It May Interest You to Know, But If Not, There Is a Scroll Feature

by Belle Waring on September 23, 2013

Is it really the case that pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books, for many intelligent people? That would be a bummer, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Best suggestion for contemporary author of well-rounded female characters, from Tom: Kim Stanley Robinson. I LOL’ed. Shall we consider together?

John Updike, Norman Mailer: self-explanatory. If I get pushback on this I just…I don’t know. All right, The Naked and The Dead is an OK novel but after he turned into the Baron Harkonnen of Important Male Authors his literary credits were retroactively revoked. I read that novel about Egypt twice, don’t y’all make me go there! (Why? Because it was there. No, really. It was at my house. It’s why I’ve read The Tommyknockers twice also. It was at my house and then it was at a backpacker place in Melaka I stayed in when I had wicked jet lag for a day.) Philip Roth: sorry dudes, it just be’s like that sometimes. Saul Bellow: I am not qualified to say! Readers, please advise. Gaddis: aw, aw…goddamn. Did you—couldn’t you just have left out—? There has never been a book I enjoyed so much, that I threw against the wall so hard and hated so utterly as JR. It was devastatingly clear in the first hundred or so pages how unhappy I would be. And yet so skilfully gulled! Don DeLillo: Here quite a decent case can be made that he just hates everyone. And yet—yet—he hates some people more equally than others. Just set him side by side with J.G. Ballard, who truly hates everyone, and you will see what I mean.

Jonathan Franzen: he’s by no means the worst of the lot! He’s just young enough to know better. Some objected below that none of his characters are real, but rather all represent ideas in the fashion of… Look, I yield to no man in my love of Mann. I am a woman who, when packing to go to the beach in Thailand, decided to re-read Buddenbrooks. I know my Mynheeren Peeperkorn, Mr. Franzen, and you have not written a Mynheer Peeperkorn. Also, it is precisely Franzen’s desire to be an Important Male Novelist of the 20th Century that is so grating; he is a squirrel in the “random reward” group of a Skinner-box experiment that investigates how frequently the squirrel will press the lever that dispenses cocaine. D.F. Wallace: a good writer who is not such a sexist dillweed that it prevents one from enjoying his work, and is nonetheless an officially canonized Important Novelist. How satisfactory! He also needed an editor, though. Does no one have an editor? Do they rely on the firm rock of the horrible-looking PC OS to keep them real?

Can people write themselves out of this corner, or just override all barriers because they are great artists and fuck you? Yes. Pynchon really belongs up there with Gaddis—who is also a great artist! Only, one who creates insufferable art which cannot be consumed by means of reading it, which regrettably, renders it something like a patent medicine bottle in a Joseph Cornell box, still full of liquid, still under seal. I want so badly to drink it! I’m not going to break a Cornell box though, I would hate myself afterward. (It was of Gaddis I was thinking when I said that women in these books are Galaxy Stars you get when you level up after a boss battle with psychoanalysis, not Franzen.) But it’s Pynchon—we can’t stay mad at him! Also, he hates everyone. And has a soft spot in his heart for them. I read Gravity’s Rainbow over three days in a crummy hotel in Singapore, in Chinatown. I was on my way back to the States from backpacking through India, and I got sick as a dog. I was just crawling to the bathroom from my bed, with a fever of 103. I also watched a bunch of Bollywood movies. I didn’t eat or drink anything but Yeo’s Crysanthemum Tea for three days because they sold boxes of it in a machine at the bottom of the elevator, and I could keep it down. It was not, perhaps, the best choice of reading material for the situation, but, needs must, etc. I was VERY ANGRY at the end of the book. Indeed, I constructed a different, more satisfactory ending. It would have been salutary if he and David Foster Wallace had been sent to some kind of workshop where they teach you: “now, you have woven these themes together in a hallucinatory yet ice-crystal matrix way, and everything is obviously building to an incredible climax in which you tie them all together. Now, like, actually tie them all together, OK?” Oh, and they should have sent Philip K. Dick.

Now, what is one inclined to think about, say, Henry Miller, who seems to have had his measurements taken here but wrote in the first half of the 20th century? I personally find it impossible to read The Tropic of Cancer with much pleasure. I understand that Miller’s his work was truly ground-breaking, and its frank discussion of human sexuality was brave, and well-grounded, in the sense of an electrical circuit that is earthed properly, and can be used. I read it and The Tropic of Capricorn, the second even after not liking the first, because I thought they were important books. This is something a number of commenters have accused me of lying about. Just, no, OK? Neither is much to my taste, and they unpalatable in part because of some of the female characters and his attitudes towards them. Not that they are all polished off with a straight razor! Indeed, Miller is much better on this front than Updike. It is also his attitudes towards sex generally, and that may be just a product of his times.

The past is a region ruled by the soft bigotry of low expectations. We all allow it to run up against the asymptote of any moral value we hold dear now. We are moved by the ideals of Thomas Jefferson even though we know he took his wife’s little sister, the sister she brought with her as a six-month old baby, the very youngest part of her dowerage when she married him—he took that grown girl as a slave concubine, and raped that woman until he died. We would all think it a very idiotic objection to The Good Soldier Švejk that women weren’t allowed to serve in the military at that time and so it didn’t bear reading. My favorite part of the Odyssey is book XXII, when Odysseus, having strung his bow, turns its arrows on the suitors and, eventually, kills them all. This is despite the fact that he and Telemachus go on to hang the 12 faithless maids with a ship’s cable strung between the courtyard and another interior building, so that none of them will die cleanly, and they struggle like birds with their feet fluttering above the ground for a little while, until they are still. There is no point in traveling into the land of “how many children had Lady MacBeth,” but, at the same time—the suitors raped those women, at least some of them, and likely all, if we use our imagination even in the most limited and machine-like fashion on the situation. Still it is my favorite, because I am vengeful.

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? Really, are you all just having me on, or what? One tends to, and is generally meant to, identify with the protagonist of a novel. Things can be quite insane and all the other characters may be mediums through which you discover something else about yourself (I love Haruki Murakami to death. He is splendid and radiant. That people would doubt he has female fans(??!!) is yet a further thing that has gone horribly, horribly wrong in my past, say, 5 CT threads.) I’ll try to say this slowly and simply. 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. This terrible power is that you can be betrayed by your own desires and want some woman so badly, and it doesn’t matter how stupid you think she is, if you really want to have sex with her that badly, all bets are off and you, in some sense, have no say in the matter. (DH Lawrence has a charming problem with women, in that he regards us as having a genuinely awe-inspiring power, that we really do have!—namely the power to create new human beings inside of us, while he has to console himself with his artistic offspring.)

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, and boy howdy does it show. “I’m going to pick blonde. Ooh, ooh, and make her tits bigger!” 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. If you are a woman reading these novels it registers painfully and clunkily and woodenly, every page, all the time. It’s as if someone has stuck 8-bit Mario into Grand Theft Auto V but hasn’t noticed any difference and doesn’t expect that anyone else will either. He’s made of giant squares! What the—

The beauty of William S. Burroughs is that we are just not there. Not as highly charged objects of desire. There are monsters and terrifying machines and dead planets and anarcho-syndicalist pirates and Osiris and red-headed boys and steak dinners, whiskey and a whore for one dollar, and heroin, and “legs, yet.” There are women there, but not fraught with any emotional significance. They are just other people, in the background. Sometimes they are foregrounded, but even then he is clinical and detached, he describes their exteriors as he would the glistening sandwiches in the machines at Horn and Hardart; he attributes to them motives as good or ill as anyone else, but for the most part we are absent. Like a lot of teenagers I was a lover of Jack Kerouac. I felt…ambivalent and unhappy about the spaces left for women to fill in On The Road. We are absent there too, but uncomfortably, like maybe you keep putting your tongue up into the empty blood-tasting space where the tooth was, and it feels bigger than your whole head.

Finally, I am not an aesthetic Stalinist. (One hopes these things go without saying, but it has become very clear they do not.) 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. It is a necessary result of the Updike-version sexist writing that your novel fails to be even a passable novel. It is actually somewhat embarrassing for everyone. DFW was inclined to be more charitable.

Addendum: sometimes I think, ‘I write so many words every day getting into arguments with stupid people online, surely I should post on CT instead and talk to intelligent people?’ At other times I remember exactly why I am often disinclined to do the latter. Please be civil.

{ 379 comments }

1

Foppe 09.23.13 at 11:15 am

I agree, yet I am mostly naïve in that I just accept that the worlds spun out before my eyes hardly ever contain women, never mind true-to-life ones. (The most recent book that contained a few was le rouge et le noir, but the male protagonist there, even though quite fleshed out, never struck me as particularly true-to-life either, so I’ll pass on commenting on the realism of the women in the book other than as props.) Have yet to discover any female writers that interest me, but for now I’ll just be satisfied that there are at least a few interesting singer/songwriters around, such as Amanda Palmer with her wonderful(ly apt) Coin-operated boy.

2

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 11:32 am

You already know your argument with your adversaries will be bitter and likely futile. Will your argument with your male allies be any more fruitful, though?

There has long existed a vigorously anti-sexist segment of male opinion. Doesn’t it have a single representative capable of writing a decent novel? Or is it that the sentiment fails to survive the transition from the political to the personal?

3

William Burns 09.23.13 at 11:33 am

So all the important Male Novelists are white?

4

NomadUK 09.23.13 at 11:39 am

I freely admit my literary philistinism in having read virtually none of the works in question (actually, maybe not so virtually), but that’s fine, because I can sit here and just let Belle’s posts wash over me and be (a) entertained and (b) educated without having to trudge through all that verbiage. And it leaves me time to read Iain [M] Banks.

5

NomadUK 09.23.13 at 11:42 am

And just to be clear, that should read ‘Belle’s fabulous posts’.

6

MPAVictoria 09.23.13 at 11:42 am

The literary posts here always leave me feeling slightly embarrassed about my taste in fiction. Strictly middle brow with a large heaping of scifi/fantasy. Having said that if anyone is looking for suggestions the Flavia de Luce Mysteries by Alan Bradley have what seems to me to be a well drawn and very interesting (though very young) female main character.

7

Sam Dodsworth 09.23.13 at 11:49 am

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. This terrible power is that you can be betrayed by your own desires and want some woman so badly, and it doesn’t matter how stupid you think she is, if you really want to have sex with her that badly, all bets are off and you, in some sense, have no say in the matter… 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, and boy howdy does it show. “I’m going to pick blonde. Ooh, ooh, and make her tits bigger!”

It probably goes without saying(*), but that toxic rage/fear/entitlement combo is a wellspring of angry misogyny everywhere – from MRAs to the disparagers of “fake geek girls” to judges who blame the thirteen year old victim of sexual assault.

(*) But I’m saying it anyway because one of the depressing things I’ve learned is that it doesn’t always actually go without saying, even here.

8

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 11:50 am

Wow you guys this is going awesome already! No, but seriously, could we just talk about this like normal human beings please? William, the idea is meant to be that there is a preëxisting canon of Important Male Novelists of the Latter Half of the 20th Century. I’m not doing the selecting, merely commenting on my reactions to the selected. Franzen, whom we discussed below, seeks to join a very specific list of writers, and it is these and a few others (and not, in fact, Burroughs–or Bowles, or John Kennedy Toole) who make the cut traditionally. The list of genuinely excellent authors of the latter etc. would obviously have Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on it.

9

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 11:55 am

2: Adrian, don’t be dense, there are zillions of novels written by men who are not sexist in this irritating way. I am talking about a specific set of works and their common failing, and why it is problematic to wish to claim their mantle. Just think of all the Iain M. Banks novels I love, for example!

10

bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 11:59 am

Doesn’t it have a single representative capable of writing a decent novel?

Maybe they don’t write the “Important Novels?”

I am amazed and amused people still read the “Important Novels,” or better, since people will read anything, that people still think that “New Important Novels” are “Important.”
(excluding of course those who are paid to read “Important Novels” and discern and declare their underappreciated Importance on a scale of 1-10.)
I quit, roughly about the time they came out, after Ironweed, The Names, and Falling in Place. Moved to phasers and gumshoes.

Could it possibly be that a theory of artistic production based on a hierarchy of novels of lesser, greater, and Supremo Ultimo Socially Relevant Philosophical Importance lead to mindsets that might themselves tend toward exclusion, sexism, racism?

Is litfic anti-democratic?

11

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 12:03 pm

bob mcmanus: 10 points to Ravenclaw!

12

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 12:08 pm

Wait, I don’t know. I’m a Slytherin. I think bob and I are together; Sorting Hat’s gotta sort, people. So, -10 from Ravenclaw, 50 points to Slytherin.

13

bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 12:10 pm

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.

14

Manta 09.23.13 at 12:10 pm

I think it is strange to judge the value of a book by how much it adheres to the moral values of its times (or to our moral values?).

For me the interest of a novel rests in part that it illustrates a different set of values (moral, social, etc) than mine: it’s part of entering a different world.

15

chris 09.23.13 at 12:15 pm

Doesn’t it have a single representative capable of writing a decent novel? Or is it that the sentiment fails to survive the transition from the political to the personal?

Or the novels so written are not considered Important. I have long wondered who makes those decisions, and from this post, it looks like whoever is gatekeeping Importance has some *interesting* standards.

The literary posts here always leave me feeling slightly embarrassed about my taste in fiction.

I started off that way because there’s some kind of social status attached to the “official” canon, but really, after reading this post, I am proud to dissent from it. If someone *wants* to read books with the quality of characterization described in the OP, I’m not going to stop them, but if they think that’s somehow better than the likes of Bujold or Cherryh or C.S. Friedman, I am more inclined to laugh than feel intimidated by the comparison.

16

Saurs 09.23.13 at 12:23 pm

Foppe says:

Have yet to discover any female writers that interest me[.]

I’d wait with bated breath for the same contingent in previous posts–trying to convince Belle Waring she doesn’t know how to read the canon correctly–to swoop down on this as a shocking generalization, but I’m afraid I might asphyxiate.

There has long existed a vigorously anti-sexist segment of male opinion. Doesn’t it have a single representative capable of writing a decent novel? Or is it that the sentiment fails to survive the transition from the political to the personal?

I’m sure that sounded clever when you first typed it (skewering a slogan), but when did writing become, when has it ever been, apolitical?

17

chris 09.23.13 at 12:36 pm

I think it is strange to judge the value of a book by how much it adheres to the moral values of its times (or to our moral values?).

Often, I think, people who apply this sort of judgment are subconsciously dropping the qualifier. Their moral values just *are* THE moral values, and everyone else ever was Doing It Wrong.

Although, I admit, I’m sometimes inclined to take this view myself in really egregious cases like slavery. There’s a reason so many modern works set in slaveowning societies have viewpoint or other sympathetic characters who are disgusted with the system and may even try to do something to at least mitigate its effects — readers would feel repelled if they didn’t.

18

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 12:38 pm

@Belle

Certainly, most male writers can shoe-horn in a serviceable woman here and there but how many do so naturally and consistently? Ideas like the Bechdel test wouldn’t exist if women didn’t so often fill the role of structural support in literature.

The whole issue is clouded by the impossibility of imagining fundamentally different others. The primitive type from which all others in imagination are derived is the self, meaning that men must imagine women as men with special characteristics (and vice versa). Let’s get around that by considering only what one sex thinks; if the ideal of masculinity is constructed as an achievement then it implies a femininity that at least encompasses specific failures, and I don’t think it can be seriously disputed that the large majority of men make efforts to avoid being thought of as effeminate.

But there are reasons other than direct sexism for sexist writing. As saints make for poor drama, it follows that literary characterisation is the process of cataloguing flaws as much as anything else. Can a male writer of integrity write women whose flaws can’t be teased apart from their femininity? And female characters whose flaws are interchangeable with men’s are not female for narrative purposes.

19

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 12:39 pm

chris–reeeealllly think you’re misunderstanding me here. Do I think everyone should read all these books because they are continuously entertaining? No. Do I think everyone should read them so they can become enlightened about the Form of the Good? Not exactly. Am I trying to intimidate you? No! Read whatever pleases you! I dork around on the loserwebs like 40 hours a week. Are people truly even being encouraged by society at large to read these books anymore? No, they’re verging on passé. Might it be interesting, if you were a lover of Gaddis, to know that someone whom you knew online and even liked somewhat was quite unable to consume it, it being so bitter with failure to render any female humans of remote plausibility? Yes, maybe! If you had just been in a huge argument about why, precisely, someone disliked this sort of literature, might it be informative to hear, at length, with details, precisely why? Well, one imagines, or else the argument was in rather poor form.

Manta: try harder to understand the words that I wrote. If a novel is from a time which is, for the purposes of recognizing that women are human beings, the very same time as our own, but the novel is still incapable of showing us any female humans, then the book fails because that’s a kind of aesthetic failure, not because it’s a kind of moral failure, though it might also be the latter. You may want to go back to the part where I said we judge works of the past by different standards than our own? No, just, nevermind.

20

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 12:41 pm

@Bob

Maybe they don’t write the “Important Novels?” I am amazed and amused people still read the “Important Novels” …

It’s customary to restrict the employment of quote marks to quotations only.

21

Peter Erwin 09.23.13 at 12:47 pm

…women in these books are Galaxy Stars you get when you level up after a boss battle with psychoanalysis

I haven’t read nearly enough of the aforementioned Important Authors to fully appreciate the reference[*], but I just wanted to express my admiration for this.

[*] I’d imagine that the Hitchcock movie Spellbound might be a particularly apt, or overwrought, version of this.

22

bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 12:49 pm

20: Use-mention?

23

Foppe 09.23.13 at 12:53 pm

@16: actually, I spoke slightly too quickly, caused by my still being stuck inside the category of ‘writers of (supposed) Literature’. One female author whose book I did find extremely provocative was Ruth Klüger, and her book Weiter leben/Still Alive. The ‘problem’ with that book from a literary PoV is that it’s not fictional (this is part of why I enjoy reading literature so much). I guess I should throw in my lot with bob, and state that I am unimpressed with the quality of judgment of literature‘s politicians and policemen.

24

Saurs 09.23.13 at 12:55 pm

Let’s get around that by considering only what one sex thinks; if the ideal of masculinity is constructed as an achievement then it implies a femininity that at least encompasses specific failures, and I don’t think it can be seriously disputed that the large majority of men make efforts to avoid being thought of as effeminate.

And that’s the problem with conceiving biological sex as diametric (rather than a continuum) and gender as a rigid binary system. Nothing about the act of writing requires that men conceive of themselves as the opposite of women, or that men feature as the exclusive protagonists in fiction. It’s more than possible to imbue characters with dominant features other than masculine or feminine.

Ideas like the Bechdel test wouldn’t exist if women didn’t so often fill the role of structural support in literature.

Characters, supporting or otherwise, don’t exist independent of their authors. You’re missing the agency of the writer, here.

And female characters whose flaws are interchangeable with men’s are not female for narrative purposes.

Who says? Who says men are the default? Who says a woman is not a woman if she shares flaws with a man? A paragraph before, you said that masculinity was a strength and femininity a flaw. How does this follow?

25

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 12:59 pm

@Saurs

Who says? Who says men are the default?

The OP.

26

Matt Lister 09.23.13 at 1:00 pm

I’m not sure I understand how “important” is being used here (it applies to Updike? I’ll admit that I’ve only read a very small amount, and didn’t really like it, but I always took him to be pretty middle-brow) but what I want to know is, what about J.M. Coetzee? Surely he’s more worthy of discussion, one way or another, than most talked about here. (I can’t exactly say that I _liked_ the title character of _Elizabeth Costello_, though I don’t think we were supposed to. I did think the main female character in _Diary of a Bad Year_ was pretty interesting.)

27

Manta 09.23.13 at 1:02 pm

Why do you judge a book written in the past by different aesthetic standards than one written in the present: isn’t it like saying “this is an ugly book; but people liked that kind of stuff at its time, so I will like it anyhow”?

28

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 1:05 pm

@Saur

What I wrote was that “if the ideal of masculinity is constructed as an achievement then it implies a femininity that at least encompasses specific failures”. “Then that implies” might have been better than “then it implies”, but I think it’s clear enough.

29

Artur Lubango 09.23.13 at 1:05 pm

What you really mean is that American literature is poor and sterile. Try reading in other languages.

30

Saurs 09.23.13 at 1:07 pm

I guess I should throw in my lot with bob, and state that I am unimpressed with the quality of judgment of literature‘s politicians and policemen.

Are you talking about literary critics, or people on the interwebs who are being mean about your favorite authors?

31

Foppe 09.23.13 at 1:16 pm

@29: The former, of course. I’m not really into fiction enough to have favorite authors.

32

Trader Joe 09.23.13 at 1:17 pm

I’d tend to concur with the OP. There are certainly no ‘lay-up’ counter examples.

I don’t know that he qualifies as an author of “Important Novels” so much as a populist author but Nicholas Sparks usually manages to create female characters who are human and often the catalyst for change in the male protagonist.

I’ve not read all of his works – so don’t shotgun blast me if he’s had some clunkers, but the half dozen or so I’ve read routinely include intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally solvent women (none of whom seem to be described on the merits of bra size either).

33

Z 09.23.13 at 1:21 pm

I love Haruki Murakami to death. He is splendid and radiant.

But do you consider him an exception to your opening statement, then? Or is he not an Important Male Novelist, despite being male, important and a novelist (I want to emphasize that the question is non-rhetorical; as you wrote, the whole discussion presupposes the existence of a canon, and insofar as I know of one, yours and mine are bound to be massively different, seeing that we come from very different cultural world, so I genuinely wonder if Murakami belongs to your canon)?

At any rate, the review of Norwegian Wood linked to by Tom Slee in the previous thread characterizing it as sensitive-dude pornography seemed to me to miss the point of that novel big time: it is not to me to pronounce deep aesthetic judgments (I’m way too philistine for that), but I went out of this book with the distinct impression that far from being a book for men reveling in emotionally detached sex with transient women, it is a book about how seeing the world that way (which is certainly what the narrator is doing) is a complacent and immature illusion that obscures the real emotional engagement of other human beings. So yes, the women are superficially devoid of real emotions and oh so very close to sexual fantasies but that is because the narrator sees them that way (probably because the way he has found to cope with the guilt he felt in not perceiving the real pain of his friend(s) was to pretend that nobody could have known, with them being so mysterious, half-crazy and emotionally weird, better to be detached and bemused observer and pretend that there’s no other way); the reader, on the other hand, is provided more than enough back story (a lot of it quite clearly intended directly to us, though it is ostensibly channelled by the narrator) to discern the truth under Toru’s prism. So two cheers for Midori!

34

Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 1:36 pm

No, I don’t think Murakami belongs on the list that Franzen wants to be on, not because Murakami isn’t actually awesome, but rather because the list itself is sort of stupid. ‘God, Belle, what would make you just dismiss a whole epoch and genre of writing like that without even giving them a moment’s consideration?!’ See the post, supra.

35

FredR 09.23.13 at 1:50 pm

I don’t think you would like Saul Bellow.

36

matt 09.23.13 at 1:52 pm

“the fact that he and Telemachus go on to hang the 12 faithless maids”

It’s not clear to me that Odysseus does this. He instructs Telemachus to kill them by sword, and then we hear about Telemachus speaking among “them” that the maids must not die “a clean death.” Then “they” hang the maids, and go back into the house. But who is “they”? Could just be Telemachus, Eumaios, and even that oxherd dude. It’s the same “they” that mutilate Melanthius’ body “in fury and anger.” I’d like to know if Odysseus was furious and angry in this scene, but I can’t quite tell from the poem.

37

Chris Bertram 09.23.13 at 1:53 pm

Casting around for a counterexample, I suggest Tim Winton, who is important, male, a novelist and whose female characters are not from Super Mario. Of course, ymmv.

38

Zb 09.23.13 at 1:53 pm

What I found fascinating in the Norman Mailer I read, among the Important&tm; [Straight White Male] novelists is that he gives insight into another moral universe which is exactly the dominant worldview of his/my time. Updike or Roth’s misogyny was clear as air, a poison you’re not meant to see or taste until it’s in your nervous system. Mailer’s take on women is noxious, choking, thick and conscious.

Does that set of images add up to anything?

Another way of understanding the prison of the genre of litfic is to go back to the image from Lolita of the ape drawing the bars of its cell. Taken as a metaphor for all of literature, it should be enough to keep me depressed for the rest of the day.

39

Neville Morley 09.23.13 at 1:54 pm

My initial response to the OP, besides the usual slack-jawed admiration, was to try to think of counter-examples – before realising that almost all the mid-late C20 male novelists that I like wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting onto anyone’s list of Toweringly Important Male Novelists, so that would be rather missing the point. However, would it be possible to have a link to the current list, or Franzen’s version of it, so that I can check that I haven’t accidentally enjoyed any of them without realising my mistake?

40

bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 2:00 pm

33.2 is a decent description of much Japanese literature going back at least to Kawabata* of “Dancing Girl of Izu” and Snow Country. Maybe back to late Soseki. Osamu Dazai. 1st person narrator as despicable jerk who really should just die, and often does.

41

Elliott Mason 09.23.13 at 2:00 pm

The first staggeringly, egotistically stupid act of rage I saw Jonathan Franzen engage in was throwing tantrum that Oprah had chosen his book for her viewers to read.

Most authors would be pleased –- THINK OF THE SALES! His publisher was probably ecstatic. Most authors I know would also be pleased that a wider audience, who might never ordinarily happen to pick up their book, would be exposed to it (and some subset would like it well enough to go on to read their other stuff as well).

Franzen? Screamed and yelled and nearly fainted in rage at the GIRL COOTIES (and POOR PEOPLE COOTIES, and PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T GO TO COLLEGE COOTIES) that were going to be smeared all over his Precious Work of JEEENyus.

At that point I decided I didn’t need to read anything he’d ever written …

42

Vance Maverick 09.23.13 at 2:06 pm

I’ve never been able to enjoy this group of Important Male Novelists either. But the reasons can’t be quite the same, because I’m not actually very sensitive to the representation of women characters. (Not a boast, to be clear.) There’s something else, a smug aesthetic conservatism to begin with, that got to me about these books. So when I come across a Katie Roiphe (was it her?) lamenting the passing of that golden era, I don’t know how to begin to think myself into the state of appreciation she takes for granted.

43

Craig 09.23.13 at 2:06 pm

It would have been salutary if he and David Foster Wallace had been sent to some kind of workshop where they teach you: “now, you have woven these themes together in a hallucinatory yet ice-crystal matrix way, and everything is obviously building to an incredible climax in which you tie them all together. Now, like, actually tie them all together, OK?

I just have to respond to this with “Yes, yes, that’s it exactly!”
I read Infinite Jest, I got to the end, and I literally hurled the book across the room. Given that the damned thing weighs about as much as an Olympic shotput, you can imagine how upset I was.

44

bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 2:16 pm

Alexander Theroux takes the theme of romanticizing/objectifying the female love object = narcissism = misogyny to a hilarious baroque extreme in Darconville’s Cat. I don’t know that men can do much else in humility but confess their eradicable subject positions. Groveling is good.

Maybe women-writing-men might be better because femininity is performative, not a position but a movement. Probably not, women-writing-men likely get it just as wrong in ways we haven’t studied enough because we have focused on the Important Dude Writers. But seeing how women get it wrong (which would need to be done by men) might tell us something about men.

Unless women can’t possibly ever get it wrong.

45

Doug M. 09.23.13 at 2:17 pm

Sincere question: would you put E.L. Doctorow on the list? John Irving? Wallace Stegner?

Doug M.

46

Nine 09.23.13 at 2:17 pm

Neville Morley@39 – “However, would it be possible to have a link to the current list, or Franzen’s version of it, so that I can check that I haven’t accidentally enjoyed any of them without realising my mistake?”

I fervently hope this is sarcasm …

47

adam.smith 09.23.13 at 2:24 pm

I think there is a lot of sexist writing among great male novelists of the mid-late 20th century, so I’m not really going to argue with Belle, but I’m confused about this mythical list. So Pynchon, Gaddis, and Mailer are on it, but Baldwin, Emerson, and Murakami aren’t? I’m not that steeped in American literary live, but that seems rather, uhm, dumb? How about international writers? Garcia Marquez and Grass I assume are in? Naipaul, Rushdie, Parmuk, Coetzee? (all of these are pretty male-centered, so having them included wouldn’t take away from the sexist point – I’m just trying to understand The List here).

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Doug M. 09.23.13 at 2:25 pm

Meanwhile, two to add to your garden of dillweeds: Walker Percy and John Barth.

It’s easier to forgive Percy somehow, because he just comes across as a sweet man. Son of two suicides, adult convert to Catholicism, obsessed with Kierkegaard… all his stuff is about grappling with the meaninglessness of it all, and you just want to hold his hand and say “sh sh shh, it’s okay”. It’s true that he came dangerously close to inventing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and that’s hard to forgive, but somehow you have the feeling that if you could just go back somehow and tap him on the shoulder and whisper in his ear, he’d be all “Oh my! That’s a very good point!” and would have gone out and written a novel with actual female characters in it. Yes, I know. But that’s the feeling you get.

John Barth, on the other hand, was just a sexist dillweed.

Doug M.

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Neville Morley 09.23.13 at 2:27 pm

Nine @44: no, I’d genuinely like to have a better idea of the list.

50

Zamfir 09.23.13 at 2:28 pm

Is there, by any chance, some interview or so where Ftanzen talks about the people in whose company he would like to be considered? The current list of Bellow&Updike&c. sounds plausible, but it would be nice to have it from the horses mouth.

51

Dave Maier 09.23.13 at 2:46 pm

So Belle, read any good books lately?

(Also, really liked the bit about the glistening sandwiches.)

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Phil 09.23.13 at 2:49 pm

At the risk of restating Neville’s point, we’re never going to agree on a statement about Very Important Male Novelists unless we know who we’re talking about. We could generalise about Franzen-and-Roth-and-Mailer-and-Amis, or Franzen-and-Amis-and-Rushdie-and-Ballard, or Franzen-and-Roth-and-Gaddis-and-Doctorow, but surely not about Franzen-and-Roth-and-Mailer-and-Amis-and-Rushdie-and-Ballard-and-Gaddis-and-Doctorow. (And Ishiguro, and Murakami, and…)

I guess I’d take V. I. N.s to be the kind of novelist whose latest book will get respectful broadsheet reviews and whose name gets dropped (if American) in the same sentence as the phrase ‘great American novel’; so Roth, Mailer, Amis, Rushdie, Doctorow maybe, Gaddis just possibly, but not Ballard or Ishiguro or Murakami, and probably not Pynchon (although a case could surely be made for Mason and Dixon as the Great A. N.). It’s interesting that the core names (as I see ‘em) are the ones nobody’s had a kind word for (apart from Doctorow).

On the other hand, when I think of really good male characters in fiction, I think almost exclusively of women writers – Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Jane Rogers, James Tiptree Jr. (And D.H. Lawrence, of course. I did say almost.) Perhaps our Serious and Important male novelists just aren’t very good at people, other than a willy-waving protagonist – and the problem is less glaringly obvious to male readers because it’s easier for us to identify with the WWP.

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Pete 09.23.13 at 2:50 pm

I read Bonfire of the Vanities many years ago, and remembered enjoying it enough that when someone handed me I am Charlotte Simmons on holiday I read it. On first viewing, it was merely a fairly prosaic account of her college life until towards, the end, where there is a disatrous party and she gets effectively raped; then Everything Turns Out Alright for inadequately explained reasons.

Looking backwards (and from a distance) I realised that the first part of the novel was supposed to have been shocking, which it had completely failed to do, probably due to Wolfe’s conservativisim. Looking harder, it seems that he’s accidentally written Rape Culture: The Novel, wherein what happens to the protagonist is supposedly her fault. The whole thing relies on a set of assumed values which I share none of and only barely understand.

The Great American Novel seems to mean “books which explore that values universe”, and it looks increasingly like a sort of dystopian science fiction of the past.

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Phil 09.23.13 at 2:51 pm

Drat – bolding fail. Only the word ‘people’ was meant to be emboldened.

55

Rmj 09.23.13 at 2:55 pm

Only the word ‘people’ was meant to be emboldened.

I’m not sure people need to be more emboldened than they already are.

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.23.13 at 2:59 pm

Do people in other countries refer to some subset of their nation’s literary output as “the Great [my country here] Novel?” Like, is there a Great German Novel or a Great Argentine Novel? There are certainly great (lowercase) Russian novels, for example, but I’m not aware of Russians doing that implicit caps thing that Americans seem to love so much.

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Rmj 09.23.13 at 2:59 pm

And yes, being a male, WWP’s are the only people I can identify with.

I can’t seem to help it. “Wretched creature that I am, who is there to rescue me from this state of death?”

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Rmj 09.23.13 at 3:00 pm

I’m not aware of Russians doing that implicit caps thing that Americans seem to love so much.

We’re going to declare our independence from European culture by one-upping European culture.

That’ll show ‘em!

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Kevin 09.23.13 at 3:03 pm

Most of my favourite contemporary fiction writers are women — Amy Hempel, Atwood, Alison Lurie and others. However, I do really like some of the male novelists that fall within the scope of Belle’s critique. Ian McEwan, Ishiguro, Richard Ford. I’m especially interested in the case of Richard Ford in this context – in particular ‘Canada’ which I’m reading at the moment. The novel contains no major female characters (I don’t know if any of Ford’s work does), but there are two significant minor women in the novel — Berner (Dell’s sister), and Neeva (Dell’s mother). Both characters are far from stereotypical and invite the reader’s curiosity and sympathy. Ford, ISTM, is able to convey a sense of their complexity as individuals even though he is not prepared to develop them into fully rounded characters. Of course, the fact that he doesn’t or can’t develop them more fully may be seen as a failing of sexism. In many cases I’d be inclined to think that this is true. But in this particular case, the novel leaves me wanting to know a lot more about Berner and Neeva and quite intrigued in any case by what I do learn about them. They are neither simplistic nor stereotypical women. Indeed, one important impression the novel leaves is how much damage is done to them by the fact that they live in this overwhelmingly male frontier world of mid-late 20c Montana; Ford also manages to convey both Berner’s resourcefulness in managing to escape this world in search of something better and the emotional complexity of her decision. Anyway, my point is not that Ford’s novel is really an exception to the criticism Belle makes (I’m not arguing that he creates fully developed or rounded female characters). Rather, I’m suggesting that it is possible for readers with feminist scruples to enjoy (some?) of Ford’s work in spite of this lack — in part because he demonstrates a sufficiently complex understanding of women’s place in the male world of is novel.

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bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 3:05 pm

What is going on here? Are we trying to find exemptions or build our own enlightened canon? Why? To get Waring-approval, or to look ourselves in the mirror and say “I’m ok, cause I read feminist books?”

Just look for the Patriarchy wherever you looking, I suppose when you feel like looking. I don’t think you have conscientious all the time. Listen to thems that finds Patriarchy and points it out. Don’t flaunt your noxious entertainments in mixed company.

I prefer “patriarchy” to sexism, or misogyny, or women-hating cause, to some degree or another Patriarchy is something we all do, I mean women too, and feminism is also something we all do.

Andrew Kliman at New Left, read this morning. Quiggin was around.

The basic flaw in the thinking of Kalecki, Graeber, and the zombie social democrats now, and of the Mitterrand government three decades ago, is political determinism. They think that the capitalists control capitalism––not the other way around––so that the system can become something it’s not once different people with different priorities assume control of it.

No, you don’t control Patriarchy or feminism.

The polemics of feminists or sexists, intending somehow to individualize or personalize these systemic problems, as if feminism or patriarchy was a possession to be cherished or nurtured or discarded or overcome…well I will leave such havings to the liberals and social democrats.

Frantzen or Mailer, or Millet or Greer ain’t scars, tattoos, or merit badges. They don’t belong to me.

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Trader Joe 09.23.13 at 3:09 pm

@56
I had considered Ford as well, but the portrayal of the protaganists ex-wife in The Sportswriter and Independence Day (clearly his most autobiographical works) and his general “use” of women for sex and the routine descriptions of their either positively or negatively proportioned bodies wouldn’t bode well for Belle’s criteria.

62

AcademicLurker 09.23.13 at 3:10 pm

This doesn’t have anything to do with the sexism question, but it seems incongruous to me somehow to put Pynchon in the same box as Roth, Bellow, Updike, Mailer et al.

I understand the reason – all famous white guy novelists from that latter half of the 20th century – but Pynchon seems to me to be up to something different from the others on the list. Maybe it’s just that I can’t work up much interest in the Updike, Roth etc. crowd but like Pynchon. Also, it seems that Franzen clearly wants to be listed in the Roth Updike & friends club, but I don’t get any sense that he wants to be compared with Pynchon (unlike, say, DFW).

But enough of this 20th century stuff. Why don’t we mix things up with a Trollope thread? Who’s up for “Septimus Harding: accomplice to genocide?”

63

Kevin 09.23.13 at 3:12 pm

Bob M: For my part, I’m kind of curious to know if Belle has read Richard Ford and if so how she’d respond to my take on him. Aside from that, I assume most people post for the usual reasons people usually post here — they’re kinda interested in the discussion.

Nevertheless, in light of the demonstrable (and demonstrated in several comments on numerous recent threads) tendency of some commenters to treat female posters much worse than they treat male ones, I thought it advisable to preface my main point with some comments indicating my basic agreement with the OP.

Also, as I noted, I was not trying to make a case for an exemption from the critique but to suggest that the issue may be a bit more complex than it first appears.

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matt w 09.23.13 at 3:18 pm

A reliable source who read two-thirds of Freedom before exposing it to the elements tells me that what is annoying about Franzen is not only everything you said and the terribly written women but his Reed Richards-like ability to pat himself on the back about How Amazing it is that he is Writing Women Himself. Jonathan Franzen Explains Women To You! Now ain’t you grateful?

65

matt w 09.23.13 at 3:19 pm

Anyway I don’t know if I’m on board with the idea that J.G. Ballard just hates everyone. There’s just all those stories, “The Overloaded Man,” “The Subliminal Man,” “Billenium,” like that, where the role of the woman is to keep the man from his exquisite solitude. And let’s not even start with “The Sixty-Minute Zoom.”

What struck me about setting DeLillo side by side with Ballard is that White Noise really really wanted to be The Atrocity Exhibition but couldn’t follow through. DeLillo has all these ideas, like Hitler Studies and the drug that makes you not fear death, and he just tries to shove them into the narrative were they fit like a giant pebble in your shoe, rubbing up against everything but not actually contributing to moving anything forward (I mean, they don’t move the story forward, because none of the characters actually react the way people would react to such a concept except when they’re explicitly discussing it, my metaphor has somewhat broken down here). Whereas if Ballard wants to talk about a drug that makes you not fear death he will just straight up write a clinical report of the effects and testing and whathaveyou of that drug, and stick the main characters of the book in three italicized words at the beginning of each paragraph. And they won’t even have the same names as they did in the chapter before! Seriously, though, I think in the entire collected stories of JG Ballard there are twelve paragraphs from a woman’s point of view (eleven in “The Beach Murders,” one in “Storm-Bird, Storm Dreamer”).

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Kevin 09.23.13 at 3:21 pm

TJ: Yes, I had similar thoughts about the Sportswriter and ID (and the other one — can’t remember the title now). However, my memory of those novels is a bit fuzzier. But I’d always taken Bascombe’s character to be clearly ironic, especially in the portrayal his treatment of women. He’s clearly aware of his ‘soft’ misogyny, regrets it, but is simply too lazy to do anything about it (and too willing to use the excuse of the death of his youngest son to avoid change). If Bascombe is Ford’s doppelganger (which I’d avoided assuming until now), it seems like his function is one of fairly harsh self-critique, including on the woman question.

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Phil 09.23.13 at 3:21 pm

And yes, being a male, WWP’s are the only people I can identify with.

I never suggested this was the case – nor would I be likely to, what with being male myself.

68

William Timberman 09.23.13 at 3:21 pm

Okay, a case has been made, the burden of proof assigned. So I ask myself, what’s different about an important female novelist? Take George Eliot, for example. (There’s the name of the author on the flyleaf, yes, but that’s another story, or maybe part of the same story, but in any case, it’s not the author’s fault.) Take Middlemarch. Eliot does men really well, at least as far as I can judge from my acquaintances with the remnants of the kind of men she does who are still left over in our own time. The thing is, she does men well because she does society well, which is also to say that she doesn’t do men very deeply. Hardly her fault again, as, despite her observational skills, she isn’t a man. The society she nails in all its intricacy, though, isn’t all of society. Just up the road from the action in Middlemarch, there was all that horrible stuff going on that had Marx and Dickens so up in arms. But again, why would we accuse her of blindness? She was working on another part of the picture, and an equally valid one.

I do wonder, though, if Eliot’s focus on society, and her consequent evenhandedness, is necessarily a characteristic of her gender, or more a characteristic of her time and circumstances. The male faults in Homer might be excused by saying something like, Oh, that was a different time, and he was a creature of that time. Hanging maids was just what you did, and if there’s no evidence that women objected, it’s probably because women didn’t write epics. Maybe there’s some evidence in the historical record, but it seems hard to find. Come to the modern age, though, and these excuses can’t be offered without being seen for what they are, i.e. excuses plain and simple. Men write novels about themselves — that’s the accusation — and forget about everything else. For them, society exists at best as an admonishment, at worst as an adornment, to their own increasingly desperate attempts at self aggrandizement.

So when Belle talks about sexist dillweeds, etc., I’d agree that what she’s attacking is indeed a form of narcissism, a preoccupation by male authors with the male self in an age when that male self has no reason to be smug, in fact has no reason to believe that it has any right to exist at all. So modern male novelists, despite all the assistance available in history from the likes of Eliot, or Austen, can’t do society until they’ve done themselves. This may not be admirable, and it may bore the hell out of women, but it should be understandable. Context here, as everywhere, is all.

But if male novelists are guilty as charged, and everyone here seems to be agreeing with Belle that they are, what about female novelists, more or less contemporary ones? I wonder what Belle makes of Simone de Beauvoir, or Sylvia Plath, or Gillian Flynn. I ask because to me they seem as preoccupied with their selves as any male writer, although that preoccupation does seem more anguished than smug. Are they in rebellion from their reflections in the male gaze, or alternatively, can it be that the male disease of narcissism can spread across genders?

I think an argument could be made, although I’m not sure I’m completely ready to make it, that the device available to Eliot — the focus on society, and the understanding of men and women according to their places in it — is no longer really available to any novelist. These days, for reasons known to us all, it’s every man — or woman — for him/herself.

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mpowell 09.23.13 at 3:21 pm

I don’t know what defines the canon of Important Male Novelists and so I’m curious what it is. Because if there is enjoyable fiction outside of that canon, it seems like the social forces, or specific people that define that list may be the most important question here. So is the judgment an aesthetic one? Ie, this is what characterizes important literature and everyone agrees on the definition and just sometimes people disagree on who qualifies? Or is there some set of critics/academics who offer opinions and eventually this is distilled into a more or less official list and maybe the inquiry raised by the OP ought to be regarded as a criticism of the list and the people creating it?

70

politicalfootball 09.23.13 at 3:23 pm

Everything Turns Out Alright

I shouldn’t talk about books, especially in a crowd like this, because I don’t actually know anything about literature. How much do I not know? I know so little that I’ve actually read the first three of Wolfe’s novels, each of which has made me a little stupider.

There’s a pecularity of those novels that I haven’t seen commented on. Even though his primary concern is status-worship, he undercuts that worship in each of those novels. In Bonfire and Man in Full, he shows how people of merit gain status because they deserve it. Then, in an unacknowledged paradox, the protagonists decisively prove their worth only when their status is removed and they are nonetheless revealed to be Men in Full.

He reverses that with Charlotte Simmons, who achieves high status but whose soul is nonetheless lost. I think we’re meant to see Charlotte Simmons as an unhappy ending, where everything only superficially turns out all right.

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AcademicLurker 09.23.13 at 3:24 pm

I haven’t read Freedom. Is it true that it actually has a bit about liberals being terrible snobs because the eat arugula?

I lost all interest in reading after hearing that.

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Slugger 09.23.13 at 3:26 pm

I somehow get the sense that this is all a effort to slam Franzen. After all, the others receiving the main brunt of the criticism, Mailer, Updike, Bellow, and even Roth, are not in a place where our disapproval is likely to have much impact. Franzen is likely to have more output, and he does have large ambitions with multiple allussions to Anna Karenina in Freedom for example.
I don’t know if Franzen gets to the heart of what it means to be a woman; I did see quite a lot of pages at least devoted to the characters of the mother and the lesbian daughter in The Corrections or to Pat Berglund in Freedom. I don’t know if he gets to the heart of males either because who really knows their own heart much less other peoples. I did realize with tears in my eyes that Walt Berglund is a stupid a**hole just like me.

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AcademicLurker 09.23.13 at 3:27 pm

@68:

That’s “lost all interest in reading Freedom“. I didn’t stop reading altogether.

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Mandos 09.23.13 at 3:33 pm

All I know is that they made me read J. D. Salinger in high school, and my thought about him was “what a phony”, and I more or less ignored the genre of novelists writing Great Literature About Internal Angst And Disaffection ever since. Truth is, even as a relatively privileged male reader, I am a visible-minority-child-of-immigrants, and I really can’t relate to the subjects of their disaffection. I can’t imagine how alienating it would be were I female! So when I read for pleasure, I read what asks me, “what if?”

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Trader Joe 09.23.13 at 3:34 pm

@65
Great thoughts WT.
It sort of begs the slightly different question – if Important Male authors can’t write women correctly, are there Important Female authors that write males correctly?

Kev at 63-The Lay of the Land was the third in the trilogy. If Bascome is meant to be ironic, then perhaps, Ford could make the cut. As I took him, as it implies you did, Bascome is trying to figure out who he is, and while many of the answers aren’t flattering he’s unsure if this is self fault or the fault of those around him. To the OP point however, while the women are somewhat developed the portrayals tend to hover around the suitability of the woman as either a sex partner or a spouse – not as intellectual, emotional people in their own sense. (I’ve not read Canada yet so can’t say if that’s different.)

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Cleanthes 09.23.13 at 3:41 pm

Belle thank you so much for writing this post. I hadn’t realized how pervasive the issue was.
Sexism indeed mars many alleged masterpieces. For example, when you start reading Bellow’s Herzog, you’re hit with so much immaturity in the choice of the female characters (hot Latin chick falling for the older male protagonist; bitchy, mean ex-wife, etc.) that it takes a lot of effort just to continue reading. I haven’t been able to manage to read past the first few pages despite many attempts over the years.

For those who are asking about the canon of American male novelists post-WWII, here is the selection made by the 7th. edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature:

John Cheever (1912-1982)
Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
Saul Bellow (b. 1915)
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
John Updike (b. 1932)
Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937)
Richard Powers (b. 1957)

Donald Barthelme (b. 1931) (mainly a short story writer)
Raymond Carver (b. 1938) (ditto).

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Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 3:44 pm

This is from yesterday on the Guardian website:

I’m a 36-year-old guy and I’ve always considered myself straight on the whole. I have had many heterosexual relationships and one-night stands as well as a couple of homosexual “experiments” in my younger days, all of which I enjoyed. I’ve been single for a couple of years now and, while watching porn, I’ve had a lot of fantasies about being the girl, particularly when the video features one girl and several guys. I’m worried these fantasies mean I might be gay or transsexual, although this is not something I desire consciously. Do you think I should seek therapy?

While the man didn’t describe the contents of his novel, he could surely have written one as easily as anyone else.

Anyway, we have a man who (A) has experimented with homosexuality, (B) done so apparently without guilt, and yet (C) had never prior to the age of thirty six considered what the experience of sex might be like for a woman. In fact doing so causes him anxiety of apparent seriousness. I’m going to assume the reluctance of heterosexual men would usually be greater.

I can’t ever recall a male novelist making the same leap of imagination as Mariella Frostrup’s correspondent. Ideas of them holding court in interviews on their persistent, vivid and visceral imaginative exploration of the experience of menstruation, say, or pregnancy, or on their simulation of the psychological perturbations these states bring about via the use of hormone treatments, or even of any hormone experiments at all, are even harder to imagine. Now those writers who try to balance their output may beat the literati, but given these facts it seems to me they’re still not really putting their backs into it.

In fact there’s an argument to be made that the sexists’ skew rescues some possibility of psychological merit in their work precisely because it restricts women to participating in narrative solely as placeholders. On the other hand, those male writers whose stories intrinsically involved characters intrinsically female would be doomed in that case.

Of course helping women out in identifying their shortcomings would be brave of them in any case. Is it politic today? It was this consideration which motivated me to ask whether a male writer of integrity could write women whose flaws can’t be teased apart from their femininity — the answer is the same to each question.

Now I should admit that for all I know the authors who’ve come in for criticism simply don’t care about women. I’m very poorly equipped to decide, just as I am to make fine judgments of literary merit.

Any literary judgments I do make are of the grossest sort. Here’s one: you’d be as likely to encounter novel insight into women’s inner lives from an antelope or a bank teller machine as you would be from a cliché 90s “new man”. Even self-conscious misogynists are likelier sources. This is because whereas a woman considering questions such as this not only enjoys privileged direct insight she also experiences the attendant ideology (exemplified by this thread) from a perspective of personal aggravation. The male author, on the other hand, wholly lacks the former and encounters the latter only as a morally loaded abstraction: a duty without its own motivation.

There exists a fanciful idea that somewhere sexism has been banished — or even can be banished. It’s part of our idea of progress. I admit that things have changed permanently and for the better and I’ve no problem with progress as an idea — there are lots of messy words out there.

On the other hand, nothing has been resolved. Rather, the collapse of an obsolete settlement gave rise to a state of permanent dynamic tension instead of a new static configuration. Our culture is full of hypocrisy and contradictions, and not only among men. It’s easy to trace the contours: just wait for someone to say “I’m not gay… not that there’s anything wrong with that…”, or make any thematically related statement, and work outwards. In this context, male writers’ female characters become conservative efforts to sustain a status quo that’s not even carefully defined. Real female characters would cause controversies broader than the authors themselves.

I’ve seen Madam Bovary described as the details of a stupid woman’s stupidity, and though I haven’t read it I suspect it might cause a tiny bit of disturbance if written today. Pending the emergence of a new orthodoxy fit for today’s world but having the self-consistency of the homogeneous mores of the of the 1950s, LEGO-block placeholder women may be as good as what’s possible.

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des von bladet 09.23.13 at 3:55 pm

If Franzen wants to be an “Important Male Novelists of the Latter Half of the 20th Century” he’s gonna need a better time-machine.

(I’d also complain that “American” seems to be silent in the above, but when the alternative to silence is Pingo “Martin” Amis, it is a wise person who keeps their cake-hole shut. (I choose to think George Steiner said that, although he didn’t.))

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AcademicLurker 09.23.13 at 3:55 pm

I’ve read The Tommyknockers twice also.

Now that’s just wrong.

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Kevin 09.23.13 at 4:08 pm

TJ: thanks. Yes, Canada and its female characters are very different (as are the female characters in his collection of short stories (some of which also set in Montana) Rock Springs.

81

Bruce Baugh 09.23.13 at 4:10 pm

This morning I was swapping Twitter posts with a friend in the business journalism world about the pattern of computer trade press coverage of things like iPhone releases: always disappointments and failures to the trade press, popular at launch and over time with customers, this latter point never assimilated by the former. On the weekend I helped a friend dig up some data about the ongoing computer gaming trade press’ habit of talking about “real” gaming as a very narrow slice of play styles and defining away much of the best-selling stuff as somehow insufficiently whatever.

This is my insight: The Great Novelists Of The Twentieth Etc. scene is the computer trade press scene of fiction. The task of matching up specific personas is left as an exercise for the reader.

82

Dave 09.23.13 at 4:18 pm

Interesting topic. IMHO:

DFW’s sexism is glaring and off-putting.
Pynchon’s sexism is negligible.
Mailer’s is obvious, and you may be sexist if you like that sort of thing
Updike? Never heard of him
Gaddis’s sexism is painful enough to qualify as interesting in its own right
Franzen himself is negligible, and his sexism is surely part of the package of negligibility.

Possibly the 20th Century has been rather sexist, on the whole.

83

PatrickinIowa 09.23.13 at 4:23 pm

I agree with Academic Lurker, when she (?) says that Pynchon’s up to something different. Knowing that makes the resolution-tease purposeful. But that’s for a longer and different conversation, which I’d love to have with some of you some day.

I read this thread doing penance for my adoration of John Barth when I was a callow youth. When he lectured here in Iowa City, he said that the point of writing fiction, for him, was that he could have a much longer…ahem…sailboat than he actually had. In retrospect what he surely meant was this, “I’m going to pick blonde. Ooh, ooh, and make her tits bigger!”

You nailed it Belle. For that guy anyway.

I do think the patriarchy and misogyny and narcissism are connected (as Bob suggests), but distinguishable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if women readers, as a group, (and other readers as well) found the first easier to read around than the latter two.

84

Bruce Baugh 09.23.13 at 4:31 pm

Dave: Well, yeah, about the last part. But elites are often worse in significant ways than the general population. In US politics, for instance, there’s that weird combination of deep hatefulness, sadistic delight in others’ pain, and constant pants-wetting fearfulness. You can push the American public into part or all of that state without huge effort, but the majority don’t stay there the way the governing class does not without a whole lot of work on the goaders’ part. Likewise in literature.

85

The Modesto Kid 09.23.13 at 4:45 pm

Now, like, actually tie them all together, OK?”

This is a feature, not a bug.

86

Gareth Rees 09.23.13 at 4:45 pm

It’s no mystery why ageing male novelists end up writing novels in which a thinly disguised self-insert character gets to explain at length why young people today are no good, while having lots of sex with young women with little or no personality but lovingly described physical features. Mid-life crisis, innit? Garland Grey handily sums up the genre as “Fond Memories of Vagina“. (Taking Amis’ The Pregnant Widow as the exemplar.)

Nor is it mysterious why the sorts of people who come up with lists of Important Novels fill them with Fond Memories of Vagina: they are ageing and male and confronting their own mortality and impotence too.

87

chris 09.23.13 at 4:47 pm

Am I trying to intimidate you? No! Read whatever pleases you!

I didn’t mean to imply that YOU were trying to intimidate anyone with the Importance of the Official Canon. Rather the reverse — you’re pointing out that the Official Canon of Important Writers is full of people who can’t write their way out of a paper bag, let alone make an interesting character that isn’t an author self-insert. (Dorothy Sayers could make an interesting character that IS an author self-insert, but somehow I lack faith that most of the other authors you’re talking about could do that either.)

That puts you pretty clearly on the side of the iconoclasts, ISTM. I was intending to express solidarity with that, and sticking up for the value of unimportant literature, as much as anything.

Sorry if that was unclear.

88

The Modesto Kid 09.23.13 at 4:47 pm

(ps Bleeding Edge is sexist in much the same way Vineland was, or in a proper subset of the ways Vineland was, and also it is great in similar ways.)

89

The Modesto Kid 09.23.13 at 4:48 pm

A-and Bleeding Edge main character Maxine seems like a pretty well-rounded female character for all her rape fantasizing, in ways in which Frenesi was not.

90

MG 09.23.13 at 4:55 pm

Right on Belle. Agree with this post entirely And the DFW piece you linked to which refers to the “mid century males” as “the Great Male Narcissists”. Reading books where (straight! rich! white! privileged! American! horny! friendless!) men have midlife crises does not inform one about the human condition in general.

I think that some of their reputation is due to the facile charms of their prose or the subject matter but to me this is like judging a painting based on deftness with brushstrokes or pretentiousness of the title.

That said, these writers do not belong in the same league as those who really grapple with “Big Issues” (Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy) nor are they relevant today to “the kids” (unlike say Bronte, Austen, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Heller, Salinger, Kerouac ).

So, dustbin of history for the GMN, hooray!

91

alkali 09.23.13 at 5:00 pm

Is it really the case that pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books, for many intelligent people?

The key words here are, I think, “mid to late”: cutting the post-WWII 20th century roughly in half, the “mid” 20th century novelists (i.e., those who came of age in 1945-1973) by and large look very different from the “late” 20th century novelists (1974-2000) with respect to sexism. Why? Probably because the “mid” 20th century was an inflection point with respect to the status of women in American society.

Even the writers who were productive in both periods are different in the “late” period: late Roth and late Mailer don’t read like 1960s Roth and 1950s-1960s Mailer with respect to treatment of women. (It’s not entirely discontinuous, but it is different.)

(Unrelatedly, assuming arguendo that Vonnegut is one of the Important Male Novelists of the period, I don’t really know if he is a sexist dillweed or not. Probably a little bit, though not on the Roth/Updike/Mailer level.)

92

Mao Cheng Ji 09.23.13 at 5:10 pm

“Reading books where (straight! rich! white! privileged! American! horny! friendless!) men have midlife crises does not inform one about the human condition in general.”

Sure it does. Provided that they have talent. That’s what this is all about. The rest is irrelevant.

93

Sasha Clarkson 09.23.13 at 5:19 pm

Terry Pratchett has some fantastic female characters, as well as a fantastic sense of humour and social satire.

The Witches, Death’s granddaughter Susan, Tiffany, Sgt Angua, the whole of the “Monstrous Regiment”, Mrs Cake, Mrs Palm, Lady Sybil Vimes, etc etc etc.

Of course they do inhabit a parody of the real world, and not a socialist realist paradise, but these characters mostly remind me of real women I know or knew.

94

Gareth Rees 09.23.13 at 5:22 pm

Best suggestion for contemporary author of well-rounded female characters, from Tom: Kim Stanley Robinson. I LOL’ed.

I LOL’ed too. I have sharp memories of KSR’s landscapes (from the hyper-urban setting of The Gold Coast to the utter barrenness and bleakness of Pluto in Icehenge) and his dramatic set pieces (the fall of the cable in Red Mars; the flooding and evacuation of the town of Burroughs in Green Mars), but even if you offered me $1000 I do not think I could name a single one of his hundreds of bland identikit characters. Who played that futuristic musical instrument in The Memory of Whiteness? Who met the yeti in Escape from Kathmandu? Who was the guide in Antarctica? There must have been such characters, but I can’t remember a thing about them.

95

lemmy caution 09.23.13 at 5:22 pm

Apparently, Murakami is something of a popular choice for women on online dating sites:

http://datestable.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/stuff-okcupid-girls-love/

I liked how Gravity’s Rainbow swerved away from meaning at the end.

“If you are a woman reading these novels it registers painfully and clunkily and woodenly, every page, all the time. It’s as if someone has stuck 8-bit Mario into Grand Theft Auto V but hasn’t noticed any difference and doesn’t expect that anyone else will either. He’s made of giant squares! What the—”

that makes sense. Good female writers do a fine job with the interior life of male characters though.

96

Foppe 09.23.13 at 5:28 pm

@16/saurs: to explain myself a bit further: my point wasn’t to suggest a. that I’m well-’read’ when it comes to literature, and b. that I’d weighed ‘the category’, and found it wanting. My point was merely that I simply haven’t read any works that stuck with me that were written by female authors. I realize that my statement was easy to misread in this fashion, and I apologize for not putting it more clearly. Again, the only female author who comes to mind who I’ve read (besides some obligatory Jane Austen, which I found boring because of the oozing elitist Victorian sensibilities that form the context of the novels) is Ruth Klüger, who in fact has quite a bit to say on the topic of males excluding women from conversation..

97

AcademicLurker 09.23.13 at 5:29 pm

Reading books where (straight! rich! white! privileged! American! horny! friendless!) men have midlife crises…

I guess that’s what I was getting at when I said that Pynchon seems to be up to something different from most of the other authors mentioned. He doesn’t really work the “upper middle class white guy having a midlife crisis” beat.

98

Josh K-sky 09.23.13 at 5:32 pm

How do people (esp. the post author and other womenpeople) feel about Norman Rush? I loved Mating; it was recommended to me by a young male novelist who said it had the best female narrator he’d ever read. Apparently Rush himself set out to write “the most fully realized female character in the English language.” But I haven’t had the fortune to talk about it with many women readers. (My wife found the main character exhausting, but not unbelievable.)

99

lemmy caution 09.23.13 at 5:47 pm

“Right on Belle. Agree with this post entirely And the DFW piece you linked to which refers to the “mid century males” as “the Great Male Narcissists”. Reading books where (straight! rich! white! privileged! American! horny! friendless!) men have midlife crises does not inform one about the human condition in general. “

DFW found a way to avoid being a straight, rich, white, privileged, American, horny, and friendless man with a midlife crisis, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

100

rm 09.23.13 at 5:50 pm

You know who else is a sexist dillweed? John Crowley. I thought of him because, just as Belle said, here is a great artist whose novels are rendered un-enjoyable because of this fundamental failure. And he himself seems to value the worst parts of his work more than the parts which display his actual talent.

Positive attributes: *A bridge between fantasy-genre-lit and high-serious-important-lit (those circles overlap hugely among readers, but few enough writers are in both categories, and many of the serious-lit writers using SF/F elements are quite sure they are not thatkind of writer {Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy}). *Astoundingly gifted stylist. *Astoundingly inventive use of the obscure magical lore of the past (fairies, alchemy, prescientific cosmology, etc.).

Negative attributes: *Women are not people, but Mystical Avatars of Dimly Grasped Spiritual Insights; each woman represents a different insight, one grasps at the insight by sleeping with her. *Sexual urges are Mystical Imperatives, and they just come over a guy and what can he do but give in? He’s not to be held responsible.

101

Dave Maier 09.23.13 at 5:57 pm

98: I mentioned Mating on the other thread, but no one agreed or disagreed. (FWIW, the book was recommended to me by my xgf.) Although his look-at-me-write-about-women attitude is a bit obnoxious, at least he’s better at it than Franzen. I understand the same character appears in (narrates?) Mortals, but (obviously) I haven’t read that one yet.

I’d also like to put in a good word for Chris Ware’s Building Stories, whose female protagonist is really something.

102

Peter Erwin 09.23.13 at 6:03 pm

Garth Rees:
… but even if you offered me $1000 I do not think I could name a single one of his hundreds of bland identikit characters.

To me, that’s odd, because one of the (many) things I enjoyed about the Mars trilogy was the extensive focus on a small set of fairly distinct main characters. So I can remember Nadia and Maya, along with Nirgal and Michel and Sax, rather clearly. (And so far I’m really enjoying his version of Galileo in Galileo’s Dream.)

103

Peter Erwin 09.23.13 at 6:04 pm

in my previous post: “Garth Rees” –> “Gareth Rees”; apologies for getting your name wrong.

104

Norther Observer 09.23.13 at 6:07 pm

Feminists are particularly unnerved by the likes of Franzen because his works condemn Modernity for the shallow dead end enterprise it is and Feminism can not exist without an ethic of Modernity. Since Modernity is objectively failing humanity, Franzens musings are doubly terrifying as public consciousness may be aroused.

105

Substance McGravitas 09.23.13 at 6:08 pm

Let the Important Noun be capitalized!

106

Foppe 09.23.13 at 6:10 pm

@104: how convenient.. Care to make your aphorism interesting by clothing it, or do you prefer to leave it like this, hoping it will be perceived as gravely substantive?

107

Barry 09.23.13 at 6:28 pm

That’s Gravely Substantive, you Peon Unappreciator of Culture!

108

Anderson 09.23.13 at 6:30 pm

Re: women novelists: I am reading Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, and she is kicking ass thus far.

109

Peter Erwin 09.23.13 at 6:33 pm

Cleanthes:
For those who are asking about the canon of American male novelists post-WWII, here is the selection made by the 7th. edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature:

That’s probably a good approach, though it seems to leave out Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and William S. Burroughs, all of whom featured in Belle’s discussion.

Another way of constructing a somewhat larger list might be to go through the nominees for the (post-1940s) National Book Award for Fiction and pick out men getting, say, 2 or more nominations, which gives you in addition to those Belle mentioned: William Faulkner, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Nelson Algren, James Agee, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Robert Stone, Norman Rush, J.D. Salinger, Robert Penn Warren, and John Steinbeck. (And probably some others I missed while going through the list.) Some, like Steinbeck, might seem more “early 20th Century”, and some have no doubt fallen out of favor, but it’s a list that I think manages to include all the American writers[*] Belle mentioned except for William S. Burroughs. For what that’s worth.

[*] I think almost all the writers she mentioned in that category were American, with the exception of J.G. Ballard, which makes sense if the idea is looking at the Great American (Male) Novelist category that Franzen supposedly aspires to.

110

rm 09.23.13 at 6:35 pm

Dave Maier @101: Chris Ware, yes. I’m finding Building Stories to be a genuine old-fashioned difficult-in-a-good-way read, one of those modernist things that makes you do all the work but rewards you for it. So I have to finish it when I have a vacation. But it’s not sexist or dillweedish at all, I don’t think, because it’s not a Novel with all the baggage of the form, perhaps.

111

Dave Maier 09.23.13 at 6:49 pm

rm: Yes, but the difficulty of Building Stories is of a different order, in the sense that I am always worried that I will lose part of it in the sofa cushions or behind the bed or something. Also, I’m never sure what part of it I’m supposed to read next.

112

LFC 09.23.13 at 6:59 pm

I’ve been trying to figure out the least-thread-deraily way to state the point that Wm S. Burroughs is not the only ‘important’ (or possibly ‘important’) 20th-cent. male novelist who is/was not heterosexual. Indeed Belle did not say he’s the only one, but it’s an impression that some might draw nonetheless from the OP.

Re N. Rush’s Mating (98,101): agree, thought it was quite good when I read it — a long time ago.

113

Corey Robin 09.23.13 at 7:15 pm

The one book of Mailer’s I can think of in which a female character is fully realized as a character, as a human being, is The Executioner’s Song (I happened to re-read it last year in the run-up to the election; thanks to Romney, I was interested in reminding myself what Mailer had to say about Mormonism and America.) His portrait of Nicole Baker is just unbelievable: she’s one of the few characters in that book who achieves a genuine grace, who rises almost to the level of tragic heroism. At least in Mailer’s telling. Not coincidentally, I happen to think this is Mailer’s greatest book. Maybe his only great book. All of which is to say: I agree with Belle.

114

geo 09.23.13 at 7:18 pm

OP: This is something a number of commenters have accused me of lying about.

Gulp. Not me, I hope. I formally disavow ever having had such an opinion. Only meant to question whether your approach to literary judgment was at fault.

OP: Can people write themselves out of this corner, or just override all barriers because they are great artists? … Yes.

That’s what I think too.

OP: 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.

Not sure I understand this. How is sending a novel on its way or feeding it to Ammit because it’s sexist different from judging it a failure because it’s sexist? Is it a matter of the degree of sexism, or its centrality, or the lack of compensating merits in the novel?

115

leilani young 09.23.13 at 7:24 pm

Add up “The Witches of Eastwick” in this stewpot and call me in the morning.(James Joyce? You skipped him) I love Amy Tan and Sandra Dallas when I feel low

116

leilani young 09.23.13 at 7:29 pm

“But the story had taken hold of me with its bulldog teeth
It would not let go until I learnedthat
sometimes in tragedies
there are no villains
only people like ourseves”
Chitra Batterjee Divakaruni

117

John Drinkwater 09.23.13 at 7:44 pm

How can you have a discussion about 20th century male authors and sex and not mention Gore Vidal? He constantly fought against sexism (“deranged machismo”) and literally fought guys like Norman “an atrocious personality” Mailer. Vidal is also arguably a better novelist than most of those mentioned above. Julian alone and also Burr are worth more than the collected works of John Updike. Vidal moreover wrote hilarious novels told persuasively through female voices (Kalki and Myra Breckinridge). Why doesn’t he get any respect?

118

Dogen 09.23.13 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it. As a cis-straight-male, much of what Belle points out often passes me by, but I have found the authors called out (Roth, Updike, Franzen, etc) unreadable for different reasons.

I think I actually made it through an entire Updike once, and one Roth too, around high school or early college age. That was before I fully trusted my judgement and thought that a novelist so “important” must be good so it would be unfair to judge without reading the whole thing. I’ve gotten over that and have put down two Franzen’s without qualm (Connections and Freedom, I think) part way through.

Franzen seems to me quite different from Roth and Updike, though. I experience the older gents as weirdly obsessed about sex in a way that is boring and unenlightening.

Franzen seems like a failed Tom Wolfe, even though he’d probably be offended to be mentioned in the same breathe. All the shallowness of Wolfe, none of the wit.

I enjoyed very much “The English Patient” but now wonder how it comes across in its treatment of women. And I think Michael Ondaatje is considered an “important” writer, no? (Honest questions, not rhetorical or trying to be provocative.)

119

Josh 09.23.13 at 7:49 pm

Surely Vonnegut belongs on a list of Canonical Sexist Novelists of Our Time?

120

Anderson 09.23.13 at 7:52 pm

Updike, like Pynchon tho of course in a very different way, can be just an amazingly fine writer … his prose really gets going sometimes.

OTOH, there is stuff like this (quoting my own blog, sorry):

Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike — I’d bogged down about 50 pages into this volume of the Rabbit tetralogy, but Updike’s death made me pick it up again. The man writes beautifully and has a certain amount of insight into human nature, but Rabbit’s serendipity in falling into bed with admiring women seems a bit, well, serendipitous … oh, wait, that’s what you’ve read everywhere else about Updike? well I guess it’s true then. I’ve currently stalled again at the realization that Thelma’s illness, which had added some poignancy to her evident crush on Rabbit, was apparently a plot point motivated by the goal of getting Rabbit to fuck her up the ass. No, really.”

121

PGD 09.23.13 at 8:05 pm

Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” reads like a direct response to this post.

If misogyny is real, if it’s an actual important part of male sensibility, then why is it disqualifying for literary quality? If we drop the idea of the novel standing outside of and above the world and ‘representing’ all its inhabitants accurately, and see it as an expression of the sensibility of the author, then misogyny can drive great art just like any other form of misanthropy can.

An overlooked novel from this 1970s period of frank sexual conflict: Mary Gordon’s “The Women’s Room”, a great novel of misandry and man-hating. A well constructed novel with the courage to hate men for all they have done, will do, and still do despite their protestations.

A contemporary novelist whose attitude toward women raises interesting questions: Michel Houllebecq. Particularly ‘The Elementary Particles’, which roots the capacity to rise above misogyny in fundamentally biologically changing the human race.

122

dr ngo 09.23.13 at 8:15 pm

For a considerably less learned take on the question raised by Jerry Vinokurov @56 – do other countries have a “Great _____-an Novel”? – there was a recent thread on Obsidian Wings not long ago.

123

dr ngo 09.23.13 at 8:17 pm

“recent . . . not long ago” – tautologize much, self?

(I blame the absence of a preview function, myself.)

124

PGD 09.23.13 at 8:17 pm

Also interesting: William Burroughs, the supposedly non-sexist one of these novelists, is also the only one who actually killed his wife. Shot her in the head. Even Mailer just inflicted a minor flesh wound when he stabbed his wife.

125

chomko 09.23.13 at 8:19 pm

Trader Joe @ 75: She’s not an American, but Hilary Mantel writes hefty, praised-by-the-critics novels, plus [every now and then] controversial Guardian pieces, and is roughly Franzen’s age; at least in the Cromwell books [my only experience with her work as yet, though I'm now starting A Place of Greater Safety] her male characters seem – at the very least – rich and plausible and real [as do the women, for what it's worth].

…she’s also not unbearably dull and self-obsessed [unless she's writing Thomas Cromwell and Danton and the like as Franzenesque self-portraits, in which case I'd really quite like to get to know her].

126

Eric Titus 09.23.13 at 8:21 pm

So I’m wondering about whether one can be “sexist” from a women’s perspective? If one writes a novel where the men are almost caricatures of negative masculinity and the characters are very focused on their own femininity, does that equal a sexist novel? For Roberto Bolano, I think one can go back and forth on whether his novels are sexist, or rather portray a world where violence and sexuality cohabitate in extremely uncomfortable ways. I’m inclined to go with the latter, but I think Nabokov is another case where grappling with sexuality in a way that is imperfect and primarily written from a male perspective risks sexism.
Basically, regardless of the “very important novelist” question, how can we tell when the novelist is sexist? Public transcripts and interviews? Underdeveloped female characters?

127

politicalfootball 09.23.13 at 8:39 pm

PGD, I think the key here is self-awareness. An author who wants to express his loathing of women is one thing; an author whose loathing of women is expressed by writing about them poorly is another.

128

Foppe 09.23.13 at 8:47 pm

@122 Let me put it this way: how much and which kinds of agency is ascribed to Lolita, and what are the kinds of actions and motivations that drive her? How easily was she bribed by the various carrots offered; does she ever do any soul-searching? How strongly did the novel make you think about the ease with which the male protagonist gets away with it all? Do you ever see him dwell on the question whether he might’ve set her down a bad path by ‘raising’ her the way he does?…

129

Walt 09.23.13 at 8:54 pm

Did the stereotypical Important Male Novelists write women worse than earlier male writers? I’ve talked myself into the idea that they did.

There is a novel from India literally called The Great Indian Novel.

130

PGD 09.23.13 at 8:54 pm

124: what is your point? Lolita is a great novel…Lolita has a very realized character with lots of agency. Humbert is very irritated by the way his nymphet doesn’t cooperate with the program. And the ending is devastating.

131

Walt 09.23.13 at 9:04 pm

If a writer can’t to a certain extent stand outside of and above the world and represent its inhabitants with a certain degree of accuracy, then he or she is a pretty fucking shitty writer. I think this is a big reason why Mailer’s prominence has vanished almost entirely over the last 30 years. As contemporary people become less and less like 1970′s Mailer, the less and less he has to say to us.

This is an aside, but this has bugged me for years. Mailer wrote an essay about Tropic of Cancer where he marvels that some time later he learned that Miller had hemorrhoids while writing the book, something he found hard to imagine. Miller mentions in the book that he has hemorrhoids. The whole charm of the book, such as it is, is that he mentions everything, no matter how unflattering.

132

SusanC 09.23.13 at 9:06 pm

This thread is at least making me feel better about prefering SF/fantasy to The Great American Novel. From SF, we’ve had Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Doris Lessing, etc. (Though SF has also produced a large number of authors whose treatment of their female characters is really, really offensive. Too many for me to single out any particular one).

133

Anderson 09.23.13 at 9:11 pm

124: “Do you ever see him dwell on the question whether he might’ve set her down a bad path by ‘raising’ her the way he does?…”

Uh, yes, you do.

Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that, in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, life is a joke) I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

134

Anderson 09.23.13 at 9:15 pm

Mailer wrote an essay about Tropic of Cancer where he marvels that some time later he learned that Miller had hemorrhoids while writing the book, something he found hard to imagine. Miller mentions in the book that he has hemorrhoids.

Mailer was probably skimming with one hand when he “read” the book.

(I either wrote or read somewhere that Tropic of Cancer should make us glad that Nietzsche was reticent about sexual intercourse.)

135

SusanC 09.23.13 at 9:22 pm

If we can pay a back-handed compliment to William Burroughs, then that monument of French literature, the Marquis de Sade, deserves a mention; de Sade’s characters may often be devoid of individuality, and are usually treated as things to be abused rather than persons, but he does at least foreground that this is what is going on, rather than hoping you don’t notice.

136

rm 09.23.13 at 9:32 pm

SusanC, there are a gazillion acclaimed mainstream novelists who are women and/or feminist, but the problem is there was a club of Major Important Novelists who were reputedly More Serious, and it seems like being a sexist dillweed was a basic requirement for entry, and Franzen seems nostalgic for those times.

But yeah, what you said — for all the raging sexism of some SF/F, when feminist authors raised their voices, there were readers/fans to recognize their importance.

137

Anderson 09.23.13 at 9:37 pm

131: oh I dunno, Eugénie of “Philosophy in the Bedroom” seems quite the liberated young lady ….

138

David S. 09.23.13 at 10:03 pm

I think it highly unlikely you’ll find a counter-example that disproves your thesis, because there effectively are none. Because, far from being some sort strange cohort of men with odd and unusual attitudes to women combined with great literary ability, they were, and still are, a pretty average cohort of men with very typical attitudes to, knowledge of and degree of interest in, women and their interior lives, combined with rather greater than usual literary abilities.

In short, they pretty accurately depict how most men feel and think about most women most of the time. It’s not just fiction, it’s the real world of late 20th century Western mostly white men, as told to you by actual representatives of that species.

I know, it makes you wonder why there hasn’t been some sort of protest against such attitudes, some sort of, you know, movement, to try and change men’s behaviour and so forth. I have vaguely heard of such a thing, but I know very little about it, and based on many recent news reports of women’s experiences on the internetworking thingy everyone’s on nowadays, it doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact. Quite the opposite in fact.

139

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

@SusanC

The merely ruthless may use people without compassion, but a faculty for empathy is necessary for sexual, cultural or racial sadists. Their feelings for their victims suffering are their satisfaction.

140

PGD 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

Whoops, the Womens Room was by Marylin French, not Mary Gordon. Great book though.

141

Eric Titus 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

@124,129

My point is that you could argue all day about whether Nabokov’s work is sexist (I was actually thinking of other books, like “Ada”) because he deals with sex in a very fraught way. You couldn’t write Lolita without a sexist, perverse main character. Are Miller/Mailer sexist because they are advocating a certain kind of masculinity? I have to admit that I haven’t read the authors on the list of sexist dillweeds, in part because I recognized them as such from afar.

142

Adrian Kelleher 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

*victims’*

143

Plume 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

Richard Power’s Gold Bug Variations has a very strong female narrator, Jan O’Deigh, and if memory serves, the novel overall depicted women in a very positive manner. Haven’t read it in a long time, but I do remember being impressed by the narrator’s voice, the conception of the novel and its intelligence. It’s an important and generally neglected work. “Classic” would not be too strong a word to apply.

144

JakeB 09.23.13 at 10:09 pm

@Josh K-sky –
an old friend of mine once said she thought Mating was the only novel by a male author she had ever read that had a female character whose mind seemed real.

145

Anderson 09.23.13 at 10:18 pm

140: that is high praise, and makes me want to read the book!

146

soru 09.23.13 at 10:42 pm

there was a club of Major Important Novelists who were reputedly More Serious, and it seems like being a sexist dillweed was a basic requirement for entry

Maybe the cause and effect is backwards. Being a MIN puts you in one of the remaining holdouts where the early-capitalist pattern of class relations between Man and Housewife still applies (the others are Russian oligarchs, Premier League footballers, and European royalty)[1].

Just Google image search those guys WAGS and say I am wrong…

For them, the most efficient way to get more affection, emotional support and sex is not better personal grooming or basic emotional literacy, but to put more effort and focus into their career. For them, the thing with the Scott Pilgrim stars is not a CGI metaphor – they actually have award ceremonies and hand them out. If that was your lot in life, then there’s a fair chance you’d be a sexist dillweed too.

[1] compare with actors, where getting with a non-peer is notable enough there’s a special phrase for it: dating a civilian.

147

stubydoo 09.23.13 at 10:46 pm

Well, if typed all I had to say here, it would be my longest ever CT comment by a country mile. So, trying to apply some self-discipline…

First of all, since at least some of the time this thread has been supposed to be about Major Important Novelists or some such, but it kicked off from Jonathan Franzen, it looks like y’all have been successfully trolled. Franzen is nobody. Just because he incessantly trumpets the seriousness of his work and has managed to drag a half-dozen or so publishing industry hacks along for the ride (and briefly, Oprah) doesn’t mean squat. I can assure you that by the time he falls out of the “novelists of the last half-century or so” category, his status will be no closer to canonical than Iain M. Banks, and a looooooooooonnnnng way behind Murakami.

So what would be the way for a male author to avoid being a dillweed?

Option 1: Write using a female main protagonist (e.g. Anna Karenina, Charlotte Simmons…);

Option 2: Write using a male protagonist and for filling out the rest of the cast…

2A: insert fantasy female plaything for the benefit of the authorial stand-in protagonist, video game style;

2B: populate novel with normal people, or interesting people, whatever, either male or female, such as will make the story work.

Option 1 surely is fine if executed skillfully enough, but might still be dillweedy if the author doesn’t have the chops.

Option 2A is indeed common, even in so-called serious literature, but it’s hardly universal.

Option 2B will have differing results depending on other key features of the book. If you’ve chosen to write about an AWOL WW2 soldier wandering around in search of a (phallic symbol alert) rocket, then female involvement will naturally be infrequent and insubstantial. If you’re John Irving writing about families-and-such in near-contemporary America, there will be plenty of opportunities for women to be a part of it (though you still may not like it). If you’re Cormac McCarthy writing about families-and-such in post-apocalyptic America, perhaps not so much.

I’m curious as to whether if a hypothetical Important Male Novelist wrote a novel which didn’t even contemplate at all the possible existence of women, would that count as sexist dillweedery, or would it be OK? It’s hard to see how Burroughs gets a free pass otherwise.

Yes there are a decent number of novelists whose work seems to indicate some underlying issues of fundamental hostility towards women. But I think that issue is better discussed by isolating them than by lumping in the whole literary scene. It’s not as if Updike’s books have sold by the million.

148

Bill Benzon 09.23.13 at 10:51 pm

On Mailer, I read The Naked and the Dead, but so long ago I don’t remember. Ditto Dear Park. Only a year or two ago I read his long essay in The Faith of Graffiti, which I thought was a superb piece of cultural criticism.

But what I really remember was a short story in his collection, Advertisements for Myself, the one that had a Lego city of the future on the cover. There was a story there where the whole point was screwing some woman in the ass, that that was somehow her essence and when she gave that up… Well I thought THAT was so strange, warped, and stupid I can’t forget it.

149

stubydoo 09.23.13 at 10:55 pm

I just remembered that Pynchon’s other truly awesome book (The Crying of Lot 49) has a female main protagonist!

150

Lee A. Arnold 09.23.13 at 11:15 pm

It isn’t just the novelists. Name one male actor today who doesn’t rely on a grab-bag of silly egotisms, has any moral gravitas to call upon, and is capable of acting “having insight” without a ridiculous look on his phizz. Thinking = shoegazing. In fact, name any male, in any profession whatsoever, who isn’t a bonehead. It’s the stupider sex by far. Yet if women are so smart, why do they keep marrying these idiots? As I think S.J. Perelman once said (now there was a writer!), the whole culture is rocketing into the toilet.

151

gerry 09.23.13 at 11:20 pm

After some thought I wish to add:

Updike: if sexist themes found earlier disqualify In The Beauty Of The Lilies and Seek My Face, so be it. My reading of his novels finds balance, even in the Rabbit books mostly. His female characters are largely superbly drawn supporting roles of various kinds. Look into such works as the two I mention, or The Coup, or Brazil, and you will find an Updike that little resembles the cheap shorthand “wasp elitist” tag people toss out who’ve read only part of “Couples” or something.
Ian McEwan, Atonement. Major author? No?! If is an unbelievably moving book.
Elmore Leonard: He wrote at least ten books that are as good as Hemingway’s books. Better, if you consider that his female characters tend to kick total ass, be hilarious, foxy, ugly, stupid, brilliant, victorious, destroyed, awesome, pitiful, evil, and just totally right on and real.

152

notsneaky 09.23.13 at 11:25 pm

We would all think it a very idiotic objection to The Good Soldier Švejk that women weren’t allowed to serve in the military at that time and so it didn’t bear reading

Huh? … is this just some hipster name dropping? Cuz it doesn’t make sense.

153

notsneaky 09.23.13 at 11:38 pm

Hmm, let me do some hipster name dropping of my own. Mesa Selimovic? At least in the Fortress? Or does that qualify under IMA? And of course he had other problems wrt to ethics.

Anyway. I’ve always thought that literature – as discussed here and in other ways as well – was excellent proof that ethics and aesthetics are two completely different spheres. So, aside from exceptions, I’d agree.

154

burritoboy 09.24.13 at 12:03 am

I would agree that the nineteenth century American writers often handled female characters far better or at least in more depth (or with more effort on at least portraying female characters in a comparatively deep way) than the Great Midcentury American novelists did.

It was probably a bad thing, overall, for the Great Midcentury American novelists to so heavily pursue a certain vein of male sexual narcissism – as opposed to the nineteenth century writers, who ultimately were more concerned with marriage. Perhaps you can argue it begins with Hemingway, then O’Hara and Henry Miller. On the other hand, I think those authors would have completely plausibly argued that they were mirroring society in some respects.

In many ways, people are still commanded to write like Hemingway (clear, short sentences, emphasis on verbs and actions, few digressions, etc) – when, of course, that’s simply just a style.

155

notsneaky 09.24.13 at 12:17 am

The thing is, at some point that whole (male) writer persona became a sort of a “rock-star-lite” kind of a gig, where the whole purpose of one’s “artistic” oeuvre (you know, saying “deep things” in a detached, troubled or sensitive voice) is to translate it into “success with the ladies”. So asking this question is a sort like asking if there are Big Hair rockers out there who aren’t total sexist twerps, who actually treat their groupies with dignity and respect and whose songs aren’t about, more or less, dirty deeds done cheap.

Plastic arts, not much better.

156

Jim 09.24.13 at 12:31 am

Hi Belle,
My goodness! You didn’t even start in on Somerset Maugham or Ernest Hemingway, authors so sexist they even turned my complacent male stomach. But I tremble at what you would do to my beloved JRRT. At least he made Eowyn into a heroine, eh?

157

rm 09.24.13 at 12:33 am

For some in that thankfully vanished cadre of Important Male Narcissist writers who were treated like rock stars, it probably matters that they wrote at a time when (1) manuscripts were typed, but (2) typing without errors was difficult, so (3) a writer had his wife type out his handwritten manuscripts for him. I don’t know how many had exactly that arrangement, but I bet it was a lot of them.

158

notsneaky 09.24.13 at 12:34 am

Doing a quick search it seems someone else already mentioned Marquez. Maybe malecentric but probably not in the category of “sexist dillweed”

159

spyder 09.24.13 at 12:35 am

Just curious why none of the writers who have been Stegner Fellows at Stanford, and are very well-respected authors, have made anybody’s list of Important Male Novelists?

160

Zb 09.24.13 at 12:42 am

76, 143

Mentioning Richard Powers brought something to mind. Powers has written some excellent women characters — Karin Schluter in The Echo Maker, for example — but most relevant to the OP would be Galatea 2.2, which can be read as a parody of the Important (white male) novelist genre. The narrator (named “Richard Powers”) helps create a computer program designed to read novels, an AI litterateur called Helen.

161

MG 09.24.13 at 12:45 am

@Dogen on Franzen with “All the shallowness of Wolfe, none of the wit.” wins the internet today.

162

Realist 09.24.13 at 12:56 am

dillweed seems a bit overly anti-male if one is interested in equality between the sexes

163

MG 09.24.13 at 12:57 am

I am glad that the works of John O’hara and Richard Yates are being read (thanks Man Men!). These writers are able to write about the same narrow worlds and and suburban milieu of the GMN but in their stories both the men and women had thoughts, dreams, wishes, agency.

164

LFC 09.24.13 at 1:32 am

MG @163
I was going to mention Richard Yates.
Two others who haven’t been mentioned and who don’t fit neatly into the OP’s boxes are Auchincloss and (perhaps a closer call, on some views) Robert Stone.

165

bianca steele 09.24.13 at 1:41 am

I like Pynchon (because I like that kind of thing even though Belle is absolutely right about the bottle thing) and about half of Roth (because I’m gullible enough to think he knows what he’s doing in books like American Pastoral even though he has sympathy for zero female characters besides the neighbor lady who drunkenly stabs someone with a fork near the end, while he has sympathy for all of the men), but 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. No Auchinscholss, no Baldwin, no Flannery O’Connor, no Djuna Barnes, no John O’Hara.

166

bianca steele 09.24.13 at 1:47 am

That cross-posted with LFC. No Grace Paley, either.

167

plarry 09.24.13 at 1:53 am

This is a strange thread. The requirement of “well-rounded female characters” is somewhat odd. Does Toni Morrison write about “well-rounded female characters”? I would submit _not_, but she does write about _interesting_ female characters.
Thomas Pynchon and Jeffrey Eugenides (in a way) also do that.

168

Matt Lister 09.24.13 at 2:06 am

but the list in the OP is basically people a conservative male reader who was born no later than 1955 would have heard of. … no Flannery O’Connor,

For what it’s worth, I know quite a few conservative Catholic men born no later than 1955 who love Flannery O’Connor. They think (rightly, I’d tend to think) that she’s really a pretty conservative Catholic writer with lots of very traditional views, including gender views, at heart.

169

burritoboy 09.24.13 at 2:21 am

re post 165:

I don’t see how you lump O’Hara in with the rest of that group.

Flannery O’Connor was, to my knowledge, never proposed as the Great American Novelist during that period. First, she only wrote two novels, so she wasn’t simply very productive as a novelist. Second, O’Connor was regarded as so strange and unusual that nobody proposed her as “the” Great Anything. (And I don’t think O’Connor at all discouraged the public in viewing her as strange.) Third, I think it’s completely fair to say that O’Connor never imagines her main protagonists in her novels as anything like representatives of their times or average or Everyman (both are religious prophets, for instance) – and Everyman is pretty clearly what Rabbit Angstrom is supposed to be, for example.

170

bianca steele 09.24.13 at 2:36 am

@169
That’s my point. That’s a very narrow range of the good fiction writers working mid-century, only those who were arguably doing one particular thing–and only those which a particular kind of man who was an adult by 1970 or so would feel were comfortably both “contemporary” and “great.” That’s filtered down (maybe because of Boomer influence) as some kind of complete canon, which it’s not.

@170
I didn’t mean O’Connor was objectively speaking a feminist, but that that particular kind of man whom I’m describing would likely see her mere existence as an aspect of feminism–so, “no taint of feminism” meaning simply “no women.”

171

Guest 09.24.13 at 2:51 am

It’s sad but true. Even my favorite novel of all time, Under the Volcano, is a dudes-only book. I read Gaddis’ The Recognitions last year and the female characters were just foils and stereotypes, pretty painful. Speaking as a dude myself, I have no doubt that reading a lot of that bullshit when I was younger made my already ignorant and paranoid expectations of females even worse.

172

js. 09.24.13 at 4:04 am

That’s my point. That’s a very narrow range of the good fiction writers working mid-century, only those who were arguably doing one particular thing–and only those which a particular kind of man who was an adult by 1970 or so would feel were comfortably both “contemporary” and “great.” That’s filtered down (maybe because of Boomer influence) as some kind of complete canon, which it’s not.

This seems true. But it’s still kind of a thing, isn’t it? This idea of the Great American Novelist, and they kind of all turn out to be these weirdly narcissistic men who are also misogynist to varying degrees.* Of course, there are really brilliant novelists in the same period who don’t have the same failings, but—strangely—they also fairly consistently seem not to have the same cache. (Flannery O’Connor seems a somewhat extreme case, but you could probably say the same about Doris Lessing, and The Golden Notebook could surely hold its own with any other novel from the last 50 years. Not American, I realize. But still.)

I guess I’d defer to you on this, or to Belle, or to whoever knows more about fiction that I do, which is probably most people here. But the category BW’s honing in on, rings true to me, as does the critique of course. I guess in one obvious sense of “canon”, I would say it _is_ the canon, for sociological and other reasons, tho largely sociological reasons.

(Not that I don’t love some of this stuff. To take a non-American example that I think would fall squarely within the scope of BW’s critique, I love Hopscotch, like really love it. Also Pynchon of course. I’m not going all geo or anything—I do think that at least partly for the kinds of reasons that Anderson was mentioning in the last thread, having to do with identification, it, umm, can be easier to downplay how significant the failure to properly craft female characters is if you’re a man reading these novels. That’s kind of awful, isn’t it? In limited defense, I really love A Passage to India—tho even there, it kind of becomes possible to identify with Aziz by the very end.)

*Pynchon’s a bit of a weirdo obviously. Presumably he’s a narcissist, though who knows!

173

Belle Waring 09.24.13 at 4:32 am

Oi. Hmmmm. John Crowley gets out because he’s a great artist and fuck you. No I don’t really think Franzen even goes on the list, it’s just that–here’s his list! He wants on this list right up in here so bad there’s pee dribbling down his left leg and he’s shaking, very slightly, but uncontrollably! If you read the comments to John’s post below everyone had to retire to a fainting couch because I said novels of a certain type got on my nerves. That I didn’t much like them. No, I said I didn’t enjoy reading them! Which obviously meant that I had a strict standard of never reading them based on whether the cover looked sexist. I was going to get all mad, and then instead I wrote a post that said, “you know this kind of novel? This is the particular kind of novel I was talking about. I really don’t much like it. Here’s why.”

Women can never be sexist because they are perfect so all the male characters in books written by women are perfect. Haha you are very confused because you asked a question and that could conceivably have been the answer! Women can be prejudiced against men, but because a system of society-wide, pervasive discrimination against men doesn’t exist, women can’t be said to participate in it (null set and all), and so they can’t be “sexist against men,” that’s just not a thing they can be. Women can write good and bad novels, they could write compelling or bullshit lame-ass male characters, the very root of their inability to write anything other than lame-ass bullshit characters might well be their prejudice against men.

Jim: Hi Belle, My goodness! You didn’t even start in on Somerset Maugham or Ernest Hemingway, authors so sexist they even turned my complacent male stomach. But I tremble at what you would do to my beloved JRRT. At least he made Eowyn into a heroine, eh?
My stars and bars, Jim! I consider both Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway to be authors of the earlier part of the 20th century, even if the latter still wrote into the 50s (I think?), and even though Normal Mailer would have cut off one of his own balls and eaten it with some cream cheese on a Bremner’s Wafer to be 3/4 as manly as Ernest Hemingway. And it’s a good thing I never thought about what one of the favorite books of my whole childhood had left over as a space for me, as I read and re-read the books over and over. That would honestly be a little sad, if we were to imagine little 9-year-old Belle, re-reading LOTR for the fifth time on the sleeping porch upstairs, just waiting patiently for Eowyn to some in and then go out again, without making any trouble for anyone. Tolkein dealt with his sexism in what his usually the best way: he left us out. So much less heart-breaking. If Larry Niven had only taken a page from his book my childhood would have been a better place, I can fucking tell you that.

174

js. 09.24.13 at 4:53 am

Women can never be sexist because they are perfect so all the male characters in books written by women are perfect. Haha you are very confused because you asked a question and that could conceivably have been the answer! Women can be prejudiced against men, but because a system of society-wide, pervasive discrimination against men doesn’t exist, women can’t be said to participate in it (null set and all), and so they can’t be “sexist against men,” that’s just not a thing they can be.

If I could, I would apologize on the behalf of male-kind that you had to spell this out. Luckily we are not a kind!

175

Belle Waring 09.24.13 at 4:55 am

Foppe: Let me put it this way: how much and which kinds of agency is ascribed to Lolita, and what are the kinds of actions and motivations that drive her? How easily was she bribed by the various carrots offered; does she ever do any soul-searching? How strongly did the novel make you think about the ease with which the male protagonist gets away with it all? Do you ever see him dwell on the question whether he might’ve set her down a bad path by ‘raising’ her the way he does?…

Don’t even, son. Does she ever do any soul-searching? She any mother-fucking soul-searching? We hear her, from the outside, crying herself to sleep every night, but I’m not sure how much interiority we’re going to get from HH’s perspective. But you are totally, seriously asking us how much Lolita was asking for it, and to what degree it was her fault that the only adult in her life raped her daily in seedy motels when she was not yet 12. There is only one kind of argument on the internet that really trips me out, and it’s this kind. I won’t ban you from CT, but you will taste the mighty banhammer of Mjölnir from everything I ever post on again, till the heat death of the universe, if you persist in this vein. Once again, I entreat all of you to pretend you are actual normal human beings, and that you are speaking face-to-face with other humans. Foppe, would you say that at a party in a big group of men and women, or would you be, quite rightly, ashamed to say it? You would not say it, I hope.

176

Belle Waring 09.24.13 at 4:57 am

js: s’cool man. I know you’re like, all individuals and shit. Thinking different stuff about the ladies, all that schwazza.

177

geo 09.24.13 at 6:05 am

I’m not sure how much interiority we’re going to get from HH’s perspective

That’s Nabokov’s point. Humbert was a genius, a kind of poet, but also a monster because of his “cruel incuriosity,” his “inattentiveness to anything irrelevant to his own obsession” (Richard Rorty, “Nabokov on Cruelty”). There would have been absolutely no aesthetic point — on the contrary — in the novel’s endowing Lolita with an inner life. Lolita is a cipher, seen through Humbert’s eyes — those otherwise astonishingly perceptive eyes. As Rorty says: “No one before had thought of asking what it would be like to be a Skimpole who was also a genius — one who did not simply toss the word ‘poetry’ about but who actually knew what poetry was. This particular sort of genius-monster — the monster of incuriosity — is Nabokov’s contribution to our knowledge of human possibilities.”

178

godoggo 09.24.13 at 6:06 am

To be fair, there’s a long tradition of missing the point of Lolita, and not only men do it. Dorothy Parker:
“It is the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls… In twelve-year-old Lolita, he finds his ideal nymphet.

She is a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered. He knows that; he knows all of what she is. That the knowledge cannot turn away his obsession with her is his agony.”

179

geo 09.24.13 at 6:06 am

Moderation? Really?

180

godoggo 09.24.13 at 6:08 am

Or this bit (by a guy) from an old NY Times article I was looking at yesterday: “”Lolita,” for instance, was not about pedophilia, but about yearning, ridiculous, unrequited love.”

181

Foppe 09.24.13 at 6:24 am

@175 Wow.. Really? What on earth made you feel the need to stuff me in the pigeonhole of paedophilia and rape apologist? I’d congratulate you on so successfully reading stuff into a post that I never even remotely intended to suggest (or tried to imply by omitting the points & questions you list), if I weren’t so perplexed that you saw cause to do so.

182

Vance Maverick 09.24.13 at 6:41 am

Foppe @180: I couldn’t figure out how to read your comment any other way. Make a clear point, or stay in that pigeonhole.

183

Foppe 09.24.13 at 8:00 am

@181: I’ll do my best then…
What I was trying to respond to was “I’m inclined to go with the latter, but I think Nabokov is another case where grappling with sexuality in a way that is imperfect and primarily written from a male perspective risks sexism,” and the points (fwtw) I was considering to make were two-fold. First, to ask how culturally challenging it really is to write a book in which you show how a male might experience forcing someone to become his sex slave, and how he might rationalize all the abuse and hurt he has to put her through to keep her.
Second, (and this was the only point that I made in the end, and rather imperfectly at that), I wanted to make an analytic point, which I meant to be of use to point out that the issue with the book isn’t so much that the book is ‘written from a primarily male perspective’, but that the whole context is wrong, (aside from the fact that you could also just observe that there is no adult female present to worry over when it comes to the question how true-to-life she is. (Given that children are inherently problematic actors, both since they can, but need not be, be rather less reflective than you’d expect adults to be, and since they lack the frame of reference you’d expect an adult to have – though there too, lots of variation exists wrt maturity and obliviousness to stuff people should’ve known/realized but didn’t.) To that end, I wrote the para that ended up at CT, which was intended purely as the start of an open-ended set of analytical questions that one might ask to find an answer to the question how/why a book/an author is sexist. Certainly, for the reasons mentioned above, it would have been more easily recognizable as such if I’d chosen a different book as an example, or if I’d worked it out more. Also, assuming I have now said enough by way of context to guarantee proper uptake, I’m sure some people who are more versed in literary critique than I am will find my earlier contribution such as it was trivial or banal, but it was never remotely intended to be understood the way it apparently was, namely as a suggestion that we should blame the victim for being appealing to Humbert.

Lastly, I would say something about Belle’s attempt to shame me, given how she switches between ‘being among real people’ and ‘arguing with people on the internet’. Certainly, if the kind of confusion I caused had occurred in conversation, I would have been quicker to notice that I was being misunderstood/misinterpreted. However, I suspect (and hope) Belle would also have been slower to jump to the odious conclusion that I must be a rape apologist…

184

Zora 09.24.13 at 8:15 am

Isn’t Vikram Seth a Very Important Novelist? I am ravished by his prose and appreciative of his well-drawn female characters. It’s the women I remember from A Suitable Boy.

185

Walt 09.24.13 at 8:30 am

Foppe’s comment read to me like he was accusing Nabokov of being a pedophilia apologist.

186

Neville Morley 09.24.13 at 9:06 am

This is merely a paraphrase of what others have argued more eloquently upthread, but I’ve pretty well come round to the “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” position. That is, someone like Alison Lurie is never going to make it onto a list of late C20 Very Important Novelists because she is even-handed in both irony and sympathy and lacks a Totemic Everyman struggling against the world as protagonist – and of course because she’s a woman.

187

Phil 09.24.13 at 10:03 am

There’s an answer of sorts to the “who are we talking about again?” question in this 2010 article, which positions Franzen as the heir to “Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Updike et al”. Not sure anyone’s mentioned Cheever, let alone poor old Al – always the bridesmaid, eh?

Saul Bellow seems to be the name of names – would-be Very Important Novelists always seem to be men who dream of being Bellow (and vice versa). And yet (picking up Neville’s point) anyone who based their ideas of what A Novel should be on Middlemarch, say, would feel much more at home with Alison Lurie or Carol Shields or Anne Tyler than with Saul Bellow or the Bellowheads (no relation).

188

Neville Morley 09.24.13 at 10:53 am

@Phil #187: actually I think the same would be true for someone who based their ideas of what A Novel should be on Trollope.

189

Gareth Rees 09.24.13 at 11:46 am

notsneaky @158: Marquez. Maybe male-centric but probably not in the category of “sexist dillweed”

Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) opens with the line “The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin”. (I haven’t read it, so maybe it redeems itself, but this extraordinary attempt at a defence by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times suggests not.)

190

Dan Hardie 09.24.13 at 12:52 pm

Belle’s list of ‘pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century’ is ridiculously parochial: every name on it is American.

There haven’t been any ‘Important Male Novelists’ of a non-American nationality since Thomas Mann? Please. Many- I suspect most- important novels of the last sixty years were written by people who lived outside the United States. Some of those people were men, and some of those men (Vidia Naipaul, say) had clear problems with women, but others, as far as I know, were not actually misogynists.

I am bored by Brits and Europeans who mock Americans for being ‘uncultured’ and ‘vulgar’ when the United States has been, and still is, one of the most creative societies we know of. But it’s equally disheartening to hear a cultured, liberal American spouting off as if ‘important male novelists since 1945′ automatically equalled ‘important male *American* novelists’, and the rest of the world was stricken by some form of literary paralysis.

(Footnote: my favourite post-1945 American novelist is Anne Tyler. ‘Saint Maybe’ is the best of hers that I’ve read. Norman Mailer is an important figure in the minds of students who have signed up to do a course involving his works, and nowhere else. I can’t see what’s so Important about Updike either, and having wasted a couple of afternoons on ‘Mao II’, I am through with the vacuous Don DeLillo.)

191

Alex 09.24.13 at 1:07 pm

The Great American Novel might have been written by now if it hadn’t been for all the Big American Novels.

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Jeffrey Davis 09.24.13 at 1:44 pm

re: 118

Is Michael Ondaatje a major novelist? Isn’t “who cares?” the apt reply. I’ve read and re-read my favorite of his, “Anil’s Ghost”, many times. Anil’s portion of it seems to me to be another Odyssey, and I don’t know the sources of the rest. (Maybe there aren’t any.) But I wonder if his books aren’t closer to prose poems than to novels. Usually prose like his is Grim Death so I don’t recommend him as a model, but he pleased the hell out of me in that one and a couple of others.

193

Walt 09.24.13 at 2:56 pm

Dan Hardie, are you took fucking lazy to read the comments? Belle makes perfectly clear that she has in mind a certain canonical list of post-WW2 American writers that are always lumped together, not all good writers ever. Put some minimum effort in.

194

Dan Hardie 09.24.13 at 3:00 pm

Oh goody, Walt is still strutting his stuff as the self-appointed hysterical policeman of the Crooked Timber comments threads. ‘You fuckin’ asshole, you fuckin’ try it on with one of the CTers and you fuckin’ cross me, pal! The big man of the internets, is what I am! Jus’ tryna keep the fuckin’ civility goin’ here, fuckhead!’

195

Walt 09.24.13 at 3:17 pm

I just really like cursing. A lot.

But my point remains: Belle explained the group of writers she’s talking about in the comments. If you had read the comments, you would see that your comment was misdirected. But you did read my comment, so overall you’re a success.

196

Walt 09.24.13 at 3:26 pm

Dan, have I frequently insulted you? If so, I apologize. In general I find the comments of yours that I’ve read around the Internet fairly interesting.

197

Dan Hardie 09.24.13 at 3:33 pm

No one can hide on the internet, and it took me only a few seconds to find a recent portrayal of Walt.

If anyone wants to talk in a manner that indicates that they are an intelligent human being, I’m up for that conversation.

It’s a tangential point, but I recently read the Odyssey in translation, and like Belle I was shocked by the killing of the servant girls at the end – especially the way in which they are deliberately killed in a humiliating manner, with Homer clearly approving. It struck me that this is probably what a lot of modern-day ‘honour killings’ are like. At about the same time, I was reading Anatol Lieven’s ‘Pakistan: a hard country’, which goes into a lot of horrifying detail about killings of females who ‘dishonour’ their clan. Recommended reading, though not pleasant.

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burritoboy 09.24.13 at 4:50 pm

Re: Flannery O’Connor

First, I would argue that O’Connor had an intentional strategy of playing a role outside of the mainstream of American writing of her time. She was explicitly allied with Southern writers who saw themselves as opposed (often politically as well as aesthetically) to the United States as a whole. Is it improper to see O’Connor as an outsider when that was an intentional strategy on her part?

Second, if you read O’Connor alongside of Bernanos or Greene or Undset, it becomes clear that she’s not so much interested in American themes as in Catholic ones.

Third, in her time-period, O’Connor was viewed as gleefully indulging in some pretty extreme aspects of Southern life. We shouldn’t forget what that exactly was about – we’re talking a period in which many members of O’Connor’s political class thought it was a great idea to blow up African-American churches. It’s not exactly strange for most other Americans to be more than slightly dubious about how the bizarre lives O’Connor seems to delight in related to their own.

199

Tom Allen 09.24.13 at 8:18 pm

Fortunately for all of us who love literature, what is likely to turn out to be the most important novel of the first half of the 21st century has already been written, and the author is a woman: ‘Americanah,’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Not only is it an important work of literature in and of itself, but it will also likely be considered to be the definitive novel on the subject of race in America, though the novelist hails from Nigeria.

Truly an amazing work of art.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/books/review/americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie.html

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Dogen 09.24.13 at 8:26 pm

re:192 Jeffrey Davis 09.24.13 at 1:44 pm

>Is Michael Ondaatje a major novelist? Isn’t “who cares?” the apt reply.

Of course, if that were the question.

But the question I wrote (in post 118) was:

>>And I think Michael Ondaatje is considered an “important” writer, no?

And the context for this question is Belle’s list of Important Male Novelists (later clarified to mean mid-to-late 20th century American). Now Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and is now a Canadian citizen, so maybe that doesn’t count as ‘merican enough. Probably, I’m guessing maybe the real context is Important USofAmerican Male Novelists…

So I guess I still have two honest questions:

1) Does Michael Ondaatje fit the Important Male Novelists category under discussion?

My impression is that The Establishment literary gatekeepers take him very seriously.

2) How is his treatment of female characters from the point of view of Belle’s criticism of that category (whether or not he fits the category)?

It’s been quite a while since I read him and I’m not certain I would have noticed, sigh.

Thanks Jeffrey Davis and MG for reading and responding!

201

Walt 09.24.13 at 8:57 pm

Dogen, and others: There was a time where, if you were an American and interested in modern literature that you were confronted with a contemporary canon of authors that were considered living High Literature — Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Pynchon. They were the anointed heirs to Faulkner and Hemingway. When Mailer wrote Executioner’s Song, for example, it was an event. I heard about it, and I was a kid at the time.

The cultural cachet of this grouping has faded considerably since then, under the impact of feminism, the popularity of magical realism, the simple of passage of time, any number of things. But there was a definite moment where if you wanted to think of yourself as a serious reader, these were the writers you were supposed to be reading.

So Important Male Novelist is just shorthand. It’s not a list of all important male novelists, or even all important while male post-war American novelists. They don’t have a convenient pre-existing label, like Angry Young Men or magical realist because at the height of their fame, they were identified with capital-L Literature itself.

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Dogen 09.24.13 at 10:50 pm

@Walt at 200

Thanks. I think most of us get that.

Personally, I lived in a house with a professor of English in the 1960′s and 70′s, and although his speciality was Dryden there was a lot of reading of contemporary novelists in the house. I had a technical bent and never studied literature formally beyond Freshman year in college.

So that is the context of my question, which may really be to Belle herself, about Ondaatje. Clearly he wrote during the latter half of the 20th century. Clearly he is highly regarded by the literati. But since I’m not in that game I don’t know if he fits.

I’ll bow out now, since I seem to be lowering the IQ in the room…

203

Kaleberg 09.24.13 at 10:52 pm

Literature is a dying genre, and good riddance. Given me a writer like William Shakespeare, the Tudor apologist, or Jane Austen, who invented the Regency romance.

I know all too well the authors Waring is referring to. They pop up on list after list of Great Writers [TM]. They are all horribly claustrophobic, even suffocating. I assumed this had to do with all their navel gazing. Waring argues that they were gazing a bit lower which makes a lot of sense and explains why so much of what they wrote reads like masturbation fantasy.

204

notsneaky 09.24.13 at 10:55 pm

@Gareth in 189.

Ugh.

@Dan Hardie in 190.

Yeah it’s true. I dunno, everybody gets to have their blind spots and the Anglo-centrism of Belle can be excused as long as her cause is righteous.

205

rm 09.24.13 at 11:03 pm

Oi. Hmmmm. John Crowley gets out because he’s a great artist and fuck you.

I made Belle think “hmmmm” back at me! :):)!

206

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 12:33 am

I agree that, for example, A Suitable Boy is an amazing and therefore important novel of the latter half of the 20th century. I think Beloved is one of the most important novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I do just happen to be talking about this one set of American writers though, maybe I should have made that clearer for readers who didn’t wade through comments to the other post. Cheever, I was thinking, why is he not on here–I think it’s my fault and I haven’t read any Cheever novels, just lots of short stories. The content of the stories is often sexist, but his chilly, glazed exteriors don’t yield at all to pressure, so you know no more about the men than the women. His sexism really seems more of the “we report, you decide” variety. “It was like this.” Ah, all right then. Because this is what we think about Anna Karenina, not “she should have been allowed to x” but rather, “then, for her, it was like this. There was no other way.” The sexism of the distant past isn’t disturbing in the way the sexism of yesterday is. I can’t get this point across at all though.

207

Rmj 09.25.13 at 12:34 am

Literature is a genre?

The things you learn on the intertoobs!

208

Rmj 09.25.13 at 12:38 am

The older I get, the less I find any book to be important ; except to me. And whenever someone tells me a book I don’t much like is important, important think: “How can you say that?”

It keeps me out of certain conversations.

209

David (Kid Geezer). 09.25.13 at 1:13 am

Well Bully For You, Belle. You’re just so fucking cool. Even though I remain a hopelessly tainted sexist pig I’ll just throw out most of my library.

210

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:22 am

David (Kid Geezer) Wait, what? If you like the books in your library, I suggest you keep them, as you may wish to re-read them sometime! We had a discussion in the comments thread several posts below (John’s most recent) about how I didn’t find much pleasure in reading a certain sort of book. So, then we had a huge argument about whether than meant I never read any, or what was wrong with my reading habits, or didn’t I know how awesome they were, or whatever. So in this post I noted (but to be fair–I said you might wish to scroll along without reading it!) which sort of books I was talking about and why I didn’t like them. It’s just this one particular bunch; I love Hemingway and Faulkner…wait, no, I dont LOVE Hemingway, but he’s great sometimes, I love E.M. Forster, James, Somerset Maugham, Joyce, flabbity babbity doo. Just this one type of asshole guy novel, I can’t deal. Which ones? See supra. You should go on liking whatever you want, that’s what I do. I don’t understand how everyone keeps misunderstanding me so completely. I must have done a really poor job of writing this.

211

Saurs 09.25.13 at 2:18 am

No, Belle, you didn’t do a poor job of explaining yourself and your point is crystal clear. They tried calling you stupid, they tried tone-trolling, some of them feigned innocent bewilderment, and now the party line is that you’re oppressing them, you big meanie. As we’ve come to understand, time and again, sexism is something women should forgive, forget, ignore, or enjoy for Myriad Reasons (biology, culture, male fear of rejection, vagina envy, tradition, et al.); calling someone or something sexist, well, them’s fighting words.

212

Saurs 09.25.13 at 2:20 am

Also, and this is not my solidarity speaking, but the sky pixie’s honest truth, your writing is some of the best, tightest, funniest here, and the only reason I lurk. Keep on keepin’ on.

213

JanieM 09.25.13 at 2:28 am

I must have done a really poor job of writing this.

Nope.

This whole set of threads reminds of something that was once said in a group I was in that I nicknamed “group group” — sort of group therapy, but also conflict resolution and group process, i.e. we tried to be aware of our group process even as we were living through it and inflicting ourselves on ourselves and each other.

The facilitator of that group once said, as we were working through some conflict or other, “Every time someone in a group stands up for something, someone else feels threatened.”

I have had occasion to remember that observation practically every time I’ve been in a group since then (including blog comment threads). (I’m not immune myself, far from it.)

[I see by opening another window that Saurs has been here first. Nevertheless.]

214

Nathanael 09.25.13 at 4:25 am

“Best suggestion for contemporary author of well-rounded female characters, from Tom: Kim Stanley Robinson. I LOL’ed. “

Um, in the somewhat older department, Douglas Adams? William Goldman, perhaps? Samuel Delany?

In the newer category, Neil Gaiman? Charles Stross? They all have their issues, but they’re better than the crapsack pile of authors you have rightly savaged in this piece. I see that other commentators have mentioned other excellent male authors who wrote important books.

“I do just happen to be talking about this one set of American writers though, maybe I should have made that clearer for readers who didn’t wade through comments to the other post. “
Well, I guess that’s exactly the point. Kim Stanley Robinson isn’t in that set of writers so he does tolerably well. (All his characters are pretty much equally flat.) This particular set of authors which you excoriate is, objectively, bad.

” William, the idea is meant to be that there is a preëxisting canon of Important Male Novelists of the Latter Half of the 20th Century. I’m not doing the selecting, merely commenting on my reactions to the selected. Franzen, whom we discussed below, seeks to join a very specific list of writers, and it is these and a few others (and not, in fact, Burroughs–or Bowles, or John Kennedy Toole) who make the cut traditionally. The list of genuinely excellent authors of the latter etc. would obviously have Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on it.”

And this is the problem. The standard or traditional “literary canon” in the American university is garbage. For a while, I thought I was one of those people who opposed the concept of the literary canon. At some point, I realized that I believed in the concept of a literary canon, I just thought that the “English professor canon” was wrong. My literary canon still has the Odyssey on it, but it also has Five Children and It; The Wizard of Oz; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; The Princess Bride; I, Robot; The Left Hand of Darkness; and of course The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I am sure Stephen King belongs on the list but I can’t decide which book. There are others.

And what my canon doesn’t have on it is anything by Faulkner or Hemingway, let alone Updike or Mailer.

The crucial elements of the canon are books which you have to read in order to understand later books; books which other books reference; books with true impact on society. Obviously, the Odyssey and Iliad are in this category. As are large parts of the Bible, and many other religious works. In more recent works, you’ll notice (if you know your history) that my list contains authors who are seminal; whose work has influenced many, many other writers and society as a whole. Nesbit invented the children’s book as we know it today, for instance.

Now, the standard British 19th century “literary canon” actually does contain authors like this. Like them or hate them, Austen, Dickens, Bronte, Thackeray, Hardy — they were all *important* historically.

However, there is something wrong with the American “literary canon”. Mark Twain was indeed important and influential. But the 20th century authors who professors shoved into the “canon” — they simply weren’t, for the most part. (Arguably Hemingway should be included — for his newspaper reporting not his novels. Faulkner? Not even successful in his lifetime.) Meanwhile, many genuinely important authors were being ignored, generally because they wrote in unpopular genres.

And it got worse after World War II — the supposedly Important Writers simply aren’t important at *all*, while the real important writers were ignored as writing “lowbrow” stuff. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is possibly the most important work of fiction published in the 20th century, but it’s been taking a really long time for English professors to notice; perhaps because it managed to be in three disfavored genres simultaneously (science fiction; humor; and adaptation from another format, namely radio).

What’s wrong with the American “literary canon” is a form of pretentiousness. This form of pretentiousness often is a mask to cover biases — a mask which the bigot uses to excuse the biases to himself in his own head. You spotted one of the biases. I hope I have helped describe the pretentiousness. The pretentiousness can be used as a cover for any number of biases.

215

Nathanael 09.25.13 at 4:30 am

Hah. Correct previous comment to say “generally because they wrote in disfavored genres.” The genres were generally *more popular* than “literary fiction”… but disfavored.

216

Joseph Brenner 09.25.13 at 5:22 am

Gareth Rees:

“I have sharp memories of KSR’s landscapes (from the hyper-urban
setting of The Gold Coast to the utter barrenness and bleakness
of Pluto in Icehenge) and his dramatic set pieces (the fall of
the cable in Red Mars; the flooding and evacuation of the town of
Burroughs in Green Mars), but even if you offered me $1000 I do
not think I could name a single one of his hundreds of bland
identikit characters. Who played that futuristic musical
instrument in The Memory of Whiteness? Who met the yeti in Escape
from Kathmandu? Who was the guide in Antarctica? There must have
been such characters, but I can’t remember a thing about them.”

While it is true that Kim Stanley Robinson isn’t known for
characterization, I think you exaggerate the problem here a bit.
The female guide in the novel “Antarctica” is actually one of his
better characters, though you might need to hang out with
outdoors jocks a bit to get that. In some of Robinson’s later
works, such as the 40/50/60 series (aka “Science in the
Capitol”), there are a number of reasonable and memorable female
characters (though there’s probably an inverse relationship
between reasonable and memorable in this case, and maybe there
always is).

(As for “Red Mars”, I get the sense that no one wants to point
this out because KSR is such a good guy, but the characterization
there is a mess of ethnic stereotypes. The russian lady is
paranoid, the American white guy is forthright and trustworthy,
the asian lady is inscrutable, the black guy is sneaky, and so
on…)

217

Saurs 09.25.13 at 5:31 am

[I see by opening another window that Saurs has been here first. Nevertheless.]

More than enough room in the fangirl booth for you, JanieM.

218

David (Kid Geezer). 09.25.13 at 5:42 am

My particular Belle-gored ox in this wholesale literary denunciation is Pynchon. However, given her description of the circumstances and amount of time she spent reading Gravity’s Rainbow, it is hard to take her seriously in that regard (and I would make the exact same observation about any of the male posters on this thread if they were to describe a similar context.

Two observations, then. First, it clearly escaped Belle that the only characters in the novel who blessed with any state of grace or stability are women. Second, in this day of Internet enabled fan/slash fiction, pray entertain us with your much better ending for the novel. I’m quite willing to read the 10-20 pages or so that it might take you.

219

David (Kid Geezer). 09.25.13 at 5:48 am

Several hours passed between my views of this thread. My library remains intact. I’m sure that Belle will and should read what she enjoys and so will I. I’m not actually interested in about two thirds of her list in any case. Now back to my KSR.

220

bad Jim 09.25.13 at 5:57 am

Heinrich Böll won a goddamn Nobel prize for literature, and he certainly didn’t neglect the ladies in his work. Neither did Gunter Grass. Coetzee ought to be labeled “Read at your own risk”.

Contemporary American authors are likely as as unedifying as broadcast television dramas from the same era. They had the same audience.

221

Foppe 09.25.13 at 6:42 am

I must say that I find the fact that Belle cannot utter even a perfunctory ‘I guess I misunderstood you’ (let alone an ‘I guess I was wrong to tear into you, accusing you of being a rape apologist’) worse than sad. Was either really too much effort, after so obviously enjoying channeling misguided hate, and banhammer threats my way first? And given that she is one of the people who operates this ‘democratic’ platform, it seems to me to reflect badly on the whole site.
I doubt I will return here much. (Yes, I realize few people will care about that, since I am hardly a member of the group of posters here. Nevertheless.)

222

Walt 09.25.13 at 7:51 am

I think part of the response is that if you criticize a writer someone loves, well then THEY. GO. CRAZY. I know if anyone says anything bad about Tolstoy the red mist descends. I’ve found myself arguing online that Tolkien wasn’t that sexist, or that Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t that racist, which is usually a sign that it’s time to unplug the Internet cable.

223

Walt 09.25.13 at 7:51 am

I’ve thrown out most of the books in Kid Geezer’s library when he wasn’t looking. I left the Pynchon, though, so he won’t notice for a while. In the long run he’ll thank me.

224

Ronan(rf) 09.25.13 at 9:09 am

@ Kid Geezer
I wish Pynchon had never learned to write. Painful stuff

@ Tom Allen 199
Is it really that good? I was half thinking of getting it after an interview I read with her..

225

Alex 09.25.13 at 9:27 am

They pop up on list after list of Great Writers [TM]. They are all horribly claustrophobic, even suffocating. I assumed this had to do with all their navel gazing

As I say, the Big American Novel.

226

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 9:47 am

David (Kid Geezer): look, motherfucker, you can’t even read well enough to see that Pynchon is in the “you are such a great artist you can write your way out of this problem free and clear” section of the essay! I explicitly said, ‘well, you’d think Pynchon would be up there with Gaddis, but we can’t stay mad at Pynchon–he’s too fucking amazing.’ It’s only the fourth paragraph, were you tired or some shit? Coming down with a cold, maybe? Yours, a fellow Pynchon fan who has re-read Gravity’s Rainbow under more salubrious circumstances and a bunch of other novels besides, and if you want to come in here and claim you’ve read GR twice I’d like to fucking hear about it, Belle Waring.

227

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 9:57 am

Foppe: for personal reasons I find that topic really actually distressing. I’m sorry to have hauled out the banhammer in response to one comment, and I don’t think you are actually an apologist for pedophiles or anything of the sort. It was just that I felt that a straight reading of your comment was really bewildering, and ran like this: let’s take an admittedly extraordinary novel that was written from a male perspective and see how much space is left for the female point of view in the novel. Does Lolita ever really think hard about why she gave it up so easy? My reaction: !!!??!?11/!! Also a visceral “fuck off!” Not directed at you personally, necessarily, but at society’s treatment of the most-namechecked, least-understood novel of all time. So, provided you don’t think anything remotely along the lines of, ‘in the imaginary universe of the novel, Dolores ought to be doing some soul-searching on precisely why she made herself so darn easy to rape,’ I’m perfectly willing to back off. If your explanation of what you meant to say is going to be really awful then please just don’t explain and we can be friends.

228

Gareth Rees 09.25.13 at 10:00 am

Joseph Brenner@216: The female guide in the novel “Antarctica” is actually one of his better characters, though you might need to hang out with outdoors jocks a bit to get that

Surely the essence of effective characterization in novels is that the reader does not have to be familiar with real people of a certain type in order to “get” a fictional character? One can “get” Elizabeth Bennett despite never having hung out with Regency landed gentry.

In any case I am an outdoors type myself so I don’t think my lack of personal experience can be to blame for my failure to recall any depth or subtlety in the characterization of Val in Antarctica.

229

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 10:11 am

Saurs–thanks very much for your support. JanieM also. What the fuck? Everybody seems so normal and then this one liiiittle tiny topic about half the people in the world and then they lose their minds. Everybody! Plenty of commenters that I like and respect! I wouldn’t have even written the post if people hadn’t had conniption fits about the kind of novels I don’t enjoy.

Nathanael: I read more SF than ‘serious’ non-fiction novels also. But, c’mon. I liked the Mars trilogy OK, ish…see, so why’d I go and read that stuff about Antarctica? Half of it is minutes from anarcho-syndicalist committee meetings anyway. No, KSR’s female characters are better than the male ones, I think, if anything, it’s just that he’s not a writer who’s about characters.

230

eddie 09.25.13 at 11:34 am

No. 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 and Banks.

231

Chris Bertram 09.25.13 at 12:00 pm

I think that part of the reason for the reaction here is a deep conflict within the postwar generation. There’s a story of revolt of the sons against the fathers, and in that story, taboo-breaking writers like Roth are heroes (along with the long list of iconoclasts notoriously namechecked by Colin McGinn). Having killed the fathers, the revoltees now expected to get to fuck all the women, and that sort-of happened for a while. But though much of 68 was a male-dominated-affair (check out those photos of France, where the women are mere auxiliaries to the revolution …) modern feminism also emerged as (from the male pov) an unintended consequence, thereby thwarting the expectations of the Hitchens generation. Hence the desperate attachment to the Great Novelists and the pained resentment of typical representatives of the group at being thought less-than-progressive when faced by feminist critique. Or something like that. (The defection of many typical figures of this male group to the right also fits).

232

Tim Chambers 09.25.13 at 12:17 pm

Who cares about most of these guys anymore? Like many other authors who reflected their times, they were important in their times. But apart from a few old fogies like me, who remember them from their youth as being important authors, has anyone even heard of them today?

The ones I am most familiar with are Bellow and Powers. Bellow is irredeemably sexist, but he was also a momma’s boy, who seems to have hated his many wives for not being good enough mothers to him and, if Ravelstein is evidence of it, a repressed homosexual as well. The first of his books I read was Humboldt’s Gift in which his depiction of wife #3 Susan Glassman was so obnoxious that it ruined the book for me. She reappears in More Die of Heartbreak as the status seeking hostess who would be the great author’s wife. The woman he remained with unto death, Janice Freedman, is treated brutally in More Die of Heartbreak and depicted as his maternal angel in Ravelstein. All his female characters are objectified in ways that make them one dimensional. I have other raps with Bellow as well.

But then I was recently married for the first time and still in my honeymoon phase, before I’d had much of a taste of what a harridan a woman can be. Fifteen years of marriage has shown me a lot about the woman I’m stuck with that is recognizable in Bellow’s women. And some of that creeps into one of my female characters, a battle hardened vet with PTSD and all its attendant symptoms, unleashed on my hapless male protagonist.

Powers, on the other hand, can hardly be accused of sexism, but I sort of wonder how manly Belle Waring might find him to be. Really, what Belle is ranting about is the tendency of men to view women as suitable vessels for bearing children, just as women view men as suitable providers. I don’t enjoy seeing men depicted by women as meal tickets any more than she enjoys women being depicted as tits and ass. But, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is perfectly natural to both halves of the human species and nothing anyone needs to go off about.

As for discussing the meaning of life with a woman, I remember a man I was close to once telling me how much he loved his wife, to whom he stayed faithful till death did them part, but also how much her conversation bored him. With several years of marriage under my own belt now, I can better understand his feelings. My marriage consists of nothing but games (hers) and power struggles that I suffer for the sake of our daughter. There is no possibility of discussing anything with my wife except the price of necessities.

233

godoggo 09.25.13 at 12:37 pm

Personally, my reaction was, I’ve already seen enough essays about how sexist this bunch is, so I think I will use that scroll feature. It’s not exactly a novel thesis, which is another reason the reaction was so strange.

234

Niall McAuley 09.25.13 at 12:46 pm

Tim Chambers writes: But, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is perfectly natural to both halves of the human species and nothing anyone needs to go off about.

Bingo!

235

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:01 pm

eddie: I suggest that you ask first before giving me advice. As I have already read all the books written by both authors, AFAIK. Maybe there’s another Tiffancy Aching one I haven’t read. I am not really mad about regular old Iain Banks, much preferring the “M.” But why ever would you think not without asking me? Why after like 500 comments about this would you not stop to consider for one single second that I might not have already read all the books you are about to so thoughtfully suggest I read?

236

Walt 09.25.13 at 1:19 pm

Clearly the problem is that you’ve read too many books.

237

chris y 09.25.13 at 1:25 pm

May I thank Chris B @231 for saying clearly and succinctly what I’ve been trying to organise in my mid since yesterday. I’ve kept out of this thread because in truth I don’t like most post-war American “literary” novelists and can’t be bothered to read them much. Exceptions include Pynchon, some but not all of Vidal and, ummm… Oh yes, I enjoyed Catch 22 when I was 15 or so.

So I’ll go away again.

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chris y 09.25.13 at 1:26 pm

mid s/b mind.

239

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:33 pm

Tim Chambers: I’m sorry to hear that our society’s sexism has so thoroughly crippled you that you can’t either intellectually respect the person to whom you are married or marry someone whose intellect you respect. This is a case where I have to pity you; it does sound like an affliction out of the past, a polio sufferer’s iron lung. I would like to imagine that a person could free himself from that at any age, but perhaps it’s not possible and you really do reach an age eventually where the change needed to see the person with whom you have sex as an interesting, autonomous person who surprises you with smart, funny things–that change can never take place for you. That really does sound like a horrible way to live. You shouldn’t think your daughter will be fooled. Even by the time she is 8 or 9 she will know that you don’t consider her to have the capability to grow up and be a true, fully flourishing human being, whose company you could ever truly enjoy, and with whom you could ever discuss the meaning of life rather than the cost of milk. Children are not so easy to lie to as we imagine. If she is all you are staying for…

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:34 pm

godoggo: you weren’t meant to scroll all the way down here!

For the Nth time generally (not addressed to godoggo particularly) the reason I am discussing these authors is because in comments below people violently objected to my complaint that I didn’t much enjoy any of the work of the Important Male Novelists of the Latter Half of the 20th Century, and they interpreted this to mean, variously: that I had not read them; that I read scantily until I came to something ideologically unacceptable and then stopped; that I lacked the capacity to enjoy them because my aesthetic sense was dulled by my obsession with sex and sexual politics, and about one million other things. Also, that I hated a great many writers whom I do not, in fact hate. Thus, in order to make clear which novelists I was referring to and why, precisely they left me cold, I wrote this post which, as I have mentioned, no one was forced to read. No one should play dumb and pretend they don’t know how these older novelists form a group, or why critics were pleased to place DFW there, or why Franzen wants to get up in there so bad. Also, everyone, please stop pretending I offer this as an up-to-date list of all that is hip and happening in novels today, as you know quite well I don’t mean that either.

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Sam Dodsworth 09.25.13 at 1:40 pm

I’m going to be charitable and assume that at least some of the attempted derails and cries of “feminist oppression” on this thread began as a reflexive bristling at seeing favourite things criticised. (And others very clearly not. But anyway.) Anyone feeling kind of upset because [author] is clearly a great writer and it’s unfair to focus on their minor flaws might find this essay helpful:

http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:43 pm

eddie No. 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 and Banks.
IDK you guys, I think this might have somehow pissed me off worse than any fucking other thing in either of these threads. Well, the suggestion that I should be pitied wrt my inability to appreciate works in toto despite their sexist parts in just the same fashion as a deaf person should be pitied for her inability to enjoy music, that was annoying, but Anon. is ultimately well-intentioned, I feel, just prone to infelicitous phrasing. This bullshit right here? I just. I don’t know why. OK, maybe it’s the idiotic smug patronizing tone in which I am being told to stop everything I am doing and do something else but… eddie, you must return to this thread for real. Just be like, “hey, it didn’t occur to me you might have read all the works of both those authors because I thought you…uh…” I want to see where you take this one. HUMOR ME PLZ!!1 [Belle actually throws iPhone case at wall]

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:46 pm

Chris Bertram @231, yes, this is a excellent diagnosis.

244

Jerry Vinokurov 09.25.13 at 2:13 pm

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is possibly the most important work of fiction published in the 20th century

Whaaaaaa….?

I mean, I do love me some Douglas Adams, but a) I’d never say he had anything remotely approaching “fully realized female characters”, and b) this just seems… wildly exaggerated, to put it mildly.

245

Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 2:16 pm

OK, last thought before I go to bed, now I’m starting to feel the dude had slightly bad luck in picking two authors whose books I had read all of, both. That’s like, a little bit bad luck for him. Sort of not, since I thought we’d established that I just read things all the time, and hella fast. But sort of.

246

Tom Allen 09.25.13 at 2:16 pm

@ Ronan(rf) 224

Yes, it really is that good. Her perceptions are very sharp–it would be considered a novel of ideas were it not for well-rounded, utterly believable characters.

247

Dan Hardie 09.25.13 at 2:26 pm

What Chris Bertram says in 231 is pretty much the plot of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel ‘The history man’. Howard Kirk, the eponymous man is a radical lecturer in sociology at a university in England (I think pretty plainly based on Sussex, with a bit of UEA’s architectural hideousness thrown in).

Howard does indeed find that a side-product of his rebellion against every single authority figure on campus (they’re all male) makes it easy for him to screw more or less every single campus woman he desires. Meanwhile, his wife looks after the kids and house. The year isn’t specified in the book, but from internal evidence it’s almost certainly 1972, at most a year on either side.

I can’t say how accurate a description it was of the early ’70s campus left- I wasn’t there at the time- but it’s striking that Howard really can’t see that his talk of ‘liberation’ is actually a mask for some really nasty oppression of women.

I also suspect that if the book had been set any later than about, say, 1983, the plot would have been rather different: no doubt there were still a lot of Howard Kirks on campus, but they would have been rather uncomfortably aware of what happened to poor old so-and-so when his bloody wife got a divorce lawyer…

This isn’t to suggest the novel is brilliant. None of the characters have any depth, bar Howard himself, and Bradbury doesn’t examine him that profoundly. Virtually all the women, bar one, are utterly pallid. But I’d be interested to see if people who were around at the time think that the book is at all accurate in its portrayal of the power relations of the time.

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Tom Slee 09.25.13 at 2:35 pm

Dan Hardie. The History Man came out in 1975, and I was an undergraduate at Sussex starting in ’78, though on the other side of campus. As for its accuracy: I don’t know what the lecturers had to say but among the undergraduates — there was a lot of talk, and some speculation about individual characters and who they might be based on, but let’s just say there was no consensus. But then again, there was no consensus on anything else either.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.25.13 at 2:45 pm

Tim Chambers: “But, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is perfectly natural to both halves of the human species and nothing anyone needs to go off about”

I agree that it’s perfectly natural (and nothing anyone needs to go off about), but certainly not as the endpoint of evolution. It’s just, more or less, the current state of affairs; our environment, that shapes our mindset and, naturally, is reflected in our literature.

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chris y 09.25.13 at 2:57 pm

Dan, my wife, who attended an open day/interview at UEA in the early 80s, reported back that Bradbury’s behaviour towards the candidates was blatantly Kirkian – largely ignoring the men and older women, and verging on the inappropriate towards the younger, blonder women. She concluded that either he was completely without self awareness or he actually felt that Kirk was an acceptable role model.

She went to a different university.

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Dan Hardie 09.25.13 at 3:30 pm

Cheers, Chris and Tom.

Going on what Chris said, maybe I just attributed too much subtlety, and too much respect for women, to Bradbury. Looked at another way, I suppose Bradbury could just have been pissed off that the Howard Kirks were not only mouthing silly radical slogans, but, as a result, getting pussy that should rightfully have been his.

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William Timberman 09.25.13 at 3:33 pm

For me, there’s been much valuable stuff in this thread. If Belle thinks that it may yet drive her insane, thinking about it at greater length may help drive me in the other direction. For that I’m grateful, not least to Belle herself. I’ve gotten a free ride, in other words, and she’s paid the ticket. Not fair, but I should say thank you. So I do.

As the wounded limp off to look for another thread, one thing seems painfully clear: freedom is invisible if you have some, painfully visible in its inaccessibility if you don’t. If we’re really for it, a great part of how we define it has to come from those we’ve deprived of it. We should take our fingers out of our ears when they speak. At very least.

JanieM struck a spark for me when she compared the reaction to my dislike of country music with the reaction to Belle’s complaint about the male canon. Janie has a point. I can escape the cult of Merle Haggard and its worshippers — there are other countries, metaphorical ones, anyway, where no one’s ever heard of him, and they’ll take me in. Where can Belle go, I wonder, where the patriarchy won’t shake its collective finger at her no matter what. Clearly, hers is the more serious claim to injury, and should be respected accordingly.

Chris Bertram makes a serious point about my generation of men, at least in the West. There’s one thing I would add, though. Whether or not he realizes it, he’s talking about low-status males. We weren’t just out to smash the smug suits behind desks who claimed that their — and only their — rules were eternal, and so Vietnam for you, boy, and no backtalk. We were also out to smash a definition of masculinity which excluded us. Jocks and loudmouths, save the fucking for the fighting men types, toadies to the suits whether they knew it or not.

So naturally we cheered when Joan Baez actually proposed creating an alliance of girls who say yes to boys who say no. Beyond that, we hadn’t a thought in our wee heads about the women’s auxiliary. The Seventies were indeed a very strong dose of reality for us, and much deserved. We weren’t the innocents or rebels that we thought we were, and the women who supported us then, perhaps against their better instincts, have spent a good deal of energy since trying to set us straight. With mixed success, I admit. To the extent that we thought smashing the part of the patriarchy that had oppressed us meant replacing it, and inheriting its privileges, we’re guilty as charged, even if we aren’t all important white male novelists of the post-war period. (Please note that the context for this reflection is 1968 in the U.S. What was going on simultaneously in France, Germany, Holland, etc., I’m not qualified to to address.)

As for the novelists in question, it wasn’t clear to me at the outset who was on the list and who wasn’t, but as that became clearer from the context, I realized that I didn’t like any of them myself. It wasn’t exclusively their attitudes toward women, although I have to admit that the under-the-desk scene in The Dear Park, much of Roth after Goodbye Columbus, and nearly all of Updike put me right off my feed. Mostly, I suppose, I disliked them because I thought of them as an Establishment logjam that needed to be broken up if anyone was ever going to get anywhere at all. Much ado about very little was my take, which isn’t what Belle is complaining about, I realize, but it did afford me the excuse not to be offended by her complaints. I’m not and never have been them — really not — so I don’t have to wade in, etc.

Except, of course, I am them, sorta, in that we were formed in and by the same environment, if not with exactly the same results. When geo defends their artistic achievements, I think he has a point, and shouldn’t have been mauled quite so badly for making it, but it’s hard to extend the argument very far in that direction before you encounter Leni Riefenstahl, and then, all of a sudden, you’re splitting hairs. Better to take Belle’s criticism as it stands, I think. We do have a long way to go still, and I’m damned if I know what all will pop up along the road. In any event, it’s not for me to say.

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Henry 09.25.13 at 3:59 pm

What Chris B. says. On John Crowley – does he really fit the stereotype? Rosie Rasmussen in the Aegypt quartet is exactly _not_ an Eternal Feminine, despite some male characters’ efforts to shoehorn her into that box – she’s the one who’s grounded and most interested in the real world (her tired Valkyries and Jesus surrounded by real children chewing bubble gum). And the point of _Lord Byron’s Novel_ is that it’s not actually Lord Byron’s novel so much as it’s Ada’s. On the thread in general – even if so many of the comments are weird and obtuse, wonderful to see Belle getting her awesome on …

254

Phil 09.25.13 at 4:06 pm

No one should play dumb and pretend they don’t know how these older novelists form a group, or why critics were pleased to place DFW there, or why Franzen wants to get up in there so bad.

I’m really not playing dumb (and I don’t think I’m the only one here). I’m British, I don’t read much literary fiction (or any American literary fiction, really, apart from Pynchon who I didn’t even think was ‘literary fiction’, so there you go), and certainly I’ve never felt even slightly tempted to read Updike, Roth or Mailer let alone Franzen. (And Updike’s literary? In fact, are we even talking about ‘literary fiction’ or have I just brought in a red herring?)

So when I said I didn’t know how you were defining the group of writers you were talking about, I really meant I didn’t know how you were defining the group of writers you were talking about. Unless by Important Male Novelist you mean “American-born novelist aged 50 or above who competed with Saul Bellow, idolises Saul Bellow or won’t admit to idolising Saul Bellow but sure as hell writes that way”, in which case it’s a mercifully short list & lets out several people who are arguably novelists, male and important. (Where do you stand on Salinger, btw, if he’s not too triggerish? I liked “Raise High…” once I tuned in to it – it’s kind of like a James Thurber story directed by Stanley Kubrick – but I couldn’t get through “Seymour”.)

Incidentally, I may be forgetting someone, but I don’t think I’ve see anyone springing to the defence of what you might call the core group – Mailer, Roth, Updike, Bellow. I think “Why four celebrated late-C20 novelists strike me as sexist dillweeds (and Jonathan Franzen)” might have got a lot less pushback.

255

Hector_St_Clare 09.25.13 at 4:12 pm

Tim Chambers seems like he understand the nature of men and women far better than Belle Waring, unsurprisingly.

On average, Men prize fertility and dependency in their mates: women prize the ability to provide. this is the way evolution has made us, and it is our nature. when it comes to gender roles, RA Fisher agrees with Romans.

Thanks for fighting the good fight against the nihilistic hordes, Chambers.

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MG 09.25.13 at 4:35 pm

@Walt: I do not know why people get angry when their literary heros get criticized. I like reading literary criticism and I have yet to read a review that said “This book was simply perfect, I would not change a single word. Bravo!”. I think thoughtful criticism informs one’s reading, even of beloved authors. But that’s me.

@William Timberland: I do agree that the lack of class-conciousness of the GMN really bugged me. It’s as if they didn’t have to think about ordinary day to day worries (Will I keep my job? Do I have enough to eat? Will I have a place to live? How will I protect my children? Am I safe?) and all they did with this freedom was think about boobs and bitches. And this was heralded as “great insight”.

@Nathanel: Agree with your comments on the irrelevancy of the American cannon but can’t agree with your dismissal of Hemingway and Faulkner. I love those guys flaws and all because of the beauty of their prose as much as the content.

@Dogen — have not read the Ondaatje but “The English Patient” sits on my bookshelf. I keep meaning to read it! I don’t know who the contemporary novelists who write reasonable characters are — that seems like another thread.

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Luke 09.25.13 at 4:37 pm

@254
When you’ve finished your ethnographies of paleolithic humans, can I borrow your time machine?

258

bianca steele 09.25.13 at 4:42 pm

Phil:
Yes, Updike’s literary.

259

bianca steele 09.25.13 at 4:51 pm

What the heck, I’ll go Bill Benzon and link to a post I wrote last year, which even mentions Franzen: http://biancasteele.typepad.com/bianca_steele/2012/09/is-the-cookbook-collector-literary-or-only-mainstream.html.

Sorry, Belle, for the self-promotion.

260

LFC 09.25.13 at 6:44 pm

And Updike’s literary?
Jesus. Whatever you think of him, whether you enjoy him or not, Updike is most definitely and unequivocally a literary writer. This is on the order of asking “Is Melville literary?” “Is Hawthorne literary?” “Is Flaubert literary?” “Is Stendhal literary?” “Is George Eliot literary?” “Is Hilary Mantel literary?” “Is Nadine Gordimer literary?” “Is Thomas Mann literary? “Is V.S. Naipaul literary?” “Is Robert Stone literary?” “Is Edmund White literary?” “Is Donna Tartt literary?” and so on…

And on T Chambers on ‘Ravelstein’: Of course Bellow must have been gay, or “a repressed homosexual” in Chambers’ words, because Allan Bloom, the thinly disguised subject of ‘Ravelstein,’ was gay. QED! Along w/ Hector’s nonsense about women and evolution, the remark about ‘Ravelstein’ is a prime candidate for silliest remark on this thread.

261

js. 09.25.13 at 7:11 pm

Damn—I always thought being part of a nihilistic horde would be a _little_ more fun! We all are some boring-ass nihilists.

262

Anderson 09.25.13 at 7:18 pm

We all are some boring-ass nihilists.

When nothing matters, nothing’s interesting.

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js. 09.25.13 at 7:20 pm

I think part of the response is that if you criticize a writer someone loves, well then THEY. GO. CRAZY.

I understand the impulse—hell, I’m intimately familiar with it. (Like, it’s _really_ hard not to be like all-caps-what-the-holy-fuck!? re Nathanael on Faulkner right now.)

But, like, _some_ modicum of self-awareness could be asked for? Some little bit of restraint, exercised just long enough that you actually try and consider what the person is saying and maybe try to understand their target and the shape of their argument before spouting off the equivalent of a Franzen novel in a comments thread?

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Peter Erwin 09.25.13 at 7:41 pm

Phil @ 253:
I’m really not playing dumb (and I don’t think I’m the only one here).

No, you’re not the only one, though I’m probably worse because I don’t even have the excuse of not being American. I’ll admit that I’ve heard of all the [American] writers that Belle mentioned[*], have read reviews of a few of their books, and have even I can kind of summon up a vague sense of “Yes, these are prominent American novelists”. But I’ve never read any of of them (I tried Updike’s Roger’s Version once, but gave up after a few chapters), so I don’t have a good sense of why they necessarily belong in a group. (Also, I have absolutely know idea “why critics were pleased to place DFW there”, since I haven’t read anything by him, either[**].)

[*] But maybe not William Gaddis; his name sounds slightly familiar, but if someone had told me he was British, I’d probably have believed them.
[**] Apart from his nonfiction history-of-infinity book, which I quite liked.

265

dsquared 09.25.13 at 7:58 pm

I’d suggest that you drop everything else for a while until you’ve finished reading all of Pratchett and Banks.

I think I am going to have this phrase tattooed onto my forearm. It’s that priceless.

I am not a great one for recognising sexism, but I have noticed from the pile of started but not finished novels that developed beside my bedside table, that I too was not able to get on with the Updike/Mailer axis. Frantzen got recommended to me (by a female friend of usually good judgement) during the Kindle era, so it didn’t get added to the pile but I gave up about 20% of the way in. What I thought was the problem was that … in every single one of these novels, the protagonist is someone that you would desperately be sidling away from at parties. They only seem to write versions of themselves, and the nature of the “literary” bit is that they don’t turn themselves into plaster heroes, but instead bang on about their haemorrhoids, real and metaphorical.

Which leads me to believe that the new generation of serious novelists will start writing allegedly well-rounded female characters simply by writing characters who are versions of themselves in a frock (there is one quite thin-skinned science fiction novelist who I wont name but totally does this). I suppose that JM Coetzee has led the way – “Elizabeth Costello” is so obviously Coetzee in a frock that he doesn’t bother to pretend otherwise. I guess it’s a marginal win in terms of representations of women in the public space, but I don’t hold out much hope for the Great Literary Novel.

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David (Kid Geezer). 09.25.13 at 8:56 pm

Geez! Sorry, Belle. Really didn’t mean to offend you so much, but upon rereading I still find that passage a bit murky. I do not think Pynchon is sexist, certainly not in the sense that the other offenders are and I do not think he should even be included in the whole “literary fiction” category. I doubt that he sees it that way. Franzen, who sounds utterly boring, clearly aspires to that category as other have pointed out.

Btw, I have read GRcover to cover three times. First in April/May 1973, next in 1974 and then again in 1975. And have dipped into it many more times over the years. So bully for me.

267

David (Kid Geezer). 09.25.13 at 8:59 pm

Damn tags and lack of edit option.

268

godoggo 09.25.13 at 9:08 pm

(sidles away)

269

Henry 09.25.13 at 9:21 pm

dsquared:

In every single one of these novels, the protagonist is someone that you would desperately be sidling away from at parties. They only seem to write versions of themselves, and the nature of the “literary” bit is that they don’t turn themselves into plaster heroes, but instead bang on about their haemorrhoids, real and metaphorical.

DFW

. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid — he can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike — he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.

and you can’t be leaving us hanging with

there is one quite thin-skinned science fiction novelist who I wont name but totally does this

and no more

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Phil 09.25.13 at 9:41 pm

This is on the order of asking “Is Melville literary?” (and much, much more).

Give me a break – I did say I’d never read any Updike. I just found it hard to believe, as I typed those words, that a bunch of novels which are basically (from what I’ve heard) about an affluent middle-aged guy drinking whisky, having sex and feeling vaguely discontented could actually be, well, literary (and no, Moby-Dick is not about a trip on a whaling-ship, even on the surface). And I wondered (slightly more seriously) if ‘important’ in the American literar… dammit… in the context of American literature meant something slightly different from the ‘literary’ of Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis et al. (Not that they’re innocent of middle-aged guys drinking etc etc.)

OK, so Updike is literary. And thanks, bianca, for the link to the blog post, which I found a useful clarification of what it is we’re talking about. There are writers who do that thing you describe, and writers who don’t (and generally aren’t trying to). You could classify, or criticise, writers in a variety of ways…

Does That Thing (hereafter DTT), but not as well or compellingly as he/she thinks: Franzen
DTT but too often and too well, so that you start to feel like a voyeur spying on a narcissist: Amis (M)
DTT in ways that aren’t immediately obvious: Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson
DTT in a genre that makes it not immediately obvious: Dickens, Ballard, more than one other sf writer
Doesn’t DTT: most sf writers, most crime writers… and, actually, not a few writers of literary fiction (which is a genre)

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roy belmont 09.25.13 at 9:51 pm

Talking about Pynchon solely around GR is pretty weak. Against The Day has lovingly rendered female main characters, written with gracious depth and solid affection.
Literature only gets to us now through two seriously imedimental filters – publishing and the media, and for most of the readers here, through the academy as well. Some big hurdles there, even with all the serious attention and passionate advocacy individuals bring to those industrial contexts.
William Gibson’s superficial profile is so garishly pop-techno that the poetry of his work gets neglected and has to be insisted upon, which I am doing. And again, female characters rendered with genuine, knowing love. Protagonists, not ancillary fill.
Thomas McGuane’s no slouch when it comes to respect and gallantly honest portrayal, no misogynist he.
Richard Ford has consistently created wonderfully realistic images of women. Not to mention the best treatment of 9/11 I’ve read so far, The Lay Of The Land.
But Jim Harrison. Dalva. With Anita Brookner’s Brief Lives the most profoundly moving fictional truths of womanhood I’ve ever read.

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Substance McGravitas 09.25.13 at 9:59 pm

William Gibson’s superficial profile is so garishly pop-techno that the poetry of his work gets neglected and has to be insisted upon, which I am doing.

Canadian, doesn’t count.

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Walt 09.25.13 at 10:04 pm

I think Phil’s quip — “American-born novelist aged 50 or above who competed with Saul Bellow, idolises Saul Bellow or won’t admit to idolising Saul Bellow but sure as hell writes that way” — is a pretty good summary of the group of writers Belle’s nicknamed Important Male Novelist.

I personally like Updike, though he’s guilty of every sin ever attributed to him. He is the author of a post-apocalyptic science-fiction book that is mostly about infidelity, after all. He’s like the anti-Tolstoy — the only thing he understands is infidelity. But for me the last two Rabbit books an eloquent description of what it’s like to get old and die.

js, I’m with you on the Faulkner question. His lack of contemporary success is besides the point. I love the fact that around Oxford, Mississippi he was basically regarded as the town drunk, until one day they opened their newspapers and found out he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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godoggo 09.25.13 at 10:06 pm

I think I’m going to type out my rant, put it in a bottle, drive down to Long Beach or Pedro or wherever the boats take off from, sail out to Catalina, and toss it out enroute for the frolicking porpoises to play with. That’s what I’m gonna do. Later.

275

Walt 09.25.13 at 10:10 pm

For some writers, writing women as themselves in a frock would be a step up, in that it would at least grant them a modicum of empathy, and allow them to write women characters with more autonomy than the robot from Lost in Space.

276

roy belmont 09.25.13 at 10:17 pm

Gibson’s as native-born as the current US President.
John Irving, who should have been on the list too, whose women are delightful and seriously respected, is another ex-pat American writer.
Unless we’re determining authorial essence by where they receive their royalty checks.

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Anderson 09.25.13 at 10:19 pm

he was basically regarded as the town drunk, until one day they opened their newspapers and found out he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature

He was regarded that way afterwards, too. No bunch of Swedes was going to tell Oxford, Mississippi what to think. Now that he’s dead, of course, you can get your photo made sitting next to his statute on a bench in the town square.

(Absalom, Absalom! is a great novel, which I commend to people who think they don’t like Faulkner.)

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Anderson 09.25.13 at 10:20 pm

StaTUE. Man, do I make fun of people who commit that typo in legal briefs. I deserved that.

279

LFC 09.25.13 at 10:38 pm

Re Updike:
I don’t have any of his books on my shelf, so I guess he can’t be very important to me (and he isn’t). However, *many* years ago I read The Coup, Roger’s Version and I think also Bech: A Book (which for some reason was around the house when I was a kid). I recall the books as witty, though maybe that doesn’t apply as much to Roger’s Version. I would also stipulate that he is prob. guilty of the various defects alleged above (and in the OP).

Iirc, I had to read in high school one of his early short stories. The memory is fuzzy and I don’t recall the title, but I (vaguely) remember it as keenly observed, psychologically sensitive, and beautifully written. It may be that Updike as a very young man did not yet suffer from the syndrome, or whatever the right word is, suggested by the DFW quote @268.

280

GiT 09.25.13 at 10:55 pm

This seems quite serendipitous:

http://gawker.com/tough-guy-lit-prof-im-not-interested-in-teaching-boo-1388680687

“Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

281

JanieM 09.25.13 at 10:58 pm

What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.

Holy f^cking sh|t. Srsly?

282

Tim Chambers 09.25.13 at 11:00 pm

Belle, would that divorce were so easy. In the society I live in, divorced fathers don’t get visitation rights. And were you suggesting we even have sex? That’s for making babies here. Affection? Unheard of, except for something red in the lunchbox.

LFC,

It isn’t the Ravelstein’s model was gay, but the love the narrator manifests for him that is never expressed for the women in his life, and the way he glorifies the shopping and such that the two of them do together, that indicates where his tendencies lie.

283

Keeb 09.25.13 at 11:25 pm

What about authors like Chinua Achebe?

284

dsquared 09.25.13 at 11:43 pm

actually, thinking about it, Douglas Coupland has flirted on several occasions with I Am A Serious ness, and his female characters seem pretty all right and not obviously DC in a frock

285

LFC 09.25.13 at 11:47 pm

T Chambers @280
well, you have a clearer recollection of ‘Ravelstein’ than I do, so I won’t argue the pt right now.

286

Dave Maier 09.25.13 at 11:59 pm

Here’s another vote for Absalom, Absalom!, which I read in college and was a real kick in the head. On the other hand I couldn’t get through As I Lay Dying, which I picked up because it was short. Go figure.

287

MG 09.26.13 at 12:23 am

The lit professor who only teaches “serious heterosexual guys” and no women, no Canadians (so GFY Alice Munroe and Margaret Atwood).

The interview on the Random House website was pretty shocking. It had gens like:
There’s an even dirtier one that I teach, by Philip Roth, called The Dying Animal. I save it ’til the very end of the year because by that point they’ve got fairly strong stomachs, and they’re far more sophisticated than they are in the beginning. So they can understand the differences between pornography and great literature. There are men eating menstrual pads, and by the time my students get to that they’re ready.

WTF? Srsly?

288

rm 09.26.13 at 12:44 am

It’s an interesting literary trick to present a monstrously loathsome character through either first-person or tightly identified limited-third POV, such that we see through the monster’s eyes that all of his cruelty is justified and he is the real victim, yadda yadda. Humbert Humbert being the most extreme example, nearly everyone in the Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series being a current pop-culture example.

But good god, this “Tim Chambers” character breaks my suspension-of-disbelief antigrav unit. No one could be that abusive, that explicitly, with getting any kind of clue about what a monster he is. Real abusers obfuscate and play ignorant — this guy lays it out there in clear words. If he were real I’d tell him to find a counselor who specializes in working with severe personality disorders. Luckily, he cannot possibly be real.

289

Jerry Vinokurov 09.26.13 at 1:31 am

Well, there’s certainly someone out there publishing books under the name of Tim Chambers. Would that it were all some kind of bizarre internet performance art…

290

burritoboy 09.26.13 at 1:41 am

I’m voting for performance art – Fitzgerald and Chekhov as manly manly manly men with hair on their chests? C’mon, that’s a send-up. If he had said Hemingway, then, I might have bought it.

291

Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 1:41 am

LFC,

It’s interesting to see how the Hollywood cultural liberals believe evolution applies to every species but one. At least, when the uncomfortable facts of nature undermine the fashionable feminist talking points.

292

bill benzon 09.26.13 at 2:07 am

@Chris, 231 – most excellent. There really is something about the post-war period when things went haywire even as Henry Luce was proclaiming the American century, getting spaced on LSD (yes he did!), and us kids were doing duck and cover bomb drills in schools.

And the country went bonkers on comic books, thought they were corrupting the minds of youth.

Some scattered comments:

1) As a side note, in my undergraduate years I took a course on Milton, 10 weeks of Paradise Lost. Can’t say I really liked it, but I did come away with the sense that that was one great piece of literature.

2) And there are those who think Armies of the Night is better than any fiction Mailer ever wrote.

3) And then there’s John Barth. It’s been so long since I’ve read him that I can’t speak to his female character, nor, for that matter, to his male characters either. At some point he simply became unreadably dense (Letters). If I were to re-read any of his stuff I’d be looking to see if his characters are anything other than vehicles for his prose and his ideas. As I recall, he spent several pages in Giles Goat Boy working up to an outrageous joke on Gorgeous George, transforming it into George’s Gorge.

293

Lee A. Arnold 09.26.13 at 3:09 am

I liked, Of a Fire On the Moon. It is a sort of prose poem.

294

Lee A. Arnold 09.26.13 at 3:16 am

Also, I just bought an original paperback of Miami and the Siege of Chicago for $2. I lived through it, but I never read it. It looks like my kind of thing.

295

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 3:22 am

David (Kid Geezer): it’s cool, dude. I was feeling irritated yesterday evening for some totally inexplicable reason. My husband just brought me coffee in bed and, although I have a fucking migraine again and should not be looking at the computer, let me say that it’s great that you read GR 3 times and I recommend the process to everyone, it being so hilarious and all, and let’s just be pals in our love of Pynchon and cease fire.

296

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 3:38 am

Were people proposing to get rid of Faulkner somehow at any stage in this thread? I think someone did, once. That person was a moron, because Faulkner is sublime and one of the best writers our fair nation has ever produced and, hailing as he does from the totally insane lower portion of it is especially dear to my heart, child of Dixie that I am, et cetera. I love Flannery O’Connor also, for the reason that she is a transparent, plain-spoken, total realist about the South because shit is straight-fucked up like that, all the time.

297

rm 09.26.13 at 4:02 am

Only one deluded person chucked Faulkner (and Hemingway) out the window. I think everyone just let it go because where do you even start.

298

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 4:05 am

Tim Chambers: “And were you suggesting we even have sex? That’s for making babies here.”

I had been wondering where you lived, but wherever it is, I must say this does make a good deal of sense.

299

Henry Farrell 09.26.13 at 4:14 am

It’s interesting to see how the Hollywood cultural liberals believe evolution applies to every species but one. At least, when the uncomfortable facts of nature undermine the fashionable feminist talking points.

Ah. The mimic-cry of the common or spotted troll, attempting to lure its prey within range through an ineptly rendered simulation of ordinary human conversation. A common enough sound in the American night. Even so, it’s one that never fails to fill me with awe at Nature and her mysteries.

300

Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 4:52 am

Henry Farell,

Yes, I can see its much easier to dismiss as ‘troll’ whenever anyone happens to point out inconvenient facts. Unfortunately, the facts are the facts.

301

Lee A. Arnold 09.26.13 at 5:20 am

Oh the facts! How are women different from men? Well I would say dsquared as usual for me hits closest to the mark, (though I seem to remember that he once wrote that Morton Feldman was not a great composer, a serious error in judgment IMHO…). But surely, there is not much real difference between the sexes but that history, biochemistry, cultural norms (or perhaps abnorms), and thinking makes it so, and there are just as many boring females as there are males, and the best place for a male author to start is surely to put himself in a frock.

302

Pete Mack 09.26.13 at 5:26 am

Can I jump in from the other side here? Let me say that I don’t think much of female “canonical” writers of the mid-20th century either, given the only one I remember from HS is Margaret Mitchell and GWTW. >>Shudder<< It's enough to put you off Romance Writing for the rest of your life! Can there be any more stereotypical women (No!) Men (No!) Sympathetic Black Slaves (No!!) Gawd what a nightmare: 1500 pages of complete unutterable trash! It's the one assigned fiction book I didn't finish in 4 years of HS.

303

David (Kid Geezer). 09.26.13 at 5:33 am

Fire ceased. Get over that migraine.

304

David (Kid Geezer). 09.26.13 at 5:38 am

Well, let me put in a word for Light in August as a worthy Faulkner read. Among the handful of novels I’ve read more than twice.

305

js. 09.26.13 at 5:39 am

It’s interesting to see how the Hollywood cultural liberals believe evolution applies to every species but one. At least, when the uncomfortable facts of nature undermine the fashionable feminist talking points.

I kind of love you for thinking that the people disagreeing with you here are ‘Hollywood cultural liberals’.

306

js. 09.26.13 at 5:56 am

Well, let me put in a word for Light in August as a worthy Faulkner read.

Umm, no. You’ve got to put in a word for Light in August as a novel that will fuck with your brain and make you not sleep that well at night and just be more or less the best and most awful thing that’s happened in your life for some time. Seriously, I don’t even know the South, and that’s how good it was.

307

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 5:57 am

Hector St. Clare is special, you guys. Not ‘special needs’ special…no. No, he is an idiosyncratic troll who, though he sometimes adopts a boring “Hollywood liberals [?! --ed] won’t acknowledge the self-evident truths that paleontology has demonstrated about unreliable narrators in 20thC novels” thing, often goes off on weird post-colonialist tangents where you’re like–’whoa!! Didn’t see that one coming, Mr. St. Clare. Well played; well played.’

308

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 6:09 am

Jerry Vinokurov

I didn’t say it was published, Jerry. It’s been a work in progress since 2009. A single chapter is on my website. Otherwise, I intend to keep working on it until I no longer go back to it when trying to start something new.

309

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 6:18 am

Belle,

I live in Japan, where prostitution is huge, because almost no one marries for love. Romantic love has always been portrayed as hopeless and tragic, so people marry for children and security instead. After having children, couples relate as mama and papa not so much as friends and lovers. I have never seen so many grim faces anywhere else I have been.

If it seems like a good idea to you, well, what can I say, I am sorry for you.

310

john c. halasz 09.26.13 at 6:30 am

Ah, finally! After all this train-wreck, you guys have gotten to Fa(u)lkner. One of the greatest bad writers of all time! I think “Absalom, Absalom” is his greatest work, despite his own estimate,- (no one captures the hopeless folds of time like that maiden aunt),- but my personal favorite is “The Light In August”. (I’m a slow reader, so I haven’t read near as much literary fiction, especially contemporary, as others here,- and tend to read more non-fiction, but it practically read itself).

O.K. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

311

Nine 09.26.13 at 6:45 am

dsquared@264 – “in every single one of these novels, the protagonist is someone that you would desperately be sidling away from at parties. They only seem to write versions of themselves”

Pretty funny, but almost definitely not how things work in this universe. I imagine Updike/Mailer/Roth/whoever else is being indicted here for only being capable of writing themselves very likely had tonnes of people sidling towards them at parties – a property all American celebrities seem to share – so if, for arguments sake, their characters are mere wish-fulfillment doppelgangers then that’s not an unrealistic rendering at all.
Also, the notion of sympathetically rendered realistic characters found all over this thread is very subjective and debatable. Nabakov, somewhere in Lectures on Literature, IIRC, lists a good many plot and character holes in Madam Bovary – Madam Bovary ! the canonical realist novel – and suggests that any lit Prof with access to a dozen graduate students’ time could easily come up with a dozen more offenses against real life not only in Bovary but in any novel with claims to realism.

312

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 6:59 am

RM,

But good god, this “Tim Chambers” character breaks my suspension-of-disbelief antigrav unit. No one could be that abusive, that explicitly, with getting any kind of clue about what a monster he is.

WTF? Am I the monster here?

I said my wife is a harridan because she will scream at me for hours for buying her the bag she wanted for her birthday. And then a few weeks later she’ll scream at me for hours more because she saw a woman with a bag she liked that she knows I won’t buy for her because of the way she screamed at me for buying her the first one. She does have her redeeming features, which are all the old-fashioned housewifely crafts and skills that contribute to the oikonomia. But the change in personality, once our child was born, so wore me down that there is no love lost between us.

313

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 6:59 am

I think Absalom Absalom! is both Faulkner’s best and, pace js, the one most likely to make you not be able to sleep at night and just generally freak your shit out. Well, Light in August, eh? Hmm. God, I haven’t read that book in like 20 years. Probably I should re-read it again. It is so wonderful.

Tim Chambers: I only meant it seemed a good idea not to have sex with you personally. No one who thinks women are screeching harridans interested only in mindgames, money, and meal-tickets can possibly be any fun to fuck. Them’s the breaks. In general people should have sex as often as they like because, done right, and being free, it’s really your best entertainment value, isn’t it? Even books require the possession of books, and adequate lighting. And I generally find that, in the course of day-to-day life in a relationship, even if I think for a moment, ‘mmm, do I really feel like having sex right now?’ the answer is always yes! because if you’re on the fence it’s inertia and then once you are having sex you’ll think, ‘what, was I tripping or something? Obviously it was a better idea to have sex. Having sex is wicked fun. Duh, jeez.’ So, I’m not suggesting a life of celibacy–rather I’m suggesting a long, fulfilling life of having sex as often as you please with partners capable of giving consent, who freely consent to do so, be they many different people or just one person, except only that they probably should not be Tim Chambers because he thinks of women as something less than human, and so he gives terrible head. In any case he’s married, and it’s not super-cool to have sex with people married to someone else, although that’s really all on the married person when you get down to it.

314

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 7:23 am

Nine: these strike me as a series of very disjoint objections. The authors described here had people gathered round them at parties IRL because of the cult around the macho male author, which was unique to its time and place, and formed a big rock under which much of this writing bloomed, white and fungus-like, and writhing with worms. It is precisely in retrospect, and as a female reader, that I find the protagonists so unappealing; that the authors had avid fans in the past is true but is neither here nor there wrt dsquared’s observation that we would all be sidling away from them [the protagonists, were they real--I think we would all actually be rather curious to meet a 50-year-old Updike, were such a thing possible] at a cocktail party now in which they describe trying to get their wife to give up anal when she didn’t want to have sex soon after childbirth. Secondly, that Nabokov could think of a number of flaws in Madame Bovary, or would imagine that he needed the assistance of graduate students to find more, or to find an equal number in another novel offered up as realist…I really am at a loss for words, here. Firstly, I think Nabokov could have thought up an infinite amount of objections to any aesthetic claim without breaking a sweat. Secondly, I think if we were all to go back and re-read Madame Bovary this evening we could think up 100 problems (a bitch would be one). Is it true than anyone thinks Madame Bovary is the most realistic novel of all time?

Look, I think you have gotten this wrong way around. Re-read the part about 8-bit Mario and think about it. The problem is not that I say, “book X lacks realistic female characters” and then you swoop in and save the day for The Canon by saying “but Belle, hahaha! Book X lacks realism in a dozen other areas as well. Where’s your precious sexism now?” It’s rather than I say, “in book X the male characters, even the minor ones, have plausible interior lives and are acting in a way that is comprehensible to the reader who might wish to think himself into the shoes of character z for whatever reason. But none of the female characters have anything even like plausible EXterior lives. Their behavior can be predicated entirely on the actions of the male characters; there is, in some sense, no need for them to have motivation. They are something more like tokens, or trophies, or symbols.” The objection in the latter case is that there is a lack of uniformity, and that it clanks painfully and woodenly each time a female character enters the page. There is no one mandated amount of realistic or empathetic female characters needed for a novel to get a passing grade in Feminism 101. One wishes only that the subsidiary female characters behave as plausibly like autonomous beings as the subsidiary male characters do. That’s it. I’m saying that when that doesn’t happen, the novel tends not to be a good novel. Again, that’s it. Not, “kill it! Kill it with fire!” Just, that defect usually makes the novel unsuccessful. THIS IS A VERY MODEST MOTHERFUCKING THESIS.

315

bad Jim 09.26.13 at 7:35 am

In “Waiting for the Barbarians”, the male protagonist is forcibly dressed in a smock and subjected to the strappado. Coetzee’s characters generally have to deal with unpleasant situations, so I’d imagine that I’m not alone in the dread I experience when I learn he’s published another novel. I have to confess that I haven’t kept up (with much of anyone, to be honest), and my impression is that his output has been uneven, but generally more challenging than mere narcissistic self-imagining.

Garcia Marquez probably has no more insight into women than the average man, but the point is that he doesn’t produce one book after another about more-or-less average men.

We ought to rate authors by their best work, which more often than not will be early work. The later stuff may not be as good, but they had to earn a living. It’s a tough job.

316

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 7:36 am

Plume,

The Gold Bug Variations was my introduction to Powers and still one of my favorites, next to The Time of Our Singing, in which the mother and sister, though not central, come off very strongly as real women. I’ve read everything of his but his latest novella (published online for some reason,) and wonder what has become of his more than prodigious talent. Generosity was easily his weakest book.

317

john c. halasz 09.26.13 at 7:48 am

Not to go on too much, since I disagree with much that has been said about characters, identifications and psychology in literary works here,- (since I would emphasize the creation of and access to counter-factual worlds, which break identifications, themselves highly ambivalent, so as to produce estrangement and “contain” otherness, as the “function” of such works)-, but when I first “met” Joe Christmas, I knew instantly what he was about. (Aside from the fact that the work was “about” the Reconstruction and fascism and contains the most oblique, violent “sex scenes” imaginable. Even though I’m the Rev. Hightower, who’s the maiden aunt in drag.) But what I think is crucial is the compulsive mimetic power of such works, (rather than lining up pretty sentences in a row, without conveying anything but the most conventional “insights”), which is the point of criticizing solipsistic “male” authors, as failing to confront or create any broader world, rather than “good” or “bad” writing. Or any failures to exhibit “correct” attitudes.

318

bad Jim 09.26.13 at 8:04 am

A book critic for the L.A. Times once drew an unfavorable contrast between the New York scene of self-involved writers (Bellows, Updike) and the West Coast detective genre (Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald), arguing that the latter, among other virtues, exhibited more of the social awareness found in the work of earlier authors like Sinclair, Lewis and Steinbeck.

319

john c. halasz 09.26.13 at 8:04 am

It’s not a matter of what keeps you up at night, but rather of what allows you to remain alert in the blinding day.

320

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 8:05 am

Belle,

I only meant it seemed a good idea not to have sex with you personally. No one who thinks women are screeching harridans interested only in mind games, money, and meal-tickets can possibly be any fun to fuck. Them’s the breaks.

That’s what I would call a presumptuous ad hominem attack on someone whose situation you can’t possibly know anything about. I had many wonderful loving relationships with women at a time when I wasn’t gainfully enough employed to even consider marriage. That’s the breaks of being a writer. But none of them were harridans with whom I couldn’t converse on a variety of depths

But what would you call a woman who lights into you for three hours because you pulled the equivalent of a ten dollar bill from your front pocket before pulling out your wallet to pay for groceries, then continues for another half hour at two o’clock in the morning after you’ve been awakened by a phone call informing you that your father has been paralyzed by a stroke?

What do you say about a woman who constantly asks for your preference, then declares she likes the other one better, just because it’s not my taste. Is that a game or something else

Unfortunately, I am in a cross cultural marriage, and was too blind sided by my initial attraction to her to recognize her limitations (from our culture’s POV. )

At the least, she is an extremely insensitive human being. I think you are a little too snappy in your judgements regarding men and have some serious issues that need to be worked out.

321

Phil 09.26.13 at 8:14 am

Any chance of modding my comment #269?

Madam Bovary ! the canonical realist novel

Write me a brief description of Charles Bovary’s hat and say that. ‘Realist’ means quite a few different things – Emile Zola, Mikhail Sholokhov, George Gissing, Raymond Carver – but not one of those models fits Flaubert. Madame Bovary (with an E) is one of the most highly-wrought literary novels of all time. I don’t know what Nabokov was up to, but I think you must be misremembering.

Tangentially, what a critic we lost in David Foster Wallace (I keep reading ‘DFW’ as ‘Dallas Fort Worth’). His summing-up of Updike’s venture into sf is brutal, beautifully-written and hilarious, and incidentally must have involved a fair amount of work:

Total number of pages about the Sino-American war-causes, duration, casualties: 0.75;
Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;
Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull’s home, plus fauna, weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;
Total number of pages about Mexico’s repossession of the U.S. Southwest: 0.1;
Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various feelings about it: 7.5;
Total number of pages about the prostitute’s body, with particular attention to sexual loci: 8.75;

Sexual loci. Ow.

322

bill benzon 09.26.13 at 8:18 am

Yes, Faulkner & yes A Light in August.

And for all you Pynchon fans (I’m one), there’s Zak Smith’s illustrations for GR:

http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/zak_smith/title.htm

323

rm 09.26.13 at 9:28 am

Tim,

What do you call a man who addresses a random group of strangers on the World Wide Web using his real name, interrupts their conversation to post long extremely personal and vicious attacks on his wife (who is presumably a real person in the world (as in World Wide Web)) using charged misogynist language, and then accuses others of having mental health issues for thinking his behavior is outstandangly creepy and abusive?

Blog commenters are not your therapists. I am not qualified to speculate on whether your aggrieved discovery that your wife has human emotions, including some from the less cuddly side of the human emotional spectrum, is an ignorant unempathetic hateful reaction to a real issue like anxiety or postpartum stuff, or is simply a supremely uncharitable description of normal behavior. I guessed the latter and called you a monster, because that’s monstrous and I am not your therapist.

324

Niall McAuley 09.26.13 at 9:35 am

On the character Tim Powers, the Marvel wiki page at http://marvel.wikia.com/Timothy_Chambers_%28Earth-616%29 says:

Nothing is known about Timothy, save that he had a son named Johnathan, who would one day become the mutant villain Empyrean, and that he himself was a mutant whose mutation rapidly aged him; by early middle age, he resembled a frail old man in need of a walker.

…which would explain a lot.

325

Niall McAuley 09.26.13 at 9:36 am

Powers? Chambers! Stupid brain!

326

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 10:12 am

rm

The truth is there are as many abusive women out there as there are abusive men and you and Belle Waring are exhibits One And Two. I am not afraid to say that my wife is Exhibit Three because I have been so disaffected by the abuse I receive at home.

I implied that having experienced marriage to a very angry and abusive woman I understood Bellow somewhat better in that one novel of his that I had read at that time. But after reading all his work and discovering what he thought of all his wives, I figured it must be his problem. That doesn’t make me a misogynist. Or a monster. Or anything else.

I wasn’t looking for therapy. But after the two of you launched your sexist and misandrist attacks on me for simply making clear how a woman can sometimes be in the wrong, well, enough said. It’s like arguing with my wife. She always right and I am always wrong, because a man can’t possibly be right about anything. Can he?

Perhaps I am in the wrong to say such things about my wife but they were definitely benign compared to what was assumed and said about me.

327

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 11:12 am

Fun! Since geo and anon have slapped the mat thrice each, Chambers enters the ring.

“The society of control might thus be characterized by an intensification and generalization of the normalizing apparatuses of disciplinarity that internally
animate our common and daily practices, but in contrast to discipline, this control
extends well outside the structured sites of social institutions through flexible and fluctuating networks” …Hardt & Negri

Power is local. Doesn’t make much sense that I am being controlled here by zombie Updike.

To the extent that we thought smashing the part of the patriarchy that had oppressed us meant replacing it, and inheriting its privileges, we’re guilty as charged …Timberman

Patriarchy, like Capitalism, never goes away. There is no outside. Are the “powerful” performances round here simply amusing a variant male hegemony? Remember, the masochist is in charge. What’s my safe word?

Mark D West has written three books in the last decade on Sex in Japan (and its intersection with law.) Lovesick Japan is on point.

328

Walt 09.26.13 at 11:30 am

I found Absalom! Absalom! tough-going, though a great book. If I were trying to convince someone to give Faulkner a chance, I’d probably recommend something with a more accessible prose style, like “The Bear”.

329

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 11:48 am

More striking differences emerge regarding particular characteristics
of marriage. The condition of “being in love” was rated very important
by 87 percent of U.S. women and 84 percent of U.S. men but only 68 and
67 percent of Japanese women and men, respectively. If those percentages
for Japan still sound high given the court cases, consider that “keeping
romance alive” was rated very important by 78 percent of U.S. women
and 76 percent of U.S. men, but only 29 and 30 percent of Japanese. And
“having a good sexual relationship” was rated very important by 72 and
74 percent of U.S. women and men, respectively, but only 38 percent of
Japanese women and men.

…West, Lovesick, Survey 1990

People Cultures Histories and Contingencies Things are different in different places.

330

rm 09.26.13 at 11:53 am

like The Bear

LOL Walt

331

rm 09.26.13 at 12:00 pm

Dude, it happens I am not a woman. Interesting that that seems relevant to you.

I do not know you; I am responding to your language and your speech acts. I certainly hope that you are not what your blog comments make you seem to be.

332

The Modesto Kid 09.26.13 at 12:41 pm

As long as favorite works of Faulkner are under discussion, I’ll pipe up and put in a word for The Hamlet. It is beautiful, beautiful, and somewhat easier going than any of his other books (of the subset that I’ve read and found worthwhile).

333

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 2:58 pm

No love for As I lay Dying? I think that’s the only Faulkner I’ve ever read, and remember liking it (though I’m not a deep reader so probably was drawn to it stylistically etc) Any recommendations on other Southern writers (except Flannery O Connor, Mark Twain..) Short stories all the better, but short novels are good

334

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 2:59 pm

333: Eudora Welty?

335

Anderson 09.26.13 at 3:10 pm

One of the greatest bad writers of all time!

Faulkner a “bad writer”? Defining who as a good writer? Hemingway? Dr. Seuss?

Absalom, Absalom! reads beautifully aloud. Preferably affecting a Southern accent, if you are not naturally endowed with one.

Great bad writers might include Lovecraft or Pound. Not Faulkner.

336

Anderson 09.26.13 at 3:12 pm

Ronan: Capote’s (fairly) short novel: Other Voices, Other Rooms.

337

Trader Joe 09.26.13 at 3:14 pm

@333
It depends what you’re interested in – culture, attitudes, race, traditions. These four will get you pretty far on all of those:

Eudora Welty
Flannery O’Connor
Alice Walker
Walker Percy

338

js. 09.26.13 at 3:14 pm

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Absalom, Absalom! Getting it out of library today.

339

Anderson 09.26.13 at 3:19 pm

338: a word of warning. There is a list of characters in the back of AA. It contains spoilers. Really big spoilers. Likewise the chronology.

340

js. 09.26.13 at 3:26 pm

Cheers. Will watch out.

341

JW Mason 09.26.13 at 3:49 pm

Any recommendations on other Southern writers (except Flannery O Connor, Mark Twain..) Short stories all the better, but short novels are good

Carson McCullers. Start with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

342

Walt 09.26.13 at 4:01 pm

Bastard Out of Carolina is great, and new-ish.

343

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 4:01 pm

Thanks Bob, Trader and Anderson & JW

344

rm 09.26.13 at 4:12 pm

Charles Chessnut, for a circa-1900 middle class black perspective, and a great writer.

345

FredR 09.26.13 at 5:00 pm

‘Tangentially, what a critic we lost in David Foster Wallace (I keep reading ‘DFW’ as ‘Dallas Fort Worth’). His summing-up of Updike’s venture into sf is brutal, beautifully-written and hilarious, and incidentally must have involved a fair amount of work:

Total number of pages about the Sino-American war-causes, duration, casualties: 0.75;
Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;
Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull’s home, plus fauna, weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;
Total number of pages about Mexico’s repossession of the U.S. Southwest: 0.1;
Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various feelings about it: 7.5;
Total number of pages about the prostitute’s body, with particular attention to sexual loci: 8.75;’

I haven’t read Updike’s book, but this seems pretty silly to me. For instance, you could have done a similar thing with Nabokov’s Ada, but that would be retarded, because Ada is incredible even though Nabokov doesn’t elaborate much on, for instance, the catastrophe in his Anti-Terra that led to the banning of electricity.

346

MG 09.26.13 at 5:11 pm

I love DFW as an author. His prose is sparkling and reading him is like dipping into the mind of the smartest, warmest person you know who is telling you something really interesting. His suicide was a great loss.

347

The Modesto Kid 09.26.13 at 5:42 pm

Second the recommendation for “Bastard out of Carolina” — lovely book.

348

john c. halasz 09.26.13 at 6:31 pm

@335:

Great bad writers: Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Melville. As opposed to the tradition of more formalistic control and “fine” writing style, along the lines of Flaubert, James, Proust.

349

dsquared 09.26.13 at 7:31 pm

though I seem to remember that he once wrote that Morton Feldman was not a great composer

I might have wrote it (I often write the most astonishing crap on the internet) but I certainly don’t think it.

350

Lewis Kirvan 09.26.13 at 9:02 pm

The blogger’s argument, to the extent that it reaches the level of argument and not just complaint, seems to be that self centered male authors are bad because they are male. You might plausibly argue that being self centered makes you a bad author (you might, but plenty of counter examples abound and writing is probably at least a little bit inherently narcissistic). In truth very few authors create “plausible interior lives” of any sort at all, let alone for the majority of characters in a novel. Indeed if you look across the whole of literature you might be tempted to find another rubric for greatness other than “plausible interiority”.

Perhaps it’s the fictional wrapping that makes this post’s Author upset. Because these are stories and not true accounts, the blogger has trouble accepting that the writers don’t want to spend more time with characters who have plausible interiority. I can understand that, I prefer to interact with humans that are not hollow machines as well.

Still the author doesn’t demand like-ability only plausibility. I guess maybe the problem is with the concept “plausible”. Plausible as far as I can tell means something that you can imagine a person doing without laughing or straining too much. However I’m afraid that the plausibility that we are bandying over is actually of a more subjective flavor. With implausibility defined as “something I couldn’t imagine myself doing.” But that seems to be more of a failure of imagination on the part of the blogger. Many people do things that I cannot myself imagine doing. I often read books about those people and frequently I find, given the circumstances of the book that those actions I wouldn’t take are indeed plausible. But of course I’m not a woman in 19xx year or a woman in 2013.

Perhaps the blogger’s argument is not that male self-centeredness is inherently bad, but that only novels with plausible interiority for female characters are good. I think that this is probably a little broad. So before we toss the baby out maybe we should stop to consider why we read; personally I don’t read to experience my own brain. I get plenty enough of that. I read for great writing, for new perspectives and for escape.

Take one example: the male characters in Austen’s novel have no interior life– this doesn’t prevent the novels from having something important to say. In fact, I love them because I get to spend time in the somewhat unfamiliar brains of females who lived long before anyone I know.

Granted it is interesting when an author steps outside a personal perspective and imagines the lives of others, but doing so is not a pre-requisite for good writing. The number of author’s that can plausibly write in a voice other than their own is vanishingly small, which, I think, causes this argument to collapse even further. It’s as if the author believes that any insight from a politically imperfect perspective or a politically imperfect time is fatally flawed. That would disqualify nearly every work. (For my own part I’m tired of reading about rich people, a sin that affects many author’s of both genders. I guess only rich people have the time and energy to sit down and pound out a novel though.)

Mailer is a buffoon though, and Roth is mostly a buffoon too.

351

jflan 09.26.13 at 9:24 pm

ronan(rf) @ 333: Frank Stanford

352

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 10:55 pm

@Bob McManus

Thank you. I find those statistics very supportive. Most of the expat men I know here would agree with them implicitly.

353

Tim Chambers 09.26.13 at 11:01 pm

@ rm,

Somehow your knee jerk reaction made me think you were a woman. I know it’s bad form for a gentleman to say such things about his wife, but would my comment have made any sense if I described her as sweet and loving?

354

Nine 09.27.13 at 12:25 am

Belle Waring@314 – “The problem is not that I say, “book X lacks realistic female characters” and then you swoop in and save the day for The Canon by saying “but Belle, hahaha! Book X lacks realism in a dozen other areas as well. “

That’s hardly Nabokov’s argument, it’s certainly not mine. He’s arguing that it’s always possible to set up an arbitrary test – realism in his example, feminism for some in this thread, dsquared’s facetious cocktail party test, etc – which the novel can then be made to fail & so what ? For Nabokov the Realism test doesn’t reduce Bovary at all. Since in his estimation Bovary is a great novel it’s just yet more evidence that criticism by realism is flawed, not the other way around. Although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of a corpus of neuroscience study which purports exactly that with respect to how it is readers form judgements when reading fiction ie if the characters’ behaviour does not match the reader’s expectations, the she (the character) is not plausible, she is poorly drawn and so on.
Anyhoo, I better bow out now.

“I really am at a loss for words, here.”

If true then that was an excellent recovery.

355

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:57 am

SICKBURN! HA! OK, you really got me there Nine, niice. For real. I misunderstood Nabokov’s argument, and so was arguing against him on behalf of his own thesis. I was saying that a) Nabokov was a genius who could have thought up a billion objections to any literary concept b) even if he succeeded in the case of Madame Bovary it would still be a great work of art so…where are we going with this? Now, obviously “are some of the characters complete and total representational failures while others are insightful, keenly-observed, and memorable” is an arbitrary test just as realism is. That’s why I said great authors could leap over this barriers with a spring in their step. “Wow, Pynchon can’t write a female character for shit.” 10 minutes later. “I don’t fucking care, this is amazing.”

356

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:59 am

Tim Chambers: “Somehow your knee jerk reaction made me think you were a woman. “

Somehow your knee-jerk reaction in this assumption further entrenched everyone’s iew that you are crazy sexist. “Someone’s being mean to me on the internet! It must be a bitch! Despite the fact that the readership for political blogs, broadly conceived, is an 80/20 male/female split!”

357

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 10:22 am

“Wow, Pynchon can’t write a female character for shit.”

You really oughta read Bleeding Edge, it will make you reconsider this. (I think.)

358

Phil Mack 09.27.13 at 1:33 pm

I haven’t read the whole thread, so forgive me if this point has been made, but this argument seems a little circular?

Your Updikes and Roths and suchlike are all a specific type of book from a specific type of author about a self-obsessed litrary dude. Everything in those books is objectified from the perspective of the author, with women probably getting the short shrift most of all because they represent such a source of insecurity for the writer.

If those books had more three-dimensional supporting characters, and less of a pretentious shoe-gazer perspective (altho those guys are probably generally looking down at a part of their body which is a bit higher up than that)… they’d no longer be in that canon. I’d contest that you can’t elevate that genre, just escape it.

I don’t think it’s really a particularly big deal either. This type of author is fading drastically from popularity. Most literary prizes (to my limited knowledge) in both short stories and novels seem to be going to ladies, who are (in my limited experience) often much more interesting writers than the aforementioned shoe-gazers. it’s like getting mad at nu-metal circa 2006. it’s a genre which is clearly on the way out.

359

eddie 09.27.13 at 5:59 pm

Thanks, Belle. My gripe was not about whether or not you’d read Pratchett. It was about why, if you had, you’d still consider Pynchon and such to be “Important”.

360

eddie 09.27.13 at 6:00 pm

This ‘you gotta read the “impotrant” stuff’ is and has only ever been a poly to get shit authors read. But YMMV.

361

eddie 09.27.13 at 6:01 pm

ploy – sorry.

362

Theophylact 09.28.13 at 12:33 am

(You really should get a service that would allow commenters to use preview.)

363

rm 09.28.13 at 1:19 am

Phil Mack, the original occasion for this whole kerfluffle was an essay by Franzen that brought all those old dudes back to mind.

364

Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 3:39 am

@356

People are different in different parts of the world. In Japan, where everyone is raised as homo economicus bringing up the meaning of life with one’s wife will most likely be silenced with this rejoinder: what does it add to my household budget?

To say so is not being sexist.

And if your job does not require 6 to 8 hours of nightly overtime, so you’re likely to be around the house more that she would like; you will be hounded, harassed, and bullied to get out there and make more money somehow, even if it means flipping burgers.

And you won’t get any thanks for any of it, or sex, or even affection. Anything thing a man does here is just a matter of course. But should you fail to express your appreciation for every little thing she does for you, she becomes a hound in hell.

To say that such a creature is a harridan is an accurate description. Not sexist.

365

Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 5:48 am

@359, 360

What separates important from unimportant authors is their contribution to intellectual history. From a canonical perspective, most of the authors Belle castigates probably won’t make it either.

Pratchett is important as an industry, turning out bestsellers year after year, but he writes children’s fantasy stories, as do hundreds of others, none of whom are any more or less important, beyond their loyal fandom, except to their publishers, for whom they make a lot of money.

But the onus falls on you to tell us what is so “important” about Pratchett.

366

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 5:58 am

dsquared #349 –My admiration for you reascends to the boundless.

367

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 6:37 am

What is Pynchon’s contribution to intellectual history? Hipping you to entropy? James Joyce was a serious thinker. Joyce synthesized the linguistic/psychoanalytic turn of modernism, made the subconscious generation of language into the literary conceit of Finnegans Wake, reminded us that the true origin of this modern turn is Vico, and anticipated concerns coming from many people throughout the remainder of the 2oth century, from Levi Strauss and the structuralists to the deconstructionists. The last time anyone pulled off a trick that profound was when Milton rather successfully recast popular Christian theology to include Satan’s story.

368

Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 7:16 am

@367

I never said Pyncheon was important. Or contributed a great idea. Every book of his I tried to read I threw against the wall. But what makes Pratchett any more important?

369

js. 09.28.13 at 7:19 am

Hey, Tim Chambers dude,

Can you please stop talking about your wife in these horrible terms in this extremely public forum? You’re coming off as a horrible human being.

370

Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 8:16 am

@369

After hearing so much from women about what beasts men are for the past thirty years, I don’t see what is wrong with saying that women can be beastly too. The only experience I can offer is my own. But I’ve heard plenty of horror stories. And I did call out the beast in Belle Waring, which was largely my intent.

Frankly, I think it is something that ought to be aired, because there are millions of men in this world with viciously domineering wives. And may there would be less domestic violence if women would keep their traps under control.

371

godoggo 09.28.13 at 8:21 am

Dude, I don’t care what anybody says on the internet, as long as it’s not about me… but, you need to get a divorce. Period.

372

godoggo 09.28.13 at 9:27 am

nighty night, sleep tight

373

Lynne 09.28.13 at 12:42 pm

” there are millions of men in this world with viciously domineering wives. And may there would be less domestic violence if women would keep their traps under control.”

Whoa. Just …whoa.

374

The Modesto Kid 09.28.13 at 1:12 pm

This thread increasingly has the feel of evidence to be one day introduced by the prosecution.

375

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 3:12 pm

@ #370 — We pretty much all already knew that women can be beasts too. But you wrote, “What separates important from unimportant authors is their contribution to intellectual history.” So Dickens, Austen, James, Faulkner, Hemingway, are not important? Or rather: what are their contributions to intellectual history?

376

Tom Slee 09.28.13 at 3:53 pm

Tim Chambers: forget the sexist books and the internet debates. Given everything you’ve said about your wife in this thread, your statement “there would be less domestic violence if women would keep their traps under control” makes me worry for her physical safety. If I knew where you lived I’d be asking myself seriously if I have a responsibility to phone the police because that sounds like a precursor to a crime.

377

Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 11:19 pm

@ 376

I’m well aware of that risk, Tom. But flight, to me, is far better than fight. My normal reaction when her cup of adrenalin runneth over, and I feel mine rising in reaction to it, is to leave the house as quickly as possible.

But sexual politics can still be an utterly nasty business, and it takes two to tango, as they say. It’s been fifty years (give or take) since Betty Friedan wrote her ground breaking book and still no one but “Girl Writes What?” will address what women contribute to that dance. Curious that a woman is the only one willing to do it. But apparently this line of discussion isn’t welcome in this echo chamber.

I would leave you all with this. As Elizabeth Warren points out, most families have become worse off since women entered the work force. Two income households simply gave the banks an opportunity to raise the amounts they would lend for a house and prices quickly doubled, making it all but impossible for single people to buy a house, unless they are in a high income bracket, which relatively few are in. Now one half of two income couple gets sick or loses a job, the family will likely be out on the street.

Then, there is the matter of two cars, convenience foods and restaurant meals, since no one has time to cook anymore, that have everyone getting obese.

The other effect was that men’s incomes also stagnated or declined.

So how does society as a whole benefit from Feminism?

378

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 11:48 pm

If you read Elizabeth Warren more carefully, you would know that she places the effect of women entering to the workforce to be entirely secondary to the primary effects of debt build-up from financial deregulation, and the increasing inequality in incomes.

But I want to know about the other thing you wrote, “What separates important from unimportant authors is their contribution to intellectual history.” –Does this mean there are no important fiction authors besides Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe and Joyce? Who else would you name, and what, specifically, was the contribution? Because contribution to intellectual history is a pretty rare achievement.

379

rm 09.29.13 at 7:08 pm

Tim Chambers teaches and writes in Nagoya.

Comment #370 is different from anything else Tim has written. I’m with Tom Slee in wondering what we are now obligated to do, whether it’s okay to write off what Tim said as asshole being asshole, or if it’s important to now contact law enforcement or some other agency that can investigate. He said in #377 that he is not violent. I don’t know if that matters after writing out a threat.

Tim, look, the thing is THERE IS NO EXCUSE BECAUSE EVERY TIME ANYONE LOSES CONTROL THEY ARE UNDER THAT STRESS and they are still responsible for their own actions. Of course individual people can act badly and provoke each other. Everyone gets angry; I, like you, have had to walk out of the house to cool off. But. You suggested that a violent response might be the victim’s fault.

With my lack of Japanese, the only resource I can find is this: Nagoya International Center’s domestic violence counseling page. If I knew how to send this directly to Tim’s wife I would. Tim, if you are not in any way a physical abuser, you won’t mind reading that website and perhaps using them to find some counseling.

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