Category Archives: Academic Career

A Review of “Euphoria” by Lily King

The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards.  Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology.  How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?

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I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week.  At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head.  I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.

Euphoria

Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.

Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.

So here’s the basic storyline.

Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)

The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away).  The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.

The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!

Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Margaret Mead & Gregory Bateson

Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)

 

But not in Lily King’s book.

In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.

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Well, Lily King is a fiction writer.  By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up.  In fact, she could make everything up.  That’s her stock in trade.

But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.

Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.

Mead Speaking on UN Radio, 1958

Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)

Mead on Steps of US Capital Bldg, 197

Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)

Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).

Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.

And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.

Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?

This reader was left frustrated.

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Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.

 

Howard, Mead-A LifeBowman-Kruhm, Mead BioGrainger, Uncommon Lives-My Life w M Mead

Lutkehaus, Mead-The Making of an American Icon Mead Bio for Kids Med, Blackberry WinterMead, Letters from the Field
  Saunders, Mead-The World Was Her Family

Anthropologist Author Interviews

Today, I began a new series on my blog: interviews with anthropologists about their new books!

author-interview-image

We anthropologists often write wonderful books . . . that find too few readers.

What better way to find new readers for a book than to interview its author?

I begin this series by interviewing Kristen Ghodsee about her fabulous new book about the craft of writing readable ethnography (From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnography that Everyone Can Read).  You can find this inaugural interview here.

Watch out for upcoming interviews with Rosa DeJorio (Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era) and Jennifer Cole (Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration)!

Anthropologists: If you’ve got a new book coming out (or just out recently) and would like to do an e-interview with me about it, let me know!

Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

ghodsee-from-notes-to-narrative-book-cover

The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

no-jargon-allowed

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

kristen-ghodsee

Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

I recently talked with Kristen Ghodsee about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!