“Dialogue memorized, scenes recalled: we became our own insular world of reference and repetition. If you didn’t know the films, you didn’t know us.” This is protagonist Carrie Wexler’s description of her intense adolescent friendship with Meadow Mori in Dana Spiotta’s powerful new book, Innocents and Others. With it, Carrie throws down a challenge to the reader of the novel, which brims with references to film history and technique; to know the book’s characters, she suggests, you need to know the films that obsess them.
But Carrie’s account of her and Meadow’s shared “world of reference” also speaks to one of the novel’s central philosophical preoccupations: the way that art can create worlds of its own. In Spiotta’s 2011 novel, Stone Arabia, Nik Kranis uses music to express both insularity and intimacy, both to cut himself off from the world and to forge a closer bond with his sister. Innocents and Others focuses on another relationship defined by shared artistic experience, but it examines this dynamic from a more explicitly feminist perspective.
The book follows Carrie and Meadow in their adult lives, when each has become an established filmmaker in her own right. Although their early collaborations remain vital to Carrie’s sense of herself as an artist, Meadow retreats from their world of two into a world of one, becoming an intensely self-referential documentarian. Through Carrie and Meadow’s fraught bond, Spiotta explores the models of artistic genius available to women. Can the woman artist stand alone, as Meadow tries to do, or is it her ethical and political duty to honor Carrie’s vision of female friendship and feminist solidarity?
Innocents and Others is one of several recent feminist works to take up the problem of creative influence. Lauren Groff’s 2015 novel Fates and Furies indicts its archetypal male genius, the arrogant, acclaimed playwright Lancelot Satterwhite, who remains blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices his wife and his mother make to secure his artistic success. In her masterful Neapolitan series, Elena Ferrante offers a stark contrast to Lancelot’s insufficient sense of indebtedness. Ferrante’s narrator, Elena Greco, is deeply aware of the debts she owes to those closest to her and is haunted by the suspicion that her own literary achievements are only a poor translation of her friend Lina’s raw intellectual power.
Taken together, Groff and Ferrante (two otherwise very different novelists) suggest that the longstanding image of the solitary genius may be anathema to a feminist ethics. If men have viewed their creativity as self-generated and self-sufficient, then a feminist theory might imagine creativity as dispersed and relational, emerging through others as much as from the self.
Innocents and Others is a slender but wide-ranging novel with a strong ethical undercurrent. It explores the films of Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola, the Argentine Dirty War, the Kent State massacre, a phone-hacking club, and a women’s prison. Spiotta’s approach combines an impressive depth of field with a compelling focal point: the conflict between Meadow and Carrie—two women with radically different conceptions of their artistic vocation and their relationship to one another.
The contrast between Carrie and Meadow is made clearest in a pair of blog posts they write for the (fictional) website “Women and Film.” Each titled “How I Began,” the posts mark out two possible paths for the female artist.
Meadow’s essay, which also serves as the novel’s first chapter, details an affair with Orson Welles in the last year of his life, her first year out of high school. In a brilliant twist, Spiotta follows Meadow’s article with a distinctly realistic comments section that complicates the essay’s meaning. Some commenters describe Meadow’s story as “disgusting” and “sad” and accuse of her “star fucking” her way to fame; others insist that her achievements are merited despite her teenage affair. The final comment reveals Meadow’s big joke: the details are off, she never knew Orson Welles, and her origin story is an elaborate fabulation.
Meadow’s faux-autobiographical essay cleverly provokes and then subverts a misogynistic reading of her success. She allows others to view her as the sexual object of a male genius rather than a genius in her own right—while also subtly hinting that the entire story is a product of her own powerful imagination. Yet Meadow’s lie also obscures what may be her real origin story: her bond with Carrie. As one commenter points out, “she was Carrie Wexler’s best friend, but she barely mentions her here.”
With her post, Meadow opts for a grand intellectual joke rather than honest emotional insight. And indeed, we later learn that this is the critique to which her films are most often subject. Critics accuse her experimental portraits of murderers and villains of displaying self-involvement, a radical failure of empathy, and a cold, over-intellectualized approach to art. She is called a “Handmaiden to Monsters”—a charge with an undeniably sexist undertone; as Carrie notes, “they would never call Errol Morris a goddamned handmaiden.”
By contrast, Carrie’s self-narration offers a much more comforting image of female genius. In place of Meadow’s pretentious references to film history, Carrie describes how her interest in filmmaking was shaped by hours spent watching cheesy sitcoms. While Meadow downplays their close bond, Carrie makes it central to her own origin story: she describes their teenage collaborations at length and praises Meadow as an ongoing inspiration. She even credits Meadow with introducing her to filmmaking, despite briefly alluding to the fact that she had already shot some videos on her own.
If Meadow’s post is alienating, then Carrie’s is generous and relatable. Yet Spiotta also notes, in an ominous line printed in a faint light gray at the end of Carrie’s text: “comments are closed.” We may recognize this as a sign that the post has provoked violent anger or sexist harassment. Given Carrie’s own likeable, approachable demeanor, we can only imagine that her post has reignited the commenters’ anger at Meadow. Carrie’s effort to retrieve and narrate their bond has made Meadow’s effort to efface it in her own, earlier origin story appear all the more striking. Carrie’s post has likely stoked the ire of the commenters because it reinforces their view of Meadow as unfeeling and arrogant: if Carrie sees her early collaborations with Meadow as such a formative influence, why couldn’t Meadow say the same?
Together, the two posts present Meadow as a challenging figure for feminist politics. Eschewing solidarity, empathy, and collaboration in favor of radical self-sufficiency, she offers a discomfiting vision of genius. And indeed, the novel pushes her to overcome her narcissistic self-consciousness, to forge meaningful ethical connections with her film subjects and with those around her. After one of her documentary subjects accuses her of being “mean,” “hard,” and manipulative, Meadow works to become more altruistic, worrying that she is “a terrible, selfish person who just tries to make [her]self look smart.”
But Spiotta also seems to
condemn a world that can only condone Carrie’s version of the female artist: likeable,
empathic, openly indebted to her collaborators and influences. If the choice is
between a female artist modeled on self-sufficient or arrogant male genius, on
the one hand, and a new vision of collaborative and relational expression, on
the other, then Spiotta refuses to choose.