“Watching Boys Do Stuff”: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?

Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.

Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.

One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:

“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”

This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:

“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”

picture 3
This photo was featured in Watkins’ original piece.

When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.

Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.

Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.

Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.

For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”

picture 2
The young Johnson.

Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”

To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.


[Photo credit:]

Photo 1: https://www.overdrive.com/media/209027/minor-characters

Photo 2: http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/kerouac_wore_khakis.html

Photo 3: https://tinhouse.com/on-pandering/

Photo 4: https://doitagaindreen.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/joyce-johnson-lets-dance-to-a-female-beat/




Lit by Mary Karr

For the first few weeks after reading Lit by Mary Karr, I could not walk into a restroom without thinking of prayer. While struggling to accept the customary Higher Power imperative of her 12-step AA program, Karr reluctantly offers her first prayers on the cold tiles of more than one bathroom. One such prayer closet lies within the same Cambridge “loony bin” (Karr’s term) where poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton may too have knelt during their respective stays.


Published in 2010, Lit is the third of Karr’s bestselling memoirs. While The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2002) delve into the author’s turbulent childhood and teenage years respectively, Lit traces the journey of the adult Mary Karr from low-income college student at a Midwestern LAC to acclaimed poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing. Lit‘s 386 pages primarily contain Karr’s first marriage and subsequent divorce, her struggle with alcoholism as a young mother – transitioning her journey to sobriety and religious conversion.

Prior to Lit, my personal exploration of Karr’s work was limited to The Liar’s Club and her most recent poetry collection, Sinners Welcome (2009). Yet again, I found Karr’s particular gift to be a profound, pleasantly irreverent voice and a figure skater’s finesse with a sentence. For example, standing in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and just having learned that her first poetry book would be published:

“I chew my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”

While skilled with imagery, Karr also knows how to drop metaphoric fluff to great effect:

“I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.”

Despite Karr’s engaging wordsmithery, I sometimes found her adult emotional life difficult to access. For example, Karr repeatedly emphasizes that her son, Dev, is the reason she was able to become and remain sober. Dependent-free twenty-two-year-old that I am, I found myself wondering: What do you mean you looked at him and knew you had to stop?

I imagine a collective sigh from mothers around the world as they look wistfully past my genuinely confused face, and offer former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz’s poetic yet unhelpful description of Notre Dame:

“If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.”

I raise this only because I’ve recently read the mother’s perspective better conveyed. Creative nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson excels in this area in The Argonauts (2015), in which she explores every detail of having a child in a way that challenges and enlightens. After a thorough description of giving birth to her son Iggy, Nelson writes:

“He is perfect, he is right. He has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.”

There is much to discuss with Nelson – a blog for another time.

Yet I didn’t pick up Lit for Karr’s journey to sobriety, her account of motherhood, or even her story of becoming a professional writer – I picked it up because of one line on her Wikipedia page: “[Lit is] my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.”

Seems to have the secrets.

Prior to reading Lit, I mentioned my interest in Karr’s “unlikely Catholicism” to a friend. His response: “This might be what does it: Liz the Catholic.” Despite 16 years of Catholic schooling and a genuine interest in spirituality, I had taken a well-advertised break from Catholicism while in college. As someone who had recently bowed-out (with a bit of sound and fury), I had to know: why would someone choose Catholicism after having no religion for 30+ years?

Flipping through my crinkled copy of Lit, which had been baptized with coffee, I notice that my annotating hand was particularly drawn to passages that confess spiritual reluctance. Karr calls this her”outlaw ethos.” Rather than delving into disagreements with doctrine or skewering corrupt popes, she openly discusses a deep aversion to the basic idea of God.

For example, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”

Any word on whether kindles are coffee-proof?

Karr’s hilarious forthrightness about her internal ego battle is the highlight of Lit. In successfully living beyond addiction and igniting spiritual healing, she is particularly accessible for those (like myself) who have become flippant about religion due to various news items, life events, etc. More than ‘we the flippant’ would like to admit, spiritual isolation can be a painfully empty feeling, and it requires a major push to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction. Perhaps surprisingly, it may help to read every possible facetious comment articulated by a well-respected poet.

Following a prayer journey begun in a bathroom, Karr delivers a glimpse of the other side: “The spiritual lens . . . is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” Karr’s is a narrative worth encountering.






Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl

REVIEW: Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

One cannot walk very far into a bookstore these days without spotting a new memoir by a familiar, talented, currently successful woman. A happy development, as I see it. I have been snatching them up ever since the debut of Tina Fey’s Bossypants – titles including Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me?, etc. (Slighly outside of this category is Patti Smith, whose 2015 memoir M Train I recently devoured on the plane home for Christmas.) Today I want to briefly discuss a new nonfiction writer on the scene, Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia creator, Carrie Brownstein.


I first spotted the chalky black cover of Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl near a Joan Didion biography in an exceedingly well-curated bookshop in St. Louis, MO called Subterranean Books. Intrigued but easily distracted, I ended up leaving that bookshop with a pocked-sized copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Two weeks later, a friend recommended the Amazon TV series Transparent (Jill Soloway, lots of awards, great show) in which Brownstein acts, and I threw Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl on my Christmas list.

I began Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl hesitantly even skeptically. Would it be interesting to me at all? A book focused on the history of a band I had never heard of until recently?

Then I read this line on the first page of the opening chapter: “My story starts with me as a fan. And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” With that gem of a thought, I committed to the journey. Brownstein seeks to make her journey as a young artist accessible, thought-provoking, even philosophical.


I’ve read the occasional music memoir – most recently Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Though reading about Kiedis’ struggles with addiction, fame, etc. was a worthwhile empathetic experience, at times it felt like an extended Rolling Stone interview: “Tell the readers EXACTLY where you were when the lyrics to ‘Under the Bridge’ came to you.”

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is more than a simple chronology of album releases and subsequent tours – it is an introspective exercise into the creative process, an intentional dispelling of rock-and-roll mythology, and generally, a portrait of a young artist’s life. She discusses her transformation from concert attendee to performer, from student to creator, from fan to icon.

Not graduates of a Hunter Safety course.

For example, Brownstein discusses the “codified language” of the indie music culture of 1990s Olympia, Washington. It’s a familiar concept, this snobbish side-effect of knowing a little bit too much about a particular thing. “You know [insert obscure band]?” “Cool, you should also check out [even more obscure group], they just started playing today and only like three people have heard this song.” I’m sure most people can think of a category in which they are guilty of dismissing newcomers and subtle one-upmanship. One of Brownstein’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to identify common social tendencies – particularly those within the music scene – and to nudge readers to reexamine them. (Relevant Portlandia clip: “Did You Read It?”)

Brownstein is an insightful writer and an appealing – if at times overly self-deprecating – personality. She discusses struggles with inattentive, independently troubled parents, anxiety and depression, and loneliness in early adulthood. Her story is relatable and strikingly modest. Additionally, and importantly, Carrie is a killer guitarist. One won’t find a trace of self-promotion in the novel, but evidence can be found in the song “Entertain” from Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 album “The Woods.”

Leave Marcus Aurelius on the shelf (to collect the dust of good intentions) and take Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl to the checkout.  If nothing else – listen to Sleater-Kinney’s new reunion album, No Cities to Love (2015). Carrie says it best: “To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

Six (of many) Great Things About Majoring in English

 In honor of the first week of classes at Notre Dame, a tribute to my beloved area of study:


  1. Everyone* in class wants to be there. English majors have often defied the wishes of their parents, chosen happiness over financial gain, and accepted a murky professional future over a straightforward one in order to be in that classroom. The result? People who all (a) read the book, (b) have a lot to say about the book, and (c) come together to create a stimulating discussion.

                               *Except for that person who ended up in Jane Austen class through some scheduling freak-accident.  He will play Words With Friends on his iPad all semester long.

Stock photo of random classroom that essentially encapsulates the English class vibe
Stock photo of random classroom that more or less encapsulates the English class vibe

2. Student camaraderie. “You didn’t start the paper?” “Me either.” “Want to get coffee and edit each others’?” “Um, yes please.”

English majors are in it together. There is no curve, and thus no reason to be competitive or delight in classmates’ failure. We unite in our love of books and reading, but also in our procrastination problems and hate for our professor’s pseudo-British accent and hopelessly ambiguous writing prompts.

If I calculated how much money I spent at Starbs that could have been spent on new books... but I don't have to do math anymore so whatever
Perhaps if I were a math major I would be able to calculate ways to buy less coffee and then save that money for more books…
  1. Cheap books. The most expensive thing an English major will ever have to buy is a $50 used Norton Anthology. Most of the time one has to acquire about five, ten-dollar books and the prof will email you the rest in PDF docs (that is, if this particular literary great happens to be one of the few who understands computers. The majority will come to class bearing stacks of warm print-outs.)

    Lot of this action
    Lot of this action in my backpack
  1. Job applications are a breeze. Writing cover letters is second nature, and English majors come across extremely well on paper. Now, if only you can be equally charming during the interview….
  1. Homework = reading novels and poems. And writing about them. If you are passionate about reading and writing, this can hardly be classified as work. I would be reading and writing anyway, and though I’d prefer there were no due dates or grades (or that I were perusing Harry Potter for the tenth time instead of struggling through Beowulf in Old English), nothing feels better than acing a paper I worked hard on (ahem – slaved over, sacrificing sleep, coffee money, party time…).

    Ahh Beowulf. Where it all began. (Theoretically, I should be able to "read" this by the end of the semester.)
    Beowulf, i.e. where written English began. And now we’re adding words like “amazeballs” and “mansplain” to the OED.
  1. Subjective grading. In contrast to a Calculus test, for example, when an A indicates that you correctly recreated another person’s discovery, an A on an English paper signifies your individual brilliance (at least this is what I tell myself). It distinguishes thoughts that are spot-on, well-organized, and creative enough to impress someone with a PhD in English. And in cases of sub-par papers (and cool professors), there is typically some opportunity to rewrite it or argue for a better grade.
    Such praise leaves me feeling as awesome as if I had been asked out by Matt Duchene (well, almost)
    Nothing quite like a few lines of barely-legible professor praise


    In conclusion, a word from P.G. Wodehouse:

    “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl? More like gone are the three days I wasted reading this terrible book.

gone girl
Publisher: Crown June 5, 2012 ISBN: 978-0297859383


Gone Girl has been everywhere this year; it’s ominous black and red color eyeing me from bookstore windows, appearing on magazine bestseller lists, and invading my email inbox via Amazon, Powells, and Abebooks… but for a long time, I resisted reading it. Crime fiction has never been particularly compelling to me, and I’m currently anxious to continuing crossing books off my “classics to read” list.

Upon hearing that Ben Affleck was directing and starring in the movie version, however, I finally caved and bought the damn book.

Does he look like someone who would star in a bad movie? (Oh wait... Gigli...)
Does he look like someone who would star in a bad movie?

Essentially, I hated it.

It’s unusual for me to vehemently dislike a book. Especially a book that the New York Times and the Huffington Post (to name a few) have identified as one of the best books of the year, and that the New Yorker described as “absorbing” and “masterly.”

So it’s possible that I’m missing something here. But for what it’s worth, I would put this on a list titled: “Shitty Book That Everyone Is Reading.” (Right next to Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Quick plot intro:

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. Outwardly, they are two beautiful, successful, smart people. Behind closed doors, their marriage has been strained following layoffs, relocation, and parental illness. On their fifth wedding anniversary, things take a turn for the horrifying when Amy disappears from her home, and the police begin to suspect foul play. The nation gets swept up in the story (Casey Anthony style) and Nick, while claiming innocence, looks increasingly suspicious. But could he really be guilty of homicide?

Implicit answer: The only way to find out is to buy this book! Only $10 in paperback!

Thanks to this mosquito-bite of a summary, Gone Girl became a New York Times Best Seller because everyone is itching to find out (ha): What happened to Amy?!

Let me assure you, you don’t need to know.

Why? Because during the revelation process, you will encounter the following:

  • Poor characterization. Even after 400 pages of first-person narration that alternated between Nick and Amy, I could not understand, connect with, or empathize with either of them. Their personality traits changed from chapter to chapter, conflicting and rearranging so that by the end of the book I still found myself asking: “Who are these people?”
  • Predictable plot. For a book that’s supposed to be “shocking” and “wickedly-clever” and “irresistible,” I found it surprisingly easy to anticipate what was coming next. This was no Michael Connelly plot, with surprising twists and brilliant sleuthing by lawyers and law enforcement. It slowly, painfully, unfolds and continues to disappoint.
My advice to crime fiction lovers: stick with these.
My advice to crime fiction enthusiasts: stick with these.
  • Ultimate shallowness. This book is full of one-dimensional characters living shallow, uninteresting lives. Nick and Amy aren’t vulnerable; their struggles aren’t inspiring. And because the reader is stuck inside these dreary minds throughout the novel, the rest of the characters appear equally flat. I spent the whole novel searching for depth and came up empty-handed.

(Note: I read Gone Girl right after Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had some of the most well-developed, sympathetic characters I have ever encountered. So it’s possible that my expectations regarding depth of meaning were temporarily heightened. But still.)

Read this instead!
Read this instead!

My advice: Don’t waste your time. If you still feel an intense need to know what happened to Amy, wait for Ben Affleck to revive her in theaters this fall. At least there will be popcorn.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Publisher: Scribner (April 8, 2014) ISBN: 978-1476753614
Publisher: Scribner              April 8, 2014                         ISBN: 978-1476753614



“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”

– Marina Keegan (1989-2012)

The Opposite of Loneliness is a 200 page collection of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by Marina Keegan, a brilliant twenty-two-year-old writer who died tragically in a car accident five days after graduating from Yale. Though Marina’s heartbreaking death undeniably casts a shadow over the book, her humor, creativity, and insightfulness infuse her stories with stimulating energy. Her most memorable tales include “Cold Pastoral,” in which a young woman in college must navigate the tragic death of a “not-quite-boyfriend;” a short and poignant poem that begins: “So what I’m trying to say is you should text me back,” and “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” an essay in which Marina discusses the shocking statistic that 25% of Yale graduates dutifully march on to work for consulting firms after graduation.

The consulting firm machine
I too fear the consulting firm machine

Marina’s creative plots invite readers to reflect on the human condition within the context of relationships, including romantic, parent/child, human/technology, and even car/driver. She is readable, she is wise, she is witty, she is someone with whom I want to drink coffee and discuss politics. Remarkably, she combines a spirit of youthful progressivism with the wisdom of a seasoned college professor.

As a college student and an English literature major, I spend a lot of time reading things from distant eras filled with unfamiliar landscapes, outfits, speech patterns, and histories. This forces me to spend an unfortunate amount of time whipping out my iPhone to Wikipedia words, peoples and places, attempting to connect the dots and make the story more accessible. (Then I inevitably end up texting my roommate or ordering books on Amazon, and two hours later I realize that I’ll have to stay up until 4am if I want to finish Beowulf.) One of my favorite things about The Opposite of Loneliness was that it rendered google unnecessary. Those born in the late eighties and nineties will find it effortless to engage with the topics, phrases, and references Marina utilizes. She mentions “The Dark Knight,” group iMessages, and the confusingly noncommittal dating culture in college, to name a few.

This book is perfect for:

  • College students, late teens and twenty-somethings
  • Progressives, liberals, radicals
  • Thinkers, readers, careful observers of people
  • Minds that thrive on navigating gray areas, doubting, and questioning
Marina drove around the Northeast with some version of this sticker on her 1990 Toyota Camry
Marina drove around the Northeast with some version of this sticker on her 1990 Toyota Camry

The way I feel about Marina Keegan the author, her plots, and her beautiful prose is perfectly captured in the following quote from the beginning of her book:

“And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

“A Book Blog, Liz?” Let Me Explain

Throughout the (almost) twenty-one years I have been able to speak, I have confidently asserted a variety of future plans.

“I’m going to be an artist,” my five-year-old self declared to inquiring adults, proffering pictures of family members with potato bodies, toothpick limbs, and impossibly wide smiles.

Aspiring artist at work
Aspiring artist at work

This was followed by a fifteen year period of “I’m going to be doctor,” which I stubbornly insisted upon despite a variety of red flags (including a very real phobia of puking people).

It was only during my first semester of college as a pre-med student that I recognized my folly, surreptitiously skipping many a chemistry class in order to dedicate my efforts to a required lit seminar: “Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies.”

The moment of recognition went something like this: “Shit. There won’t be any lit classes in med school.”


As far back as my memory reaches, books have been an essential part of my existence. Even as an illiterate toddler I carried around piles of books and “read” by reciting the story from memory. (Shout out to my dad for putting in long hours reading through the pile as part of my bedtime ritual.)

Evaluating multiculturalism and postmodernism in Sesame Street
Searching for postmodern themes in Sesame Street

I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in first grade and finished the final words of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the summer before eighth grade (the day it came out, obviously). In the interim, I devoured all varieties of fiction, including the timeless stories of Roald Dahl, the tales of the resourceful feminist Nancy Drew, the blatantly Catholic Chronicles of Narnia, the youth-friendly murder mysteries of Marry Higgins Clark, the obligatory Twilight Saga, and anything and everything by resident boy-expert, Meg Cabot.

With less time to read in high school, I prioritized homework from English class over Calculus and packed as much reading into my summers as possible. One summer I spent an entire month on Jane Eyre and felt hugely accomplished as I crossed out the title on my stained and wrinkled “101 classics to read” list. I then immediately turned to the inviting pink jacket of Tina Fey’s Bossypants to decompress.

Will not be re-reading anytime soon
Will not be re-reading anytime soon

Now an English major at Notre Dame, my love for books has deepened in the company of brilliant professors, visionary authors, and most of all, talented and thoughtful fellow students. I love every minute of it – okay, except for 4am when I’ve already had 5 coffees and I would rather be talking to people, watching reruns of The Office, or sleeping than railing on Kate Chopin’s misogynistic contemporary critics for 10 double-spaced pages.


I almost feel physically uncomfortable without a book nearby. I carry books like some people carry miniature purse dogs – a faithful companion for waiting rooms and car rides; a respite from boredom and monotony; a dependable conversation-starter for awkward social moments.

I have a tendency to take my current read to places where I know I’ll never have a chance to open it, like the Starbucks drive-through, my job at Dean Younce Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, and the library cubicle where I’m supposed to be uber-focused on studying for finals. It’s borderline compulsive.

Today's purse dog
Today’s purse dog

Essentially, this blog is an opportunity to reevaluate, revel in, and share my books. With plans to work in the editing and publishing realm of productive society one day, it will be valuable to practice reviewing books. And though I claim only a nominal understanding of this blogging platform and a limited arsenal of life-experience and material as a twenty-year-old college student, I am giddily excited to start nerding out about books on the internet.