A significant amount of recent feminist scholarship in fields such as literature, history, cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies, has focused on affect and emotion, and Nelson explains that Tough Enough “marks a border territory of affect studies.” At a time when we are thinking in new and exciting ways about not just the existence but about the value of affect and emotion in texts, writers, and readers, Nelson’s book marks an important intervention in the field. In a culture that often derides women, both private and public, for expressing and engaging seriously with feelings, the six women discussed in Tough Enough have, to varying degrees, been accused of the opposite, their work being too austere, too cold, too unfeeling. In reading several limit cases of affect among women writers, intellectuals, and artists, Tough Enough reveals the ways in which refusals of sentimentality, by those most likely to be accused of it, constitute a deliberate and powerful ethical stance.
Our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for November is Tough Enough, Deborah Nelson's extraordinary investigation into the lives of six women whose work helped to transform 20th century writing, art, politics, and philosophy; Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion.
From Chicago University Press:
This book focuses on six brilliant women who are often seen as particularly tough-minded: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Aligned with no single tradition, they escape straightforward categories. Yet their work evinces an affinity of style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a “cold eye” was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches.
Tough Enough traces the careers of these women and their challenges to the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain. Their writing and art reveal an adamant belief that the hurts of the world must be treated concretely, directly, and realistically, without recourse to either melodrama or callousness. As Deborah Nelson shows, this stance offers an important counter-tradition to the familiar postwar poles of emotional expressivity on the one hand and cool irony on the other. Ultimately, in its insistence on facing reality without consolation or compensation, this austere “school of the unsentimental” offers new ways to approach suffering in both its spectacular forms and all of its ordinariness.