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Feminist Smackdown: How Katha Pollitt's Comic Counter-Punch Trounced Ana Marie Cox's Uber-Snideness

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Katha Pollitt is one of America's most versatile and visible feminists. For more than a decade she's contributed a trenchant column to The Nation. Virginity or Death! -- a collection of her Nation Columns -- was published by Random House in June. Savaged in a New York Times book review by Ana Marie Cox of Gawker fame, Pollitt battled back with a clever Op-Ed: "Thank You For Hating My Book," published in the Times soon after. She recently spoke with David Feige about the book and the experience:

DF: You've written about abortion in a totally unapologetic way even as the country seems to be slipping more and more toward the opposite pole. Does that discourage you or just feed your fire?

KP: Both. It's depressing to think how many people in this country think childbirth is fair punishment for having sex -- for a woman having sex, that is, or a teenage girl. At the same time, the right to control your fertility is so central to women's human rights -- without it you are basically at the mercy of any stray sperm that happens along -- the more traction anti-choicers get in politics, the more passionate I feel about abortion rights and abortion access. The pro-choice movement has been in reactive mode so long they've conceded far too much -- they talk the same language of tragedy, regret, mistakes. It's as if they're saying, yes, abortion is an awful, terrible thing -- but it's your right!

DF: Was there a particular event that prompted you to collect and publish these particular essays now?

KP: So many dreadful things have happened in the past five years I thought I'd better publish my columns while we could still keep them straight in our heads. And the good things, too, all five or six of them -- wouldn't want to forget them!

DF: The book got some wonderful notices, but one not-so-nice one stands out. What was your first reaction Ana Marie Cox's review in the New York Times?

KP: Hello, remainder table! There's no justice! May I have a big glass of Scotch now, please? It was an eye-opener to be a dartboard for sexist clichés, especially coming from someone who calls herself a feminist -- "strident" and so on, to say nothing of "skunk," "tacky," "obsessed," "fly in amber," and having my prose unfavorably compared to a headline in The Onion. I love The Onion! So that really hurt.

DF: It's a pretty gutsy decision to take on a reviewer in such a public way -- the potential for being perceived as just having sour grapes seems high. So was deciding to write the Op-Ed -- which was hilarious, by the way -- scary?

KP: Writing a letter to the editor usually looks like sour grapes, even if you're completely in the right. But in "Thank you for Hating my Book" I'm laughing at myself, and at the anxiety and self-preoccupation of writers. I describe my writer friends as jealous of my bad review -- it's attention, why can't they get a review like mine? Meanwhile, I have myself been manically buying my own book on Amazon to raise my rank. One or two bloggers took that bit a bit too literally and got all disapproving. So for the record, I didn't really send my books to everyone I knew in Canada! It was (sigh) a joke.

DF: So when it finally came out, what did happen?

KP: My numbers went way up on Amazon! By that time, though, I was off on my honeymoon in the wilds of Scotland and the only Internet cafe around charged five pounds an hour. So between adventure and stinginess I finally stopped checking every fifteen minutes.

DF: You've reviewed books yourself. Has this experience had any effect on how you approach a review?

KP: Yes -- from now on I'm going to compare every book I review to The Onion. So watch out!

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