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What We Read When We Don’t Read The Internet PRESENTS! How Sei Shonagon Invented Your Tumblr

[Yesterday, we took a break! Sometimes it happens, my friends. I hope you did not miss us all too terribly! But today, we are back again — and will be back, again and AGAIN — with What We Read When We Don’t Read The Internet. And today, the person who is back is me! Managing to talk about the Internet, somehow, again!]

Intimacy is female. Love, marriage, domesticity, parenthood, even close friendships — basically any situation in which you might find yourself having a feeling, without the option of resolving that feeling by shooting something to death — have all, pretty much, been assigned to the chicks. Men have more interesting things to deal with! Things like war, and politics, and careers, and swordfights, and occasionally landing on the motherfucking moon! Granted, men also have families and homes and friends and (I’m told) feelings. But such things are not manly! Let us not speak of them! The chicks, it is their job to discuss these things!

It’s why Jane Austen is boring unless someone adds in zombie fights. (Ha ha, the commodification of female sexuality due to women’s restricted ability to participate in the public sphere, and the resultant struggle of women to simultaneously leverage their sexuality for status and money, restrain all sexual desires that did not stand a chance of turning a profit, and forge happy, affectionate partnerships with men: ZZZZZZZ.) It’s why raising a child isn’t book-worthy unless parent and child are both also dudes trekking through an apocalyptic wasteland filled with feral baby-eating hill folk. It’s why Jonathan Franzen freaked out when his novel about a family got picked up by Oprah’s Book Club and thereby lumped in with all of those other, female novels about families; it’s why “chick-lit” is a derogative; it’s why even girls don’t want to read about girls. Intimacy, privacy, domestic life: All of these are associated with women. And when we associate something with The Ladies, we assume that it, much like The Ladies themselves, is not worth our time.

It’s also, in case you wondered, why one of the best ways to insult somebody’s work is to say that it “reads like a diary.” Because diaries: They are pretty much for the chicks, as well! They have unicorns and heart-shaped locks and glitter on them and everything! And the process of documenting your own intimate life, often admitting to feelings about it, is a very extremely girly thing to do. (Except for when men do it, in which case they are Bravely Sharing Their Innermost Feelings and must never be criticized for anything they actually say.) Like: Remember when people were trying to figure out why there were No Female Bloggers? “There are no female bloggers,” went the line, “but why?” And then people pointed out that there were female bloggers, lots of them, and the line was then, “but why are they not so widely read?” And then people pointed out that they were widely read, but not by the people asking those questions. And then the line was, “well, but women write about Personal Things. And men write about Real Issues and the News. And that is why we do not read female bloggers, which is why there are none. The End! We figured it out!” It works the way patriarchy always works: We tell girls to do certain things (care about dating; care about motherhood; Be In Touch With Their Feelings), and then when they do them (care about dating enough to write about their dates; care about motherhood enough to start a mommy blog; Be so In Touch With Their Feelings that they consider those Feelings important enough to consider at length and then share with the world at large) we tell them that those activities are worthless and stupid and a waste of our time.

I wrote these notes at home, when I had a good deal of time to myself and thought no-one would notice what I was doing. Everything that I have seen and felt is included. Since much of it might appear malicious and even harmful to other people, I was careful to keep my book hidden. But now it has become public, which is the last thing I expected… I was sure that when other people saw my book they would say, “It’s even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like.” After all, it is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me. How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?

Friends: Consider Sei Shonagon.

She wrote the above passage; she was, very probably, lying at least a little bit in the above passage; she wrote it, startlingly enough, about one thousand and fifteen years ago; the book to which she refers is widely regarded as a classic of Japanese literature, and of literature in general, and is still in print in various translations, and is one of the very first memoirs by a woman.

It is also, can I tell you, so much fun. Sei Shonagon was a relentlessly interesting person, and had the diarist’s (or blogger’s) compulsion to overshare and editorialize every single thing in her life. Her book, The Pillow Book (not to be confused with that one weird exoticizey softcore thing that had Ewan MacGregor’s penis in it) (though what hasn’t had Ewan MacGregor’s penis in it, really?) (I am referring, of course, to Ewan MacGregor’s well-known tendency to allow his penis to appear in films) (duh) is a collection of brief vignettes and random thoughts, strung together in no particular order. She writes about dudes she’s had sex with, and the many ways they have managed to disappoint her; she writes about the famous and important people she’s encountered at court, whilst serving the Empress, and what they said and did and wore; she writes lists, lots of lists, on everything from “Embarrassing Things” (“parents, convinced their ugly child is adorable, pet him and repeat the things he has said”) to “Things That Should Be Large” (“Priests. Fruit. Houses.” PRIESTS??) to “Herbs and Shrubs” (herbs and shrubs, basically); she writes about the stupid asymmetrical sleeves everybody is wearing these days, and how ridonkulous they look, and oh my God why does no one have any fashion sense any more, what is next, leggings as pants?

Okay. She doesn’t say that last thing. But the book, despite being written from and about a way of life that ended centuries ago, reads as nigh-freakishly contemporary. In point of fact, it is not just contemporary, but (she said, causing every Japanese classical scholar in the entire world to simultaneously have an aneurysm and die, due to her massive lack of scholarship) bloggy. Reading Sei Shonagon is almost exactly like reading a thousand-year-old Tumblr. It’s about everything, it’s about nothing; it’s deeply boring, it’s riveting; it’s shapeless, it is its own shape; it’s catty, touching, lyrical, banal, witty, self-absorbed, indiscreet, pensive, gossipy, introspective, everything, held together only by the force of Sei Shonagon’s personality.

Dear Lord, Sei Shonagon’s personality. One does not get introduced to it; one ENCOUNTERS it, and hopes the experience leaves no lasting scars. Ivan Morris, the translator of the version I own, sums her up as follows: “A complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and to the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors.” Now, there are two things to notice about this passage: First, that Ivan Morris is not so great at summing up (those are a lot of adjectives, Ivan!) and second, that it is absurdly reverent and polite. In fact, Sei Shonagon was not “impatient” or “intolerant” or anything so socially acceptable as those adjectives would imply: Girlfriend was, in a word, fucking mean. She hated children, poor people, ugly people, people in bad outfits, people with an inadequate number of servants, their servants, her servants, servants in general, and everyone else in Japan who had the misfortune to be less intelligent, well-connected, and sophisticated than Sei Shonagon — which, in her view, was everyone, with a few necessary exceptions being made for the Royal Family. She really did love the Royal Family, however!

Well, sort of. Mostly she loved how awesome she was at fulfilling the much-coveted position of attendant to the Empress. Shonagon appears to have recorded every vaguely complimentary thing ever said to or about her by the Emperor, the Empress, and/or their close associates, and to have made compliments up when none were forthcoming. Here is an exemplary tale, about the Empress how well-versed in Chinese poetry Sei Shonagon is, and how she impressed the Empress with this skill:

One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground and it was so cold that the lattices had all been closed, I and the other ladies were sitting with Her Majesty, chatting and poking the embers in the brazier.

“Tell me, Shonagon,” said the Empress, “how is the snow on Hsiang-Lu peak?”

I told the maid to raise one of the lattices and then rolled up the blind all the way. Her Majesty smiled. I was not alone in recognizing the Chinese poem she had quoted; in fact all the ladies knew the lines and had even rewritten them in Japanese. Yet no-one but me had managed to think of it instantly.

“Yes indeed,” people said when they heard the story. “She was born to serve an Empress like ours.”

Well: Sort of. What “people” actually said was, “Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction.” Such, anyway, are the words of Murasaki Shikibu, who was one of those “people,” and — not coincidentally — the other great literary genius of the Heian Court. Shikibu had a point. But the draw of Shonagon is that she is so fully human. She was mean, she was vain, her self-awareness was hilariously intermittent — an entry that begins “to feel that one is disliked by others is surely one of the saddest things in the world” is almost immediately followed, in my translation, by an entry that begins “it is absurd of people to get angry because one has gossiped about them” — and she remains readable precisely because of these qualities. It’s when she writes about her admirable sides that she is least interesting.

In fact, Shonagon is least convincing when she is trying to be admirable. For example, she writes about going on a pilgrimage to a temple, “longing to gaze upon the sacred countenance of the Buddha.” Longing to gaze upon the Buddha! How respectable! How pious! How… sorry, wait, what were we talking about? I got so bored that I forgot. But what happened once you got to the temple, Sei?

To my dismay I found that a throng of commoners had settled themselves directly in front of me, where they were incessantly standing up, prostrating themselves, and squatting down again. They looked like so many basket-worms as they crowded together in their hideous clothes, leaving hardly an inch of space between themselves and me. I really felt like pushing them all over sideways.

I see.

In fact, Shonagon is a patron saint of the female Interblogs for many reasons. The reliance on voice and persona, the intimate nature of her work, the gossip, the wit: Sure, yes, fine. But let us go back to the co-existence of Shikibu and Shonagon, for a moment. Not only did they both create enduring work (Shikibu wrote the first novel, The Tale of Genji), they both did so whilst laying the ground of what is called, in fancy academic circles, “vernacular literature.” Which sounds both fancy and academic, until you recognize that what “vernacular literature” actually means is “writing, like, the way people talk.” Japan in the 990s was very impressed with China, and still borrowed lots from it, including Chinese language. Real Literature, in particular, was written in Chinese, with the exception of some poetry. There was, however, a group of people who were encouraged to be educated and literate, and encouraged to write — being able to compose poetry on command was a valuable social skill —  but who were discouraged from learning Chinese and thereby shut out of the high literary tradition; this group was high-status and leisure-class, but more or less disempowered when it came to Creating Real Literature, and so they possessed both the need for Japanese writing and the time to write it. These people, who re-shaped literature in the form of their own speech, who took the road less classy, who tasked themselves with creating a literature that was both good and conversational, and who formed the basis of the Japanese-language canon by so doing, were —  OMG! — women.

Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu wrote chick lit. Don’t let anyone tell you different. The Otherness of the work, its femaleness, was evident not only in its subject matter, but in the very language they used. It just so also happens to have been brilliant, and to have been recognized as such, and to have survived for this past thousand or so years. How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?

The question is whether Shonagon herself believed she was creating literature — whether she really did think of The Pillow Book as a private collection of casual notes, or whether she meant for it to be as good, and as readable, as it is. The answer seems, to me pretty unambiguously, to be that Shonagon was a writer, and an ambitious one. We know, for example, that she did learn Chinese, in spite of the fact that doing so was considered unwomanly: Shikibu refers contemptuously to “those Chinese writings of [Shonagon’s] that she so presumptuously scatters about the place.” We also know that she wanted attention and praise for her writing; she was continuously evaluating herself against other poets, and included writerly recognition on her list of “Pleasing Things.” (“A poem that someone has composed for a special occasion or written to another person in reply is widely praised and copied by people in their notebooks. Though this is something that has never happened to me,” Shonagon notes bittersaucedly, “I can imagine how pleasing it must be.”) And we know that parts of The Pillow Book became public before it was finished — were presumptuously scattered about, or were simply discovered; we don’t actually know which, though Shonagon always protested it was the latter — and that Sei Shonagon kept working on it after the fact, expanding it, revisiting some things many years after they actually occurred, broadening the scope of the book, and occasionally getting all meta and complaining about her commenters. (After a brief, unfavorable mention of doing laundry: “I know that this is a very vulgar item and everyone will dislike my mentioning it. But that should not stop me.”)

Which brings us back to the passage at the beginning of the post, written shortly after portions of The Pillow Book became public for the first time. It’s a puzzling little thing, this entry: It’s so meek and self-abnegatory that some people question whether Shonagon even wrote it. It could be anything: A necessary gesture of modesty, a way of saving face (“oh, sure, I wrote about your ugly baby, but I didn’t intend for anyone to READ it”), or something inserted after the fact — like the apocryphal story about Sei Shonagon dying alone and poor — to make Shonagon’s persona more palatable to readers who preferred an insecure, well-behaved sort of woman. Me, I’m no scholar, but I think she wrote it. Because she sounds exactly like everyone encountering wide public attention for the first time, every woman who considers her own life and perspective worthy of reading about: Nervous, exposed, apologetic, but with a glimpse of that fantastic pride, that entirely justifiable satisfaction with her own talent, shining through.

I was sure that when people saw my book they would say, “It’s even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like.” …Readers have declared, however, that I can be proud of my work. This has surprised me greatly; yet I suppose it is not so strange that people should like it, for, as will be gathered from these notes of mine, I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.

I suppose it is not so strange that people should like it. No: No, it really wasn’t. But “whatever people may think of my book,” Sei Shonagon concluded, “I still regret that it ever came to light.”


  1. jennifer wrote:

    Huzzah! Thank you for this amazing post! It not only got me thinking about literature I’ve never read, but it also reminds of the quote that first coerced me into reading this blog: “Self-absorbed even for a blogger” (from your feministe blurb). You are the modern-day Shonagon! You say everything we are thinking! Huzzah!

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Laima wrote:

    I don’t think I’d heard of Sei Shonagon, but now I will have to check out her book. Thanks, Sady!

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Brigitte wrote:

    I’ve been anxiously waiting for this series to switch attention from those that bash women’s lit…to the actual lit itself. But I never expected this. I’m reading for book club now, but this is absolutely next on my list.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Sarah TX wrote:

    I’ve read a bit of The Pillow Book – it must have been at nerd summercamp (CTY whoot whoot) in a Creative Writing class focused on non-fiction and first-person narration (aka “blogs before there were blogs”). We actually read a lot of woman-authored nonfiction in that course, which was totally awesome – not all of it was deliciously mean, and men memoirists were mean in their own special “I Am A Bigger Man Than Thou” way.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Mel wrote:

    God, I love Sei Shonagon. We read excerpts in an otherwise awful college lit course (well, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was interesting, too, but the class discussions about her were infuriating). I so need to read all of The Pillow Book, but I can’t decide which translation to read first.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Oh, the unfailing unceasing unpredictability and fascination and truth of this blog. Marvellous.

    (Also, would it make me a horrible person if I suggested that the reason priests are Things That Should Be Large is so the children can spot them from a safe distance? Possibly.)

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  7. EM wrote:

    So cool.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Sarah TX wrote:

    Oh man, I just realized that I’ve been holding on to the reader for that nonfiction memoir course FOR, LIKE, EVER (at least a decade) and just recently donated it to Goodwill as part of an effort to cut down on the number of books I cart around but never, ever read! See, this stuff DOES come in handy some day!

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  9. philosoraptor wrote:

    BBC Radio 4 has had a couple of full-cast audio dramatizations called “The Pillow Book”, in which Sei Shonagon (as voiced/acted by Ruth Gemmell) solves mysteries — including (cue music) the mysteries of her own heart. I wish I knew when they’d be on the air/online again.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  10. mulierosity wrote:


    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  11. steph wrote:

    Sei Shonagon is THE BEST I LOVE HER.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  12. I love this! And I love The Pillow Book – I first encountered it in a reader for a creative writing class, and absolutely loved it! The listing technique is firmly embedded in my writing style.

    Friday, June 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  13. Abigail wrote:

    Fascinating write-up of The Pillow Book, thank you. I am, however, not so sure what to make of this:

    Shonagon is a patron saint of the female Interblogs for many reasons. The reliance on voice and persona, the intimate nature of her work, the gossip, the wit

    It sounds like you’re saying that only women are drawn to confessional, diary-like writing, which I don’t think is true. The Pillow Book is obscured in Western culture by the diaries of men like Samuel Pepys and James Boswell (who, to be fair, were not writing for publication, but have nevertheless become renowned for being diarists). When I started reading blogs, my early favorites were witty, slightly gossipy and extremely popular ones by men who wrote about their lives and families – James Lileks, John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman. Maybe not exclusively, but it was certainly the reliance on voice and persona that got them their audience.

    By the same token, it’s clearly inaccurate to suggest that feelings and domesticity are exclusively the domain of female writers, while men write about “war, and politics, and careers, and swordfights, and occasionally landing on the motherfucking moon!” The modern literary establishment tends to frown on the latter topics, relegating them to the realm of pulp or genre, while literary fiction – whose stalwarts are still, though not as much as they used to be, men – focuses on the quotidian and domestic.

    The issue, I think, is not that certain subjects are lesser because they are the province of women, but that they become lesser the minute a woman touches them. You give the perfect example of The Corrections, the quintessential domestic novel whose author was scandalized at the thoughts of being exposed to a primarily female audience (though I don’t think this was purely an issue of gender. Class came into it too, and literary snobbery, and just in general the fact that the novel is mainly concerned with viciously mocking the very book club members who were now being urged to read it). And sometimes you can see this double standard within a writer’s own work – in the later stories of John Cheever, men who feel disaffected with middle class suburban life are grandly tragic, whereas women who feel the same are malicious slatterns.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 4:05 am | Permalink
  14. Jesse wrote:

    Thanks to this post, I totally got The Pillow Book out of the library today, and so far, so awesome! It’s a different translation than yours — one by a lady! Which I had to confirm after I started thinking about how Meredith has been a man’s name in the past.

    A lady with a gender-neutral name who is thinking about it again after reading today’s post…

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Permalink
  15. joffe wrote:

    Great post. The part about Shonagon’s “blogginess” cracked me up because when I was taking a course in Japanese literature, that’s the one comment everyone, both those who loved it and hated it, had to say about The Pillow Book. Our professor did indeed nearly have an aneurysm.

    It’s a shame though, because nearly everyone in that class thought that the Heian period was “boring” because the literature was all about “lady” things like courts and love and poetry and lacked the “badass” things like samurai and ninjas. I could ramble on about Japanese literature now, and how the Heian period is fascinating because the stories are really just as badass as the more popular samurai stories just using sex and gossip in the place of overt violence, but it doesn’t feel like the time.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink
  16. Thank you for writing this. As you can see, she’s kind of my obsession. 🙂

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  17. lijakaca wrote:

    My God this post is awesome, I never thought I’d see Sei Shonagon discussed on one of my favourite blogs! I read the Pillow Book several years ago when I was getting into Japanese stuff, and after being a little disappointed that it wasn’t a story in its own right, ended up appreciating it for its own sake (plus, it’s easy to pick up and read bits at random). I never even thought about the bloggy style (read it before they were popular), but it’s so true!
    Still trying to get through Genji though…

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  18. Sargassosea wrote:

    I still love you, Sady, for posts such as this.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  19. Danielle wrote:

    I read the Murasaki diary, and boy did she ever hate Shonagon. It was distracting and hilarious. “Today, made incense balls which will marinate in the earth for 40 days AND OH MY GAWD I HATE SONAGON!!”

    Friday, June 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  20. Liz Henry wrote:

    Yes – she is the bloggiest isn’t she?! I mentioned her in my list of anachro-blogging women!

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:57 am | Permalink
  21. Liz Henry wrote:

    oh also! you should see this awesomeness – Sei Shonagon LJ entries as if written today.

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 3:01 am | Permalink

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  1. links for 2010-06-08 « Embololalia on Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    […] Tiger Beatdown › What We Read When We Don’t Read The Internet PRESENTS! How Sei Shonagon Invente… It works the way patriarchy always works: We tell girls to do certain things (care about dating; care about motherhood; Be In Touch With Their Feelings), and then when they do them (care about dating enough to write about their dates; care about motherhood enough to start a mommy blog; Be so In Touch With Their Feelings that they consider those Feelings important enough to consider at length and then share with the world at large) we tell them that those activities are worthless and stupid and a waste of our time. (tags: patriarchy japan writing feminism books blogging female.authors sady.doyle non-white.authors) […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by eccentric yoruba, Noelle. Noelle said: How Sei Shonagon invented your Tumblr […]