a woman. We seem given to uncertainty, to the part of the picture where edges blur into each other. Think of the cover of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, that hazy blur of deep pink. That’s the way I often feel. As if my mind is full of cotton-wool, as if the conventional rules of modern life have been upended. Fluid, amorphous, transient. Fueled by emotion, and the ineffable.

Now I’m much more confident in being female, and in the strength of being female. I grew my hair long and started wearing skirts instead of army jackets. I’m older, too, and I’m much more confident than I was when I was starting out. I’ve written plenty of articles; I’ve said plenty of things. When I wrote a small book on Brian Eno in 2008, which was finally released a few months ago, I found the massive response on the Internet fascinating, and a bit scary. I got paid extremely little to write the book; by my estimation, I spent about $10,000 of my own money to write it. I had a full-time job the entire time I was writing the book, so I wrote the book on nights and weekends, after work — that late evening hour when most people want to watch TV, or go to bed. I wrote the entire book using the Oblique Strategies cards to decide on each page’s content, as I explain in my introduction. I didn’t realize that such an odd little book would sell well, and I’m glad that it has. (I still haven’t made a cent off royalties.) I figured only my friends would read it. But I was stunned by the overwhelming response. At one end, I had authors I really admired — people like Neil Gaiman, Ed Park, and Henry Jenkins — telling me it was one of their favorite books of the past year. People who were enmeshed in the creative process — artists, musicians, writers — were the biggest fans of the book. (Amanda Palmer just told me she read it for a second time.) They got it. They got that the book wasn’t about Another Green World; it was about process. But some Eno ├╝ber-fans took issue with my book, and their opinions on the Net were vocal. Why did she spend so much time talking about Discreet Music, they wondered? Why was there so little in the way of a track-by-track analysis? They made themselves heard on Internet messageboards; they crowed their insults on user-generated consumer reviews. Anyone can write an Amazon book review, and despite the plethora of incredibly positive reviews my book had gotten in the actual press, the sprinkling of negative reviews really stung. Who were these guys on the Internet, I wondered, and why do they get themselves so wound up about my little book? When I was younger — when I asked questions to older critics like “How do you know you’re right?” — this sort of thing would have hurt more than it does now. Now, I’m better at defending myself. I know who I am, and what I’m about. I stunned myself, a bit, by writing a letter to The Wire (published in the April issue) defending my book against the barmy insults of an irate reader in the March issue. (I got a good review in The Wire‘s February issue, which you can read below.) When I was 25, and writing for The Wire a lot, I didn’t have the courage I do now. But now I have confidence in my opinions. And I know that my little book — whether I intended it to or not — is a book that divides readers.

I will tell you this: Chances are you will like my book very much, if you’re interested in the creative process. If feel you already know everything there is to know about Brian Eno, or you want a behind-the-scenes book about Another Green World — which I take great pains in the introduction to tell you the book is not — you may be disappointed. If so, I encourage you to take issue with me. Drop me a line and talk to me. I may or may not be interested in your issues, but I’ll take a look. For the nearly 5000 of you who have already bought this book in the few months that it has been out: I thank you for it. And I anxiously await your remarks on my next book about music, which will be three times as long as the Eno book, and about something completely different.

6 thoughts on “How Do You Know You’re Right?

  1. Masonic Boom

    I confess I haven’t read yr book yet though I have been meaning to pick it up (sheer laziness) but I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this blog post. You touch on so much of what I feel about writing about music – that kind of privilige that men take so lightly that they feel always like they have the right to assess to comment to dissect. And the fuzzyness the doubt that women encounter e
    when attempting the same thing. Are womens brains wired differently? I don’t think so. But people (male & female) act as if they are. I think it’s more the lack of that braying self confidence in their own rightness that is inculcated in men and smacked down in women. But that doubt that seeing things from both sides I yhink is necessary for the critical process certainly and probably for the creative process.

    Anyway my fingers are sore from iPhone typing. A very good post.

  2. debcha

    If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, which deals (harshly but fairly, I think) with the kinds of predominantly male uber-fans you discuss, and the dissenting opinion of a female writer.

  3. Deveno

    How do you know you’re right? Gosh, that’s a REALLY good question! My answer (for what it’s worth) is, you don’t, at least in the traditional sense of the word. What you DO know, is what you think and feel about things, and these are any human being’s birthright (at least in a sane society). The key (with any kind of critical opinion), is that it IS opinion, the rightness/wrongness of it may be the wrong question. When I read a review of a piece of work, I look for insight, I reserve the right to agree or dissent for myself (as any thinking person ought to, in my opinion). No one should be in a position to tell you how to think, and feel…such things are often deeply personal, and invading them is a grave tresspass.

  4. Amitha

    Wow Geeta! What a great article about finding confidence as a female writer. I’d second the recommendation by debcha of Juliet, Naked. Awesome book about being obsessed with musicians. Reminded me a bit about myself in my college days/early twenties.

    For what it’s worth–in college I thought you were incredibly confident and cool (and knew a TON about music) and was jealous of that about you.

  5. Tim Anderson

    Well jeez!

    You think doubt and lack of confidence is some kind of a problem?
    Maybe it’s just the painful fog of true insight, a sense that we as a species don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, but it’s probably really stupid at the core.

    Actually, as you know from the Beige Basement of Brain, feelings are just behaviors that get conditioned into us by experiences. You don’t remember those experiences because it HURT LIKE HELL!!! And your brain had better things to do than store all that painful narrative, it just stored it as twitches, reflexes and “feelings”. I’m not talking about repressed memory syndrome or any therapy-zombie malpractice like that, I’m talking about life, and Thank God memories get to be forgotten sometimes.

    Male behavior gets forged in a furnace called Junior High School. The forgery happens thus: Every day you go to school not knowing if you’re going to get beat up or not. If you act like that’s on your mind, probably you will get your ass kicked. Eventually you decide things can’t get worse and do the experiment of pretending it’s not going to happen. Wow! confidence reduces the beatings! So there you are. That’s why men have to pretend to be confident. Somebody twice their size will flush their head down a toilet if they don’t. Or try to pull their underwear over their head.

    Meanwhile the girls are practicing psychological torture on each other.
    They compete to be the worst person in the world, a game called “popularity contest”.
    That means cliquing up, excluding their best friend from last week, betraying her secrets, spreading rumors about her, and making sarcastic comments about her appearance. This goes on until she either kills herself, gains weight, or combs her hair in front of her face. At the time these cruel rituals seemed like a big waste of effort to me, when they could have been out throwing rocks at cars or setting things on fire. But I recently read a book about it and it seems they pick on whatever girl seems most confident until she’s recovered from that condition.

    So there you have it, men have to pretend to be confident to avoid wedgies and swirlies, and women have to pretend not to be confident, or the other girls will say she’s a slut.

  6. JulesLt

    This kind of thing happens even within male dominated groups, so I wonder to what degree it’s a gender issue, and to what degree it’s an idiot issue.

    By which I mean, there are always people who loudly and confidently express their opinions (often received opinions) – and they don’t have time for uncertainty, nuance, considering the other side of the argument, or perhaps more importantly, developing, synthesising and refining the argument through discussion.

    Sometimes it’s just brashness (i.e. I’ve seen some people who obviously read/listen and react and change their opinion – they just always express their opinion with 100% conviction) – they just expect that everyone else will join in the rough and tumble, and that passion is a strength, and you know, it’s better to believe in something.

    But often it isn’t – as with a lot of political debate, it often seems to be about shutting your opponent up, or discouraging people from listening to dissenting opinion.

    Anyway – just saying I don’t think it’s wholly gender – the more nuanced male opinions also get drowned out. Maybe that’s why no one notices, and categorises the gender by the loud minority?


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