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.