On Important Male “Misogynist” Novels

Posted by Sappho on December 13th, 2013 filed in Books

Prufrock, at The American Conservative, has a post on How Not to Read “Misogynist” Novels. I’m reminded that Belle Waring, at Crooked Timber, had several threads a few months ago on the same set of authors. Prufrock defends them, Belle Waring disliked them. A few quick comments:

  1. I’m putting “misogynist” in quotes in my post title not because, like Prufrock, I wish to distance myself from that characterization, but because I realize that, for a lot of these guys, I just haven’t read them (even though I’ve read a lot of novels). Prufrock’s list (referencing a post by Amanda Hess) is “you know, the work of guys like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, et al.” Belle Waring listed Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Jonathan Franzen.” Hemingway also came up for some discussion, in both threads. Now, I have read Hemingway, and I read an autobiography by a woman who was Jack Kerouac’s lover and Neal Cassady’s wife, and I’ve briefly glanced at novels by Updike and Roth without, in the end, deciding to read them, and I once got some strawberries, for a scavenger hunt, from Normal Mailer (whom I remember mainly for the number of different mothers his children had, how pretty I thought his daughters were, and how I liked their sailboat). I don’t really feel qualified to comment on how misogynist most of these novels are or aren’t.
  2. One of the things that drove the threads at Crooked Timber was the fact that some guy teaching at some college or other (a writer who was an adjunct, though, I think, rather than tenured faculty) had made much, in an interview, about how these were the only authors he assigned in his class, and no woman really could equal them. Belle Waring made the case, and I think it’s a reasonable one, that inability to write credible women is, actually, a flaw in a writer. Some guy in the comments argued that male authors just had more breadth than female authors because men write about war and police work and things, while women just write novels of manners, or some such thing, which led to lists of female counterexamples, but also, the argument that the women authors the guy was dismissing actually write more credible men than the male authors he was defending write women. (And Hector had a different argument in the comments, that I won’t go into, other than to say that his critique of feminism isn’t the one I’m looking at right now.) Anyway, just for the record, let me say that I’m on the side of “inability to write women credibly is a flaw” rather than on the side of “if you write about wars and stuff, you inherently have more breadth than Jane Austen, even if her men are rather more believable than your women.”
  3. I do like Hemingway, and always have, since I read him as a teenager, and for more reasons than his short sentences.
  4. But I don’t like The Sun Also Rises all that much. Sorry, I can’t get past the way everyone seems to casually dislike Robert Cohn for being Jewish, and the novel is on their side. Since he’s Jake’s main antagonist, it makes the novel hard to read.

And for the remaining points, I need the Prufrock quotes to which I’m responding.

Then they get worried because there are all of these men reading these novels and acting out exactly what they read because that’s how reading works

I’m more worried about that with Ayn Rand than I am with these particular novelists. Because people seem to take Ayn Rand with a moral seriousness that they don’t, in my experience, apply to John Updike. And because the guy who came after me in the shower and kept coming after I had said no three times and pushed him away (I don’t say “rape” because I did get away in the end, but I do consider it a violation) had previously defended the “rape in the shower” scene in The Fountainhead as “not really rape.”

Reading’s a complicated thing. People don’t act out exactly what they read, and often (from the poem “My Last Duchess” to the novel Crime and Punishment) the judgment of the writer is clearly different from the judgment of the protagonist anyway. And sometimes (to my mind, particularly with Ayn Rand) people do take away troubling moral and ethical lessons.

But I may not be disagreeing with Prufrock, here.

Two quick thoughts: First, readers are free to like or dislike whatever they want for whatever reason, and there are a fair number of novels that are not worth the time. I am not a huge fan of Bukowski, and I disliked Nabokov’s Lolita because I couldn’t stomach it. But I wouldn’t pretend (I hope) to have any great insight regarding Lolita simply because of my revulsion, and I don’t see much insight or complication or much that is “fascinating” here, at least in Hess’s telling, other than the somewhat self-important dismissal of a bunch of novels.

I read Lolita, on my own, when I was a young teenager, and loved it. Partly for the unreliable narrator thing, which I was just old enough to get, on my own, and so I found it intellectually fascinating. And partly because of passages like the one where Lolita, proving to be more ordinary girl than “nymphet” after all, wheedles Humbert Humbert into letting her see all the sites he finds most tasteless, as they make their way by car across the country. I definitely identified with Lolita, throughout, and cheered her when she managed to make her escape.

Second, readers can and should make moral judgments about books. That’s a central part of reading. But good readers should allow books to judge them, too. Otherwise, why bother reading? Of course, if you are offended at the smallest divergence from your own habits of thought and rather narrow worldview, it is going to be tough going. But the good news is that there is more to Hemingway than short sentences.

I think the issue here is that how the book portrays the person who looks like you can seem anything but narrow. And divergences that look small if you’re not the one who looks like that character can seem larger if you are the one who looks like that character.

None of that means that we need some whole different set of novels for women and for men. Lots of women enjoy some of these men (as I said, I mostly like Hemingway). I’m more for variety. If you’re reading “Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, et al.” and also, as one of Prufrock’s commenters suggests, “the 20th century feminist fiction of Chopin, Jong, Angelou, Kingsolver, Butler, et. al.” then there may be a few more plausible characterizations of everyone to go around. You could substitute different names. Just, if you’re a teenager starting to read serious adult novels, I hope at least some of the novels you get to read do right by the characters who look like you (whoever you may be).

2 Responses to “On Important Male “Misogynist” Novels”

  1. Rivikah Says:

    On point number 2 — David Gilmour? http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/david-gilmour-building-strong-stomachs

  2. Sappho Says:

    Yes, that guy. He has some good authors on his short list (I wouldn’t be without Chekhov), but he does have a certain skew.