Stephanie Pearl-McPhee: A Superpretentious Literary Examination
April 13, 2007
That’s Canadian yarn up there–Fleece Artist Merino 2/6. I thought I’d lead off with that beautiful stuff because I first heard of it from Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, and she’s on my mind today.
I just finished reading Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Casts Off. When I started reading it, I’d fold down a corner whenever she wrote something particularly funny, something I could quote in my little book review. Pretty soon I realized that this wasn’t going to work:
It’s just too much. Too much funny. I don’t really want to deprive anybody of the delicious pleasure of discovering these nuggets, so I’m not going to tell you the parts I liked best. The fact is, anybody opening a random page in this book is going to find something very, very funny.
I keep thinking about Stephanie, and what she does. I keep trying to figure out the literary taxonomy of Stephanie. (Hey, I was an English major.) Where in the world of the written word does she fit?
1. Essayist. She is certainly an essayist. Is she some kind of knitterly Montaigne? I checked out Montaigne, because I frankly don’t know much about him except that he wrote a lot of essais and it sounds kind of classy to be talking about Montaigne. Our Wiki friends write, “He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography.” True! Stephanie has led me to speculate in a seriously intellectual way about thrummed mittens. I didn’t even know what thrumming was until I read her blog. And she pretty much owns the casual anecdote and autobiography.
But I don’t think Montaigne was a knitter. And laff riot is not the vibe I’m getting from him. Furthermore, I don’t know whether he spent much time pondering the absurdity of life. Stephanie, on the other hand, loves the absurd. Despite her claim that sometimes things can get too weird, I don’t actually think she believes that. I think that she finds it barely weird enough to take a head of nappa cabbage, wrap it in duct tape and roving and panty hose, and felt the thing.
2. Canadian humorist. There’s a Wiki list of Candian humorists, but somehow she’s not on it. She does, however, have her very own entry. Which really ought to be cross-referenced with the Canadian humorists entry. (Would one of you Wikiers please go fix that?) There is plenty of snow, hockey, and maple syrup in her stuff, but even somebody born in Alabama can understand the joke. So I don’t think Canadian humorist is the defining term for her.
[Update: Actually, Andrew has taken care of the Wikipedia problem. There’s now a Canadian Humorist listed whose last name begins with a P. Strong work, Andrew!]
3. Knitting humorist. Stephanie has been described as a knitting humorist. I reckon that’s the most technically accurate description of what she does. But I really think Stephanie should be considered in the same breath as all the other fine contemporary humorists. If you poke through my dogeared copy of her book, what you see is humor, period. It simply happens, often, to involve the topic of knitting.
Think about Calvin Trillin, David Sedaris, Erma Bombeck (who in my mind is too often spoken of without the proper respect–that woman was a genius). It doesn’t matter whether their topic is Kansas City barbecue, growing up in crazy North Carolina, or life as a suburban homemaker. They lure us into their worlds, however familiar or strange, and show us the absurd, the goofy, and the weird. The great humorists of our time draw on their lives for their material. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee happens to have a life that is filled with yarn.
4. Humorist. That’s it! She’s a humorist, plain and simple. Which is a big deal, because there are few things as difficult as writing humor. And there are few things more generous than making us all laugh.
There are many knitters in the world–Stephanie has proved that this spring, if we ever doubted it. But there are even more people who don’t knit, perfectly decent and upstanding people who would likely find Stephanie’s world view totally engaging. Like it or not, “knitting humorist” implies a certain specificity in what she’s doing. People who don’t knit aren’t likely to head for a writer who’s called a “knitting humorist.” I think this is their loss, of course, but there it is.
I’m going to venture a guess. It’s fine if Stephanie chooses to write about knitting for the rest of her life. It’s a world that we all know is a bottomless pit. At some point, however, Stephanie may start to write books which are not so directly focused on the world of knitting. I frankly encourage this. She seems to have an inexhaustible arsenal of words at her disposal, and it may well be that she decides that hockey is a topic that’s interesting to her. Or medieval dentistry. My point is that it doesn’t really matter what she chooses to write about, because whatever it is, it will be funny. And I will be right there, loving hockey and pulling my own teeth because she’s so wicked persuasive about it all.