Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Coyness Does Not Become You, New Yorker

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Martin Schneider writes:

In the 1980s, John Allen Paulos invented the word innumeracy to describe people, on the analogy of illiteracy, who are not adept at thinking in numbers. I propose an addition: "iffashionacy," the state of not understanding fashion very intuitively.

I'd like to make a confession: I'm an iffashionate. I don't "get" fashion topics too much. It's always an effort for me. It used to be that the Style Issue was simply "one to skip," but today I look at it more like a safari in a strange and interesting foreign country.

I enjoyed Lauren Collins's excellent article about Burberry, which is run by its creative and interesting leader, Christopher Bailey.

But something towards the end bugged me a little bit. There's a paragraph that goes like this:

In 2005, Bailey's partner, Geert Cloet, who worked as the brand director for Miu Miu, died, of a brain tumor. "Work was, absolutely . . . I buried myself in work," Bailey told me. "I just kind of threw myself into things, because, you know, I think sometimes there's a sense of failing."

Hm. There's something very subtle, and delicate, and incomplete about this handling of Bailey's lost lover. Most obviously, the paragraph does not disclose the gender of Geert Cloet. Collins does not mention Cloet anywhere else in the article, and she also does not discuss Bailey's love life in any other context that I could see. So readers, this is all we're going to get. Time to play Sherlock Holmes.

To emulate Wimsatt and Brooks, we have to begin with a close reading of the text.

Key points: "Geert" is not a common first name in America, it does not obviously disclose gender, there are no personal pronouns to assist the reader, and the word partner, technically, also does not disclose gender.

(I shall do what Collins does not do, and assert that Geert Cloet was a man. But I should not have to rely on Google for that information.)

Partner, partner. Of course the word is a signal for homosexuality in our culture, and I'd lose credibility if I didn't concede that it's a pretty major clue.

The coding of "partner" here is pretty tricky. Anyone under the age of 40 (I barely qualify) probably takes the word to mean, effectively, "same-gendered lover," and perhaps I'm showing my stodginess by making a fuss over it. But The New Yorker's readers are highly heterogeneous. How many older readers read the paragraph, assumed without undue reflection that Cloet was a woman, and kept reading? I would guess, more than you might think. For their lack of hipness, they paid in incomprehension.

The politics and rhetoric of homosexuality have gone through some major upheavals since the late 1960s, but right now it's considered de trop to call attention to the fact of an article subject's homosexuality, on the theory that overemphasizing makes it seem like a perversion or a physical deformity, when it should be treated on a much more matter-of-fact basis. So far, so good.

And in Collins's defense, I also wouldn't relish writing that "who is gay" clause either, and I can see why she opted not to write it. But there should have been some cleaner way of confronting the subject. You know, either bring it up, or don't. But avoid this in-between.

One reason it bothers me is that the process of deducing that Cloet is a man also rubs up against a cliche about homosexuality. In my mind it takes shape like this: "Of course he's gay, Bailey is a fashion designer—what did you expect?" Uhh, treatment of an individual as such? Not that spelling it out is all that much better, in a way I sympathize with Collins about that. But the act of deduction actually involves recourse to that stereotype.

In a lot of contexts, I'd argue that Bailey has a right to his privacy. The problem for Collins is, a big New Yorker feature article is not one of the contexts where Bailey can be accorded that privacy. One of the purposes of a feature is to bring the reader "closer" to an otherwise undisclosed subject, and tip-toeing around the question of his or her romantic life is iffy at best.

The real problem here is that the paragraph isn't connected to anything else in the article. It's dropped in before the finale to supply a bit of cheap emotion and depth. (A shame, because the rest of the article earns that depth properly. Bailey is an interesting guy.)

I use that word "cheap" advisedly, but I mean it quite straightforwardly—the reader is being asked to partake in Bailey's grieving process while also being given next to no information about his beloved, aside from his/her occupation and Dutch name. It's tricky—how much can we be expected to care, really, on a single mention like this?

The best-case scenario, for the reader, is to take in that grieving process, such as it is, and then look up from the magazine for a moment, stare into the middle distance a bit, re-read the paragraph, and conclude that Cloet is a man and that Bailey is gay. And that is a sub-optimal outcome.

Why not discuss it openly? It's probably as interesting as anything else in Bailey's life, which is, as already stated, plenty interesting.


I just finished the article and went through the same process you describe so eloquently in your post. In fact, I found your post by doing an internet search on Geert Cloet.
I agree with your criticism of Collins; she could very elegantly have indicated Cloet’s gender by use of a pronoun and left it at that. Something like, “After he died, ‘…work was absolutely…I buried myself…’”

A brilliant and necessary analysis of the passage, Martin.

But emphatically NOT a close reading! According to the Wiki, and pretty much anyone you’d ask, “New Critics treat a work of literature as if it were self-contained. They do not consider the reader’s response, author’s intention, or historical and cultural contexts.”

You, on the other hand, considered the reader’s response, the author’s intention and the historical and cultural context. Thankfully.

Thank you, zp. That means a lot coming from you. And I take your point about my deviations from the Wimsattian way!

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