brothercyst: the misogyny post (updated)

Monday, April 21, 2008

the misogyny post (updated)

So, wait, what do we mean when we call a writer misogynist? It seems like there are multiple possibilities and we could mean any combination of them.
  1. the writer (we'll assume he's male) actually believes women are inferior to men in terms of intellect, character, or skill
  2. the writer regards women in a purely sexual way and is indifferent to traits or talents tangential to sex appeal/lack thereof
  3. the writer identifies women with his mother/wife/girlfriend/whoever and takes out his frustrations with these women on his female characters
  4. the writer's inability or disinterest when it comes to writing nuanced female characters suggest a disinclination to regard women as thinking, feeling people
I think there are not many writers for whom #1 is consciously true. #2-4 are much more common and I think there's a reasonable argument to be made that they apply to certain writers listed below. But it's obviously more complicated than that. Probably Tammy Bruce from the NYTimes article linked below would argue that Bret Easton Ellis is guilty of #3--he's taking out his hatred of real world women on his female characters. But I don't think the novel really supports that. You come away with a sense that Ellis hates and despises the narrator, Bateman, even though he exults in writing in Bateman's voice. It's fun and cathartic to write in the voice of a monstrous character. And because Ellis is (or was) such a good, disciplined writer, he never flinches out of his immersion in the character to give you a "moral" moment. To do so would be palliative but dishonest.

And I think a lot of the authors below, especially John Fowles and James Salter, are semi-guilty of #2 in that they see women as sexual beings first. (I feel self-conscious about this sometimes when writing. Can I describe a female character as beautiful or in a sexual context without subtly diminishing her as a character in some way?) But what does that mean, really? Does that mean they can't also portray her as intelligent and nuanced? Come on. No. Fowles writes great female characters. Miranda Grey in The Collector and Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant's Woman may be described as beautiful, but they're as complex as any male characters he ever wrote. And Salter--who I've heard dissed for making the young French girl in A Sport and a Pastime just a "sexual prop"--is beyond criticism in this regard as far as I'm concerned. He writes women elegantly and empathetically--read "My Lord You" from Last Night, or Light Years.

A lot of male writers, though, are guilty of #4. That's the most insidious one. Hemingway is the ultimate guilty party here, I think. He just did not care much about women. He cared about men doing man things, and the rest was trivial. Ellis is similar--while I don't think he hates women, I don't sense that he much cares about them. Some of the women in Rules of Attraction and the letter-writing girl in The Informers are interesting... but not that interesting. I don't know. I feel like Martin Amis struggles terribly hard to overcome this problem but it still plagues him. I don't think he's ever written a female character who interested me much as a human being. I feel like he's conscious about this, though. On the last page of his first novel The Rachel Papers--in one of its funniest passages--he even satirizes the attempt of an astoundingly self-absorbed young man to write fiction centering on a female character. His narrator, Charles Highway, begins writing a novel that starts like this:

"In the dressing table mirror Ruth saw her idiot teddybear and her idiot golliwog propped against the pillows, staring from behind[....] She looked down at the rubble of hopeless, pointless makeup and looked up again. She leaned forward, fingering the barely perceptible lump on her chin. She smiled. If that wasn't a pre-menstrual spot, she thought... what was?"

******
from earlier:

Read the comments on the last post. Slatted Light posed a question and it made me think about the distressingly high number of "great" (considered at least by some to be part of the very recent canon, I guess) male writers, including some of my favorite ones, who have at one time or another, wrongly or rightly, been accused of misogyny based on their books.

Philip Roth (whose books I have never managed to get through more than a couple pages of...my eyes seem to slide off the words)

Charles Bukowski (never really read him)

Norman Mailer (loved Executioner's Song, haven't really loved anything else)

Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho and The Informers: in my personal canon) ..."We will press this boycott very hard," said Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter. "This is not art. Mr. Ellis is a confused, sick young man with a deep hatred of women who will do anything for a fast buck. And Mr. Mehta is worse. Ellis could have gone on writing until he choked on his own vomit if Vintage had not agreed to publish this misogynistic garbage." Mr. Ellis said he had received 13 anonymous death threats, including several with photographs of him in which his eyes have been poked out or an axe drawn through his face. "It's a little dismaying," he commented. He went on: "Bateman is a misogynist. In fact, he's beyond that, he is just barbarous. But I would think most Americans learn in junior high to differentiate between the writer and the character he is writing about. People seem to insist I'm a monster. But Bateman is the monster. I am not on the side of that creep..."

Martin Amis (many of his novels suck, but he is astoundingly smart and I love House of Meetings, Time's Arrow, and The Rachel Papers; and all his nonfiction is terrific)

Saul Bellow (I admire his writing and have never finished a single one of his novels)

John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman, I think, really neutralizes all criticism in this regard. I love this guy--loved The Magus, The Collector, Mantissa--which Amis hilariously mocked in one of his reviews--and The Ebony Tower; also, for what it's worth, he writes the best physical descriptions of women I know of, better even than James Salter.)

James Salter (not a misogynist, just a romantic)

Well, that was certainly an ethnocentric list. And yes, I know there are many more where they came from; those are just off the top of my head.

29 comments:

Kati S said...

Hmm, it's definitely true that at least one of these guys doesn't think of women as real people, but there are enough lousy, shallow females out there that it's not completely wrong-headed. I think more than misogyny, just not knowing how to write a complex female character is what's rampant--and if your character is self-absorbed, as so many of these writers' character are (not necessarily a bad thing), it's not surprising that the females are less than fully dimensional. And I think BEE defends himself well. Not so easily defensible is the film industry, in which both men AND women apparently have considerable difficulty writing decent stories for and about women.
And I gotta say, in my humble opinion, if The Plot Against America is anything to go by, Philip Roth is the most overrated "literary" writer I've read, um, ever.

Nick said...

Is there one you have in mind specifically, or do you just mean that statistically one of them has to be a misogynist? If it's the latter, I'm kind of with you. I don't know. I have a hard time writing female characters--a harder time than male characters, at least, if just because it's not "intuitive" in the same way.

paula said...

Philip Roth is great! Give him another chance! Read Zuckerman Unbound (which consists of The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Bound, The Anatomy Lessons and The Prague Orgy.) Also, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and Sabbath's Theater (read it twice, it's so fun) are all good books. I don't like his Kepesh books, really. Also, The Facts, his fakish autobiography is very interesting. Whether or not he's misogynist can better be discovered by reading his ex-wife's book, In A Doll's House. I love his work- but I wouldn't want to be married to him.

Misogyny in literature is a must because it is a fact of the world we live in. Literature - "realistic" literature can portray this - like it can portray war, death and other sad or "bad" things.

What kills me is the freaking out about American Psycho. I loved the book. How could anyone notunderstand that he was CRITISIZING vapid materialism and that Bateman was supposed to be a monster? I don't get it.

And, whether or not any of these writers are mispgynist shouldn't really be an issue. Who cares about their personal lives? It's sort of like caring whether or not Clinton cheated on his wife- I'm just not sure if it's relevant.

I have a story up at sub-lit.com that offended editors- one editor asked me if I was a "bad mother". This is FICTION- how could an editor or a literary magazine ask me such a thing?

Anyway, I look forward to Strangelets- it's sounds great.

Kati S said...

I manhandled that comment a bit, but yeah, I meant statistically--particularly among the older/deader/more crotchety writers.
And Paula, I know, I know, everyone loves Philip Roth. I'm sure I'll come around some day. It's just my misfortune that the first book I read of his did not live up to the hype. I have similar Pynchon problems.

paula said...

I read Pynchon's short story collection- Slow Beginner, is that what its called? I thought they were good, but after page 120 of Gravity's Rainbow, I thought, why bother? I'm OK with that- I can't love every writer. Taste is what it is. I do think, though, that The Plot Against America or Portnoy's Complaint don't represent Roth's genuis. He's not as prolific as say, JC Oates, but he has his lesser works, for sure.

Oh, and I must add that I love Bukowski very much. To call him misogynist is besides the point. He's so messed up in so many ways- but youy love him anyway, or you don't. I feel for his characters and for him.

Colin Holter said...

When I first started reading Pynchon, it started out as a kind of character-building exercise. This was a few years ago. Now I do it because I really love the stuff. Haven't read Slow Learner, but I've been through each of the novels at least once.

For what it's worth, I never suspected Ellis of misogyny in Glamorama, but the execrable Lunar Park had a whiff or two of it, I thought.

Nick said...

Well, Lunar Park certainly smelled of something.

paula said...

I love it! The myriad ways in which male writers are misogynist! Very well thought out and sort of funny.

Here's a question: If a man has issues with women, and is a writer, should he not expose or address these issues in his work?

Eric Shonkwiler said...

I think you've got it nailed. Number 4 seems an unfair, though real, critique. Subject matter is the choice of the author. And while it may indicate a disregard for women, the work itself shouldn't be blamed--and I think the author shouldn't, either. I'd rather read a book without women than a book with poorly written women. Being politically correct makes for compromised art.

ERIN NEWBY said...

I haven’t read much from this side of 1950 so I’m not placed to comment on the authors you mention. But I don’t think it’s misogyny, or not always. Certainly not in the Ellis/Bateman case. I’d argue that empathy is at the heart of great writing. So we avoid writing about people we can’t ‘get,’ or we simplify them or frame them through the eyes of another character and excuse it that way. Women claim (questionably) that they’re better at empathizing with men than vice versa, but female writers don’t, I reckon, write good men, and they often craft storylines around a uniquely female experience – rape, abuse, motherhood. We, like men, stay where we feel safe, where we feel we can own something. I can’t sneer at this – there’s probably going to be a rape in my book.

The only author I’ve ever read whose gender I wouldn’t have guessed is George Eliot.

Even the very best male writers idealize/simplify female characters, generally through their beauty and their approach to sex. Historically, the greats (whatever that means – I mean Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy here) were able to write interesting women, or more often balance the dull ones with a complex counterpoint (indeed, this is a Shakespearean trademark - Desdemona/Emelia, Hero/Beatrice, Bianca/Catherine...). They’re always pretty, though, which is irritating and smacks of misogyny despite good intentions. Wilkie Collins was one of the few who wrote brilliant, ugly women (see Marian in The Woman in White).

I didn’t read the other comments because I didn’t have time, so if I’ve just repeated what someone else wrote, probably more coherently than me, sorry.

ERIN NEWBY said...

fuck. that's an enormous comment. apologies.

Nick said...

Lengthy comments are good.

Paula, I'm always leery of thinking writers should or shouldn't do anything except in the most useless generic terms like "should try to write the best novel he or she can" which doesn't even mean anything (but reminds me of a funny moment in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway writes that when he read the ms of Gatsby "I was very happy for Scott because I knew that if he could write a book this could then he could write an even better one"...of course A Moveable Feast came out decades later and Hemingway knew very well that Fitzgerald had never written a book considered better than Gatsby.)

So yeah, should or shouldn't is thin ice... but I know it's always kind of *interesting* when a writer both has lots of talent and seems to be struggling with internal fires that bleed into the writing... I don't know. The answer definitely isn't that the writer should try to hide and write only innocuous material.

Eric, agreed. That said I admire writers who can write men and women with equal facility, like Richard Yates. But I have to admit I'd rather read American Psycho again than read Revolutionary Road again, although I did like RR and will read other Yates books.

Erin, did you read any Alicia Erian? I know your tastes tend toward less recent stuff but I think you'd like her. I can lend them once I get them back from another friend. Also I agree with much of what you wrote but here's an interesting exception (as there always will be): Patricia Highsmith. She did pretty well with male characters, no?

paula said...

Highsmith, yes, and what about Flannery O'Connor? I thought Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was not very much a typical woman's book. But Erin's point- that women tend to write about womanly stuff and men write better about manly stuff- is most likely true. Hardy is a very good example of a man who writes great women. And what of DHC Lawrence? I also think that Erin has a point that- though not always- when dealing with greatness, you have writers who can write a complex character, male or female.

Yates has great female characters and he has his mother issues as well. I find it interesting, Nick, that you would want to reread American Psycho rather than RR. More entertaining? Or that it's a "better" book?

And, yes, when people have problems and those problems bleed into their work- let's say Bukowski here- this can make for good books. Bukowski's misogyny is of the bothness variety - the love and the need for, the hate and resentment for needing and wanting women for the power they have over him -- the desire and disgust, which often go hand and hand-- it's just rich, rich stuff.

Alicia Erian is very balanced- I agree with you there. But now I'm picking my brain for oldentimes writer ladies who do more than domestic stuff....

paula said...

I thought of other writers that do men well but they are all more or less contemporary-
Joyce Carol Oates-the brilliant story "upon the sweeping flood" comes to mind and so does a novel - the title I can't remember-
Samantha Gillison- The King Of America, her second novel, is brilliant-but her first one, The Undiscovered Country is also occasionally told from the POV of the father figure


But here's a thought. Jane Austen really writes about womanly issues from a very specific time period- but I love her male characters and they are central, complex, varied, etc...So, even though many men wouldn't want to read her books, because of their themes, i would argue that she does a good job of making male characters. but I'm open to disagreement on that.

slatted light said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
slatted light said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
slatted light said...

Hey Nick. Wow, okay, this became quite the discussion. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you and the deletes above. I found the comments and posts really interesting. They really helped me refine my thoughts. This will probably be long-winded so I’ll give you a heads up in advance. I won’t go in any order really on what I want to say.

First off, I think I agree that offensiveness can be a legitimate artistic goal and that the legitimacy rests in a sort of tangled relationship with the cultural climate, such as tackling social attitudes and political policies that cause suffering or humiliation or pain, like you said. To go from what Eric (quite reasonably) said above, though, I’m suspicious and cynical about this idea that "being politically correct makes for compromised art". Political correctness is treated as some kind of deficiency in thinking, where judgments of right and wrong are made from some angle or position or a site of interest that is coloured by partisan desires. Set off against this is some kind of vague and always unspecified 'thing', like a state we have in mind, of a 'correct correctness' which proceeds from either no angle or partisan placement, or, if we are aware enough to admit that it does, is still righteous in doing so. What I don’t get is this romance that we can never not be partisan which I feel is at work in the idea of bucking political correctness. By 'partisan', I mean that all of us, as partial preceptors and knowers of our world, cannot see truth directly and so we adhere to a presentation of it - a vocabulary we use to describe it - that is 'politically correct', not 'correct correct' not least in the sense that it generates a certain form and performance for our ideas that another person would experience and develop in an entirely different way. It can only ever be ‘political’ in its correctness in this sense because the way in which our partial minds work is to commit us to truths that many, many others don’t share.

When people talk about PC, they’re talking about a specific invention largely created by the political Right in the nineteen eighties. However, it’s become so ubiquitous now that it doesn’t really matter what your political stripe is. Everyone pretty much justifies any offensive thing they say as a strike against political correctness. Maybe sometimes they're right. For me, the problem with is giving the finger to PC as a justification in a broad sense is that it’s totally conventional, not brave in the least and is often pretty unethical in allowing people to just say the shittiest, least considered things to the peoples least able to defend themselves and then claim this is some sterling blow against an invisible thought police in the name of freedom of imagination and speech. It really bothers me. I mean that I think people have forgotten that PC, if it ever existed in the form of a prohibition on speech rather than a reformulation of what would be deemed acceptable as publically sponsored and enfranchised speech, was meant to grant the power to historically injured people to respond in a language of hurt to offensive things that were passing as 'Truth' in society. Now, any claim that something is 'racist' or 'sexist' or 'homophobic' or whatever else is met almost immediately by (a) some belief that no one in this day and age (or no one we know and like at least) is actually ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ or ‘homophobic’ or whatever else because, strangely enough, we depend on PC to provide us with that alibi and (b) that if some things are said or done by artists or politicians or comedians or public figures or whoever else that offend, this is only ever some contribution to a process that makes us more free and better people, some bucket of water added to a well of abstraction, like words do nothing at all and don't even matter.

It’s not that I’m saying that people should have a legal right or something that allows them to protect themselves from being offended by art. Lots of people probably would want that when it comes to art they don’t like, the Christian fundamentalist movement being the obvious, stereotyped example that comes to my mind right now. I don’t think they should get it even though in the case of the Christian fundamentalists, they often do already. What I mean to say is I find the idea of some kind of doctrinaire restrictions placed on artistic expression abhorrent enough. And as a friend said to me in another conversation, to develop a citizenry that is free of offense is to devalue an index of a functional society.

I don’t, however, think that this function of society to tolerate art to transgress and provoke and alarm (which is a vital thing art does) is thus a blank check for people - especially artists - to stop considering the impact that their offensiveness may have, and to analyse it within a framework of other ideas and reflexive thinking about what it wants to achieve and what 'good' purpose it may have. In a sense, the offensiveness has to be more than just flip slander dressed up as edgy counterthought. If I’m to be offended, I want to be able to learn something from that offence, not have my experience narrowed down to a feeling of worthlessness, not be labeled into nothingness by names.

I know that defining what this principle would mean in practice is pretty hard to work out. For instance, I don’t find Ellis 'misogynist' on any count. Some did at the time his book was released. They might not now. But I guess I don't think it ever was. I even think the women he writes about can be really fascinating in the context of the way in which he tends to deploy his characters in his novels. The one that occurs to me is the girl who commits suicide at the very heart of The Rules of Attraction. How utterly little she matters is precisely what makes her death so irresolvably vexed and troubling in that otherwise so-so novel. Her sheer insignificance to the plot is the point. As for American Psycho, it is carefully littered with moral commentaries of all sorts, not least the expected response of the reader to the limits pushed in the book: namely, disgust. Ellis mobilizes PC feelings to re-establish offence at really disgusting actions as a grounds for ethical feeling, for outrage at the marginalization and ongoing dehumanization of certain groups of people. More than that, in a time where we are told that all sorts of prejudice has supposedly withered away, he uses his fiction to draw out the sheer violence still out there, still at work, still officially empowered and sanctioned. As such, trying to gentrify the offensiveness of the book disarms its critique.

Bateman is fun, of course. The particular nihilism he represents is always compelling, stimulating, even sexy. That’s the intention. If ‘strong’ women appeared in any obvious way in a book like American Psycho (and ‘strength’ is not the best way to read what women do in this book; as I see it, ‘struggle’ is), you would be granting to Bateman’s utter solipsism a reflectiveness it should not have. I think the way that Ellis does convey a sense of reflectiveness, or moral commentary, in the book is via his decisions at the level of language and the incidents of plot (plus the sheer banality or extremity of them), such as the brutal killing of the homeless guy. He doesn’t leave us just inside Bateman’s head but performs a more complex double act. The scene with the rat, for instance, is written in such lush prose because anything other than that would not be offensive enough to really horrify on the level Ellis needs, to keep us gratified and locked in with Bateman and so a part of this thing, while simultaneously to excoriate and disgust, distress, whatever else, our ethical sensibilities into life. Ellis lays down tracks across the book that convey a context in which Bateman’s violence takes place, a very political one, and he offers external signs to guide us, such as (most obviously) the ‘graffiti’ that bookends the novel, which are really Ellis’ direct statements on the whole affair. In that regard, I think American Psycho is a book very conscious of what it wants from its offences.

Though I defend Ellis, I see Mailer and Roth as really crude and reductive toward women. I just read The Plot Against America recently and god, in a book where there are just so many things wrong, not least the peculiar presentation of a fascism in America exclusive focussed on Jews (African-Americans, apparently, have no worries in this new America), the treatment of the Jewish woman, Evelyn, who collaborates with the administrayion - in a novel where almost every male has such ambiguous, dense motivations - is due to not much more than - as Roth writes - "the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others". Please. Is there no self-awareness on Roth's part about what a cliche of feminine 'wiles' this is? If this was actually the best one of America’s ‘greatest’ writers could actually do, US literature would be in such trouble it wouldn’t even be funny. I’m getting off track though. What my point is that basically someone could probably come along and defend Roth and maybe do good work of it, and convince me he isn’t what I think he is. Maybe. But honestly, I don’t think, in writing a sentence like that, or the other stuff that surrounds it, Roth felt much of anything about how chauvinistic this is. It probably just felt 'true' to the character as he perceived her or whatever garbage allows this shit talk to take place. I would say that not only does Roth belong in #4 on your schema but that #4 is actually not very substantively different from #1. Or it’s kind of like how #1 does business these days.

Paula’s comment interested me. The idea that the editors asked her if she was a 'bad mother' based on a fiction she wrote is very typical, in a sense, not so much that there was a content to her story that they found offensive but, rather, that they could not draw out in their mind the difference between writer and writing. It was also a distinctly misogynistic thing to say, in a way. I don’t really think a male supplicant would have been asked based on the story if they were a 'bad father'. Granted, this is intuitive. If they had offended the editors at all, they would have no doubt been thought of as a 'bad person'. Some shit refuses to change.


I don’t agree with Paula’s suggestion that misogyny in literature is something we have to live with though. There’s a difference between representing something like misogyny critically and simply being misogynistic that I think Paula is missing. It’s the difference I see between Roth and Ellis above.

Strangelets doesn’t sound really offensive to people who are obese. It sounds like it is intended to interrogate the discourse around obesity that presents it as a spectaularised 'disease' cut off from social circumstances that inform it and ask questions about the caricaturised 'meme' it's become, as you say. In a way, I like the idea of fat people striking back. They should. They’re so consistently ridiculed.

I don’t know if this response was very coherent. It wandered a lot. I think I should probably stop now though because it’s way too long already. Thanks for the thoughts, Nick. Very interesting stuff.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

Slatted: While I think you misunderstood my meaning, it was a very valuable misunderstanding in that you've outlined some great points about the subject.

It's my opinion that a writer should not have to write with the idea in their head that they need to please everyone. By having that voice, that finger wagging, a work can be brought down. I didn't mean that a writer shouldn't worry about being offensive --creating offense, that is-- but a writer shouldn't have to worry about what's lacking creating offense. Imagine a writer trying to please everyone by including a cast of characters in which are included a woman, an African-American, a homosexual, a transvestite, a Mormon...ad nauseum, simply because the author felt the pressure to represent these people, regardless of their actual need in a text? I'm being a bit facetious, but I hope it gets the point across.

On a sidenote, for a long time I believe I thought that Mary Shelley was a man, and Mary was simply like Leslie or Ashley, at the time an androgynous name, because I simply thought Frankenstein was written by a man. But, also, after having read it, I thought it wasn't worth much written by either gender.

paula said...

"For me, the problem with is giving the finger to PC as a justification in a broad sense is that it’s totally conventional, not brave in the least and is often pretty unethical in allowing people to just say the shittiest, least considered things to the peoples least able to defend themselves and then claim this is some sterling blow against an invisible thought police in the name of freedom of imagination and speech. It really bothers me."

I'm quoting slatted light because this is really good stuff.

But Eric's point is a must, too.

"It's my opinion that a writer should not have to write with the idea in their head that they need to please everyone. By having that voice, that finger wagging, a work can be brought down."

I think both these reasonings can exist together.

ERIN NEWBY said...

Nick, no, I haven’t read Erian, although you’ve mentioned her to me before. I’d be glad to raid your library.

Paula, good point on Shelley, although I agree with Eric that Frankenstein is, although quite gender-neutral, also quite shite. Whereas Eliot wrote men and women, and everything else, with genius. Yes, Hardy was an awesome writer of complicated, lovable women – Jude the Obscure’s Sue in particular – but, as I said, they’re almost always gorgeous, too. Men like us to be witty and complex, but by God, we’d better do it with a button nose and child-bearing hips...

Eric also raises an interesting point about writing ‘away’ from oneself, beyond gender. I was thinking about this on the subway this morning. How seldom it is that we tackle, successfully, characters who do not share our sexuality or race.

slatted light said...

Hey Eric. I didn't mean to take target at you in the last post. Your thought just gave me my launching pad to orient myself toward the broad type of thinking I wanted to engage. So I hope you didn't feel like I was trying to have a personal stab at you or anything. And thank you for the kind words. I hope I said some valuable things. I think this conversation has been very valuable so far.

I actually think I did understand your original point or else the clarification you offered here doesn't seem to contradict what I said above. I should have said what I’m about to say more clearly in the original post but ha, it was pretty grossly long already.

I said in my comment above that when it comes to political correctness, people have another unclarified thing in their mind they hold it up against, a 'correct correctness', in which thought proceeds from “either no angle or partisan placement, or, if we are aware enough to admit that it does, is still righteous in doing so.” I italicise the last part because this is where I believe I understood what you were saying correctly. I think it’s a fairly uncontroversial premise that when people criticise political correctness they are thinking that they are not politically correct but, at the same time, nor are they racist, or sexist, or homophobic or whatever else either. In this ‘middle’ state, they are thinking they are correct correct.

However, it may happen that they take things one step further and will admit that they are themselves partial and partisan, not in possession of a ‘correct correctness’ but to hold on to the ‘integrity’ of the position as something other than ‘politically correct’ themselves, they’ll say something like, “Ah yes, my perspective is limited but precisely because of that, I can’t be expected to retain my creative independence and liberty when I have to continually take into account the feelings of one ‘identity group’ after another.” Now, I want to be clear. I’m not trying to make any personal comment about you. I think you seem engaged with this conversation and very open to discussion so I’m not saying anything about you as a person or writer. I’m talking about a wider logic, not your own, social in nature, that perhaps frames the idea you’re expressing here. The problem with this idea of” how am I meant to take into account so many different feelings?” is actually the idea behind that: the idea of creative independence. Artists, as far as I’m concerned, should not be creatively independent but, more importantly, already are not. Their imagination is harnessed to a very specific array of preferences and thoughts and allegiances that constitute how that imagination can work and play. Now, this isn’t to say that the imagination is exclusively the effect of one’s ‘politics’ or ‘prejudices’ or whatever. I’m not trying to say we have no creativity. I feel the imagination is far more complex than that and believe it has what Gilles Deleuze called the power to open ‘lines of flight’ or to ‘minoritize discourse’, or, in other words, to use its flexibility and dexterity to open means of seeing things anew or to evacuate ideologies from the inside out. However, this is not an ‘independence’. It isn’t free of external factors; it negotiates them, it dodges, attacks, subverts, impedes and revises them. BUT for someone who is happy to agree that they are partisan but still thinks that their ‘creative independence’ as an artist is all their own and is not subject already to the world around them, the imagination is supposedly some kind of thing outside reality altogether. All things are in reality, as far as I’m concerned. All things are thus touched by reality. The imagination is not free in this sense because it is real.

Now I wanted to lay that groundwork out to to come directly to your points. You said that: “a writer shouldn't have to worry about what's lacking creating offense. Imagine a writer trying to please everyone by including a cast of characters in which are included a woman, an African-American, a homosexual, a transvestite, a Mormon...ad nauseum, simply because the author felt the pressure to represent these people, regardless of their actual need in a text?”

I must admit: I do find this a bit facetious, sorry to say. Obviously, it’s not that you’d have to include a cast of characters that took into account every single minority ever. That sort of phoney liberal pluralism is impossible anyway and if it was the only goal of fiction - sheer inclusion – it would defeat the purpose of what inclusion is all about. All you’d have to do is count heads. What you’re talking about here isn’t even really political correctness, I don’t think, but something like the lip service solution that steps in and lets people not have to really deal with diversity. So, of course I agree that no one expects a writer to sit down and tally up a chart of minorities then lump them all in. However, if artists are going to include minorities of whatever kind in their work, there is a onus of responsibility on them to actually give this some thought and not just think they are at unfettered liberty to pick and choose how they want to represent Others free of any consideration of the context – broadly speaking – that constitutes the experience of those others. For instance, you may write a story with a black gas attendant who features briefly. Fine. Good even. But what can be made of this connection in the story between ‘black’ and ‘gas attendant’ even briefly? How do I avoid or perhaps draw attention to stereotypes and clich├ęs that surround this idea of the lower-class African-American male. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have to consider these things on some level if you want to include this person in your writing. Writing involves these very particular decisions on the tiniest levels as a matter of course and so I hardly see this as an obstacle to ever completing your work, nor a demanding voice harping. It is empathy. It is critical intelligence. It is insight and respect. It is, in other words, the very reasons you’re probably writing at all.

I don’t think – or at least can’t recall – any controversy that’s started up in recent times where authors have been criticised about leaving minority characters out of their literature. I don’t think that happens very often as a critique of authors. In a way, the problem is not so much that minorities have ever been left out of literature but that their representation has been stolen by art. I could be wrong but I feel critiques tend to centre more often toward this, how something is represented rather than why it is not. I’ll return to that in a little more detail below. But to take a handy example of someone criticising an author for an ‘oversight’, I’ll develop part of my own criticism of Philip Roth that I made above. I did make the claim, in a manner of speaking, that a writer should worry about what’s lacking creating offence but in a different way from the example you gave. I didn’t say that Roth should have included absolutely every minority group in his book but I did object to Roth leaving African-Americans out of The Plot Against America. Why? It’s not just because he neglects a demographic too indispensable to miss (I must say I find remarkable how prevalent the idea still is in American society that any book about ‘America’ as a national entity can also simultaneously not be about African-Americans on some level) but because he totally falsifies and gargles the nature of fascism. Fascists or Nazis spread out their violence against minorities in an extended network, disenfranching not just any one group but the plurality of them, which is the point. Their aim is to purify identity. This is also Roth’s topic in his novel. He basically says that efforts to force ‘minorities’ to conform to national identity causes identity to become more distant from them and inaccessible because however they look, are and act, they always already are Americans; in a democracy, by being themselves they are being appropriately ‘national’. But he misses a critical point. Roth exclusively focuses on the Jews. Now, this is not wrong in the sense that Jewish people would definitely have suffered if a fascist administration came to power in America. And it’s obviously not wrong in reference to the European context where the Jewish were the prime subjects of the gradual march or radicalisation toward the Holocaust. But what it shows is a breathtaking arrogance as well because in Roth’s world - a world he wishes to present to us in highly ‘realist’ prose, and in a book which wishes to make deep philosophical points about the nature of totalitarianism, persecution and political power – there is not one reference to the group in this context that would be the real ‘American Jews’: namely, African-Americans. This idea that all Jews everywhere in the thirties were somehow equally endangered is bizarre and non-factual. But for some reason, it’s simply okay for Roth to take a very vexed and specific historical happening like the Holocaust (or the threat of the Holocaust) and just dump it in America. The book may have been different if he’d thought in terms of where Jewish persons may have been placed in relation to other minorities in a real fascist administration. It may have been very powerful if it had tried to make links and connections – heck, even rivalries for favour – and to explore resistance across and among minorities but no. This inability to see the connection between what he leaves out and what he tries to do cripples the book. For instance, his attempts to try and critically engage political paranoia fall flat on their face because in his America, it is the Jews and only the Jews that are under threat. So all the paranoid excess in the novel is – by Roth’s own premise, no matter how much he winks at us and keeps his tongue in his cheek – true. The critic, Paul Berman, who – to be transparent – I’ll say that I don’t like but who liked this book – argues this novel deals in the age-old Jewish fear of prosecution, the way fear is almost in the DNA of a Jewish minority. Fine, but that fear is old but not always true. Europe cannot be just dumped in this case into America. Or, if it is to be, it has to at least look like America, no? Or else what good does this book do at all? So, the ultimate point I’m making is that Roth’s fiction is even more fictional than he’s willing to allow and the scenario he’s attempting to make is utterly undermined by his lack of understanding first off that (a) persecution under fascism works in tandem across many ‘undesirables’ to destroy plurality itself; and (b) that you can’t ‘just’ plant a Jewish perspective onto a ‘fictional’ American context and make it the centre of prosecution without thinking about the history. If you don’t do this, you really misinform readers about the nature of minority suffering in the thirties and forties (which this book, whether it likes it or not, has decided to deal with), about fascist oppression, about violence and political conduct in the American context. It’s not that I’m saying Roth is prohibited to write a tale like this from the position of a Jew. It’s the utter refusal to think beyond that simple starting point or to have to think you even need to think beyond that. That’s ‘creative independence’ at work. And it’s Roth’s decision to not even tackle this question of Others in any way – in short, the lack of what he did – that to me, at any rate, gives grounds for offence.

Oh god. This is too long. Okay. Let me wrap this up. I was going to say something about your other comment that ‘you’d rather read a book without women that a book with poorly written women’. I can see where you’re coming from with this because I feel the same way myself (based on whatever idea it is that I have in my head about what exactly a ‘poorly written woman’ is) and so I kind of agree. At least I do with the qualification that I wouldn’t want to see no books be read without women. And plenty of good books are always being written about women – by both men and women – that, if we’re serious about this as a reading criteria, can be gotten with ease. Lesbian literature, for instance, abounds with examples: the one that leaps to mind for me right this instance is Djuna Barnes or Heather Lewis. But the thing is this ‘option’ of writing a book with no women seems a little problematic to me, if the option is once again thought of as being free of consequence due to ‘creative independence’. It’s not that it’s ‘wrong’ to write a book with no women. Cormac McCarthy does this regularly and I don’t think the lack of women in his novels has any role in diminishing the quality of the work he produces. McCarthy’s books are not on the whole hostile to women; in fact, there’s a good case to be made that there’s some kind of haunting in these books by the very absence of them. They are mentioned and discoursed about if not seen – which is really the heart of the matter in many of the landscapes McCarthy presents. This is my point. Women are accounted for in a thought out way in his books; he has given his artistic choice consideration based on what he wants to represent and how. As another example, obviously, a lot of very good writers who happen to be gay do the same, write books without women. Once again, this seems okay perhaps because the subject is directed toward accounting for male-male desire. However, questions of male identity are often worked into gay literature too and so the issue of women is also dealt with in a way that can be very productive. What I’m saying is that the absence of any ‘group’ does not have to make a book exclusionary, this is true. We don’t have to plot a pie chart for each novel of every group we feel we should include. But this is not an empty earth either and I don’t know if it’s ethical to just remake it in ways that ‘leave out’ certain peoples in certain contexts the imagination wishes to create where they have a claim to be there. I don’t even know if it’s ethical to do them disservice of thinking there is even an actual ‘option’ of leaving them out. What some people try and make you think of as a wagging finger is, in fact, from another point of view the world. Art wants to do things with the world. It needs to think about who and what is in it.

Anyhow. Sorry. Your eyes are probably crossed over, if you didn’t drift off halfway through. Plus, although this is only the comments section, I feel like I’m taking over Nick’s blog. Anyway, thanks, Eric. I’d better go.

paula said...

Don't judge Roth by one of his worst books! Or do, if you want to, I guess, but The Plot Against America is just not good on many levels. The Breast was ass bad, too, as were a bunch of his others. But I stand by his great trilogy (with a bonus novella), Zuckerman Unbound. Brilliant stuff. Anyway, I alread listed the books of his I like-

No one liked Frankenstein! I wrote a short paper on how it was all about Shelley coming to grips with her stillborn, possibly deformed, child. I liked the book. But at least we all agree it was very gender neutral.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

Slat: I'll be extremely brief. No, you didn't offend me in the slightest. I hope I didn't offend you. Wonderful, beautiful, insightful argument. But I wonder if at times you give writers too much credit. McCarthy said in his Oprah interview, when questioned about his writing women: "Women are tough. I don't pretend to understand women." I really think that with gifted writers a lot of the things "we" readers talk about falls into their lap. That's not to say McCarthy isn't talented--trust me, I'm a huge fan. Nor others. But there's simply no way every idea people come up with is represented in the author's mind.

Longer than I thought. Probably not as good as I'd like. Sorry about that.

Nick said...

Paula, when I say I'd rather re-read American Psycho than Revolutionary Road, I think what I mean is that when I finished RR, I said, "Wow, that was a very skillful, empathetic, intelligent book written by a craftsman who makes it feel effortless," and when I finished reading AP, I said, "HOLY FUCKING SHIT." You go back for the adrenaline, you know?

Slatted Light, there is no possibly way I can respond to all your points with the thoroughness they deserve (or I'd fail to get to my own writing and maybe have to take the day off work tomorrow) but I did read them carefully. I think the concept of PC has been so distorted and co-opted, like the concept of feminism, that it becomes something many if not most people have an immediate suspicion of or at the very least are ambivalent about. (Feminism is a more complex case though, and it's even more true of feminism that when they hear the word, people are just wary because they're truly not sure how it's being defined.) And it's easier to make PC into an abstract enemy ("liberal mother figures are trying to sanitize our speech and smother free thought!") than it is to consider the delicate, in-flux relationship between what hurts but must be said and what is gratuitous but cloaked in righteousness. I think that you nailed it with precision and economy when you wrote, "In a sense, the offensiveness has to be more than just flip slander dressed up as edgy counterthought." (Which, incidentally, is an excellent articulation of my feelings about the "eat a dick fagtron" comments...which seems like a long time ago now.)

I like how you arrive at your distinction between Roth and Ellis.

Any writer who has an idea in his/her head of pleasing everyone is just going nowhere...just courting depression and self-loathing.

"Men like us to be witty and complex, but by God, we’d better do it with a button nose and child-bearing hips..." Yes.

Slatted Light, out of curiosity since I don't know you outside this online context at all...what do you do? You headbirth massive amazing paragraphs that are virtually typo-free, totally coherent, exhaustive, and relentlessly thoughtful. (I like them, obviously.)

Eric, your last comment made me think about something I've wondered about before. (Not trying to start up another huge discussion...but maybe I'll post about it at some point.) I think some writers do just sort of do their thing and shrug off issues to which others give great consideration, letting their voice/instincts guide them almost completely...and some writers put tremendous thought into every nuance and aspect of their creation. The former have adrenaline and the latter have discipline. I'd say Vonnegut is in the former class and Nabokov in the latter. My question is, who are the writers who have produced great work by "accident"? Who just sort of shrugged and felt like writing something and had the raw energy to sit down and churn it out but didn't quite know what they had until later? If I remember Jospeh Heller's memoir correctly, he seemed to regard himself as that sort of writer.

slatted light said...

Thanks, Nick. I agree. It is easier to make an abstract enemy out of PC than get into a refined process of considering things like gratuity and justice in things you write or make. But just like with feminism, things like PC have been made to seem so dense and obfuscated and militant by people that oppose them for reactionary reasons that others who think they are 'fair' toward minorities or whatever or are – broadly speaking – on the 'liberal left' avoid a real dialogue with these things and even bother to try and find out what they might mean anymore. I think people think they know what 'PC' is – just like they think they know what 'feminism' is – and it’s the knowledge without any kind of introspection, engagement or asking of questions to find out more information that is so completely typical and boringly old about what is lauded as 'free speech' today.

Pleasing everybody is an abstraction of sorts. No one - even the most 'self-conscious' of writers - ever thinks of 'everybody' anyway when they write and couldn’t no matter how much they thought. I mean you could not think of everyone even if you wanted to in your entire life. But I don’t think this is a basis for not thinking about one's own writing from as many perspectives as can occur to you within the limited context of your own 'politically correct' partial perspective.

I find depression and self-loathing are interesting bases for art. These are where I write from, though I'm not suggesting that I create 'art'. I have been thinking about things related to this lately and how depression is so difficult because it is the experience of a kind of 'enforced sincerity'. Not in the sense of being compelled to be sincere when you don’t actually 'feel' it per se but in the sense of being unable to escape sincerity, to be forced into perpetual sincerity. Or, in other words, to be constantly and excruciatingly Real.

I wont go back into the Zach German thing. I said what I needed to say about in my last comments - ie. fragile emotions, shit talk and fuzzy thinking, escalating commenting situations, human error and so on. I appreciate how it may have made you feel like what I described above but I don't see it as the same thing because what I was talking about above was related to the production of art.

What do I do? I’m a student. Sort of. I’m taking a break from it due to some health things at the moment but will most likely start back at it early next year. I study literature, mainly American. Right now I make money irregularly by working on and off as a kind of typist, I suppose, from home. I transcribe documents for people. It probably seems like my verbal diarrhoea indicates too much time on my hands or something. But I tend to write things like the above or this comment pretty quickly. The writing moves swiftly when it happens. Thinking of what to write is where a lot of time gets taken up.

Eric. Thanks. No, you didn’t offend me. This comment to you is also sort of directed to Nick as well. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say authors 'think' about everything in their books at all, even if they are very 'intuitive' writers. And it’s strange: not every idea will be 'represented' in the author’s mind, I agree, though I also would add this is to some extent irrelevant because intentionality is only one way – and not a necessarily very interesting or even the most accurate way – to read a book and understand what it 'actually' means (also arbitrary: a book is always 'actually' meaning whatever it happens to mean in the mind of any reader who reads it). However, every single thing in a book must be 'thought' in some way for it to happen to be on the page at all. It cannot be otherwise. This thing on the page came from the words that came from the mind of whoever’s name is on the front page. And this is why I reverse my position now and say actually every idea is represented in the author’s mind but because what that writer is thinking is 'real' in the sense of being inside reality, even if the instance of reality we are talking about is the imagination itself, it is still subject to thoughts and feelings and events and context outside the author’s head as well. In that sense, the writer 'thinks' everything but not everything she or he thinks is 'thought' exclusively in terms of them.

Authors do not own the ideas they create necessarily. They find them, use them. The experience of inspiration suggests this. When you are inspired, it ‘feels’ as if the inspiration ‘came’ from somewhere else, from ‘outside’. In a way, it did. Your mind or imaginative organized some 'original' configuration of image or idea from the materials of the world it knows. It rethought what had been thought or it thought in a new direction based in some way on a long history of other thoughts, whether it is trying to defy or defend or whatever these other thoughts. Some authors are disingenuous when it comes to their 'intentions'. They lie about them by being sincere. For instance, Philip Roth would insist 'excluding' African-Americans was not his intention, nor was 'misrepresenting' fascism. Technically speaking, he would be correct. It is doubtful he sat down and thought 'I will exclude African-Americans. I will misrepresent fascism. These are my intentions.' However, in The Plot Against America, Roth had to have thought about African-Americans in some respect because he makes repeat mentions of the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t think it’s possible to see the term 'KKK' and not think in terms of African-Americans. I feel this is a tell in the novel, a point of pressure. But even here Roth strains to avoid any mention of black people. For a defender of Roth, this could be seen to be an artistic 'choice'. He wants to only discuss the Jews. I critiqued this above. But the point now is, in terms of a 'choice' on Roth's part, that’s exactly it. If the only way we have to talk about intuition is via choices, then we admit that these things are in some sense 'decided'. The 'KKK' did not appear in Roth's book magically. Nor did the absence of African-Americans. My feeling is that Roth felt he could exercise 'creative independence' or the question of whether or not deal with the issue of other minorities. He felt 'black people' were not 'germane' to his plot. And that’s where you have the blindness of his art; in its belief it can be free to make that decision without interrogation. This leads to very odd contortions in his writing and sentimentalised and defensive ideas about being a Jew in America and about America as a pluralist nation itself that trouble the book immensely. The book is the way it is not because he did 'think' of aspects not in it but because he did not 'think' they had to be 'thought' and so did not do anything with it because he did not ‘intend’ to.

As for McCarthy, I find that he does 'think' about women because his characters are often talking about women even when women are mostly not there. He might not write 'about' women because they are 'tough' for him technically and he does 'understand' them but he writes about men trying to 'understand' women or saying they do not 'understand' them or trying to invent discourses of women where they think that they know all there is to know about women and we know they do not. In this sense, McCarthy consciously 'thinks' about women in his writing. He may not sit in his study and say, 'This next scene will be a post-feminist critique of phallocentric discursive practice involving the dependence on a need to invent the image of a universal white 'phantom' female body in closed, all-male environments, both to 'domesticate' and 'civilize' frontier spaces and legitimise their violence as a burden undertaken 'for' the absent women, deferring causation, and as a means to police a coherent male sexual and gendered identity in a landscape of disintegration unleashed by these men themselves that threatens to tear their narrow co-ordinates apart' but that’s exactly what happens in his books, in a sense, because of the way in which he 'decides' to include women and to 'wonder' and 'represent' what ways women would be figured on the frontier. I feel that writers, even intuitively, have a framework of thoughts and preferences and prejudices that are what defines their intuition’s grounds of operation, much like I said about imagination. In this sense, intuition 'thinks'. The writing itself produces its own patterns of understanding and interrogation and thought and elaborates the author’s partisan position in the world or demonstrates fluctuations in that position or how the author tries to deal with the limits of that particular position or the possibilities of it and, thus, in a way, writing is something the author is both absolutely responsible for and yet completely abstracted from and structured to produce. These two things take place together. In fact, literary controversies often arise, it seems to me, when these often violently opposed and yet still simultaneously constitutive actions tense and clash somehow. I think maybe the writer as both a function of their ideas and as a producer of their ideas is mixed in a way that says something about the nature of being itself. I don’t know what though, of course.

An 'intuitive' author does not 'think' less than a 'disciplined' author, to my mind. This actually is a point that Vonnegut makes in Cat’s Cradle: I can’t remember his exact wording but a professor and a secretary are talking and the secretary feels she is 'stupid' and the professor says to the secretary that he believes that everyone does about the same amount of 'thinking', but in different 'ways'. I feel that intuitive writers 'think' just as much as disciplined ones, that the 'voice' or 'instincts' that guide the 'intuition' in them or which 'is' the intuition is not 'spontaneous' like we might think but is kind of 'automatic' in terms of what William Burroughs might call 'an adding machine' – the sum tally of complex calculations a total of other thoughts cranking out at a 'fast' or 'improvisational' rate. And maybe the difference with 'disciplined' authors is that they are interested less in the addition aspect than the machine aspect. Maybe. I’m not so sure about this now that I write it. It seems sort of what I want to say except not. Nonetheless, I don’t feel that 'intuitiveness' is set in polar opposition to 'discipline' and I don’t feel that 'intuition' means 'not thinking of things'. For instance, to me, it’s no excuse for Roth to say 'I did not think of how I left out African-Americans in my book because I’m an intuitive author.' This is the 'creative independence' argument taken up in another guise.

Final thing. Accidents of art seem to me maybe to be also simultaneously alignments of other vectors in the form of art. Often, when these 'accidents' happen, they feel like serendipity. I think Warhol's work exists in this area somehow and deconstructs what art means along these lines. This is probably the point. The existence of art is utterly arbitrary and yet utterly determined by history. Tao Lin is right about this: art has no purpose but it does have utility. In other words, accidents of art probably weren’t 'meant' to happen but they cannot help but 'mean'. That's how they become art, I suspect. 'Aware' authors try to think through that contradiction of arbitrariness and history, I think. 'Aware' authors can be both 'intuitive' and 'disciplined'. I am 'aware' that 'aware' is an abstraction.

paula said...

"In a sense, the offensiveness has to be more than just flip slander dressed up as edgy counterthought." (Which, incidentally, is an excellent articulation of my feelings about the "eat a dick fagtron" comments...which seems like a long time ago now.)

Nick- well put. Also, I like that you go back for the adrenaline.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't McCarthy's writing, including his "I don't pretend to understand women", an outcome of his conservative Protestant Christian view of the world? He's obsessed with sin and the coming apocolypse, no? I read an a rare interview with him about ten of fifteen years ago, after reading All The Pretty Horses ( I also read, later, The Crossing, Child of God and No Country for Old Men). This was my understanding of HIS take on his work ( I understand slatted light's take that each reader then "owns" the work thingy). As far as my experience goes, conservative Christian men don't take it upon themselves to understand women- they believe it is not necessary. Obviously, there are exceptions- but this is the rule, perhaps?

Kati S said...

While I'm not upset about it, it's a bit of a copout that so many male writers fail to write women characters well. Isn't it just a matter "if I were this person, what would I do in this situation?" Just because you're not a killer, doesn't mean you can't, as a writer, imagine that character into being. And just because you're not a woman, same thing. You don't have to write about childbirth. A character is more than their gender. I think that just gets forgotten... but, of course, there are some men, particularly among the older writers, who just didn't associate with women (whether at war, in the workplace, or socially) and had no need to make them anything more than two-dimensional peripheral characters because that's all women were in their own lives. Today, thankfully, no one has that excuse.

Nick said...

Kati, I agree, and as you probably know or sense--having read a near-finished draft of Midnight Picnic--I am anxious about female characters particularly because in my first two books they are relatively peripheral. And, uh, kind of in strangelets too. Although at least there are some sections from a female perspective. I wrote a short story recently with a female main character that I think was good, but I don't know if I have the confidence to attempt a novel from a woman's perspective.

Although--actually--I did write one once, before Fires. I actually had truly forgotten about that until writing this comment.

paula said...

Nick- just a general response here - just TRYING to write from a female POV is good stuff. Pushing yourself, right?

I went through a huge phase of writing from the male POV (now I know why Amy Homes calls herself A.M. Homes). Two stories in Nerve, the ones in Open City, Fiction, Word Riot and juked- all from the male POV. Then I burned out on that.

But it was fun, challenging, and it loosened me up, too. So maybe think of writing about women that way instead of, did I get it right. Too much pressure otherwise!

Just a thought.