Singles, rejoice!

From Liz Lemon to Melville’s Bartleby, the ones who prefer not two

by Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (forthcoming this July)

I used to nurse my single self each Valentine’s Day by blasting Morrissey’s “Will Never Marry.” His voice is softly defiant: “I’m writing this to say / In a gentle way / Thank you, but no / I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone.” How could I resist such self-indulgent melancholy? Morrissey is a fascinating single icon, refusing confirmations of his sexual identity, reveling in his secrecy about whom, if anyone, he has kissed.

This ritual of Morrissey devotion drove a friend crazy: How could I celebrate a life without marriage? How could I appreciate being single, which he, like so many coupled people, assumed is a terribly lonely thing to be? According to my friend, who was in a romantic relationship, I was too comfortable in my singleness.

To choose single life is to choose the scent of rotting vegetables and unused product portions drifting out of the fridge; the numerous wedding invitations with an “and guest” violently scrawled next to your name; the pathetic glances of people saddened that you have nothing of substance to report about a “love life”; and the perplexed utterances of wait staff asking, “Just you?” One might think being single is a condition that must be cured—and certainly not one to take lightly. (This is why Liz Lemon is such a refreshing antidote. In more than a few scenes of “30 Rock” we watch her, alone in her apartment, eat something, choke, and self-administer her own Heimlich maneuver to be saved from death, at least this time. Last season she recovered from a breakup by adopting a cat, which she petulantly names after one of the most famous American singles, Emily Dickinson.)

But I know that the moments I’ve felt the loneliest are when I’ve been in a relationship, wondering why there’s so much distance when there should only be closeness. The coupled are supposed to be the lucky ones, so why all this sadness? Is it possible that the coupled inoculate themselves against this haunting sense of disconnect by refusing it away, and pushing their confusion onto the single, insisting, again and again, that it’s the single who are lonely, not they?

With Emily Dickinson (Liz’s cat) in mind, it might not seem so unlikely that “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s 19th-century story of a stubborn, insubordinate law copyist and the lawyer who can’t seem to fire him, offers up a solution to the age-old conundrum of what to make of a “lonely,” single person on Valentine’s Day.

The barebones of the plot: A lawyer hires a scrivener to help with his paperwork. Bartleby is an excellent scrivener, but will only perform the very mechanical task he was originally asked to do: copy. He does not deviate from his job description (at least at first), and when asked to do more, or something else, he famously states, “I’d prefer not to.” Throughout the course of the story, the lawyer attempts to engage Bartleby in all sorts of office tasks, and most requests are met with Bartleby’s, “I’d prefer not to.”

Here is where things get interesting. Instead of dismissing him, the incredulous lawyer only becomes more curious: Who is this strange character? He puts it this way: “There was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.”

Let’s imagine that the touched and disconcerted feelings of Melville’s lawyer are of the romantic variety. After pages of nearly obsessive infatuation, the lawyer makes a bold move. “‘Bartleby,’ said I, in the kindest tone I could assume under such exciting circumstances, ‘will you go home with me now—not to my office, but my dwelling . . . ?” Bartleby rejects this offer, and the lawyer, as if heartbroken, flees the office, running up Wall Street (to Broadway no less).

Bartleby spends most of his time contentedly absorbed in his own whims and interests, his own “wall-like reveries.” And he has the power to do the unthinkable: Refuse to be coupled. In a way, he says to the lawyer, and perhaps the world, “I’d prefer not you, ” or maybe even, “I’d prefer not two.”

The lawyer describes Bartleby’s refusal to be involved in the world of others in pathetic terms, punctuating his sadness by exclaiming, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” But this is his perspective, his bias. The mistake the lawyer makes is that he’s not inspired by Bartleby’s example. He assumes that single Bartleby is lonely and must be coupled off. He strives to make Bartleby his own; the scrivener is “a valuable acquisition.” The lawyer is more predatory than appreciative. And he doesn’t realize that he is the one who is most unsettled, most forlorn, in the story.

The key to understanding anything about single life in a world rabidly devoted to the supremacy of coupling off is to think of a single character who can strip away all the sad and pathetic descriptions that are placarded on singles by those who don’t feel singles could ever exist happily or grandly alone. Here’s a pantheon of some of my other favorite real-life Bartleby’s: Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin, David Souter, Octavia Butler, Janet Reno, Proust, Baudelaire, and so on.

These people made the world a richer, if not larger place without the romantic support the coupled world deems so invaluable. Yet rather than view the singles in our midst as those who might also harbor such extraordinary powers, we view them with suspicion, as the ones who are supposed to be much lonelier than those who are coupled. Why not regard them with curiosity and even possibly affection and leave it at that? We can marvel at their self-possession. The single’s value, like anyone’s value (coupled or not), surely exceeds any one relationship in his or her story. And that story need not be any more or less tragic than anyone else’s.

Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, also published by New York University Press.

A Valentine’s Day for the bookish!

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re skipping the chocolate hearts and giving you 20% off a few of our loveliest books. Check out the few featured below. Or, for a list of all the discounted titles, visit the sale page on our website! Sale ends on February 20th.

For the lonely hearts – Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, by Michael Cobbs
$21.00 / now $16.80  ♥

“Using the rhythms of banter, suggestion, and devilish claims, Cobb pits the brio, the grandeur of singleness against the deadening form of the couple… as beautiful as it is brilliant.”–Kathryn Bond Stockton, author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

For the non-traditionalists — Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, by Judith Stacey
$21.00 / now $16.80  ♥

“Clever and practical blend of research, history and anecdote.”–Kirkus Reviews

For the romantics Love Lyrics, by Ámaru and Bhartri·hari
$22.00 / now $17.60  ♥

“Anyone who loves the look and feel and heft of books will delight in these elegant little volumes.”–New Criterion


For the cynics – Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisisby David Shumway
$23.00 / now $18.40  ♥

“… illuminates the complexities of an important recent development in American marital ideals.”–Journal of American History


For the lit lovers – Lover, by Bertha Harris 
$23.00 / now $18.40  ♥

“[A] spellbinding, verbal sleight of hand as satisfying as it is serpentine.”–Washington Post Book World


Spring Staff Picks: Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled

Name and role at the Press: Margie Guerra, Assistant to the Director and Subsidiary Rights Administrator

Book selection, and why:  Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled

There are many reasons why I’m excited about Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled by Michael Cobb, but the main one has to do with Eleanor Rigby.  The Beatles don’t give us a whole lot of information about her in the song, just the vitals: Eleanor’s been known to (creepily) collect rice in churches where happy couples were just married.  When she died, nobody came to the funeral.  Oh, and she keeps her face “in a jar by the door.”  Is loneliness what drove Eleanor to be so odd?  How should I think about this strange lady? Why is Eleanor’s being alone both frightening and sad all at the same time?  (And will my face fall off if I’m single for too long?!)


In some ways, Michael Cobb’s Single is the antidote to those horrible feelings you get when listening to “Eleanor Rigby.”  In Single, Cobb aims to understand why singledom – that is, the state of being single – is perceived as a threat to the social fabric; why it’s thought of as a “problem” to be “solved” by entering into a couple.  (Anyone who has experienced the discomfort of being the “third wheel” has felt the ripple-effect of this sort of thinking.)  Cobb makes his case by deftly examining singleness in a wide range of literary, cultural, philosophical, andpsychoanalytical texts; he looks at work (textual and otherwise) by Plato, Freud, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Morrissey, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hannah Arendt to the Bible, Sex and the CityBridget Jones’ Diary, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” and HBO’s Big Love.  Cobb questions the “supremacy of the couple form,” and asks the reader to think about singles – in literature and in life, for Ms. Rigby and her real-life counterparts – as less menacing, less pathetic figures.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

IF YOU have a favorite book from our spring catalog to add, then let us know by leaving a comment describing why it’s your pick. You could win a free copy of the book of your choice, and a feature on the blog!

Congratulations to Darieck Scott, winner of the ALAN BRAY MEMORIAL BOOK AWARD

We’d like to congratulate Darieck Scott, author of Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imaginationfor winning this year’s ALAN BRAY MEMORIAL BOOK AWARD! The award is given to the best book in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer studies in literature and cultural studies from the GL/Q Caucus of the Modern Language Association. 

The Awards Committee found Extravagant Abjection to be “an elegantly written and thoroughly researched study, which helps push queer studies in exciting and imperatively new directions.”

The award will be presented at the MLA Convention in Seattle at the GL/Q Cash Bar event on Saturday, January 7, 8:45-10:00 p.m., Metropolitan B, Sheraton. Hope to see you there!

Guantanamo: The Reevaluation Begins Again

With some rough indications that intelligence from Guantanamo and the associated network of extra-legal prisons contributed to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, our nation is once again faced with tough questions about how it wants to pursue its most dangerous enemies. This comes on the heels of a very different development last week, when a new cache of documents from the Wikileaks trove demonstrated just how irrelevant to the fight some of the Guantanamo prisoners are.

We want to direct you again to our book, The Guantanamo Lawyers, and the associated online database of papers belonging and relating to the lawyers who have defended the inmates pro-bono. Their voices reveal some of the most important primary source material in the debate.

The Long-Term Costs of Amy Chua’s Crazy Parenting Essay

The Huffington Post runs a piece by erin Khue Ninh, author of the forthcoming book “Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature”, who argues that immigrant parents will still be reading the inflammatory article, which chronicles the success of extreme parenting without discussing the dangers, after the furor has passed.

Despite the frenzy of responses both in and now outside the Asian American community, however, I’ve not seen anyone name my deepest dismay about this essay. And as the piece continues to circulate — through the delayed but ever-widening network of emails forwarded — that neglected point becomes only more salient: Long after we have tired (as we have already begun to tire) of Facebook-posting or retweeting rebuttals and responses to Chua’s piece, it will still be finding its way to Asian parents like my own.

In light of this, to the extent that the book and essay do not align, the essay is more reprehensible, not less.

Because you see, the WSJ essay will reach these immigrant parents without context. It will not be accompanied by the outpouring of blogs and comments, testifying that parenting methods like those the article champions have driven their writers (or siblings) to therapy (or suicide). Neither will it be accompanied by Yang’s article nor Chua’s book, in which latter the author says she has beat a partial retreat from these methods — finding their destructive costs too high.

Two Parties at MLA: For ALI and for a new short story collection

Join NYU Press for two parties (i.e. free food & booze) at the Modern Language Association‘s annual meeting in Los Angelese this week.

Friday, from 4-5pm, in the American Literatures Initiative booth (217A), come celebrate the most recent books the ALI has published, which you can find listed on the ALI’s website

Saturday, 9:30-10:30am. Come Celebrate the publication of Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age with the editors (Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi)! At the NYU Press Booth (214/216).

Follow the #mla2011 hashtag on twitter for the latest updates on the convention.

Dances with Things—and Prizes, too!

Although books are said to be born at the moment of publication, the early stages of conceptualization and writing are excellent opportunities to introduce key themes from your larger work. Robin Bernstein’s book, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood and Race from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the New Negro Movement (part of the America and the Long 19th Century series), is forthcoming from us in 2011, but one of its innovations has already begun to resonate within the academy, thanks to an article, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” she wrote for Social Text (issue 101, Dec. 2009), which draws material from one of the book’s chapters. That article has since won two national prizes, The Outstanding Article Award , given by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and The Research and Publication Award, given by the American Theatre and Drama Society. In a fit of good luck and hard-earned recognition, she has also received a Harrington Fellowship for the 2010-2011 academic year. Congratulations, Robin!

“Dances with Things” develops a new methodology for reading things—material artifacts—as scripts that choreograph or prompt, but do not narrowly dictate, movement among human performers. This methodology enables scholars to access new evidence of past gestures, of the historical body-in-motion. An example of a scriptive thing might be a knife, a camera, or a novel—each a thing that prompts (but does not force) a person interacting with it to behave in a certain way or ways. When race enters the dance, e.g., when a white girl plays with a black doll or reads a book with racist overtones, the dance between person and thing can enact racial ideas and identities.

This methodology, which integrates performance theory with historical, social, cultural, and literary analysis, is laid out and developed in Robin’s forthcoming book, which looks at how white children and black adults were strategically paired in marketing and literature during the mid 19th century, transferring the innocence of white children to African Americans, a dynamic Bernstein calls “racial innocence.” This conflation enabled diametrically opposed political agendas to appear natural and, therefore, justified: abolition and slavery as well as enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of African Americans.

This is an excellent example of the benefits to authors of getting some of their core arguments out there in advance of the book, whether in journals or at academic conferences. It gives your peers an opportunity to productively engage you, and develops interest in and momentum towards the eventual book.

Paperback Little Rebels in PopMatters

Jeremy Estes put up an insightful review of Tales for Little Rebels at PopMatters. The paperback edition is brand new!

The model the editors point to is the New England Primer of 1690, in which Puritan children learned simple lessons like, “In Adam’s fall / We Sinned all”. While that’s an idea a little more complex than something like “A is for apple”, it’s nothing compared to 1935’s ABC for Martin which originally appeared in a communist publication produced both in the United State and Great Britain. With its praise of Stalin and examples like “M is for Marx, whose teachings proved true”, the primer is decidedly pro-Soviet, but its inclusion isn’t likely to put the book or its editors on any black lists. The aim is to illustrate how such primers “distill revolutionary ideas into their simplest forms”. Any subject in its simplest form ignores the nuance and complexity of the truth, which may give some modern parents pause before exposing their kids to a primer that praises both the rights of workers and dictators.

Lorca’s Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)

“Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)”
by Federico García Lorca, Greg Simon and Steven F. White, trans., 1998
from Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn

Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
Lunar creatures sniff and circle the dwellings.
Live iguanas will come to bite the men who don’t dream,
and the brokenhearted fugitive will meet on street corners
an incredible crocodile resting beneath the tender protest of the

Out in the world, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
There is a corpse in the farthest graveyard
complaining for three years
because of an arid landscape in his knee;
and a boy who was buried this morning cried so much
they had to call the dogs to quiet him.

Life is no dream. Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!
We fall down stairs and eat the moist earth,
or we climb to the snow’s edge with the choir of dead dahlias.
But there is no oblivion, no dream:
raw flesh. Kisses tie mouths
in a tangle of new veins
and those who are hurt will hurt without rest
and those who are frightened by death will carry it on their

One day
horses will live in the taverns
and furious ants
will attack the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cattle.
Another day
we’ll witness the resurrection of dead butterflies,
and still walking in a landscape of gray sponges and silent ships,
we’ll see our ring shine and rose spill from our tongues.

Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!
Those still marked by claws and cloudburst,
that boy who cries because he doesn’t know about the invention
of bridges,
or that corpse that has nothing more than its head and one
they all must be led to the wall where iguanas and serpents wait,
where the bear’s teeth wait,
where the mummified hand of a child waits
and the camel’s fur bristles with a violent blue chill.
Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
But if someone closes his eyes,
whip him, my children, whip him!
Let there be a panorama of open eyes
and bitter inflamed wounds.

Out in the world, no one sleeps. No one. No one.
I’ve said it before.
No one sleeps.
But at night, if someone has too much moss on his temples,
open the trap doors so he can see in moonlight
the fake goblets, the venom, and the skull of the theaters.

De Night in de Front from Chreesmas: A Yiddish Cartoon

A fantastic audio slide show from Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Comic Reader (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History)
has been put up at Tablet Magazine, featuring a rather odd take on a classic Christmas story. Read the article and watch the slide show!

Gross also parodied a number of American classics, including Poe’s poem “The Raven” and Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in the diction of the Feitelbaums. (The Yiddish-accented Native Americans in his “Hiawatta” predate Mel Brooks’ version of the same joke by almost 50 years.) Much of his work has now been reissued in Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Reader edited by Gross enthusiast Ari Y. Kelman, who wrote the book’s introduction. Here, we present Gross’s take on “The Night Before Christmas”—“De Night in de Front from Chreesmas” (1927)—narrated by the New Yiddish Repertory’s Allen Lewis Rickman.