An Argument for Literature as Care Work
Alexandra Kingston-Reese on How Writers Can Ease a Care Crisis
Over the past year, a phrase has kept returning to my mind: “What is beautiful is seized.” This refrain, repeated throughout Lorrie Moore’s story “What Is Seized” by the narrator’s dying mother, is a sentence of wreckages. What she means is twofold: that beautiful things are stolen, snatched up, like the expensive, brightly-colored paint from her former husband’s amateur dramatic society, but also that, without care, beautiful things have the tendency to calcify and become frozen. Like life. Like love.
“What is beautiful is seized” is not a sentence bereft of care. In just five words, the palindromic meter (1, 1, 3, 1, 1) becomes philosophy. Its revelatory structure, too (what is beautiful is seized), echoes the way the story is structured around a series of revelations about care. Moore contrasts small acts of care—the daughter’s fine attention to the details of her mother’s old photographs, or the way she combs her mother’s hair and shaves her legs for her—with the lack of care her father had for her mother. “He felt nothing. No compassion,” the mother tells her daughter. “You would think creating something would necessarily be an act of love or compassion.”
Throughout Moore’s oeuvre, caring too much is to be avoided just as fiercely as caring too little. She knows how to get just right the psyche of “female emergency,” a term she used to describe the crises, large and small, women experience across their lifetimes due to an imbalance of care. Here are lovers falling in and out of love, women daring and failing at what they want to do, daughters taking care of dying mothers, women accidentally killing others’ children, and none of them want to care as much as they do. The lesson might seem that caring just a little bit less saves you from turmoil—for if you never really cared, how could you ever be hurt or disappointed?
For Moore personally, as she admitted in an interview for The Paris Review in 2001, “bitter emotions can fuel art—all kinds of emotions do. But one is probably best left assembling a narrative in a state of dispassion; the passion is, paradoxically, better communicated that way.” Like numerous other female writers (like those Deborah Nelson called “school of the unsentimental” in her 2017 book Tough Enough), she has skewed care towards its more dispassionate and cooling tendencies without neutering it completely.
It is the minimality of care that interests me here. Caring just a little bit less is altogether different to not caring at all. We have become increasingly accustomed to hearing the phrase “intensive care,” a phrase which stands in not only for our contemporary crisis in public health but also for our affective states. Care requires a lot of work, we’re told, it is exhausting. But it need not always be so attached to such concentration of affective commitment.
One of the greatest mysteries about care is that—as much as we might use it interchangeably with love—it remains steadfastly ambivalent. As the academics behind the Care Collective wrote in their 2020 Care Manifesto, “[t]his reflects a reality where attending fully to the needs and vulnerabilities of any living thing, and thus confronting frailty, can be both challenging and exhausting.”
Semantically speaking, care is capacious but also equivocal, meaning at its barest level it doesn’t ask anything more from us than “to feel concern (great or little), trouble oneself, feel interest.” Interest itself is, as Sianne Ngai has described, the most equivocal feeling of all. No other expression of aesthetic or critical judgement requires less care than interest does; we say interesting to avoid saying anything else; just as we say beautiful when we don’t know what else to say. Practically speaking, caring captures daily actions like getting enough sleep or folding your clothes neatly, just as much as it means devoting one’s life to looking after a child, or a parent, or a stranger.
It is the banality of care that has created a world, according to the Care Collective, “in which carelessness reigns.” Globally, there isn’t a good record of valuing the many complex forms that care work can take—a symptom of neoliberal capitalist disdain for what is thought of as women’s work or low-skilled work and a market logic more interested in profits than people—but recently it has reached previously unseen levels of “organised neglect” at global, state, and community levels. No more can we see this insidious undervaluing at play than in our current moment. The pandemic has “dramatically exposed the violence perpetrated by neoliberal markets, which has left most of us less able to provide care as well as less likely to receive it.” With health and social care as decimated as it is, what can we do? How can we understand it better? Looking to literary care in the works of writers like Moore reminds us how to broach braver and more nuanced caring territory.
What Moore’s book Self-Help reveals is that the work of literature is care work, itself an undervalued and underfunded field. For Moore, the complexity of literary care doesn’t stop at plotting the ambivalence of maternal or filial relationships, nor does it stop at the title’s conceit of helping or caring for the self. It doesn’t map onto the ethical imperatives brocaded into the rise in medical memoirs, either, or to the personal essay’s negotiation of, or abstention from, sentimental confession.
Within the mechanics of literary form, we can see care as assiduousness, meticulousness; as structural, methodical; ultimately, as formal. What else can we call the intensive research that goes into a novel like Vivian, Christina Hesselholdt’s 2019 fictional account of the photographer Vivian Maier, or The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievitch’s 1985 vast mosaic of interviews with hundreds of women who served in the Russian armed forces during the Second World War? This care is dispassionate, reasoned, rational—so long as the methods used are themselves also precise and total.
Care’s temperate character sees itself appearing in a cluster of etymological friends: bother, humor, and passion all run hot. We can see this beyond English, too: to be passionate about something in Japanese is to be nesshin (熱心)—literally, to have a feverish heart, while composure, like in English, is denoted by coolness, or reisei (冷静), a cool calm. Nonchalance, as Namwali Serpell has argued, “comes from the French. The non- negates chaloir, which ostensibly means “to have concern for,” though concern is a temperate translation for a heated root: the Latin word calēre, from which the French derives, means “to be hot.” Unsurprising then, that among the definitions and connotations of nonchalant, we find not just “indifferent,” “unconcerned,” and “careless,” but also “cool.” Not caring can easily be taken for being ruthless, cruel, cold-hearted, unimpassioned, and without sensibility.
For me, part of what is so attractive about Moore’s versions of care is that I have never wanted to care as much as I do. “There is something about the crabby old person who no longer cares,” Moore herself remarked in an interview when asked if critics get soft as they age. But there’s something more about the young person who wants to redefine care altogether, as Moore did with Self-Help.
Written in her late twenties, the collection’s use of second-person address and imperatives are techniques designed to negotiate care, but ultimately distance the narrators from caring:
“Begin by meeting him in a class, in a bar, at a rummage sale.” “Feel bored… buy popcorn.” “Decide faces are important.” “Shoplift a cashmere sweater.” “Begin to plot your getaway.” “Kiss him goodnight at Union Square and run for your life.” “Bury her in the cold south sideyard of that Halloweenish house.” “Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.” “First, try to be something, anything, else.”
In the opening story, “How to Be an Other Woman,” the reader is instructed what to do “first” when they meet their lover—how many museum visits and concerts constitute “the right number of cultural events” you must share before you sleep together. When he professes to not wanting to make you uncomfortable, “Say: ‘Hey. I am a very cool person. I am tough.’ Show him your bicep.” We’re told what not to say and do (“don’t say ‘Ridiculous’ or ‘Get the hell out of my apartment’”). As not caring becomes less tenable as the story goes on, the instructions become increasingly less helpful, and more erratic—“Be strange and awkward”; “Try to decide what you should do.”
There’s something about Moore, and Moore’s characters, that reminds me of Ottessa Moshfegh. On the surface it could be Moshfegh’s characters’ belief that caring about oneself could all too quickly become a shabby pretence for self-hatred and desperation. But mostly it is her flippancy about literary culture: she can only be so cool about it because she takes it so seriously. In other words, just as a classical pianist (as Moshfegh was) can perform with dispassionate care, in literature, too, it is possible to be assiduously careful and coolly careless.
Then, in spite of the systematic dismantling of caring infrastructures under neoliberalism—made all the more visible in the last year—caring is cool. This knowledge is clearer than ever, present in the social attention on care through the pandemic along with recent activist and protest work around anti-Black racism, anti-colonialism, and climate change. But just as much as such action means it is cool to care deeply about social issues, this coolness also references care’s condition. In the words of Merve Emre, “[n]owhere does it specify what the character of care must be; how hot or how cold it must run to do some good in the world.”
Only now do I really understand what it is about Moore’s characters that makes them prefer not to care in order to avoid being disintegrated by caring. For a time during the early days of the pandemic, I began to sign off emails “Take care.” I felt I needed to do the barest little I could to show thoughtfulness for my correspondent and their circumstances, even if I didn’t know their particularities. But soon the repetition of take care made the phrase lose meaning. Who was I to instruct them to take care of themselves? Wouldn’t they already be doing that? Was I really showing care by passing off the responsibility to someone else? As in, you take care of yourself because I can’t or won’t? I became perturbed by its minimalism, so I intensified care only by a little to good care—and then in turn became perturbed by the potentially moralistic connotations of good, so took it out again.
Without realizing it, I had learned my lesson from Moore too well. Her characters are generally women in caring professions, or professions that weren’t previously but have become caring roles, or they care for parents, partners, friends. None are in positions in which they are ostensibly cared for. The protestations by her and Moshfegh’s characters of not caring are really defense mechanisms, shielding them from the danger of caring too much, especially when no one cares for them in return. In this scenario, though, we would do well to remember that to care at all requires very little from us. And of that, we have little to fear.