As if someone has stuck 8-bit Mario into Grand Theft Auto V
September 26, 2013 7:26 AM   Subscribe

"Often the protagonist of an Important Novel of the Latter Half of The 20th Century is male, and is a thinly veiled version of the author. So thin of a veil. A veil so thin is it possible to discern whether the author was circumcised. Also, he often displays a particular stomach-turning combination. He regards women as, one the one hand a mere necessary evil, not things one would be inclined to befriend or discuss life with, and on the other hand, beings of terrible power that make one very angry indeed." -- Belle Waring takes aim at a particular kind of novelist, the canonical important American late 20th century novelist and his 21st century would-be heir. (More background: it's all Jonathan Franzen's fault.)
posted by MartinWisse (56 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I recommend reading the last link first, as it basically serves as the missing introductory paragraph for the main link, but This Is Good. In particular I read a lot of sci fi from the 60s, 70s and 80s and some of the treatment of women in there is just absolutely astounding. (I mean, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, omfg, yes of COURSE there is one token woman in your group of 'people being tortured for all eternity', and of course she is fucking all of you, and of course this makes you extremely angry at her. Yikes. Like you don't have bigger problems geez)

The point here is not evaluating how many grams of feminist OKness each book achieves so that I may weigh it against the feather of Ma’at and either send it on its way or let it be devoured by the terrifying crocodile-headed goddess Ammit. The point is rather, I judge novels that were written during a time when men perfectly well could have known that the women they spoke to were intelligent human beings, in which the authors nonetheless fail in varied awful incredible ways to represent the 51% of humanity involved, to have failed qua novels.

Yes yes yes
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:41 AM on September 26, 2013 [19 favorites]


Also I did enjoy Tropic of Cancer, but in a way of "wow this guy is a jackass but what a FULLY REALIZED jackass!"

On the other hand I was disgusted and dismayed by The Witches of Eastwick, a book that is entirely about women yet clearly overflowing with loathing for them...
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:51 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


The latest update is mostly a frame for this David Gilmour interview, about which: holy shit conceited idiocy.

"I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women."
posted by Iridic at 7:52 AM on September 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


I know my Mynheeren Peeperkorn, Mr. Franzen, and you have not written a Mynheer Peeperkorn.
This is one the many reasons why Belle Waring is my favorite imaginary internet person ever.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:01 AM on September 26, 2013


The latest update

Oh wow. I don't want to chug hateraid too hard here, but this quote from the comments:

"It seems your definition of ‘important’ is skewing your choice of reading, so not surprising that your results are skewed. I’d suggest that you drop everything else for a while until you’ve finished reading all of Pratchett"

Like, Discworld is fun you guys, but Terry Pratchett is not among the most important and talented literary masters of our generation.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:03 AM on September 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


but Terry Pratchett is not among the most important and talented literary masters of our generation.

this is the wrongest statement in the history of wrongs.
posted by The Whelk at 8:04 AM on September 26, 2013 [25 favorites]


"An enjoyable read," totes. "A tour de force of literary might"? I am unconvinced
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:06 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


The latest update is mostly a frame for this David Gilmour interview

The Comfortably Numb solos did always give off an anti-women vibe, now that I think about it.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:13 AM on September 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


Book me a flight to Jakarta or a layover in Karachi so I can catch up on my important novels.
posted by surplus at 8:14 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Comfortably Numb solos did always give off an anti-women vibe, now that I think about it.

I think most Canadians are also thinking the same thing, ie, they have never heard of David Gilmour "the writer", although I do have vague memories of watching a pretentious younger version of him on CBC television talking about "the arts".

Kind of sad that a sessional is getting this much attention in the media. He reminds me of WP Kinsella who taught for a year in our Creative Writing program. What a pompous, irritating, misogynistic jackass.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:16 AM on September 26, 2013


I just made some major, structural revisions to a novel I've been polishing up, specifically to try to address some of these kinds of concerns. I came to realize my main female character wasn't as fully developed or independent as she needed to be. So I tried to give her a life outside the purview and influence of the main male character, my protagonist, and let that separate existence sometimes provide a source of plot tension.

There are deliberate element of male fantasy/wish fulfillment in my story, though (being based on the Faust myth), so some things the protagonist does and says may be sexist, but the depiction of the female characters (I hope) is not.

I think it's important for writers to at least try not to depict women in sexist ways. People shouldn't be reduced to their gender assignments. People are more complicated than that. Not sure if a male writer even can write with a full consciousness of the various implicit gender biases we're all inculcated with.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


wow this guy is a jackass but what a FULLY REALIZED jackass!

I like my novelists that way too.
posted by colie at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2013


I periodically bemoan the fact that I will not live long enough to read everything I would like to read. I rejoice when that certain books and certain authors take themselves out of the running.

Or is her problem that these books were written at all? (Oddly enough, her choices of what not to read are much the same as mine, though I expect for other reasons. I suspect a number of the people she names will not last another hundred years, and without the life support of academia, possibly even less.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:21 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of terry prachett, and I see him as important if not moreso than Douglas Adams. That being said, I think that, try as he might, he is very bootstrappy men-have-to-be-men, women's-magic-is-different type fantasy author.
posted by rebent at 8:25 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The best books I've read in the past months were by Louise Erdich, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, A.M. Homes and Hilary Mantel. She seems to simply give power to the idea that the authors she mentions represent the most important literature by reinforcing the stature of those novels, but, really, in 2013 are we really discussing those guys as anything except a relic of those times?
And, just for the record, the protagonist of the new Pynchon novel is female.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:39 AM on September 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Important Novelist tends to do two things. Firstly, he projects his anger at his inability to control his own sexual desires into the female characters, by having them be plotting to ensnare the male ones, variously. Secondly, he constructs his female characters like a socially immature game developer, from the outside in [...] As a male reader, I imagine you are probably inclined to feel that in every novel some characters are more fully developed than others, and further, that the degree to which anyone really has a plausible interior life at all varies quite a lot between authors, so the fact that none of the female characters are well-developed and none of them have a plausible interior life might not immediately register.

This is exactly my problem with Brave New World: it ends up being about a number of oh so smart and sensitive men, who are frustrated at how astoundingly stupid women are. All women. Even the Alphas (in case there are Alpha women in the setting, but we aren't shown even one anyway, so their existence is only theoretical).
posted by sukeban at 8:47 AM on September 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Wait, how the hell does this writing not love the end of Gravity's Rainbow? There's plenty of slogging in the middle, sure, but that end is fucking great.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:51 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


but, really, in 2013 are we really discussing those guys as anything except a relic of those times?

I think that's a good point. Obviously Franzen is an ongoing issue, but bringing up Norman Mailer in a discussion of important novelists just raises the question, important to whom, outside of smoke-filled 70s talk show sets?

(Also, I was probably the last person to jump on the Mantel bandwagon since I didn't even notice Wolf Hall until it came out in paperback, but oh my god, what a writer. You can wring so much joy out of every single sentence she writes.)
posted by mittens at 8:55 AM on September 26, 2013


Wait, how the hell does this writing not love the end of Gravity's Rainbow?

We don't know, but we do know where she bought the Yeo tea she drank while reading it.
posted by notyou at 8:57 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think she is sort of pulling her punches by not going back before WWII. I mean, Tolstoy wears his misogyny on his sleeve, despite (more or less) well-developed and (more or less) plausible female characters. And his misogyny is fully woven into the schema of his (justifiably) great novels. Further, it's clear that his misogyny is distinctly personal and separate from the place of women in 19th century aristocratic russia.

How do you read Tolstoy?

But, it is kind of startling how many "great" novelists have a pathological thing against women. Maybe the confessional aspect of novel writing just brings out what would otherwise have been kept hidden...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:00 AM on September 26, 2013


An exposure to Updike in a formative age has lead me to watching anime in my free time instead of reading "great male authors". It's sad that I find the latest Lupin III series is less sexist or misogynistic than your average literary master.
posted by happyroach at 9:02 AM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


commenter bob mcmanus (whose handle I recognize from elsewhere, which my be influencing my generally positive response to this):
Could it be that the novel itself, that quintessential 19th century form, especially the doorstopper Philosophical novel, that realization of s a massive accumulation of intellectual capital, by its very form must express its racist capitalist imperialist colonialist sexist Victorian origins?

Should I try to find some work of non-fiction that said this fifty years ago, and much better? Maybe late Wilson. I think I should.
So, uh, maybe who cares anyway about the Big Important Novelists (and their Big Important Novels); a dying art from a dead time.
posted by notyou at 9:04 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


a dying art from a dead time.

This is why I don't listen to music composed before this month.
posted by mittens at 9:07 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, uh, maybe who cares anyway about the Big Important Novelists (and their Big Important Novels); a dying art from a dead time.

Was that a rhetorical question? I mean, I care about them. Oprah Winfrey cares about them. A million people bought The Corrections so I guess at least that many people. I care about David Foster Wallace a hell of a lot and it seems like lots of other people on MetaFilter do, too, and it seems impossible to deny he wanted to be a Big Important Novelist.
posted by escabeche at 9:10 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wait, how the hell does this writing not love the end of Gravity's Rainbow? There's plenty of slogging in the middle, sure, but that end is fucking great.

I believe the answer to this lies in her assertion that she read GR in three days. Who reads GR in three days????
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:14 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The past is a region ruled by the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Is my quote of the day.
posted by dobie at 9:18 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The novels themselves are fine (I've read plenty of them -- and enjoyed most of them -- and I've read plenty more from the actual first half of the 20th Century, too, and plenty more from the 19th, and I enjoyed most of those, too!).

Waring's idea seems to be that the Big Important Novels (and Novelists) are sexist and thus flawed and maybe shouldn't be considered Big Important Novels because of it.

I'm saying, who cares about Big Important Novels (the list, the esteem, the status) and not the actual lowercase big important novels themselves (which may, incidentally, be fatally flawed forever, given their genesis, as described by commenter bob mcmanus).

IOW, maybe the literary status should be redirected somewhere else, somewhere more representative?

Like, say, to MetaFilter comments.
posted by notyou at 9:24 AM on September 26, 2013


It's sad that I find the latest Lupin III series is less sexist or misogynistic than your average literary master.

It helps that the director of Woman Called Fujiko Mine (which yes, holy crap, FANTASTIC) is Sayo Yamamoto, a (relatively young to get such a high profile project) woman.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Brave New World: it ends up being about a number of oh so smart and sensitive men, who are frustrated at how astoundingly stupid women are

It does?
posted by Hoopo at 9:39 AM on September 26, 2013


Could it be that the novel itself [...] by its very form must express its racist capitalist imperialist colonialist sexist Victorian origins?

Like a lot of the CT discussion this comment is pretty shockingly clueless about the history of literature, most especially the social history of the novel as the art form made and consumed by women in the 19C. It's weird that the CT model of intellectualism never seems to include knowing even the basic facts of literary history (witness including Mailer in a discussion of "contemporary" fiction).

the list, the esteem, the status

But the idea of "status" in this discussion is totally incoherent and honestly seems to just be about picking fun whipping-boys rather than actually figuring out what novels get cultural prestige in the contemporary US. I mean, I think Franzen is a douche too, but if we're honestly talking about gender politics in the Big Important American Novels of the last say 30 years isn't it kind of bizarre that no one has even mentioned Toni Morrison here? That seems to be a tip-off that the kind of Big Importance this discussion is working with is, at most, about a certain kind of middlebrow male novelist's marketing, rather than really thinking about what our culture is actually investing with literary importance.

I share the impression of the one of the CT commenters who wrote "the list in the OP is basically people a conservative male reader who was born no later than 1955 would have heard of. Anything tainted with feminism, postmodernism, nonwhiteness–or gossip–is missing." This really isn't how people who know much about it talk about contemporary literature.
posted by RogerB at 9:39 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Why does William S. Burroughs get out of jail free in this sense, and why does it make a difference that he doesn’t want to have sex with women? Is it actually necessary for me to explain this or have you all decided to pretend you don’t know anything about the sexual objectification of women for some reason?

Reading Burroughs was still a formative experience for me, but yes this. He also literally got away with murdering a woman (the older I get, the less plausible the "William Tell Act accidental tragedy" story of Joan's death has felt).
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:43 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually NM, I totally mis-read her on Burroughs. I actually think he's pretty problematic on women, and if you want to talk objectification of women holy crap, some of the things he says in The Job are horrific.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2013


a tip-off that the kind of Big Importance this discussion is working with is, at most, about a certain kind of middlebrow male novelist's marketing

Well yeah, I think you sort of stumbled over the point Belle was making here.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:54 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think you sort of stumbled over the point Belle was making here

If you think she's conscious that she's talking about marketing campaigns and not aesthetic judgments, I think you are very much mistaken. The blog post is full of unqualified, undiscussed aesthetic terms and broad claims about culture and canonization; it is trying to be an argument about aesthetic judgments and about literary history, or else it wouldn't need the disclaimer at the end.
posted by RogerB at 10:01 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


This lady has read a lot of books in a lot of foreign locations, but based on this piece I have no idea what she even likes about novels in the first place.
posted by meadowlark lime at 10:04 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a huge fan of terry prachett, and I see him as important if not moreso than Douglas Adams. That being said, I think that, try as he might, he is very bootstrappy men-have-to-be-men, women's-magic-is-different type fantasy author.

Although I wouldn't have brought up Pratchett in a Big Important Novel-type discussion, I do think it's worth noting that he is one of the single best male authors for female characters. I've been a woman all my life and I've never read female characters as well done as his. It's true that women's magic and men's magic are very separate concepts in his books, but it's also clear that men's magic is considered extremely dangerous, vain and best never used at all. The entire University system exists to prevent the use of magic by giving wizards academic squabbles and big dinners instead. Women's magic is actually useful.

Anyhow, there's your nerd derail.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:33 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


I read a lot of sci fi from the 60s, 70s and 80s and some of the treatment of women in there is just absolutely astounding.

Yes, much sci-fi is thinly veiled conservative ideology. Related posts: The Perverts Guide to Ideology and Classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the literature of Reactionism
posted by stbalbach at 10:36 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


It does?

John the Savage kills himself rather than accept a world of Leninas, after beating the crap out of her.

Like, dude. What.
posted by sukeban at 11:31 AM on September 26, 2013


On Pratchett and the "Men are from Wizard Hats, Women are from Headology" subject, there's this old but awesome essay from him:
Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held -- well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings -- who tells me it's ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There's also a lot of stuff about man's natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.

I'd like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn't really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic -- everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.
posted by sukeban at 11:35 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


I read this great article with Junot Diaz via an AskMe. About halfway down, he addresses the problems contemporary male writers have when they write about women:

Diaz: I think that unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations. Without fail. The only way not to do them is to admit to yourself [that] you're fucked up, admit to yourself that you're not good at this shit, and to be conscious in the way that you create these characters. It's so funny what people call inspiration. I have so many young writers who're like, "Well I was inspired. This was my story." And I'm like, "OK. Sir, your inspiration for your stories is like every other male's inspiration for their stories: that the female is only in there to provide sexual service." There comes a time when this mythical inspiration is exposed for doing exactly what it's truthfully doing: to underscore and reinforce cultural structures, or I'd say, cultural asymmetry.
posted by book 'em dano at 12:26 PM on September 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of terry prachett, and I see him as important if not moreso than Douglas Adams. That being said, I think that, try as he might, he is very bootstrappy men-have-to-be-men, women's-magic-is-different type fantasy author.

A bit unfair - he's setting up traditional roles in order to
deconstruct them.

This would include his third discworld book, 'Equal Rites', which
is about a young girl who's born to be a wizard, not a witch, or
his other big-F Feminist book, Monstrous Regiment, the
protagonist of which dresses as a man in order to join the army
in order to rescue her brother.

Even in his non big-F Feminism books, he's forever taking little
potshots at gender roles, culture, tradition, etc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:54 PM on September 26, 2013


gendered magic is so.... essentialist tho
posted by titus n. owl at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


yeah, i think that Prachett really does believe that women are equal but different. His books are full of women that excel at being women, at doing things a woman's way, at having women's strength and power. It's been a while since I read any of them, but I just remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, "this is great but I wish I could recommend it to people I knew"
posted by rebent at 3:46 PM on September 26, 2013


the older I get, the less plausible the "William Tell Act accidental tragedy" story of Joan's death has felt).

Hunh, that's interesting---why? It always struck me as exactly the kind of awful, stupid shit that two stoned addicts would get up to at a party. What makes it seem implausible?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:32 PM on September 26, 2013


gendered magic is so.... essentialist tho

Yeah, that's the whole point of Equal Rites.

I think he's very sophisticated but has to keep some traditional roles and cultural baggage on the board or he can't criticize and crack wise about them.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:57 PM on September 26, 2013


Could it be that the novel itself, that quintessential 19th century form, especially the doorstopper Philosophical novel, that realization of s a massive accumulation of intellectual capital, by its very form must express its racist capitalist imperialist colonialist sexist Victorian origins?

The modern novel was more or less invented/perfected by women authors, and the market has always skewed female.
posted by empath at 11:31 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Although, the search for the next Great American Novelist has always been something that critics care more about than actual readers, and if you want to search for bias and privilege, i'd start there.
posted by empath at 11:36 PM on September 26, 2013


yeah, i think that Prachett really does believe that women are equal but different. His books are full of women that excel at being women, at doing things a woman's way, at having women's strength and power.

Tiffany Aching smashing a monster in the face with a frying pan, for instance.
posted by flabdablet at 4:26 AM on September 27, 2013


Tiffany Aching smashing a monster in the face with a frying pan, for instance.

I have other issues with his female characters, but feminine tools and problems are not one that bothered me personally. You can either tell a post gender story, which femaleness largely is not a factor (a relief in a sea of 'one exceptional woman' gender bending tales), or you can tell a story where female characters have to deal with externally opposed limits and advantages inherent in the gender or even one where achievement does not otherize the feminine as inferior to getting membership in the 'male' hierarchy.

Tiffany's frying pan makes logical sense (as does why she wields it) in the context of how she's developing regarding the gender roles she's learning and the tools she has access to, and is also an expression of how he typically depicts social class. I would personally like to see more female wizards, as the stories (although we're basically out of Pratchett at this point) had very much moved into modern day satire, but the Tiffany series are also about the ordinary being exceptional and a bit of a return to the fantasy roots.

But as far as gendered magic, Granny Weatherwax is for all her evident superior mastery of magical technique and rules, according to Pratchett, not as good a witch as Nanny Ogg, who very seldom does magic of the obvious sort. The Weatherwax clan appears to be very strongly magically gifted in the Wizard department as well. In my observation, apparently celibate, Magic-y Granny is much more like her wizard peers, excepting the comical 'big dinners', than she is different. Meanwhile Rincewind is someone who, despite being comically useless, is a very good "witch", as his survival depends on his skills with people-magic like Nanny Ogg.
posted by Phalene at 6:15 AM on September 27, 2013


I tried Herzog some years ago after loving some of Bellow's short stuff. Oi - it was bad for all the reasons OP points out and more. Not just the presentation of female characters/scenery, but the fact that the author seemed to think he had some kind of barbaric yawp going when all I could see was a well-written rant from a guy who's upset that the world hasn't gone even more out of it's way for him. Couldn't make it all the way through. Maybe that gets ironized or something, but I couldn't find an inch of critical distance between Bellow his protagonist.

Probably have to try it again at some point.

Also, I enjoy Pratchett but the dude has a lot of unexamined Britishness. Not really fair to compare him to Douglas Adams, who is British without the baggage.
posted by postcommunism at 9:51 AM on September 27, 2013


the dude has a lot of unexamined Britishness

Perhaps you've missed the point that his entire schtick is an examination of Britishness?
posted by flabdablet at 11:13 AM on September 27, 2013


Tiffany's frying pan makes sense as it is a big lump of *cold iron* she's using against a fairy in a retread/ send up of the Tam Lin school of "fairies took my boyfriend" ballads. It makes more sense than having her wield a crowbar or whatever.
posted by sukeban at 12:14 PM on September 27, 2013


Funnier, too.
posted by flabdablet at 12:39 PM on September 27, 2013


the dude has a lot of unexamined Britishness

Out of curiosity, what the fuck is that supposed to mean?
posted by Grangousier at 12:40 PM on September 27, 2013


> what the fuck is that supposed to mean?

What sprang to mind was how real-world national analogues like the Agatean Empire are presented. Felt very "the view from the fading empire." I had fun reading Interesting Times, but it's something I'd pin a disclaimer on when recommending it to a friend.
posted by postcommunism at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]




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