“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Can’t Win for Losing: Why There Are So Many Losers in Literature and Why It Has to Change

Doris Lessing
            Ironically, the author of The Golden Notebook, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and considered by many a “feminist bible,” happens to be an outspoken critic of feminism. When asked in a 1982 interview with Lesley Hazelton about her response to readers who felt some of her later works were betrayals of the women whose cause she once championed, Doris Lessing replied,

What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.

Lessing has also been accused of being overly harsh—“castrating”—to men, too many of whom she believes roll over a bit too easily when challenged by women aspiring to empowerment. As a famous novelist, however, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, she got to visit a lot of schools, and it gradually dawned on her that it wasn’t so much that men were rolling over but rather that they were being trained from childhood to be ashamed of their maleness. In a lecture she gave to the Edinburgh book festival in 2001, she said,

Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation. We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men? I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives.

Lessing describes how the teacher kept casting glances expectant of her approval as she excoriated these impressionable children. 

           Elaine Blair, in “Great American Losers,” an essay that’s equal parts trenchant and infuriatingly obtuse, describes a dynamic in contemporary fiction that’s similar to the one Lessing saw playing out in the classroom.

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world.

At the heart of this loserdom is his auto-manifesting knowledge that women don’t like him. As opposed to men of earlier generations who felt entitled to a woman’s respect and admiration, Blair sees this modern male character as being “the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.” This desperation on the part of male characters to avoid offending women, to prove themselves capable of sublimating their own masculinity so they can be worthy of them, finds its source in the authors themselves. Blair writes,

Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers—specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.
D.F. Wallace courtesy of
infinitesummer.org

           Blair quotes a review David Foster Wallace wrote of a John Updike novel to illustrate how conscious males writing literature today are of their female readers’ hostility toward men who write about sex and women without apologizing for liking sex and women—sometimes even outside the bounds of caring, committed relationships. Labeling Updike as a “Great Male Narcissist,” a distinction he shares with writers like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, Wallace writes,

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs. But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:
“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”
“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Rush 
[Limbaugh] makes fascism seem funny.”
And trust me: these are actual quotations, and I’ve heard even
worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of
facial expressions where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in appealing to the intentional fallacy or talking about the sheer aesthetic pleasure of Updike’s prose.

Since Wallace is ready to “jump back” at the mere mention of Updike’s name, it’s no wonder he’s given to writing about characters who approach women “cringingly, bracing for a slap.”

Blair goes on to quote from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, painting a plausible picture of male writers who fear not only that their books will be condemned if too misogynistic—a relative term which has come to mean "not as radically feminist as me"—but they themselves will be rejected. In Franzen’s novel, Chip Lambert has written a screenplay and asked his girlfriend Julia to give him her opinion. She holds off doing so, however, until after she breaks up with him and is on her way out the door. “For a woman reading it,” she says, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg” (26). Franzen describes his character’s response to the critique:

It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for [the film producer] Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. Which by this point in the day, as by late morning of almost every day in recent months, was one of the last activities on earth in which he could still reasonably expect to take solace for his failures. (28)

If you’re reading a literary work like The Corrections, chances are you’ve at some point sat in a literature class—or even a sociology or culture studies class—and been instructed that the proper way to fulfill your function as a reader is to critically assess the work in terms of how women (or minorities) are portrayed. Both Chip and Julia have sat through such classes. And you’re encouraged to express disapproval, even outrage if something like a traditional role is enacted—or, gasp, objectification occurs. Blair explains how this affects male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

In other words, these male authors are the grownup versions of those poor school boys Lessing saw forced to apologize for their own existence. Indeed, you can feel this dynamic, this bargain, playing out when you’re reading these guys’ books. Blair’s description of the problem is spot on. Her theory of what caused it, however, is laughable.

Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

The dread of slipping down the slope from attraction to exploitation has nothing to do with John Updike. Rather, it is embedded in terms at the very core of feminist ideology. Misogyny, for instance, is frequently deemed an appropriate label for men who indulge in lustful gazing, even in private. And the term objectification implies that the female whose subjectivity isn’t being properly revered is the victim of oppression. The main problem with this idea—and there are several—is that the term objectification is synonymous with attraction. The deluge of details about the female body in fiction by male authors can just as easily be seen as a type of confession, an unburdening of guilt by the offering up of sins. The female readers respond by assigning the writers some form of penance, like never writing, never thinking like that again without flagellating themselves.

           The conflict between healthy male desire and disapproving feminist prudery doesn’t just play out in the tortured psyches of geeky American male novelists. A.S. Byatt, in her Booker prize-winning novel Possession, satirizes the plight of scholars steeped in literary theories for being “papery” and sterile. But the novel ends with a male scholar named Roland overcoming his theory-induced self-consciousness to initiate sex with another scholar named Maud. Byatt describes the encounter:

And very slowly and with infinite gentle delays and delicate diversions and variations of indirect assault Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him, so that there seemed to be no boundaries, and he heard, towards dawn, from a long way off, her clear voice crying out, uninhibited, unashamed, in pleasure and triumph. (551)

The literary critic Monica Flegel cites this passage as an example of how Byatt’s old-fashioned novel features “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by how “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” in the sex scene. “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her.’” How, we may wonder, did a man assuring a woman he would take care of her become an act of misogyny?
Martin Amis

            Perhaps critics like Flegel occupy some radical fringe; Byatt’s book was after all a huge success with audiences and critics alike, and it did win Byatt the Booker. The novelist Martin Amis, however, isn’t one to describe his assaults as indirect. He routinely dares to feature men who actually do treat women poorly in his novels—without any authorial condemnation. Martin Goff, the non-intervening director of the Booker Prize committee, tells the story of the 1989 controversy over whether or not Amis’s London Fields should be on the shortlist. Maggie Gee, a novelist, and Helen McNeil, a professor, simply couldn’t abide Amis’s treatment of his women characters. “It was an incredible row,” says Goff.

Maggie and Helen felt that Amis treated women appallingly in the book. That is not to say they thought books which treated women badly couldn't be good, they simply felt that the author should make it clear he didn't favour or bless that sort of treatment. Really, there was only two of them and they should have been outnumbered as the other three were in agreement, but such was the sheer force of their argument and passion that they won. David [Lodge] has told me he regrets it to this day, he feels he failed somehow by not saying, “It's two against three, Martin's on the list”.

In 2010, Amis explained his career-spanning failure to win a major literary award, despite enjoying robust book sales, thus:

There was a great fashion in the last century, and it's still with us, of the unenjoyable novel. And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, “Well it's not at all enjoyable, and it isn't funny, therefore it must be very serious.”

Brits like Hilary Mantel, and especially Ian McEwan are working to turn this dreadful trend around. But when McEwan dared to write a novel about a neurosurgeon who prevails in the end over an afflicted, less privileged tormenter he was condemned by critic Jennifer Szalai in the pages of Harper’s Magazine for his “blithe, bourgeois sentiments.” If you’ve read Saturday, you know the sentiments are anything but blithe, and if you read Szalai’s review you’ll be taken aback by her articulate blindness.

           Amis is probably right in suggesting that critics and award committees have a tendency to mistake misery for profundity. But his own case, along with several others like it, hint at something even more disturbing, a shift in the very idea of what role fictional narratives play in our lives. The sad new reality is that, owing to the growing influence of ideologically extreme and idiotically self-righteous activist professors, literature is no longer read for pleasure and enrichment—it’s no longer even read as a challenging exercise in outgroup empathy. Instead, reading literature is supposed by many to be a ritual of male western penance. Prior to taking an interest in literary fiction, you must first be converted to the proper ideologies, made to feel sufficiently undeserving yet privileged, the beneficiary of a long history of theft and population displacement, the scion and gene-carrier of rapists and genocidaires—the horror, the horror. And you must be taught to systematically overlook and remain woefully oblivious of all the evidence that the Enlightenment was the best fucking thing that ever happened to the human species. Once you’re brainwashed into believing that so-called western culture is evil and that you’ve committed the original sin of having been born into it, you’re ready to perform your acts of contrition by reading horrendously boring fiction that forces you to acknowledge and reflect upon your own fallen state.
"In his new self-lacerating 'Memoir', J.M. Coetzee portrays
himself as a loser with no sexual presence." Here he is at the
Nobel ceremony.

           Fittingly, the apotheosis of this new literary tradition won the Booker in 1999, and its author, like Lessing, is a Nobel laureate. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace chronicles in exquisite free indirect discourse the degradation of David Lurie, a white professor in Cape Town, South Africa, beginning with his somewhat pathetic seduction of black student, a crime for which he pays with the loss of his job, his pension, and his reputation, and moving on to the aftermath of his daughter’s rape at the hands of three black men who proceed to rob her, steal his car, douse him with spirits and light him on fire. What’s unsettling about the novel—and it is a profoundly unsettling novel—is that its structure implies that everything that David and Lucy suffer flows from his original offense of lusting after a young black woman. This woman, Melanie, is twenty years old, and though she is clearly reluctant at first to have sex with her teacher there’s never any force involved. At one point, she shows up at David’s house and asks to stay with him. It turns out she has a boyfriend who is refusing to let her leave him without a fight. It’s only after David unheroically tries to wash his hands of the affair to avoid further harassment from this boyfriend—while stooping so low as to insist that Melanie make up a test she missed in his class—that she files a complaint against him.

            David immediately comes clean to university officials and admits to taking advantage of his position of authority. But he stalwartly refuses to apologize for his lust, or even for his seduction of the young woman. This refusal makes him complicit, the novel suggests, in all the atrocities of colonialism. As he’s awaiting a hearing to address Melanie’s complaint, David gets a message:

On campus it is Rape Awareness Week. Women Against Rape, WAR, announces a twenty-four-hour vigil in solidarity with “recent victims”. A pamphlet is slipped under his door: ‘WOMEN SPEAK OUT.’ Scrawled in pencil at the bottom is a message: ‘YOUR DAYS ARE OVER, CASANOVA.’ (43)

During the hearing, David confesses to doctoring the attendance ledgers and entering a false grade for Melanie. As the attendees become increasingly frustrated with what they take to be evasions, he goes on to confess to becoming “a servant of Eros” (52). But this confession only enrages the social sciences professor Farodia Rassool:

Yes, he says, he is guilty; but when we try to get specificity, all of a sudden it is not abuse of a young woman he is confessing to, just an impulse he could not resist, with no mention of the pain he has caused, no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part. (53)

There’s also no mention, of course, of the fact that already David has gone through more suffering than Melanie has, or that her boyfriend deserves a great deal of the blame, or that David is an individual, not a representative of his entire race who should be made to answer for the sins of his forefathers.
From the movie version of Disgrace

            After resigning from his position in disgrace, David moves out to the country to live with his daughter on a small plot of land. The attack occurs only days after he’s arrived. David wants Lucy to pursue some sort of justice, but she refuses. He wants her to move away because she’s clearly not safe, but she refuses. She even goes so far as to accuse him of being in the wrong for believing he has any right to pronounce what happened an injustice—and for thinking it is his place to protect his daughter. And if there’s any doubt about the implication of David’s complicity she clears it up. As he’s pleading with her to move away, they begin talking about the rapists’ motivation. Lucy says to her father,

When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange—when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her—isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood—doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder? (158)

The novel is so engrossing and so disturbing that it’s difficult to tell what the author’s position is vis à vis his protagonist’s degradation or complicity. You can’t help sympathizing with him and feeling his treatment at the hands of Melanie, Farodia, and Lucy is an injustice. But are you supposed to question that feeling in light of the violence Melanie is threatened with and Lucy is subjected to? Are you supposed to reappraise altogether your thinking about the very concept of justice in light of the atrocities of history? Are we to see David Lurie as an individual or as a representative of western male colonialism, deserving of whatever he’s made to suffer and more?
From the Crucible

            Personally, I think David Lurie’s position in Disgrace is similar to that of John Proctor in The Crucible (although this doesn’t come out nearly as much in the movie version). And it’s hard not to see feminism in its current manifestations—along with Marxism and postcolonialism—as a pernicious new breed of McCarthyism infecting academia and wreaking havoc with men and literature alike. It’s really no surprise at all that the most significant developments in the realm of narratives lately haven’t occurred in novels at all. Insofar as the cable series contributing to the new golden age of television can be said to adhere to a formula, it’s this: begin with a bad ass male lead who doesn’t apologize for his own existence and has no qualms about expressing his feelings toward women. As far as I know, these shows are just as popular with women viewers as they are with the guys.

            When David first arrives at Lucy’s house, they take a walk and he tells her a story about a dog he remembers from a time when they lived in a neighborhood called Kenilworth.

It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide…There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.

Lucy breaks in, “So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?” David answers,

No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would be better to shoot it.

“Or have it fixed,” Lucy offers. (90)

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

4 comments:

bianca steele said...

I don't think that picture is of the Elaine Blair who writes for the NYRB and was born in 1975. That's a woman who works for some European NGO.

Dennis Junk said...

Thanks Bianca. You're right. To make matters worse, I discovered this mistake while researching another post and simply forgot to go back and take the pic down. I will do so now.

Saroosh Wattoo said...

I skimmed the part of your discussion involving "Disgrace" because it's been on my reading list for a while. However, given the preceding discussion, I'm kind of curious about whether you would recommend the book and whether you would recommend Coetzee's work more generally.

I'm also somewhat curious about a broader thread that you weave throughout your blog, namely your dissatisfaction with postmodernism. I've never taken a literature course through a university, so my exposure to postmodernism has mostly occurred in philosophy lectures (most of my profs fit into the analytic tradition, which has close ties with computer science and mathematics, so they all most all have nothing good to say about continental philosophy more generally). However, I have read and enjoyed a few books that I'm told are vaguely influenced by postmodern thought (I read "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen and "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson). I'm wondering if I should invest effort in such literature. For example, would you suggest picking up a copy of DFW's "Infinite Jest"?

Dennis Junk said...

Hey Saroosh,
I'm loath to recommend against any novel for ideological reasons. And I've also greatly enjoyed several works with postmodern inspiration and devices ("Fight Club"!). And I wholeheartedly, unhesitatingly recommend Coetzee's "Disgrace"; it's simply a great novel.

My complaint is with the anti-science stance and the brain-dead identity politics postmodern works are so often made to serve. (Video recommendation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYpELqKZ02Q).

That said, many postmodern authors--including DF Wallace--aren't just anti-science; they're anti-story. One of the qualities of great fiction is its ability to induce narrative transport, i.e. to immerse readers in the story. Pomos think they're being clever by "breaking the fourth wall" and casting you out of the story on purpose. Wallace does this with his cartwheeling, backflipping prose, which I remember one critic compared to walking through setting concrete. These writers are trying to be profound by reminding us their work is just a story--suggesting that maybe other elements of our storied world are fictional as well. Profound indeed... for a third grader.

Often postmodern writing simply substitutes an intellectual exercise (usually pointless) for an aesthetic experience (i.e. immersion in the narrative). But what's interesting is how often devices intended to cast you out of the story actually serve to pull you in even more deeply--this to me is postmodernism disproving its own premises, which makes me happy, and yet is still oddly postmodern.

As for Infinite Jest, I tried it once but quickly abandoned it. I prefer Proust if I want intricate prose, but mainly I prefer the likes of Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, etc.

I hope this answers your question. If you do read Infinite Jest, I'd love to hear your take.
Thanks for taking the time to comment,
Dennis