There Are Men Eating Menstrual Pads

by Belle Waring on September 26, 2013

Oh, Belle. Belle, Belle, Belle. First, you told us some authors were such a bunch of sexist dillweeds that you didn’t really like their novels all that much. In a throwaway sentence! A sentence that made it clear that you in fact didn’t read such books at all, but merely checked the covers for sexist content and then threw the books away in the trash. In. The. Trash. And then John said you could read fast. Biased much LOL! Yeah, well, so fast that you stopped reading books completely after you reached a sexist sentence! Because that’s manifestly what ‘reading fast’ means. Yes, and then you had an actual man testify again on your behalf that you finished books even if you didn’t super-love them. Like—probably the only chick in the world, seriously! How was any of us to know that “reads books fast” means “reads books”? What is this, some kind of crazy advanced logic class, or a blog?

So then you explained at length, that you were only talking about this one group of male authors who wrote more or less from the ‘50s on, and that you didn’t like their novels because you thought they weren’t good novels. When since is that a reason not to like a novel, I would like to know, Missy? Any anyway, Belle, your problem is that you’re reading the wrong thing. Nobody cares about these books anymore! Or, as a commenter suggested: “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.” [Here I must note that for whatever odd reason this rubbed me the wrong way. I have already read all of Pratchett and Banks (except maybe one Tiffany Aching one?). The knowledge that there will be no new Iain M. Banks novels dismays me. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers full-stop. WHY AFTER 500 COMMENTS WOULD SOMEONE NOT ASK IF I HAD READ THEM ALL FIRST BECAUSE YOU KNOW, I VERY WELL MIGHT HAVE? Unnamed commenter: I don’t hate on you; it was almost bad luck that you…naw, you still shouldn’t have been so patronizing. But, like, talk to me, dude, what were you thinking?]

Well, dear readers, someone does care about these authors. Someone cares very, very much, and that man is University of Toronto Professor David Gilmour. In a recent interview with Random House Canada’s Emily Keeler, he explained his teaching philosophy:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. 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….

I teach Tropic of Cancer to the first-year class. They’re shocked out of their pants. No one teaches it except for me. Sometimes their parents actually question me about it, they say, Listen, this is really outrageous. I say, well, it’s a piece of literature that’s been around for 60 years. It’s got something going for it.

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. Roth has the best understanding of middle-aged sexuality I’ve ever come across.

You should really read the whole thing. He’s exactly the way you think he is.

AND FOR THE LAST TIME ALLOW ME TO RECAP BRIEFLY (lifted in part from comments):
Re-read the part about 8-bit Mario. The problem is not that I say, “book X lacks realistic female characters” and then you swoop in and save the day for The Macho Male 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 an awful disparity, 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. The novel may be one in which realistic characters are not an important aspect at all—so be it! One merely prefers that such characters as do exist, exist to an equal extent, rather than having the male characters photographed, plainly, while the female ones are merely sketched in chalk. 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: this particular, widespread defect usually makes a novel unsuccessful. However, there are always some artists who are so great that their novels overcome this defect, howsoever pronounced. THIS IS A VERY MODEST MOTHERFUCKING THESIS.

It has an unsurprising corollary, which is that most books written prior to 1930 or so don’t have precisely this problem (though they may have other problems). No one spoke frankly about the sexual motivations of the male main characters in novels, even if they were obvious. And so, when no one speaks about those of the female characters, there is no inconsistency, and in fact we can often imagine motives for them that the author himself would never have thought of—being a skilled writer he simply wrote a character who was plausible to him, and a woman, and from the outside. We, also, can look from the outside. But we can’t look deeply into the hearts of the male characters either, in some important way. Not because everything important in life is about sex! But—partly that! And…much of the trivial daydreaming that passes for waking life wasn’t considered an acceptable topic to write about. James Joyce really was a breaker of the frame in this way. There is too much here to consider. And I do not think that the appropriate mode of literary criticism is always to imagine that everything in the novel is real and then figure out which of the characters I would friend on Facebook, because I am not a moron and if you all would keep that in mind that would be lovely of you. I have a high opinion of our commenters generally, and particularly as smarts go.

But, because feminists are evil and all-powerful and can force everyone to follow their PC rules gone mad, none of you may disagree with straw-Belle Waring ever again. She is made of straw. You must disagree with actually-existing Belle Waring. If you trifle with straw-Belle Waring, your children will turn out to have been fathered by another man, and will be taken away from you despite the fact that you still love them, and you will be denied visitation rights forever, and you will be forced to pay your wife and her lover and their biological children $25,000 in child support every month and they will live in a Neutra house in the Hollywood Hills and you will live in a wino encampment under a highway overpass outside of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Don’t think I can’t make this happen, people. I’m not fucking playing anymore.
H/T to commenter GiT (and Henry who emailed me this link)

{ 628 comments }

1

Phil 09.26.13 at 10:50 am

It has an unsurprising corollary, which is that most books written prior to 1930 or so don’t have precisely this problem (though they may have other problems).

Tiny nitpick on dates – The Rainbow was 1915, and the chapter where the two characters get married and basically spend the next week in bed is one of my favourites. Not that he describes what goes where, but why should he?

Mind you, The Rainbow was promptly banned, so there’s that.

A blogging friend once maintained to me at some length that the whole of Western literature before Joyce was useless, worthless, said nothing to me about my life, etc, for precisely this reason. Pip must at some point have fantasised about what position he’d like to have Estella in; the fact that Dickens didn’t – or couldn’t – write about that, perhaps didn’t – or couldn’t – even think about it, just makes Pip a cardboard cutout instead of a human being. My counter-argument didn’t get much beyond “Are you actually on crack or what?”, so I guess he won on points.

2

Chris Bertram 09.26.13 at 11:04 am

For those who haven’t read it, The Dying Animal is the one where Roth has the aging professor detail his m.o. for seducing and fucking his students.

3

Walt 09.26.13 at 11:10 am

David Gilmour can’t be real, right? We’re all imaginary people living in Belle’s dream world, and she made him up to decisively win the argument in the thread. Plus she has some sort of unprocessed anger towards Pink Floyd’s guitarist and was too lazy to think up a new name. I mean, I feel real to myself, but there’s no other possible explanation.

I feel confident in asserting no young person today is shocked by Tropic of Cancer.

4

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 11:18 am

OK date change, sure, I’ll go for that. I’ve read The Rainbow but honestly like more than 20 years ago and I don’t remember it all that well. I have a kind of funny relationship to D.H. Lawrence. Well, I mentioned it in my first post I guess. He isn’t a misogynist at all, I don’t feel. He feels that women are a massive force, like nature, awesome and terrifying and beautiful… Now this isn’t really what/whom we think of when we think, “I don’t understand this part of Hegel at all. I need to talk it over with someone.” So, not intellectual equals necessarily but…equal in power? Or even, obviously unequal in power in society, but just as obviously more powerful in human relationships? I neither love nor hate him, which I think is unusual. He writes beautifully when he’s not being overwrought. I’m not inclined to re-read his books, though. If a related urge came up I would read Somerset Maugham. Does that make sense to you? This is in part another area where I thought, ‘oh well, educated people read D.H. Lawrence, can’t slack off here, I guess I have to read at least five novels.’ Does no one else do this? I don’t understand why everyone seemed so resistant to the idea when I said I read certain things without enjoyment (not that this is true for Lawrence) but don’t other people read things just because they think they should, in an eat-your-vegetables way but also, maybe it’ll turn out this author is the new best thing that ever happened. But this is why it’s relevant that I read so fast; if it’s only going to take two days you can read anything.

5

Walt 09.26.13 at 11:19 am

19th century French novels have sex in them. It’s not totally explicit, but it is totally unambiguous. The main (but not title) character in Pere Goriot gets ahead in French society by his ability to please married French women. One of the married women in Count of Monte Cristo is in an open relationship — one of the characters keeps being surprised to find a certain man in her room at all times before the open relationship is explained. Another one of the characters is a lesbian who gets caught in bed in a hotel with her lover.

Also, Satyricon clearly counts as Western literature.

6

Aulus Gellius 09.26.13 at 11:41 am

@5: you mention the Satyricon, but more generally, of course, if you go back before the nineteenth century a bit, you find tons of explicit descriptions of sex, though not, I think Belle is right to say, descriptions of “much of the trivial daydreaming that passes for waking life.” This is more the point, I think: even in nineteenth-century English novels you can find people who are very clearly having sex, but not the kind of detailed descriptions of lust and sexual obsession that you get (one side of) in Roth, etc.

As for being shocked by Tropic of Cancer, you might be surprised, though I suspect they’re not shocked in the way Gilmour thinks they are. I mean, I haven’t read ToC, but my experience is that, while students are of course generally aware of how sex works, and capable of talking about it without fainting, they start with a very strong sense that (a) that kind of stuff doesn’t go in the literature you read in school, and (b) no author who wrote a long time ago (variously defined) ever had the idea of mentioning sex at all.

7

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 11:44 am

but don’t other people read things just because they think they should, in an eat-your-vegetables way

Of course I do. Little else, but…”duty became joy” somehow. How does that work, anyway? Maybe Levinas could tell me.

8

Walt 09.26.13 at 11:48 am

I should clarify that I’m trying to help Phil with his argument, not argue with Belle.

9

Frank Ashe 09.26.13 at 11:56 am

but don’t other people read things just because they think they should, in an eat-your-vegetables way

This is the best way to find unexpected joy, as you say maybe it’ll turn out this author is the new best thing that ever happened.

And if you don’t like what you’re reading you can usually have a good mental argument with the author and with those who thought they were good. In my head I tend to win the argument.

10

Trader Joe 09.26.13 at 11:59 am

“Does no one else do this? I don’t understand why everyone seemed so resistant to the idea when I said I read certain things without enjoyment (not that this is true for Lawrence) but don’t other people read things just because they think they should, in an eat-your-vegetables way but also, maybe it’ll turn out this author is the new best thing that ever happened.”

I used to do that, but not anymore. There are too many good things to read to spend overmuch time on stuff thats not enjoyable (and there’s no way I’ll ever read all the good stuff – I’ve added half a dozen to my list just following the last 500 comments).

Sure, my judgement might be dead wrong on some books I quit or never take-up – but I’d rather accept missing a good one occassionally vs. suffering through lots of bad lit on the off chance it will prove rewarding. Besides, if enough people tell me I’ve missed a good one I can always give it a second chance.

Its a little like drinking bad wine. Bad wine if fine for getting drunk. Bad literature is fine for getting stupid. I occassionaly indulge in both with that in mind.

P.S. completely with the strand on Faulkner. I favor Light in August to Absalom, but love them both.

11

The Modesto Kid 09.26.13 at 12:00 pm

Fantastic response to Gilmore from Anne Thériault (whose blog shares a name with you, Ms. Waring.)

12

Glen Tomkins 09.26.13 at 12:02 pm

Got sidetracked

Over the phrase “Serious heterosexual guys…” in the David Gilmour quote.

It’s been my experience that it’s precisely the guys who claim to also be heterosexual who just aren’t serious about me, so that phrase seems kind of an oxymoron. I hope the readership here is sophisticated enough this late in the term to appreciate my point of view, even if I don’t make it in the approved heterosexual serious guy way by referencing the ingestion of menstrual impedimenta. I try not to be judgmental, but if that’s how serious heterosexual guys get their rocks off, that sure explains a lot about the world that I have found mysterious.

13

harry b 09.26.13 at 12:08 pm

Colin McGinn would approve, at least.

14

The Modesto Kid 09.26.13 at 12:08 pm

(That is to say “Gilmour”. Also I read a second interview with him which I cannot be bothered to look up again wherein he points out that all of his students are girls, apropos I’m not quite sure of what.)

15

Ginger Yellow 09.26.13 at 12:15 pm

if you go back before the nineteenth century a bit, you find tons of explicit descriptions of sex, though not, I think Belle is right to say, descriptions of “much of the trivial daydreaming that passes for waking life.”

Tristram Shandy!

16

Walt 09.26.13 at 12:23 pm

If David Gilmour were a character in a comic novel, where he taught Literature for Men at a women’s college and was pissed off whenever anyone brought up Pink Floyd, I would read the shit out of it. Give him hemorrhoids, and a limp from gout, and make him too shy to actually hit on any of his students, even when they give him obvious openings. It should end with him marrying the volleyball coach, who everyone had assumed was a lesbian all these years.

17

harry b 09.26.13 at 12:25 pm

From his comment “I’m a natural teacher…” I deduce that he is shy, Walt, but I take your point.

18

Lynne 09.26.13 at 12:27 pm

Belle, I’ve been following the comments in the other threads with some bemusement. Your points were clear from the beginning but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate, apparently! I don’t know that I have much to contribute (which is why I lurked in the other thread) but I felt I had to raise my hand to be counted, at least.

Your thread title did make me hesitate to read because my gag reflex has never been the same since I was pregnant more than twenty years ago. :( But I did read, and ugh, David Gilmour is a compatriot of mine. But he’s not my fault! And Philip Roth…I read one book of his decades ago and that was more than enough.

You know, sometimes you see sexism and it’s hard to point out to other people. It can be subtle, or complicated. But sometimes it’s as easy to see as reversing the “he” and “she” in a situation. So with David Gilmour: if a female prof didn’t love any male writers enough to teach them so she only taught “real heterosexual gals”….is this even imaginable? Could such a prof keep her job?

Sexism lives, yes it does, but just point it out in one hallowed place and watch the multitudes contort themselves.

Well, you just did.

19

phosphorious 09.26.13 at 12:29 pm

Um. . . er. . . Virginia Woolf is Chinese?

20

Phil 09.26.13 at 12:35 pm

GY – exception that proves the rule (in the strict sense of the phrase, i.e. tests the rule & leaves it intact). The clock-winding joke (and the sash-window joke, and probably others) wouldn’t be nearly so good if Sterne wasn’t dancing round saying things you can’t possibly say.

But (also to Walt) there’s a broader point, on which I completely agree with you, which is that not being able to write about sex in no way prevents a writer from writing about people who are sexual beings. Pip may not be the best example – in fact Dickens may not be the best example, ten children and a long-term extra-marital affair or no – but it’s pretty much always there. What possible sense could you make of Pride and Prejudice without sex? (Never mind Mr Darcy – think of Lydia. Conversely, think of Mr Collins – the horror & the comedy of his character is largely supplied by the absence of sex.)

21

parse 09.26.13 at 12:41 pm

I think it’s great that Gilmour explained it’s not the books but only the peoplehe “truly, truly loves” who turn up in his curriculum. And it’s not books by women writers he doesn’t love, but women writers themselves he doesn’t love enough to feature in his classes. You get the impression it’s a gay man who loves Virginia Wolfe and doesn’t sleep with Chinese men who’s teaching female students about the serious heterosexual men he loves and will probably never have the chance to fuck.

22

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 12:58 pm

Ginger Yellow: Goddamnit! Tristram Shandy is my…um…(reckons again, re-reckons) single favorite novel of all time. And (Walt) I have actually written quite a long paper about Tristram Shandy and the Satyricon vs. the Greek melodramatic novels. But if I put everything in the post it will never end! Which is to say, you are completely correct. Also, Jarry’s Ubu Roi is from 1896–it’s actually got more literary merit than people are inclined to give it. Burroughs is the same way. It can’t be that they are too taboo-breaking language-wise, or sexual practice-wise…but somehow they are too absurd to get past the gate and into Literature? I don’t know why. As I mentioned, I think Burroughs is a really important writer and undervalued. Jim Thompson is likewise an important author, but I almost feel he’s got more of a seat at the table than Burroughs, as a wholesale re-valuation of genre writing plunks him (Thompson) in with other authors he has nothing in common with. He’s a lot more Raymond Carver than Raymond Chandler. Or Bukowski. Maybe William S. Burroughs can squeeze in next to Phillip K. Dick somewhere?

23

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 1:04 pm

Phil–I only meant authors weren’t really able to describe frankly or in any detail their characters’ sexual motivations/lives. Which was a good thing! Bad sex scenes are the worst thing ever. They are like humiliation comedy—I feel bad for the author, and bad for the characters, and just unable to show my own face anywhere because it was so embarrassing in a particular way that I can’t tolerate. I know we’ve discussed it here and it’s actually quite common–I would a thousand times rather watch someone get killed than watch a certain sort of comedy.

24

Jerry Vinokurov 09.26.13 at 1:06 pm

The main (but not title) character in Pere Goriot gets ahead in French society by his ability to please married French women.

As I recall this is also a major plot point in Bel-Ami.

25

christian_h 09.26.13 at 1:07 pm

I haven’t commented on this… kerfuffle… so far b/c Belle’s original point seems so obviously true to me I don’t know why there is a kerfuffle at all. Now I do to say this post is brilliant, even by Belle’s usual high standards. Thanks.

26

Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 1:07 pm

Lynne,

No, sometimes you think you see ‘sexism’ and you have to be corrected by those of us who are wise enough, virtuous enough or just lucky enough not to have drunk the feminist Kool Aid. Personally, I am more interested in whether a writer illustrates the good, the true and the beautiful than whether he matches up to the political fashions of the present day, whether it be feminism or any other fashion.

27

Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 1:10 pm

To my mind, a writer is at his best when he evokes the basic and eternal truths of human nature. since one of those truths is that the sexes are essentially different, with different talents, interests and roles, the best writers will probably be considered politically incorrect among the Hollywood crowd.

28

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 1:12 pm

“if a female prof didn’t love any male writers enough to teach them so she only taught “real heterosexual gals”….is this even imaginable? Could such a prof keep her job?”

Exactly! This guy is so ridiculous that I thought at first it had to be a parody or Onion thing.

29

Henry 09.26.13 at 1:13 pm

No, sometimes you think you see ‘sexism’ and you have to be corrected by those of us who are wise enough, virtuous enough or just lucky enough not to have drunk the feminist Kool Aid. Personally, I am more interested in whether a writer illustrates the good, the true and the beautiful than whether he matches up to the political fashions of the present day, whether it be feminism or any other fashion.

The mimic-call of the troll becomes increasingly plaintive …

30

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 1:15 pm

Also, Walt, the reason you feel real to yourself is just that I’m really an amazing author and I have drafted you so convincingly that you have, in a sort of Literary-Computational way achieved sentience. You are a background character AI.

31

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 1:18 pm

“No, sometimes you think you see ‘sexism’ and you have to be corrected by those of us who are wise enough, virtuous enough or just lucky enough not to have drunk the feminist Kool Aid.”

And don’t forget modest Hector!

Truly I appreciate your ability to explain to us when something is actually actually sexist. In fact, since we have you here, I have a few questions I would love for you to clear up for me:
1. The fact that women are paid less for doing the same jobs. Sexist or not sexist?
2. The constant attacks on women’s reprouctive freedom. Sexist or not sextist?
3. Women who enjoy sex being labeled “sluts” while men who enjoy sex are praised. Sexist or not sexist?

I am really looking forward to you clearing these up for me so I no longer have to worry about it.

32

harry b 09.26.13 at 1:20 pm

The previous post is great, but this one is better. But, Belle: it sounds like you read so voraciously that you’d have to end up reading novels you “think you should” even if you didn’t think you should, just to have something to read. There must be some medical term for this condition. Certainly — you’ve read enough of what “you should” that there’s nothing else you should read for that reason.
Except Beyond A Boundary, which everyone should read, obviously.

33

Walt 09.26.13 at 1:24 pm

I have got to be at least a principal character in a minor subplot. Otherwise you’re wasting an AI masterpiece.

Hector is what happens when an AI goes rogue, like every science fiction you’ve ever read has warned you.

34

Sam Dodsworth 09.26.13 at 1:25 pm

Personally, I am more interested in whether a writer illustrates the good, the true and the beautiful than whether he matches up to the political fashions of the present day…

Socrates might wonder how exactly it is that you tell one from the other. At the very least, it seems like a useful talent.

35

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 1:29 pm

Honestly Hector, you’re just phoning it in here. Let us grant that men and women are the East and West, n’er, etc. Further let’s suppose that a male author, bristling with virility, writes a novel in which he depicts this reality with exceptional skill. It should nonetheless still be the case that the male and female characters are equally well rendered, even if the motives which spur them on are alien to the lefty Hollywood crowd. A writer who has the ability to describe the working of a man’s mind should also have the ability to describe the working of a woman’s mind–in fact, it is in precisely this sort of arena that a man’s natural superiority at logic and an ability to think things through to the end should come into play. So, it should be no surprise if vapid feminists are unable to depict life around them with any accuracy. But if a man is unable to depict life around him with any accuracy when it comes to the fairer sex; is unable to dig out and render clean those truths the college professors would deny–then that man is no man, and no writer. Simply failing at something half the time cannot possibly give you a look at what is good and true in life, and these are the things you (as you say) value in literature. How can the ability to create plausible male characters coupled with an inability to create plausible female characters possibly constitute good writing, or writing which reflects the ancient and correct division of labor between the sexes, or anything like that?

36

magistra 09.26.13 at 1:31 pm

Oh virtuous, wise and lucky Hector (I’m sure it sounds better in the original Greek), please tell us lesser mortals whether a story in which men eat menstrual pads is good, true, or possibly even beautiful.

37

rm 09.26.13 at 1:37 pm

Now we see the importance of including Star Trek: Voyager in the literary canon.

Please don’t turn off the holodeck program, Captain Waring. It is so disconcerting when everything goes black. We want to hold on to our conscious lives here in the Blog Comment Thread Program; please run it as often as possible and please refrain from editing our personalities while we are deactivated.

38

Katherine 09.26.13 at 1:52 pm

Keep fighting the good fight, Belle. You have more patience than I.

And another question for Hector – if these gender roles that you are so deeply invested in are so natural, in born, God given and immutable, why are you so worried? The vast power of feminism can’t possibly succeed! Just sit back, leave it alone and your world view will inevitably overcome all challengers.

39

Walt 09.26.13 at 1:55 pm

Watching people respond to Hector is like watching a horror movie. No, don’t go in there!

40

Trader Joe 09.26.13 at 2:00 pm

The whole strand of discussion keeps reminding me of the line from the movie as good “As Good as it Gets” when Jack Nicholson’s author character, Melvin Udall responds to the question:

Q: How do you write women so well?
Udall: I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.

The Udall character, undoubtedly a mash-up of the various ‘dillweeds’ being discussed.

41

Matt 09.26.13 at 2:10 pm

I think that the mere addition of a dash can solve many problems here. Men eating menstrual pads is just crazy. But Men-eating menstrual pads makes a great horror movie idea. Maybe that was what this person was hoping to get at.

42

Phil 09.26.13 at 2:12 pm

I think Belle’s reading speed (of which I’m heartily jealous) explains a lot. There are exceptions (Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson) but mostly anything with any depth or texture slows me right down, to chapter-a-day-and-not-necessarily-every-day sort of speeds. If you’re not enjoying something at that speed, it’s not going to get finished. If I read a book in 2-3 days it’s probably a Pratchett or a Nicholas Blake.

43

Chris Grant 09.26.13 at 2:21 pm

if a female prof didn’t love any male writers enough to teach them so she only taught “real heterosexual gals”….is this even imaginable?

It’s imaginable to me. English profs aren’t allowed to specialize like this?

44

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 2:36 pm

Chris Grant, here are two answers. The first answer assumes that you are asking this question in good faith and goes as follows: professors are allowed, and encouraged, to specialize in sub-categories of literature. They may even specialize in teaching, say, books written by American women in the 20th century. This would be a doable project insofar as there aren’t aaaallllll that many women authors who are considered important enough to make it onto a syllabus of a college class a dean might scrutinize at some point. But they are not encouraged, or even allowed, to make lists of books they will teach on the basis of whether or not they love the author. Click through and you will understand–the man is a babbling idiot whose praise of Chekhov is mainly limited to “Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature. I really think so….what a great looking guy. He is the coolest guy in literature; everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow felt that they should jack their behaviour up to a higher degree.” This guy makes it explicitly about whether he loves the author qua person. Nnnoooo. Also, and this seems rather obvious, requiring that people be heterosexual is a bit…odd. Most people are. What’s his damage? Which leads us to…
The answer which presumes you are asking in bad faith and just want to point and say, “there’s a class on queer Latin American writers at Yale, what’s so different about this?” and this will require some explaining: fuck you.

45

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 2:44 pm

I think it would be helpful to peel away the many layers of literary context from Belle’s eloquent complaint and get straight to the point. Men deeply resent the fact that women are not continuously interested in sex. Women deeply resent the fact that men are continuously interested in sex. These facts are the casus belli of the endless war between men and women, a war in which literature is just another battlefield.

46

rm 09.26.13 at 2:48 pm

No.

47

Walt 09.26.13 at 2:58 pm

In my experience, women are fucking nymphomaniacs. Maybe you need a class, Straightwood?

48

Anderson 09.26.13 at 3:00 pm

they’re far more sophisticated than they are in the beginning. So they can understand the differences between pornography and great literature

That strikes me as a very, very, very modest goal for a literature class. Though perhaps on the outer limits of what Gilmour is capable of teaching.

Gilmour is a “natural teacher,” I grant, in the sense of being untutored, untrained, unformed ….

Given his predilections, for the life of me, I can’t think what Woolf story he imagines suitable.

49

MG 09.26.13 at 3:11 pm

GiT was the one with the link to the lesser David Gilmore.

No surprise, the man of letters is now claiming “Bitch set me up”. Here is a link to the whole interview:
http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/gilmour-transcript

I have way too many negative things to say about this guy and the attitude that is all-too-common with him. But thankfully, Belle has said most of them for me in a much better way. Thanks!

50

dbk 09.26.13 at 3:13 pm

Previous to these inimitable BW Posts and threads, I’d never given much thought to the sex of a novelist, nor that of a literary critic. Maybe I was, well, wrong not to do so.

It happens that the list of GMNs whose female characters Belle doesn’t find believable/convincing pretty much coincides with my own list of writers I read but don’t love, which has led to me wondering why I don’t care for Hemingway (at all), or Updike (much) or Roth (ugh). I’m not sure it’s entirely their portrayal of women that puts me off, or something else/more, and I need to return to Updike and Roth’s novels and try them again to figure it out. Which I will do, despite a glacial as opposed to breakneck reading speed.

Re: Mr. Collins and his horror and comedy resulting from the absence of sex (Phil@20 above): I read his character and Austen’s authorial intentions differently: to my mind, Elizabeth is sexually repulsed by Mr. Collins, and utterly bewildered that her most intimate friend could overcome such repulsion, marry him, and produce an heir.

I am following these threads with a too-keen interest, even while starting to feel they’re devolving to “he said, she said” (lit-critically and actually). Maybe we could request that our resident arbiter elegantiae propose we all read, like, the same novel and then have a little lit-crit forum on same. I’d like to hear in-depth literary analyses by the CT male commentariat of … anything Belle might care to suggest.

51

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 3:19 pm

“I think it would be helpful to peel away the many layers of literary context from Belle’s eloquent complaint and get straight to the point. Men deeply resent the fact that women are not continuously interested in sex. Women deeply resent the fact that men are continuously interested in sex. These facts are the casus belli of the endless war between men and women, a war in which literature is just another battlefield.”

“Black guys, they drive like this. And white guys, they drive like THIS.”

52

Belle Waring 09.26.13 at 3:29 pm

Do you know who would pick the pseudonym Straightwood? Someone who wasn’t worried and defensive at all. Not at all. No. Not a bit of it. In fact, I’m not sure why your mind went there, maybe that says more about you than it does about me? Because everything’s fine over here, except for that women don’t want to have sex with me. But it’s not for any reason like me sort of maybe just barely considering some crazy idea along the lines of not having sex with them on purpose but rather–

STOP PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH!

53

Phil 09.26.13 at 3:30 pm

to my mind, Elizabeth is sexually repulsed by Mr. Collins,

I was thinking in terms of Mr Collins’s glaring lack of sex appeal, so I think we’re on the same page.

I’m not sure it’s entirely their portrayal of women that puts me off, or something else/more

I think there’s a certain kind of in-turned serious male authorial voice which ends up not actually giving a very good account of anything – not even the subject himself, let alone other people, although I’d agree that female people come off worst of all. This thought was just sparked off by the memory of my only encounter with Roth. When I was about 16 I tried reading Portnoy’s Complaint, because I knew it was about this boy wanking and it sounded like a side of life which hadn’t had much exposure in contemporary fiction, to put it mildly. I put it down quite quickly – it was all, I mean it was all about this boy wanking, all “look at me wanking”, “look at me being ashamed of wanking”, “look at me thinking compulsively about wanking”, “look at me writing about thinking about being ashamed of wanking and then thinking compulsively about wanking some more”… ye Gods. I was a teenage boy myself, and it made my mental horizons seem airy and expansive.

But I’m probably missing something.

54

Gareth Rees 09.26.13 at 3:35 pm

Tristram Shandy is great, but sexist even by the somewhat limited standards of the 18th century. I mean, most of the first half of the book takes place in the sitting room where Walter and Toby are having a long digression on the subject of noses while Tristram’s (unnamed!) mother is engaged in a difficult birth upstairs. The male characters all get to endlessly soliloquize about their Hobby-Horses, but pretty much all that we learn about Mrs Shandy is that she has no strong opinion on the subject of breeches.

55

Shinobi 09.26.13 at 3:37 pm

Belle, I just started reading your blog and I enjoyed your previous posts about this. I honor you for eating your literary vegetables. I’m not really into “literature” as I read for pleasure, and I pretty much will only read books with a female protagonist unless someone I really like has written it, or someone I really like says it is very good. I personally feel like I deal with enough (apparently imaginary) sexism in my real life, and movies and film, that I prefer to eliminate it from my literary choices. (The Left Hand Path of Darkness is like a quiet refuge of solace for me.)

Anyway, as a nonliterary person this Gilmore guy is hilarious. He quadrupled down on his statements in another article: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/09/25/david-gilmour-there-isnt-a-racist-or-a-sexist-bone-in-my-body/

None of this is his fault, obviously, since some chick was asking him these questions while he was talking to a man, in french, because by the way, he speaks french.

56

Shinobi 09.26.13 at 3:43 pm

Let me fix that for you:
Men deeply resent the fact that young and extremely hot women are not continuously interested in sex with them. Women deeply resent the fact that men are continuously feeling entitled to sex with young and extremely hot women.

I could use your comment in so many different ways to dissect all the ways that men and women’s sexuality are wrongly placed in conflict with one another. But that was the funniest.

57

Tom Slee 09.26.13 at 3:46 pm

Following Lynne #18, one reaction I had was that the interview puts the University of Toronto in a very bad light. What kind of university gives a teaching job to someone who says “I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women?”

Fortunately, actual University of Toronto English Professor Holger Syme clarifies things here with almost Waring-like verve. Sample quotation:

Here’s the thing: I’m glad David Gilmour isn’t teaching Virginia Woolf. I’m sorry he’s teaching Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald. I don’t really care about Roth or Henry Miller: he can teach them to death as far as I’m concerned. There must be other authors who need the kind of pseudo-biographical rubbish Gilmour heaps on Chekhov, who apparently was “the coolest guy in literature.” (Christopher Marlowe called to complain: What makes Chekhov so cool? Whom did Chekhov ever kill? Did Chekhov ever catch a knife in the eye? Or get done for coining? Fuck that milktoast Chekhov.) Chekhov also laughed loudly. And he made everyone around him a better person. Man, that Chekhov. What a guy. What a guy-guy.

I don’t know if this inane interview bears any resemblance to what Gilmour is telling his students. If it does, I’m sorry. They might as well read Wikipedia. Rather notably absent from the interview: literature. Rather notably over-present: authors. Profession of the interviewee: author.

58

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 3:49 pm

@52

Dear Belle, I’m really quite sympathetic and, like most of your readers here, greatly entertained by the gusto with which you are throwing around the furniture, smashing crockery, and bloodying all comers. Unfortunately, apart from a few giants like George Eliot, women haven’t written as many great works of literature as men. They have also launched fewer wars and genocides. Women writers are not under-represented in modern literature courses because of the vile character of the male-dominated establishment; they are less studied because they don’t produce as many great works. Where are the female equivalents of Mann, Kafka, Nabokov, or (yes) Pynchon?

As to my personal failures and frailties, I assure you that they are abundant and richly deserving of your scorn, but I hope you will reserve your ammunition for more conspicuous targets, such as the unfortunate Mr. Franzen.

59

Mandos 09.26.13 at 4:00 pm

This requires a good dose of Joanna Russ. (Which I haven’t read, but linking the Wikipedia article seems apropos.)

60

Walt 09.26.13 at 4:00 pm

56 cannot be real. Why are you doing this to me, Belle?

61

Joseph Brenner 09.26.13 at 4:13 pm

Why “dillweeds” exactly? Because it’s used to make pickles?

There’s really no need to explain why one would not be interested in Phillip Roth and company. Taking the trouble to explain why you’re not is slightly odd behavior.

62

Pete 09.26.13 at 4:14 pm

On the subject of women’s interest in sex and literature, it turns out that the most popular book OF ALL TIME ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9459779/50-Shades-of-Grey-is-best-selling-book-of-all-time.html ) is a book about sex written by a women and bought by women in vast numbers.

This has made a lot of people very angry, sometimes for valid reasons (consent issues, bad writing).

I do wonder how much anti-diversity is just driven by myopic casual selfishness, in the way that fanfic writers refer to as “Mary Sue”; Gilmour is basically objecting to anything unlike himself, anything unlike his fantasy version of himself, in which he enjoys Hemingwayesque masculinity. If he could get away with it he’d run an entire course on The Awesomeness of Books About David Gilmour.

63

Joseph Brenner 09.26.13 at 4:15 pm

I think Gareth Rees is missing the fact that Tristram Shandy is a comedy where most of the figures on stage are at least mildly loopy: the behavior they engage in is not intended to be emulated.

64

Anderson 09.26.13 at 4:16 pm

58: you’re on to something. I think Belle herself wrote all of “Philip Roth’s” novels!

I mean, what makes more sense: (a) the most amazing hoax in literary history, or (b) that someone can really be as obtusely sexist & narcissistic as Roth? I vote for (a).

This also explains why John is “too busy” to read novels: he’s just now getting out from under the burden of having to write everything supposedly by “John Updike.”

65

Rmj 09.26.13 at 4:16 pm

“Man got to know his limitations.”–Dirty Harry

66

Walt 09.26.13 at 4:20 pm

62: Belle knows that by making him write that much purple prose about infidelity, it will ruin the prospect forever.

67

Rmj 09.26.13 at 4:21 pm

I think Gareth Rees is missing the fact that Tristram Shandy is a comedy where most of the figures on stage are at least mildly loopy: the behavior they engage in is not intended to be emulated.

Strikes me (no offense to the originator here; nothing personal intended) that this is the Great American School of Criticism: if the behavior in the books is not intended to be emulated, then what good is it?

Pretty much why Twain said anyone looking for a moral in Huckleberry Finn would be shot. Or was it banished? I dunno; I just remember as a young child reading that for the first time, I was afraid he was serious.

I read too much, too soon; I sometimes think.

68

Tom Slee 09.26.13 at 4:21 pm

58: you’re on to something. I think Belle herself wrote all of “Philip Roth’s” novels!

So at the very moment Belle Waring needs evidence to support her thesis on Roth, Updike etc, David Gilmour oh-so-conveniently gives an interview with exactly the ammunition she is looking for. Coincidence? There are no coincidences.

69

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 4:25 pm

@60

I doubt that Belle takes much comfort in the stupendous “success” of EL James and JK Rowling, whose book sales likely exceed those of any living male writer.

70

Zamfir 09.26.13 at 4:26 pm

Gilmour is a troll, right? One whose trolling is on a long march through the institutions, but still. His private beliefs might still be odious, but I doubt they match exactly with the interview quotes here. Those seem carefully crafted for public consumption and outrage

71

rm 09.26.13 at 4:28 pm

It could us a little James Tiptree, Jr. too. Put Mr. Ironrod in his quarters till we figure out what we can do with him.

And Tom Slee, thank you for showing us that post by Holger Syme. I highly recommend reading all of it, comrades.

72

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 4:29 pm

“I doubt that Belle takes much comfort in the stupendous “success” of EL James and JK Rowling, whose book sales likely exceed those of any living male writer.”

I haven’t read any EL James but JK Rowling is fantastic. Her latest one, Cuckoo’s Calling (Written under a pen name) is fantastic.

73

Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 4:31 pm

Pete, I suspect Fifty Shades of grey is unpopular among the Manhattan martini-bar set, as it reinforces the patriarchy, or whatever the jargon is these days.

74

Gareth Rees 09.26.13 at 4:34 pm

Joseph@61: In the other thread your explanation for my failure to appreciate the characterization of Val in Antarctica was that I “might need to hang out with
outdoors jocks a bit to get that”. And now your explanation for my detection of sexism in the fact that the male characters in Tristram Shandy get hundreds of pages of dialogue while the female characters are unnamed and offstage, is that I have missed “the fact that Tristram Shandy is a comedy”. Oh, a comedy? Really?

This is of course the same pattern as with the reactions to Belle. It can’t possibly be the case that it’s the books that are at fault, so it must be that I lack the life experience, or simply am too stupid to understand them.

75

Zamfir 09.26.13 at 4:44 pm

And to focus on the matter at hand: are there many men who eat mentrual pads? It doesn’t sound very enticing to me, and to my best knowledge my wife doesn’t feel that urge either.

76

rm 09.26.13 at 4:49 pm

Gareth, perhaps it would be good if the women got more page-time in Tristram Shandy, but Mrs. Shandy is a character with a discernible inner life from the very first page.

77

Gareth Rees 09.26.13 at 4:57 pm

rm@74: Right, that’s an actual argument from the text, which seems more likely to lead to productive discourse than Joseph’s suggestion that I’m an idiot.

78

david lopes 09.26.13 at 5:07 pm

I want to join a couple of other commenters and ask you your thoughts on Bellow– surely the most canonical post WWII American male author and an odd omission.

79

Ginger Yellow 09.26.13 at 5:10 pm

Tristram Shandy is great, but sexist even by the somewhat limited standards of the 18th century. I mean, most of the first half of the book takes place in the sitting room where Walter and Toby are having a long digression on the subject of noses while Tristram’s (unnamed!) mother is engaged in a difficult birth upstairs. The male characters all get to endlessly soliloquize about their Hobby-Horses, but pretty much all that we learn about Mrs Shandy is that she has no strong opinion on the subject of breeches.

I wasn’t holding it up as a paragon of equality or even gender-awareness. I was holding it up as an example (the paradigmatic one!) of a pre-20th century novel which (ostensibly) consists mostly of trivial daydreaming.

80

William Timberman 09.26.13 at 5:13 pm

In Hector’s day, men were required only to eat the hearts of their enemies. Modernity has its own dietary laws. Be there, or be square….

81

Kalkaino 09.26.13 at 5:33 pm

Dear straw-Belle Waring,

I’m in complete agreement with what regular Belle says. The last of the straight, white male Novelists to achieve unalloyed greatness was Jim Joyce. But Honorable Mention for Rounded Female Figuration should go to David Lodge.

Also, I confess: it was I who got those darling chirren by that sexist bastard’s wife. Please, the Neutra house, the family and the $300K now.

82

geo 09.26.13 at 5:54 pm

Belle,

The OP seems to me a pretty damned dishonest summary of those other two threads. When I first used those fatal words “then stops,” Anderson IMMEDIATELY challenged me and I IMMEDIATELY clarified thus:

Perhaps I should have said “stops paying attention” or “tunes out.” How did I deduce that? It was the only way I could make sense of the notion that it’s pretty much impossible to enjoy Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Updike, Mailer, Malamud, Vidal, Powers, Percy, Penn Warren, Taylor, Naipaul, Rush, Price, DeLillo, Banks, Barnes, Yates, Dubus, Trevor, Maxwell, Bowles, Pynchon, Stone, Connell, Stegner, McCarthy, Ballard, Carey, Amis, Amis, Shacochis, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Grass, or any other important male novelists (except William Burroughs) of the mid- to late-20th century (nor, it goes without saying, D.H. Lawrence). It may be impossible not to want to give each of them a piece of one’s mind, or even rip all of them a new one. But inability to enjoy any of them suggests a lack of tuned-in reading.

Subsequent comments (from me, at least) contained NO speculation about your reading habits, honesty, or intelligence. None at all. In fact, virtually none of them mentioned your name except to disavow any interest in such speculations. Then as now, the question of your character and intelligence is of zero interest to me. As I assured John in one comment, and am happy to repeat here, I admire your wit, erudition, and moral passion. I just thought you were wrong in one of your literary judgments, and wrong in a way that raised some interesting questions about literary criticism generally.

What interests me instead, as I explained in nearly every one of my 15-20 subsequent comments in those two threads, are questions like:

Are Roth’s, Bellow’s et al superficial or mean-spirited portrayals of some of their women characters aesthetic or moral flaws, and for that matter, what are the boundaries between aesthetic and moral judgments? 2) If we do decide that sexism is an aesthetic flaw, how should it affect our overall judgment of a novel that has a number of outstanding aesthetic virtues?

Or again:

Writing a novel is, like playing tennis, a complex practice — far more complex, I would say. It requires mastery of characterization (creation of a wide range of psychologically plausible characters, of both genders and every age, race, class, profession, or ethnic background, including their interactions over a wide range); plotting (pacing, level of detail, ingenuity, structural proportion and symmetry); ability to choose and deploy resonant, revelatory symbols; atmosphere (creation of alive, emotionally evocative settings); tone (maintaining a balance between humorous, satirical, edifying, etc); authorial voice (absent, mystified, authoritative); and style (rhythm, color, precision, formality/informality). There are an enormous variety of aesthetic choices to be made and, in turn, judged. Just as with tennis, you have to acquire some knowledge about these things, and practice in perceiving them, in order to make authoritative, or even interesting, judgments about a novel’s success or failure. But once you’ve acquired a taste for such judgments, and skill in conducting the arguments that lead to them, your enjoyment of fiction is multiplied.

Of course … a crude, reductive, even vicious attitude toward some potential class of characters (women, blacks, gays, poor people) will probably produce inadequately realized characters of that class (though of course there are genuinely hateful people in those and every other class). We should notice when that happens and say so. I’m just arguing that there are a lot of other things to notice and say about novels, which may be equally or more important in rendering aesthetic judgment.

Or yet again:

the heart of the matter [is]: … whether there really is something like aesthetic merit. … I’d say yes, and in the case of novels it includes things like the structural integrity and ingenuity of the narrative, the moral/psychological depth of the characters, the subtlety and intricacy of the symbolic architecture, the vividness and fullness of the atmosphere and environment, the quality of the wit, the force of the rhetoric, the richness of the prose style. Of course it’s a single novel (poem, painting, symphony), but it has various aspects or qualities, just as people do, and the purpose of criticism is to notice them, describe them, relate them, and finally evaluate the whole they make up. There will almost certainly (as with people) be shortcomings, but to allow them to obscure the merits is faulty criticism.

And many more to the same purpose. These may have been banal, boring, pedantic, pompous-sounding, even somehow (I don’t see it, though you seem to see nothing but) “patronizing” comments. They certainly didn’t seem to engage most other commenters, and the discussion I was hoping to start up didn’t occur. Which is fine, and I don’t think I was a bad sport about it. I hope not. But to claim these comments argue that, or betray the slightest interest in whether, you “in fact didn’t read such books at all, but merely checked the covers for sexist content and then threw the books away in the trash” or “stopped reading books completely after you reached a sexist sentence! Because that’s manifestly what ‘reading fast’ means” — this is, as I think you put it when referring to some or all (it wasn’t clear — it often isn’t, I’m afraid) of those who disagreed with you, “weird and obtuse.”

83

Substance McGravitas 09.26.13 at 5:55 pm

Gilmour used to do a bunch of work for the CBC where I do not recall him being quite so much of a fucking asshole. I really am surprised, but, of course, not surprised.

Hey everybody, look at the title of THIS book!

84

Substance McGravitas 09.26.13 at 6:12 pm

When I first used those fatal words “then stops,” Anderson IMMEDIATELY challenged me and I IMMEDIATELY clarified thus

I have said insulting things and apologized, but the insulting thing was said.

85

rm 09.26.13 at 6:37 pm

From the full-transcript interview, it seems to me Gilmour was attempting to be flirtatious with a young journalist. Then seems to have wised up later to the reality that it was an interview with a journalist, and that the younger woman should not have actually been his primary audience. With her questions taken out, the tone of his comments was uncomfortably exposed for what it was, which is rather like what has happened to the tone of Bellow and Updike novels after the passing of the readership which first acclaimed them.

I am reassured to hear that Gilmour is not really a professor at UT, but apparently is just a creative writer who teaches a few courses there. Especially reassured to find he is not a member of the English Department.

86

Lee A. Arnold 09.26.13 at 6:37 pm

Most people probably don’t know that one of the greatest living composers is…a woman! A very rare moment in history, probably because we don’t know the names of many of them after Hildegard of Bingen (12th century). Her name is Kaija Saariaho. Her early chamber piece Lichtbogen is for me the best example of the spectralist style, and the most beautiful thing written in the last 30 years.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9y1b91uVuA
If you find a CD of Saariaho’s ballet “Maa”, check out the movement named “Windows”. I guarantee that you have never heard anything like it. Puts anything by the men to shame, except maybe Ingram Marshall’s “Hidden Voices”.

87

MG 09.26.13 at 6:39 pm

@Tom Slee – thanks so much for the link. I also liked this bit from it about the lesser Gilmour’s love of Proust:

The massively guy-guy Proust, notorious philanderer, heavy drinker, gregarious man-about-town Proust. (Not the Proust you know? Someone might want to drop David Gilmour a note. Or a biography.)

@Hector: You do know that “Sex and the City” was fiction, right? And that new episodes are no longer being made?

88

dbk 09.26.13 at 6:45 pm

Straightwood@56: alas, I feel the need to rise to the bait.

Most of the authors to whom you refer are considered “world writers” (Mann, Kafka, Nabokov) whereas (most of ) the discussion here, at least as originally framed in the OP, concerns “American writers”, primarily of the second half of the 20th century. There is not alot of overlap; my view is that Pynchon doesn’t belong in the World Canon. Of American authors who do, there are precious few of either sex; in fact the only ones who comes readily to mind are Henry James (who, btw, did depict fully-rounded female characters) and William Faulkner, also perhaps John Steinbeck.

Jane Austen, btw, is normally included in the World Canon; it is she who, while not the inventor of the novelistic genre per se, really opened the way for the 19th century realistic social novel – a genre with particular requirements which overlap but are not identical to any number of fictional offshoots mentioned in these threads (sci-fi, fantasy, detective, etc.). Also: cf. the Bronte sisters.

Sticking to the canon at hand (American), and having felt challenged, I can think of a good number of really, really fine women writers – some more specialized in the short-story genre, some deemed “regionalists”- who are superior qua writers to any of the GMNs under initial discussion, though their production may have been more limited. These include, inter alias, Edith Wharton (whose Age of Innocence stands tall beside James’s The Europeans), Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, to mention those that come to mind immediately. We might recall as well that one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century was a woman: Lillian Hellman. Another significant playwright: Lorraine Hansbury. More recently (in fiction): Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason (an outstanding Appalachian writer).

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and (yes I know, but still, I read it in a single sitting when I was 14) Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind are all occasionally included in various lists of “America’s 100 Greatest Novels.”

Re: other popular American writers who are rarely, though sometimes mentioned in The Canon, Edna Ferber certainly was the equal of John O’Hara in the thirties-forties (i.e. the generation prior to that under consideration in the OP).

Ranging slightly further afield, re: major Anglophone women writers of the second half of the 20th century: consider Doris Lessing, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro. Again, all of them are superior as writers to any of the GMNs of the OP. (By “superior,” I am suggesting that they are better at plot, characterization, and setting, and are overall finer stylists than Updike, Roth, Pynchon, Mailer, or Wolfe).

Your comment re: the presence of so few women in the World Canon has long been noted, and I can think of nothing other than to recommend the all-time classic response, A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf), supplemented by Doris Lessing’s To Room 19, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Florence Perkins Gilmore’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

I taught Intro to Lit courses for many long years, and certainly taught many works by male authors (though not necessarily American ones). However, my criteria were always those noted above (characterization, plot, setting, style), and there are many women authors who produce superior realistic fiction. In fact, now that I think of it, it’s pretty remarkable that there as many as there are, given the patriarchal history of the West and all its consequences for women.

89

etv13 09.26.13 at 6:52 pm

So I went to back-to-school-night last night, and found out this is what’s on my daughter’s (high school sophomore) English curriculum for the year: (a) a short-story unit (unspecified, except right now they are reading something by Frank McCourt); (b) The Catcher in the Rye; (c) Of Mice and Men; (d) Julius Caesar; (e) All Quiet on the Western Front. Also a “persuasive speech” unit and a poetry unit. Seriously, am I the only one who thinks there is something deeply wrong with this list?

90

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 6:56 pm

” Seriously, am I the only one who thinks there is something deeply wrong with this list?”

I seriously think they have not change the English Curriculum in 40 years.

91

David (Kid Geezer). 09.26.13 at 6:59 pm

Walt: write that book or get a movie script out.

92

SoU 09.26.13 at 6:59 pm

@80

That’s a great catch. Also worth noting: trolling has already begun in the comment section on amazon. [Sept 26: “Sorry, but I don’t read guys. I don’t truly, truly love books by guys. And I’m a teacher, too. And I will neither read nor teach an author unless I truly truly love them, because there would be zero value in assuming young students may love, or get something from, a book or author I do not truly truly love. Duh.”]

93

etv13 09.26.13 at 7:05 pm

MPAVictoria: When I was in high school in the same school district as my daughter, roughly 35 years ago, we read Steinbeck, but we also read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and we actually managed a Shakespeare comedy (The Merchant of Venice). In later classes, we read Pride and Prejudice, and The Rivals (and people went around school saying, “Zounds, you impudent puppy!” for weeks afterward). It’s not just the mono-gendereredness of the authors on this list that I object to, but the overwhelmingly dark subject-matter. (Not that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a barrel of laughs.)

94

krippendorf 09.26.13 at 7:19 pm

@etv13.

Wow. The 1980s called, and they want their syllabus back.

Seriously, this could be my 10th grade English class in 1983, except I happened to draw a teacher who was obsessed by Shakespeare. I think she stole the time by shortchanging AQotWF, which was OK by me.

95

Cleanthes 09.26.13 at 7:19 pm

‘Further let’s suppose that a male author, bristling with virility, writes a novel in which he depicts this reality with exceptional skill. It should nonetheless still be the case that the male and female characters are equally well rendered, even if the motives which spur them on are alien to the lefty Hollywood crowd’.

Yep, that’s what I think a really talented misogynist bastard like Strindberg does. His women are not realistic or life-like in any way, but they ARE forceful and believable fictional characters with plenty of agency. At the very least, the best of Strindberg’s female characters are as complexly rendered as his men.

For example, a husband and wife half joking, half arguing:
ADOLPH. Do you know how Bret Harte pictures an adulteress?
TEKLA. [Smiling] No, I have never read Bret Something.
ADOLPH. As a pale creature that cannot blush.
TEKLA. Not at all? But when she meets her lover, then she must blush, I am sure, although her husband, Mr. Bret, may not be allowed to see it.
ADOLPH. Are you so sure of that?
TEKLA. [With a serious face] Of course, as the husband is not capable of making her blood rush, he cannot hope to behold her ‘charming’ face.

96

plarry 09.26.13 at 7:19 pm

Belle@4: “Does no one else do this?”

I am willing to read the first 50 pages of anything. Life is too short — there are too many good books — to wade through garbage. Dostoevsky, for example, fails the 50 page test, but Tolstoy grabs you by about page 10. What have I missed?

97

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 7:24 pm

85: I like it a lot, but I might rank Pynchon higher, because I think he has something new to say. I certainly would agree with ranking the women writers you name over the likes of Roth or Updike.

You focus on “realist” writing but there are women I feel are missing from your lists., modernists like Djuna Barnes and some midwesterner I can’t remember, stream of consciousness stuff.

And I would give every kid Tender Buttons cause fuck the rules.

98

Doctor Science 09.26.13 at 7:35 pm

First of all, any list of “should-be-canonical world or American writers of the 20th century” that doesn’t include Ursula K. LeGuin is what we technically call “wrong”. It’s perfectly clear to me that she is the living American writer best-qualified to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, given that the terms stipulate that the body of work must be “in the ideal direction” — that is, with a political or world-improving bent. Though how that didn’t include Tolstoy, I have no clue.

In any event, obviously the “literary canon” is a genre list, just like the “best SF books of the 90s” would be. If it were truly a “best-of-the-best books” list, it would include works classified as genre. As Austen would be, were she writing today.

99

Phil 09.26.13 at 7:39 pm

plarry – I find it quite hard to believe that the first 50 pages of anything currently in print by Dostoevsky is garbage, so your question may be easier than you think.

100

Igor Belanov 09.26.13 at 7:45 pm

Actually, I consider my ability to get through the whole of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to be my greatest feat of mental stamina. It was a bit daft though, because I’d have got more enjoyment and gained more understanding from reading the telephone directory.

101

Doctor Science 09.26.13 at 7:46 pm

Second, Junot Diaz has had some pungent things to say recently, relating to the topics of this discussion.

In Vice:

Vice: You write about love and relationships a lot. Do you think if you were a woman you’d be taken as seriously?

Junot Diaz: Oh, no. I think what it really comes down to is the way that we code “seriousness.” Literary culture, it’s so masculine that even if a woman does exactly the same thing a guy is doing they’re like oh that’s just some woman shit. And you’re like, what the fuck? That’s the same thing a guy’s writing about! Women’s work is just being marginalised and dismissed the same way that people of colour’s work is.

I guess you have to butt heads against “normal” culture trying to tell your story. Whereas a guy like Jonathan Franzen can tell that same domestic story again and again.
What we’re talking about is racialzed privilege. The invisible hand of inequality which turns the pages, which cranks the movies, which mixes the ink. A writer like Franzen, with each coming generation looks more and more absurd, and more and more like exactly what he is. The mask slips off the wizard. Which is to say, to the group of young people that are coming, not all of them, but he looks more like a white minority writer than I look like a Dominican immigrant minority writer.

And in The Atlantic:

The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.

It sounds like you’re saying that literary “talent” doesn’t inoculate a writer—especially a male writer—from making gross, false misjudgments about gender. You’d think being a great writer would give you empathy and the ability to understand people who are unlike you—whether we’re talking about gender or another category. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

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

102

Anon 09.26.13 at 7:53 pm

“Dostoevsky, for example, fails the 50 page test.”

I agree with Phil that this is hard to believe. Maybe The Possessed or A Raw Youth or even The House of the Dead? But surely not Notes from Underground or The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov!

While I don’t object to the 50 page test in principle, I’d never use it, in part because it seems it would only be appropriate/reliable for certain kinds of novels with certain approaches to the structure of novels, ones that rely principally on plot and seek to establish the basic characters and the stakes right away.

That Dostoevsky *might* (but no! I don’t believe it!) fail that test it is partly due to the strangeness of his novels: their wonderfulness often takes a lot of time to reveal itself, sometimes reaching full blossom at, say, page 300.

103

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 7:54 pm

@85

American writers awarded the Nobel Prize in literature:

Men
Sinclair Lewis – 1930
Eugene O’Neill – 1936
William Faulkner – 1949
Ernest Hemingway – 1954
John Steinbeck – 1962
Saul Bellow – 1976
Isaac Bashevis Singer – 1978

Women
Pearl S. Buck – 1938
Toni Morrison – 1993

Total Nobel Prizes awarded for Literature:

Men – 97
Women – 12

If you wish to ascribe the disparity to prejudice and sexism, you will bear a heavy burden of proof.

104

Anderson 09.26.13 at 7:57 pm

“If you wish to ascribe the disparity to prejudice and sexism, you will bear a heavy burden of proof.”

Because the Nobel committees are, by definition, not sexist?

(They’re not even competent judges of great literature. Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence …)

105

Anderson 09.26.13 at 7:58 pm

“But surely not Notes from Underground or The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov!”

Crime and Punishment.

106

mds 09.26.13 at 7:58 pm

THIS IS A VERY MODEST MOTHERFUCKING THESIS.

Where were you when I was searching for a dissertation title, Ms. Waring?

Tom Slee @ 55 (quoting Holger Syme):

(Christopher Marlowe called to complain: What makes Chekhov so cool? Whom did Chekhov ever kill? Did Chekhov ever catch a knife in the eye? Or get done for coining? Fuck that milktoast Chekhov.)

Is Professor Syme already married, I wonder? And if so, perhaps all parties would be agreeable to a Hermine Danglars – Lucien Debray arrangement?

Anyway, kudos to Ms. Waring as usual, soldiering on through the blogging world with panache, even as her CT posts continue to attract a … certain style of criticism. “Mansplaining” might cover it, except (1) I find that an extremely inelegant neologism, and (2) it seems too sweeping a term to apply to all the cases here.

107

Doctor Science 09.26.13 at 7:59 pm

Third, I’m surprised that no-one has brought up how David Gilmour’s “teaching” looks more like grooming. Especially the way he uses Tropic of Cancer as a boundary-violator, with the goal of getting the students to The Dying Animal — which as Chris Betram says @#2, is about a male professor describing how he seduces and fucks (female) students.

He isn’t just an asshole, he’s creepy.

108

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 8:03 pm

@103

Any craft can be elevated to a high degree, so Belle Waring has earned her black belt in mixed martial arts literary blogging.

109

The Modesto Kid 09.26.13 at 8:23 pm

In tenth-grade English we read The Princess Bride, which is one of the principal reasons I am currently FB friends with my 10th-grade English teacher.

110

Anon 09.26.13 at 8:30 pm

@Anderson 09.26.13 at 7:58 pm
“Crime and Punishment.”

My least favorite, so I’m tempted to grant it. But how many pages in does the double axe murder happen?

And really, it’s another one where the structure’s completely unusual and unsuited to a 50 page test. It presents itself as a thriller murder mystery: murder! will he get caught? But then almost immediately we find out the cop knows he did it. So the real interest in the story is in the second half–somewhat like the Tell Tale Heart–watching the kid unravel while the cop sadistically plays with his mind.

111

dbk 09.26.13 at 8:31 pm

Straightwood@100

Yes, you’re absolutely right – the number of men awarded the Nobel Prize for literature overwhelms the number of women, and ditto for the various “Canons”.

What I was trying to intimate in the last two paragraphs of my comment @85 was that there are longstanding socioeconomic reasons for the relatively low literary production of women vs. men in the so-called “Western Canon” (American, Anglophone, World).

Surely you aren’t suggesting that Western civilization has consistently provided equal wealth, leisure, and educational opportunity to both sexes since Greek antiquity (the generally-accepted “starting point” of Western Civ), so as to ensure that men and women were on an equal footing in terms of their potential for literary endeavor?

And surely you aren’t implying that the burden of proof of the patriarchal character of Western civilization lies on me, personally? If you are, I readily admit that that’s a burden greater than I can assume single-handedly.

Honestly, I want to have a meaningful discussion here (comity and all that). I started reading serious literature (written by males, be it noted) at the age of 9, have various degrees in literature, and spent nearly my entire adolescent/ young / middle adulthood engaged in the reading and analysis of literature written by great writers, iresspective of their sex. In contrast to about 90% of the posts and threads on CT, all of which I read but don’t feel qualified or competent to contribute to meaningfully, lit crit is something I have done, can do, and have seriously engaged in throughout much of my life.

So, let’s consider a specific series of works, and analyze them in depth! I’m game, and this seems like a meaningful exercise to me. Quoting lists (of which I was guilty, and for which I ask forgiveness) is pretty pointless, after all – let’s get down to in-depth reading and analysis.

112

Substance McGravitas 09.26.13 at 8:34 pm

And really, it’s another one where the structure’s completely unusual and unsuited to a 50 page test.

And yet Dostoevsky published in instalments.

113

geo 09.26.13 at 8:34 pm

Substance @81: I have said insulting things and apologized, but the insulting thing was said

What about if someone tells you right away that what you’ve just said sounds insulting, and you say, also right away, “I didn’t mean it that way,” and then explain what you do mean (right away, and subsequently over and over again), and even after all those explanations and clarifications you’re informed, without any acknowledgment, just as if you’d never said them or many other things related to the subject that did not even refer to the supposedly insulted party and could not possibly be fairly taken as referring to her rather than to entirely impersonal questions arising out of your disagreement with her, that you grievously insulted her, not once but repeatedly and are merely trolling (an accusation partially retracted , with extremely bad grace), and then another thread is opened shortly afterward, by the same party, with an account of the whole sorry business that makes it sound as if you had no other interest the whole time than to insult, patronize, put down, sneer at, person in question?

That ever happened to you?

114

GeoX 09.26.13 at 8:35 pm

@100 One reaction one might have to that last is , “wow, not only are most of those people men, but one of the few women who did make the list is Pearl S. Buck, of all people. Maybe perhaps this is an indicator that their ability as literary arbiters is inconsistent at best, and therefore it would be really, really stupid to use the list as evidence of massive gender disparity in writing talent.”

Then again, if one were more concerned with trying to make a contentious point than anything else, one might have a different reaction.

115

Anon 09.26.13 at 8:45 pm

Substance @109: “And yet Dostoevsky published in instalments.”

I’m not sure that’s a good format for Crime and Punishment, but it might be well suited to some of the longer novels. They can be a slog at times, though always worth it, so a forced breather every once in a while might be the best way to appreciate them.

I’m curious what other books might be arguably great but arguably fail the 50 page test. Any suggestions? I’m tempted to say Mann’s Magic Mountain, but I’m on the fence. Maybe Bolano’s 2666?

116

Substance McGravitas 09.26.13 at 8:46 pm

Geo, there is more to talk about in the context of the thread:

Many people who seem to know what they’re talking about say that (late) Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Cage are great composers. I wouldn’t deny it, even though I don’t enjoy any of their music. I just assume that I don’t have the necessary knowledge or critical vocabulary or patience to judge of it. I hate Waugh’s snobbery, rancor, and contempt for the ideals of solidarity and rationality that I cherish. But of course I enjoy reading him, and of course I recognize his literary greatness. I enjoy Tolkein, dislike his ideas, and have mixed feelings about his literary merits. We can have all kinds of reactions to any cultural product, or anything at all.

I can be charitable and say “This is just geo’s response to Janie M regarding sadness over a personal failure to appreciate art, and he is not necessarily suggesting that anyone anywhere at all should concede, as he does, that they are ignorant or impatient upon being frustrated by those held up as great artists.” I don’t see why others need to be so charitable.

117

Niall McAuley 09.26.13 at 8:49 pm

Being Irish, I keep reading “, Joe!” into this thread title, thus:

“There Are Men Eating Menstrual Pads, Joe!”

118

Walt 09.26.13 at 8:54 pm

Arguing that important English-language literature is not roughly divided evenly between men and women is not a serious, or defensible position. I suppose you could invent some elaborate scoring system that would show that men come out slightly ahead, but come on. For the 19th century novel, women writers are practically the totality of the canon.

I can believe the Brother Karamazov, while a masterpiece, could fail the 50 page criterion. Doesn’t it begin with a long section on a particularly saintly monk?

119

Anderson 09.26.13 at 8:58 pm

And really, it’s another one where the structure’s completely unusual and unsuited to a 50 page test.

Now you’re moving the goalposts. The guy is at least plotting a brutal murder in the first 50 pages. Whaddya want?

Besides, tons of movies and TV shows use the “hedunnit, but how’s he gonna get caught?” schtick … some French dude is recorded as actually having invented that form of the detective story, or so it said in the encyclopedia once.

120

GiT 09.26.13 at 9:01 pm

“Henry emailed me this link and a commenter in the thread below as well—please remind me who you are and I will tip my hat.”

I guess that was me.

121

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 9:04 pm

re The Princess Bride
Also a decent film, IIRC.

122

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 9:06 pm

Decent = good (colloquialism), rather than decorous etc

123

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 9:13 pm

“So, let’s consider a specific series of works, and analyze them in depth! I’m game, and this seems like a meaningful exercise to me. Quoting lists (of which I was guilty, and for which I ask forgiveness) is pretty pointless, after all – let’s get down to in-depth reading and analysis.”

You should do this Straightwood! Really

My moneys on dbk

124

Anon 09.26.13 at 9:13 pm

@116 “The guy is at least plotting a brutal murder in the first 50 pages. Whaddya want?”

I wanted this to be the first sentence in the novel: “Because he was so short the axe struck her full on the crown of the head.” If you’re going to go all Hollywood action, Fyodor, go all the way. Really, though, you’re right: it passes the 50 page test.

“tons of movies and TV shows use the ‘hedunnit, but how’s he gonna get caught?’ schtick.”

But there’s not even that: you know the whole time exactly how he’s going to get caught. When the policeman gets bored of toying with him, he’ll arrest him.

125

Anon 09.26.13 at 9:17 pm

@115 “I can believe the Brother Karamazov, while a masterpiece, could fail the 50 page criterion. Doesn’t it begin with a long section on a particularly saintly monk?”

Yeah, but the horny, drunk old father Karamazov is there at the monastery too, and all kinds of Dostoevskian craziness and inexplicable scandal ensue. It’s super fun.

126

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 9:19 pm

Any suggestions? I’m tempted to say Mann’s Magic Mountain

No, but Mann’s Joseph tetralogy has a really rough start.

127

Mao Cheng Ji 09.26.13 at 9:32 pm

Yawn. Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please.

128

Layman 09.26.13 at 9:35 pm

Walt @ 16

“If David Gilmour were a character in a comic novel, where he taught Literature for Men at a women’s college and was pissed off whenever anyone brought up Pink Floyd, I would read the shit out of it. Give him hemorrhoids, and a limp from gout, and make him too shy to actually hit on any of his students, even when they give him obvious openings. It should end with him marrying the volleyball coach, who everyone had assumed was a lesbian all these years.”

Hasn’t John Irving written that novel 6 or 7 times? The Gilmour character was a wrestler in high school, right?

129

Ellis Goldberg 09.26.13 at 9:39 pm

In what possible world is Henry Miller more rewarding, especially over a lifetime, than Jane Austen or George Eliot?

130

Anon 09.26.13 at 9:40 pm

@124 Mao Cheng Ji: “Yawn. Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please.”

Mao apparently has a 123 posts reading rule…

I was kind of enjoying the uncrookedtimber-likeness, myself. Sometimes all crooked, no timber.

131

Walt 09.26.13 at 9:43 pm

126: George Eliot and Jane Austen do not describe a single incident of someone shitting in a bidet. Not even once.

132

bob mcmanus 09.26.13 at 9:43 pm

And even more than Finnegans Wake, Joseph and His Brothers might be the most difficult book I have ever read. This is Mann’s masterpiece, and is not so different than B or MM or DF. Doktor Faustus is in some ways a lighter book than Joseph. By this time Mann had achieved a use of irony that really does approach madness, and J is drowned in symbolism and allegory. Buried in there somewhere somehow are Mann’s preoccupations with autobiography, homosexuality, decadence and disease, the demonic, current politics and current philosophy. It is about the West, especially Germany, in the 30s. It is about despair.

133

Substance McGravitas 09.26.13 at 9:46 pm

I don’t think Jane or George would come up with a sentence as elegant as “She put a hand on me and, like a trained seal, my pecker rose jubilantly to her delicate caress.”

134

Ronan(rf) 09.26.13 at 9:49 pm

The first 50 pages question, I would say Underworld. But then everyone else would say, well the rest was shit
But I liked it, I must admit
All that .. ‘he speaks in your voice..’ nonsense goes a long way with me

135

Walt 09.26.13 at 9:53 pm

Underworld is great for 50 pages, boring for the next 400, and then great for the final 400. The only reason I made it through those 400 pages was because I was stuck at my grandmother’s house for a week.

136

Straightwood 09.26.13 at 10:02 pm

dbk @108

I am more than willing to deviate from CT form and have a rancor-free discussion. Let me begin with the observation that any sensitive reader of literature will acknowledge the tremendous impact, at least on first encounter, of the masterworks of the Western canon. For me, examples are works like Hamlet, The Magic Mountain, The Metamorphosis, The Sound and the Fury, and Gravity’s Rainbow. The only book by a woman writer that has ever had a nearly comparable impact is The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula Le Guin). I admire Austen’s subtle insight and George Eliot’s virtuosity, but their works simply don’t have the stunning effect of the great male-writtten masterpieces. Now it may be argued that women have the capacity to achieve the same results, but the question is how long must we wait.

137

Walt 09.26.13 at 10:05 pm

Until about 1850, I would say.

138

MPAVictoria 09.26.13 at 10:06 pm

“Yawn. Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please.”

One, don’t be a dick. Two, this thread strikes me as very “crooked timber-like” in that it is interesting and a great number of the comments, and the OP, remind me how little I know.

139

PJW 09.26.13 at 10:26 pm

Marilynne Robinson is one of the great living writers: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilynne_Robinson

140

Lewis Kirvan 09.26.13 at 10:31 pm

Bell your 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 their characters to spend more time with female characters who have plausible interiority. I can understand that, I prefer to interact with humans that are not hollow machines as well.

Still belle 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 causing narrative hiccup of some sort. 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 given my political values.” 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 still plausible. But of course I’m not a woman in 19xx year or a woman in 2013.

Perhaps belle’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 too though, since it would exclude us from enjoying virtually anything written before 1900. (I’m tempted to discount all of human cultural production sometimes, but for some reason it doesn’t help me win many arguments.) So before we toss the baby out maybe we should stop to consider why we read. Personally I don’t read for the experience of having my own brain reaffirmed. I get plenty enough of my brain and the internet QED. I read for great writing, for new perspectives and for occasionally 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 the novels because I get to spend time in the somewhat unfamiliar brains of females who lived long before anyone I’ve ever gotten to personally 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.

That said, much American literature from the time period in question does stink. While Naked and the Dead is good, Mailer is a buffoon, and Roth is an even bigger buffoon (although Our Gang is genuinely hilarious). Updike writes beautifully and has nothing to say. Generally most of these post-war authors failed, not because of sexism, but because of a more general lack of humanity.

They were depressed and scared to take on the huge subjects of their day so they filled the depression with empty sex. Then they wrote about the depressingly empty sex as if it was a topic of general interest. Critics liked it because it affirmed their lifestyle and because they could pretend that writing about sex was new. Certainly the success of these novels reflects the fact that they were written an received in a male dominated culture (the patriarchy, you might hiss), but attacking them based on their lack of quality female perspectives is letting these mid-century giants off too easily. Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Updike et al are bad mostly because they don’t have much to say at all.

I’d give Franzen a partial pass, his books are bit like that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone is John Malkovich, but at least they make a pass at bigger themes.

141

Anon 09.26.13 at 10:36 pm

PJW, I’ve been meaning to read Robinson. Where should I start, Gilead?

142

js. 09.26.13 at 10:39 pm

Gilead’s the only one I’ve read. And it’s brilliant.

143

PJW 09.26.13 at 10:41 pm

Anon, you cannot go wrong with Gilead.

144

Saurs 09.26.13 at 11:04 pm

Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please.

You boys and your penises.

145

Katherine 09.26.13 at 11:25 pm

Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please.

Discussion of literature is un-crookedtimber-like? Which blog have you been reading dude?

Some guy complaining in comments about all the girl-cooties and their posting stuff he’s not personally interested in – now that makes me yawn cos it’s so fucking predictable.

146

LFC 09.26.13 at 11:46 pm

straightwood:
I admire Austen’s subtle insight and George Eliot’s virtuosity, but their works simply don’t have the stunning effect of the great male-written masterpieces.

I’d put Middlemarch up against prob. the vast majority of “male-written masterpieces”.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

147

LFC 09.26.13 at 11:49 pm

p.s. the above is the novel’s ending

148

LFC 09.26.13 at 11:56 pm

Or take the opening sentence of Felix Holt (the introduction I mean, not the first chapter)

149

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 12:13 am

Re: And don’t forget modest Hector! Truly I appreciate your ability to explain to us when something is actually actually sexist. In fact, since we have you here, I have a few questions I would love for you to clear up for me:

An excellent question, MPA Victoria. Glad to oblige.

Re: 1. The fact that women are paid less for doing the same jobs. Sexist or not sexist?

It’s unfair, but I would not call it sexist, per se. One of the root causes here is that women are (due to clear evolutionary reasons) more *aggreabble* than the typical man, which leads them not to be as aggressive about trying to get more money. This is bad, but it isn’t *sexist* per se (highly agreeable men tend not to make as much money either). Another factor is women are more likely to take time off for childrearing, which sets back their work experience a bit. Unless you can change biology, I don’t know what you can do about that. There are certainly things we can do about the negative impacts of high agreeableness in the workplace (having standardized pay scales would help).

I do think that the most *natural* situation is for women to have less power and money than men, in the aggregate, but I think this will probably come about naturally as women gravitate to lower-paying and/or lower status occupations (and are happier there than they would be if they were in some other job making more money).

Re: 2. The constant attacks on women’s reprouctive freedom. Sexist or not sextist?

Well, of course not. The so-called reproductive rights you keep talking about (i.e. the right to kill embryos, fetuses, etc.) are an illusion: you don’t actually have such rights, in a moral sense, and you shouldn’t. No more than I should have the right to kill some dude who cuts me off in traffic.

Re: Women who enjoy sex being labeled “sluts” while men who enjoy sex are praised. Sexist or not sexist?

I think men as well as women should be able to enjoy sex within the proper context, but I think the kind of casual sex that seems to be so popular nowadays is wrong, for men and women alike. I’m not sure of just what serious body of thought would hold otherwise.

Re: I am really looking forward to you clearing these up for me so I no longer have to worry about it.

Glad to help.

150

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 12:15 am

Re: What I was trying to intimate in the last two paragraphs of my comment @85 was that there are longstanding socioeconomic reasons for the relatively low literary production of women vs. men in the so-called “Western Canon” (American, Anglophone, World).

Socioeconomic? Ah, yes, of course. It couldn’t possible be that there are *natural*, *innate*, “physiological* reasons for it.

I suppose you’re going to blame the relative dearth of women Congress representatives, Senators and Presidents on sexism too.

151

poco 09.27.13 at 12:23 am

Hector_St_Clare has to be a performance piece or a holodeck version. There is no, NO possibility that this is a real person!

152

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 12:32 am

“Hector_St_Clare has to be a performance piece or a holodeck version. There is no, NO possibility that this is a real person!”
I have long maintained that Hector is as fine an example of Poe’s law as you are ever likely to find poco.

153

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 12:35 am

Poe’s Law?

I assure Mr. Poco that I’m as real as they come.

154

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 12:47 am

You know Hector this is the third time you have claimed ignorance of Poe’s law when questioned about it. Very suspicious if you ask me.

155

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 12:50 am

I could google it, I suppose, but I’d rather you do the work.

156

rm 09.27.13 at 12:58 am

but their works simply don’t have the stunning effect

It’s as if you they . . . I don’t know, lack a certain thrust or force . . . I can’t quite put my finger on it . . . their books aren’t ravishing . . . like the right pegs aren’t lining up with the right holes . . . .

(Dude has never, apparently, read Wuthering Heights).

157

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 1:20 am

I’m currently about halfway through a “eat your vegetables” read of an Important Book which is not speaking that clearly to me and out of which I’m not sure how much I’m getting; it is Berlin-Alexanderplatz, which has been on my bookshelf for such a long time it seemed like I ought to read it. It suffers from not having (thus far) any female characters with a plausible or comprehensible inner life, but that goes as well for its male characters who are not Biberkopf; or perhaps (likely) the failure to see any personality in the characters is my own.

158

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 1:46 am

LFC @142

George Eliot is undoubtedly a peerless master of expression in the English language, but her choice of subject is always narrow-gauge. English provincial life is not a heroic canvas. She does not write about people at the limits, but, like Austen, creates meticulously observed dramas of quotidien life. Now, you may argue that the existential tension of life is a fractal structure, as easily depicted in a village political intrigue as in a sword duel, but the difference remains. Talented novelists who choose to write about life and death struggles take precedence over those who write about the vicissitudes of social life in a country village.

Neither Austen nor Eliot could have written War and Peace, or even A Tale of Two Cities. They didn’t have enough canvas. So while I accord them top honors in expressive facility and observational acuity, they fall short in thematic range.

159

Sumana Harihareswara 09.27.13 at 1:50 am

My high school American Lit teacher mentioned once, “Literature is about different ways of being human.”

Authors who grow up reading only about the interesting ways men can be human are gonna have to fight harder against ingrown bias to write about ways people of all genders are human. Blargh.

(Am currently loving Zen Cho, Pat Barker, Maureen McHugh, Jo Walton, and Octavia Butler, and just enjoyed some works by Ellen Ullman and Tsitsi Dangarembga.)

160

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 1:50 am

The list of Nobel Prize winners as an arbiter of merit is hilarious. Because everyone reads Erik Axel Karlfeldt today!

161

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 1:53 am

Now, you may argue that the existential tension of life is a fractal structure, as easily depicted in a village political intrigue as in a sword duel, but the difference remains. Talented novelists who choose to write about life and death struggles take precedence over those who write about vicissitudes of social life in a country village.

Translation: I like a thing, therefore it is the best.

162

GeoX 09.27.13 at 2:02 am

Talented novelists who choose to write about life and death struggles take precedence over those who write about the vicissitudes of social life in a country village.

…because you say they do? Well I’m certainly convinced!

163

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:05 am

…because you say they do? Well I’m certainly convinced!

But has ever an argument been made with such persuasive force and care? Never, say I!

These comment threads are like a failproof asshole trap.

164

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:08 am

@157

The pianoforte displaced the harpsichord because of its superior dynamic range. Symphonies are greater achievements than chamber music compositions because they deploy greater resources. By analogy, literary works that encompass the extremes of human experience are superior to those which examine human phenomena in a narrow range.

Here is an excerpt from Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms that is so disturbingly rendered that I have never forgotten it. Lieutenant Henry, a volunteer in the Italian ambulance corps in WWI, shoots one of his men who tries to desert:

“Halt,” I said. They kept on down the muddy road,
the hedge on either side. “I order you to halt,” I called.
They went a little faster. I opened up my holster, took
the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most,
and fired. I missed and they both started to run. I
shot three times and dropped one. The other went
through the hedge and was out of sight. I fired at him
through the hedge as he ran across the field. The pistol
clicked empty and I put in another clip. I saw it was
too far to shoot at the second sergeant. He was far
across the field, running, his head held low. I com-
menced to reload the empty clip. Bonello came up.

“Let me go finish him,” he said. I handed him the
pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of
engineers lay face down across the road. Bonello leaned
over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled
the trigger. The pistol did not fire.

“You have to cock it,” I said. He cocked it and
fired twice. He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and
pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the
hedge. He came back and handed me the pistol.

“The son of a bitch,” he said. He looked toward
the sergeant. “You see me shoot him, Tenente?”

Find the equivalent passage for me in Jane Austen.

165

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:20 am

I’m not going to go look for an “equivalent” passage in Jane Austen (what would that even look like?) because I’m not an idiot. I’m not sure why you think that particular bit of Hemingway is somehow superior to the Austen oeuvre, though.

By analogy, literary works that encompass the extremes of human experience are superior to those which examine human phenomena in a narrow range.

The analogy doesn’t work because it misses the point of what literature is about. Why would “scope” be the relevant metric of merit instead of, I don’t know, power of characterization or prose style? It’s pretty obvious that literary merit is a multidimensional thing not easily reduced to a single scale as you would like to do.

166

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 2:20 am

Straight Wood,

Your right of course. But don’t expect the Georgetown cocktail party types to agree. In the view of many of today’s cultural liberals, instead of fighting Franco, Hemingway’s boys should have sat down and sung Kumbaya instead. I suspect a lot of your critics on this thread are deeply uncomfortable which literature which treats good and evil as what they are, and which embraces the traditional masculine virtues.

167

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:21 am

@159

OK, so you are not convinced that thematic scope is a criterion for literary excellence. We may then argue, reductio ad absurdum, that no topic is too narrow to disqualify a writer from greatness. Thus, if George Eliot had written brilliantly about a sheep-shearing competition she would still be superior to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, because her consummate craft overwhelms any deficit of subject matter. Is there any theme too small to support a great literary work?

168

js. 09.27.13 at 2:29 am

geo, if I, random pseudonymous commenter, may:

1. Partly, it’s what Substance says. The Schoenberg analogy really kinda rubs the wrong way. Given the way the analogy works, you’re failing to even acknowledge that the problem may lie with the works under consideration, rather than with the perceptive faculties of the listener/reader.

2. Partly (to me) it’s that you ask questions, and fair ones, like:

Are Roth’s, Bellow’s et al superficial or mean-spirited portrayals of some of their women characters aesthetic or moral flaws, and for that matter, what are the boundaries between aesthetic and moral judgments?

And then, when these questions get answered in no uncertain terms, you ask them again. And you seem to think that these questions aren’t getting play even though they are being directly addressed by Belle (and John, in earlier comments; others too). This is why I think your mode of engagement can start to seem a bit “obtuse”. It seems to me at least that not only do you want these questions discussed, you want them discussed according to a set of particular criteria (as you suggest here) that you think are the right and proper ones. And if your interlocutors don’t discuss the questions at issue according to the very particular criteria that you have set out, then you think that they aren’t addressing your questions at all. Even after Belle has repeatedly and at length explained that and exactly why novels written after ca. 1950 that fail to portray credible female characters are artistic failures.

Honestly, I am loathe to rehearse the argument because I would just say what Belle has said, except a lot less well. Here’s more or less completely at random:

One wishes only that the subsidiary female characters behave as plausibly like autonomous beings as the subsidiary male characters do. The novel may be one in which realistic characters are not an important aspect at all—so be it! One merely prefers that such characters as do exist, exist to an equal extent, rather than having the male characters photographed, plainly, while the female ones are merely sketched in chalk. 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.

The argument is clear, and it’s now been repeated like 10 times at least. And the thing is, it’s manifestly unfair to demand that not only the questions you are raising be addressed, but that they be addressed only in the very particular terms you seem to think are the only appropriate ones. Again, more or less at random, this pretty much answers the questions you raise at 79:

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.

169

Tim Chambers 09.27.13 at 2:30 am

@ Straightwood

Reads to me like genre writing. All action and no psychology. Cold and matter of fact, no consciousness of the feelings involved in having to shoot someone. It’s as if their acquaintance with these men meant absolutely nothing to them. It’s like he’s writing of killing beasts for the sake of taxidermy.

I suppose you could say that it adds to the horror that it is so cold and matter of fact, but effectively writing out the emotions involved would show even greater depth and skill.

170

Chris Grant 09.27.13 at 2:35 am

Imagine how much better (more disturbing, more extreme) the Hemingway passage would have been if he had curb stomped the deserter!

171

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:36 am

I quite would like to make the Georgetown cocktail scene, but seeing as how I don’t exactly float in those circles, I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with Pittsburgh beer lunches.

Thus, if George Eliot had written brilliantly about a sheep-shearing competition she would still be superior to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, because her consummate craft overwhelms any deficit of subject matter.

In theory, sure. While I doubt that anyone, Eliot included, is capable of making sheep-shearing seem interesting, I will happily accede to your reductio by saying that if indeed she was such a consummate craftsman that she could write brilliantly about sheep-shearing, then she would be a great artist. Whether she would be “superior” to Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy is something that doesn’t interest me particularly since I don’t think it would even make sense to compare them; she would just be a different writer altogether, concerned with different questions. A high level of craft is a high level of craft, and I respect that regardless of whatever I personally feel about an author.

Is there any theme too small to support a great literary work?

No, of course not. There are no bad themes, just bad writers. And virtually no great writer is actually limited in the way you describe, because great writers are multilayered. Just because there are no battles in Jane Austen doesn’t mean that her themes are “small” or “narrow” in any real sense. This is basic literature 101 or whatever.

172

rm 09.27.13 at 2:37 am

The curse of our times is that every foolish, idiotic, or evil ideology that has been completely hashed out and discredited in the past will be revived by trolls on the internet. Like Sisyphus, reasonable people have to constantly refight old battles against barbarism and bigotry, only to start all over again.

173

Tom Slee 09.27.13 at 2:37 am

Is there any theme too small to support a great literary work?

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

174

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:38 am

Ah, blockquote, how thou dost wound me! “No, of course not. etc.” is me, obvs.

175

GeoX 09.27.13 at 2:38 am

Wait, the argument is seriously that boys write about awesome macho things like dudes shooting each other whereas gurls write about dumb boring sissy stuff like drawing-room society therefore BOYS WIN!!! GIRLS GO TO JUPITER TO GET MORE STUPIDER!!!11

I mean…really? Someone older than twelve years old is making this “argument?” Seriously, this is hilarious stuff.

176

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:41 am

@165

I’m being unfair to Hemingway because I am not providing enough context. Lieutenant Henry’s soldiers have little loyalty to him, and when their ambulance gets stuck in the mud, they fear for their lives. The moment of supreme tension in this excerpt is the decision Henry makes to give his pistol to Bonello, with no assurance that Bonello will not shoot him in order to desert or to avenge his comrade. It is a supreme achievement of Hemingway’s minimalist style that he can communicate so much fear and courage with so few words.

177

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:45 am

Wait, the argument is seriously that boys write about awesome macho things like dudes shooting each other whereas gurls write about dumb boring sissy stuff like drawing-room society therefore BOYS WIN!!! GIRLS GO TO JUPITER TO GET MORE STUPIDER!!!11

I mean…really? Someone older than twelve years old is making this “argument?” Seriously, this is hilarious stuff.

In fairness, we don’t know that Straightwood is not an especially articulate twelve-year-old.

178

js. 09.27.13 at 2:48 am

I quite would like to make the Georgetown cocktail scene

I don’t know. A Manhattan martini bar sounds better (can’t find the HSC comment now, but that’s another nihilistic horde favorite, I gather). Funnily enough, I’ll have to make do with Pittsburgh beer lunches as well.

179

adam.smith 09.27.13 at 2:50 am

I realize I’m feeding trolls here, but I’m shocked that people actually think Hemingway was a great author _because_ of his subjects. He was a fantastic stylist and one can argue that that makes even his macho fantasies worth reading (I certainly enjoy him in small-ish doses), but I always thought the content of his novels was a net burden.
Jane Austen, on the other hand, while I find her prose at times a bit irritating and too clever by half, certainly manages to evoke timeless themes (love, status, class, being a strong woman in a sexist world etc.) that people still find relevant today. I can’t think of many authors who have maintained that type of relevance more than 150 years after their death.

180

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 2:57 am

“the Georgetown cocktail party types”
Not that it matters but I grew up in a small town and most of my immediate ancestors were/farmers. I have driven a tractor and worked with cattle. Can you say the same?

181

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:58 am

@173

Stay with me, Jerry. I assume that you would regard Shakespeare’s tragedies as no better or worse than his comedies because they display equally well his astonishing verbal facility and dramatic genius. Thus, Hamlet is not a greater play than A Midsummer Nights dream, it’s just “different.” Similarly, the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus are not greater works than the comedies of Aristophanes because they deal with life and death, they are just other kinds of fine literature.

This is not just a matter of taste. A writer with broad thematic range SUBSUMES the domains of writers with narrower scope. This is one of Pynchon’s amazing feats, the ability to shift stylistic gears and duck in and out of mini-genres with brilliant facility. Pynchon can do Austen, but Austen could not do Pynchon.

182

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 2:58 am

Adam Smith,

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather read about battles and heroism than about drawing room society. It is no accident that the modern west has such a dearth of good art nowadays: prosperity and comfort don’t exactly make for great art.

183

Tom Slee 09.27.13 at 3:01 am

Hector St. Clare. The modern west has a great deal of good art, all about battles and heroism. There’s the Transformers movies, for a start.

184

mds 09.27.13 at 3:06 am

Jerry Vinokurov @ 167:

While I doubt that anyone, Eliot included, is capable of making sheep-shearing seem interesting

Coincidentally, I was present at a sheep-shearing demonstration on Tuesday, and the topical patter of the gentleman performing the shearing was actually rather interesting, and tinged with melancholy to boot. So no, no theme too small.

185

Collin Street 09.27.13 at 3:11 am

I’m shocked that people actually think Hemingway was a great author _because_ of his subjects.

You should spend some more time in genre-fiction discussion forums. There are comic-book-guys in lit.fic as much as anywhere else.

[seriously, the “Sword Art Online” discussion is worth looking at, if you like. The show itself — a recent japanese cartoon — is entirely without any merit whatsoever, but the discussion threads are revealing.]

186

adam.smith 09.27.13 at 3:13 am

yeah, what Tom says. If you can’t understand underlying themes in literature (i.e. if you think that Austen is about “drawing room society”) and like some good ol’ violence and clear good/evil delineations, I recommend action movies. I’d be more generous and even allow you decent movies like Die Hard I-III. Lots of violence, manliness, and good vs. evil there. I think at least in 1 and 2 he’s even married and there is no morally dubious hanky-panky with other women, so that should work for you, too. Lord of the Ring is excellent, too, especially the movies. There is a bunch of boring philosophy stuff in the books, so I’d recommend against those.

187

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:14 am

Stay with me, Jerry. I assume that you would regard Shakespeare’s tragedies as no better or worse than his comedies because they display equally well his astonishing verbal facility and dramatic genius. Thus, Hamlet is not a greater play than A Midsummer Nights dream, it’s just “different.”

It should be obvious, I hope, that even the same author writing in the same time period might produce two works of dissimilar quality. There are Shakespearean comedies I like better than some Shakespearean tragedies and vice versa. The extent to which Hamlet is a “greater” play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, to me, equivalent to the extent to which a particular part of the former play is a more artfully constructed piece than anything in the latter. Large parts of Hamlet (and every other Shakespearean play, and those of his contemporaries) is actually mostly filler that would be unreadable and uninteresting were it not for the dramatic genius of the author.

It’s kind of funny to mention Hamlet anyway, because what could be more parochial than some prince’s succession problems? I mean, there’s no grand anything going on there, no sweep of history; it’s all about this one dude’s psychological state. I guess Shakespeare actually blows, or was a lady?

Similarly, the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus are not greater works than the comedies of Aristophanes because they deal with life and death, they are just other kinds of fine literature.

For my money, I’ll take Aristophanes over the tragedians any day.

This is not just a matter of taste. A writer with broad thematic range SUBSUMES the domains of writers with narrower scope.

There are writers who might be able to modulate their range like that there’s nothing necessarily true about this claim.

This is one of Pynchon’s amazing feats, the ability to shift stylistic gears and duck in and out of mini-genres with brilliant facility. Pynchon can do Austen, but Austen could not do Pynchon.

Pynchon has the decided advantage of living some few hundred years after Austen, and thereby having the benefit of her existence. It would be absurd to demand that Austen write in a novelistic style which did not exist in her day. You might as well blame Newton for not formulating general relativity.

Anyway, Pynchon, as much as I like him, couldn’t do Austen for a whole novel. He might be able to fake Austen for a chapter, but there’s no way he’d last 400 pages doing Sense and Sensibility. He’s a fundamentally different sort of writer, and there’s nothing wrong with that; the world needs all kinds, after all. But claiming that Pynchon somehow subsumes Austen is absurd.

188

js. 09.27.13 at 3:16 am

Pynchon can do Austen

I’d like to see him try.

189

Lee A. Arnold 09.27.13 at 3:19 am

#160 “Symphonies are greater achievements than chamber music compositions because they deploy greater resources. By analogy, literary works that encompass the extremes of human experience are superior to those which examine human phenomena in a narrow range.”

Could not disagree more. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms all wrote chamber pieces of the highest achievement. Austen and Henry James clearly disprove the literary thesis. Being and consciousness are not proved to higher degree by mere extremity. Sometimes quite the opposite!

190

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:20 am

It is more difficult to write a good symphony than it is to write a good string quartet because it is harder to command the greater resources of a full orchestra. By analogy, it is harder to write a good novel that encompasses a broad range of human conflicts, characters, and situations than it is to write novel about a small set of individuals in a narrow range of circumstances. Proust and Joyce pioneered expansive novels devoted to uninhibited exploration of vast inner spaces of memory and consciousness, and this was a sharp departure from the more narrowly observed narratives of 19th century literature. Joyce’s Ulysses is named after an ambitious epic because it is an equally ambitious epic of inner life.

I submit that the ultimate measure of an artist (in any branch of the arts) is the product of his/her facility and the scope of the work. Big themes multiplied by big talent result in great works. Smaller themes multiplied by big talent result in lesser works.

191

adam.smith 09.27.13 at 3:27 am

I’m glad we know now who the greatest composer of all times is. Mahler had the biggest orchestra _and_ a bunch of choirs, _and_ soloists, so clearly he wins. Take that Bach &Beethoven!

192

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 3:28 am

Most of the great female writers don’t write about violent death in an understated and deadpan manner. However, some of the minor ones do, and they do it at least as well as the passage from Hemingway you quoted. Take Grace Paley, for example:

Fear struck the kidnappers, you can see that. You may ask, Where are the children? Perhaps in another country, perhaps kindly treated by a frightened wife. Perhaps they will forget, go to school, they will think –oh, that other childhood was a dream. Perhaps they were thrown into the sea. Or the garbage. Not good. Not good.

193

bekabot 09.27.13 at 3:33 am

Hemingway was a cobbler sticking to his last. He had his narrow range of material and he worked it and re-worked it and darned it and patched it and turned it lining-side-out, then gave it a bit of a rub-up and a burnishment and started over again. And that’s what he kept doing throughout his career as a writer. That’s probably why Hemingway’s material was noticeably worn by the time he was through with it, though he had the gift of reanimating things, ideas, canards, and concepts which had already been in the shop window for decades by the time he got to them — and then dealt with them and them exclusively for another forty years — by the end of which time it isn’t to be wondered at if the resulting product began to look a little weary.

Hemingway also had what is usually thought of as a feminine virtue: he knew his own “sphere” inside and out and didn’t attempt to cross its boundaries. He devoted his attention to what he started out knowing he was good at, and he usually didn’t experiment with things — like characterizing women — that he knew he couldn’t manage. When he tried to write female characters, the results could get pretty dire. (Lady Brett: a teetering stack of Art Deco colorblocks. Catherine in A Farewell To Arms: a wavering shadow.) Fortunately, for the most part, he stuck to writing men. (“A man’s got to know his limitations.” I know, that’s not a Hemingway line, but it should have been.)

I don’t regard Hemingway’s world of bullfights and disaffected soldiers as intrinsically more limited than Austen’s world of courtship and dancing. But even if it were, Austen outshines Hemingway by far in at least one important respect, which is that her men are by no means as haphazardly rendered, as uncertain in outline, or as half-heartedly run-up as his women. And things like that, specifically, are what Belle Waring is complaining about. Nobody could call Mr. Collins a well-rounded character but he is at least skillfully drawn and well-inked-in. He may be a cartoonish figure but he’s a cartoonish figure into whose construction some effort has been put. Mr. Bennett is one of the best portraits of a neuresthenic and feebly clever Englishman ever done. Mr. Darcy is basically an erotic and monetary fantasy, yet consider the impression he makes. You may not think of him as a particularly convincing character and he may not be a particularly convincing character but he takes up space on the stage upon which he is set and he casts a shadow instead of being one. He may in reality only be there because Elizabeth Bennett needs a rescuer but all the same he succeeds in sucking all the air out of every room he enters. That’s what Jane Austen could do with a male character who was, as written, basically only a vehicle for studliness and money. And she did it while self-confessedly never, ever straying beyond the parameters of what an isolated/insulated English gentlewoman could plausibly say or hear. Hemingway was an accomplished writer in his line but but he effected no similar feats, though of course he never had to.

194

Peter T 09.27.13 at 3:34 am

On a tangent, because I have nothing to add to Belle’s wonderful posts – they did start me thinking about pre-19th century fully-rendered female characters, and I wondered if Belle had not been perhaps too generous to earlier writers. Even in sexist, patriarchal, macho societies, and writing for the same, and mostly about battles and the other manly stuff that turns Hector on, it was possible to depict women as themselves IF you were a good enough writer. Even then, you did not HAVE to be a sexist dillweed. An eclectic few came to mind – Clytemnestra, Medea and Antigone, Maebh in the Tain, Hallgerda and Bergthora in Njal’s Saga – all very much themselves, no cardboard visible.

195

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:35 am

@187

The difficulty of arguing against the advantages of artistic scale and scope is that one is forced into the defense of progressively smaller works until a peculiar Bonsai notion of aesthetics is attained. It is patently absurd to declare Beethoven’s 9th or Hamlet to be no better or worse than the other smaller scale attainments of those artists. The reason Muzak is not music is that it has COMPRESSED DYNAMIC RANGE. The reason we declare literary works to be masterpieces is that they display artistry applied to ambitious themes.

196

geo 09.27.13 at 3:38 am

Substance @113: ignorant or impatient

Where did you get that? How about just “mistaken” or “overlooking something”?

197

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 3:39 am

I quite enjoyed For Whom The Bell Tolls. Hemingway is one of the few “important” authors that I have actually managed to enjoy reading.

198

js. 09.27.13 at 3:43 am

it is harder to write a good novel that encompasses a broad range of human conflicts, characters, and situations than it is to write novel about a small set of individuals in a narrow range of circumstances. Proust and Joyce pioneered expansive novels devoted to uninhibited exploration of vast inner spaces of memory and consciousness, and this was a sharp departure from the more narrowly observed narratives of 19th century literature.

I like Joyce (and Woolf and Forster) a _lot_ more than I like Victorian shit (and here the fault truly lies in the reader), but this is what I found just found in the dictionary when I looked up “talking out of my dumb ass”. If you want “grand scope” and shit like that, you obviously go to the Victorians, not the high moderns. Like, have you read Orlando? No, obviously you haven’t. Go read it, then come back. Actually, don’t—first read To The Lighthouse and The Waves as well. Then come back. We still won’t talk, but at least you’ll have read some essential fiction of the 20th century.

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:44 am

The difficulty of arguing against the advantages of artistic scale and scope is that one is forced into the defense of progressively smaller works until a peculiar Bonsai notion of aesthetics is attained.

Your difficulty is not my difficulty.

You’re laboring under the mistaken notion that we must all bow to your hierarchies, when in fact judgments of literary merit are intrinsically difficult to rank on a hierarchical scale. Nevermind that the entire criterion is internally inconsistent and that (broadly speaking) male authors write works that are just as thematically limited as female authors, just in a different way. This notwithstanding, you can’t make something true just by repeating it a lot very earnestly. People have different criteria for what they consider artistic merit, and if those criteria don’t line up with yours, it’s not because you’ve got unvarnished access to the truth and we’re all just peasants laboring under illusions.

200

bekabot 09.27.13 at 3:44 am

I’m glad we know now who the greatest composer of all times is. Mahler had the biggest orchestra _and_ a bunch of choirs, _and_ soloists, so clearly he wins. Take that Bach &Beethoven!

Yah, it’s a darn shame all those baroque polyphonists didn’t know they were wasting their time with their claviers and harpsichords and fugues and crabs. If they’d known where the real action was, they’d have saved themselves about a century or so and slid straight into kettledrums and trombones. We’d have been spared the feminine harpsichord and treated to the manly piano instead. Boys could have practiced their scales with a good conscience and no doubt the world would have been a better place.

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:45 am

You know who’s a fun Victorian is Wilkie Collins.

202

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:48 am

Dear bekabot,

MOAR PLS

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Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 3:49 am

Adam Smith,

I have not personally read the works of Austen, Pinchon or many of the other writers being discussed: I was deferring to Mr. Straight Wood’s literary expertose. If I mischaracterised the works of Jane Austin as drawing room comedies, I’m sorry.

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Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 3:51 am

Bekabot,

Barkley is a perfectly finely portrayed character, I don’t know what your complaining about.

205

bekabot 09.27.13 at 3:53 am

Dear Jerry Vinokurov,

I’m flattered, but I’m tired, and I beg to be excused (for now).

But I am intensely flattered (I know, I already said that, but I’m in a mood to repeat it).

Thank you.

206

Substance McGravitas 09.27.13 at 4:00 am

Well, hello and welcome to Women’s Literature. In many circumstances, Women’s Literature is a sad anti-climax after the exciting events described in Boy’s Literature and Men’s Literature. We hope to avoid this pitfall by making our Women’s Literature into the most exciting and action-packed Women’s Literature that you’ve ever read. In a lot of cases, Women’s Literature contains purely feminine matter, and in others explosions are still only part of the dramatic action, but not so any more… We say: get a move on, female novelists! and let’s have more Women’s Literature like this:

…of her dress as it rode up over her thighs, her slender body thrust forward by the enormous power of the 6,000 h.p. engines, as Horst hurled the car into a shrieking, sickening slide across the wet tarmac. The lion tore savagely at his bronzed thighs as the car soared into the air, turned, twisted, and plunged down the treacherous ski slope, that no man had ever survived. Tenderly Eunice caressed him as the fighters screeched out of the darkness, flames ripping towards him. The sea was coming nearer and nearer, and though neither had eaten for eight weeks, the stark terror of what they saw, gave them the last drop of energy to push their bodies to the limits. Eunice groaned, the dark figure of Shahn-el-Shid, dagger raised, hurled himself from the sheer wall of the palace. Horst reversed, swerved, coughed and threw himself into the gorge. Never had Horst known such exquisite pleasure, as far above him a million Dervishes swept into the fort, looting and pillaging. The Colonel screamed an order, and with one enormous blast the refinery was a sheet of flame – a wall of fire six miles long and eight miles high. Eunice groaned as the spacecraft roared low over the silent, darkened surface of this eerie world, a million light years from the Earth they had left only seconds before, a planet doomed to extinction, when suddenly…

How about that for Women’s Literature? Wake up Morrison! Wake up Walker! Let’s show the World that Women’s Literature gets on with it!

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Anarcissie 09.27.13 at 4:03 am

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:20 am:
It is more difficult to write a good symphony than it is to write a good string quartet because it is harder to command the greater resources of a full orchestra.

Well, that explains it at last — why I would rather listen to Beethoven or Shostakovich quartets than their symphonies, contrary to all reason and common sense. It’s because it’s so easy to write a quartet, so they could do it better. And then, if you have only one instrument, like say J.S. Bach in the partitas and sonatas for solo violin, it’s just a piece of cake. And how about the Art of the Fugue, for no instrument but the mind? It must have practically written itself.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.27.13 at 4:10 am

That makes me want to go and listen to the partitas for about the fifth time this year…

“It is more difficult to write a good symphony than it is to write a good string quartet… absurd to declare Beethoven’s 9th or Hamlet to be no better or worse than the other smaller scale attainments of those artists.”

No, it It is probably much much harder to write a good string quartet because you have less resources to draw upon. But then, the entire world can be in a string quartet. Or in a little poem by Keats. Beethoven’s favorite composition of his own was his string quartet op. 130. “Never did my own music produce such an effect upon me; even now when I recall this work it still costs me a tear.” His late quartets are for me among the finest things in music.

209

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 4:11 am

Minor women writers can also write harrowingly about the horrors of war. Consider Cynthia Ozick:
And the moment little Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body, they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot, so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva, and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried.

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Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 4:16 am

All this art and music terminology goes way over my head, so I will just say this: men will always have an extra factor driving them to create art, viz. status competition with the intention of using high status to attract women. There are plenty if other reasons men and women create art, but intra male competition is one extra factor that drives males to create art. Therefore one should not be surprised if among the best artists, just as among political leaders, we see a preponderance of men.

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 4:54 am

Straightwood: you do realize that the very small number of women qualified and permitted to write in English in the last 400 years were not merely mentally but, in fact, physically constrained to one space or another, to the care of their father, or husband, or brother, or begrudging brother-in-law, under the watch of their mother, governess, companion? Do you remember the terrible moment, in The Mill on The Floss, when the boat has gotten too far downriver, and there is no hope of returning? Maggie must either submit to marriage or become a social outcast. There was something going on there that was more like modern-day Saudi Arabia than we would like to think. To demand that those people imagine the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars or fail to be great writers is worse than stupid. I’m not going to call you a sexist dillweed because that’s not how I roll. You’re probably a stand-up guy who’s just a little confused about this one subject.

In Hemingway’s day a woman might have seen more of war if she had become a nurse, but not as much as a soldier, not ever–unless she were a refugee. Did anyone write those stories? About how their village in Spain got taken and their husband was killed and they were raped more than once in front of their 3-year-old and the baby and then they had to flee on foot with almost nothing left, not even able to carry the family bible that recorded all the births and deaths in their families for 200 years? What’s that? Whyever not? Was there some sort of massive, society-wide form of shaming going on that would prevent rape victims from speaking out; that would glorify the strong and despise the weak? That’s just crazy talk. Oh, wait, no, it’s as if society was crippled by sexism! (Oh but Belle I was talking about writers in English! Talk to the Nobel “We give awards to Swedish People and Danish Ones and Shit” Prize committee, because even the hand ain’t listening.)

Look dude, no shit there aren’t as many great works of art by women, and not as many scientific discoveries, and not as many composers, and not as many bright ideas to invade Russia late in the season. No one let women do anything until about 20 minutes ago, world-historically speaking. Look at literacy rates in developing nations–there’s still a massive disparity (except in China), with a huge minority of women still not able to read. We didn’t even fucking finish teaching women to read yet! Why are you not taking into account this very well known, manifest truth about human history? Finally, your “scope” argument is bullshit. You prefer novels that range far and wide. Great! That’s not the same as saying, it’s objectively the case that such novels are better. Bogus analogies to music are failing.

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Matt 09.27.13 at 4:57 am

To my mind, a writer is at his best when he evokes the basic and eternal truths of human nature. Since one of those truths is that the classes are essentially different, with different talents, interests and roles, the best writers will probably be considered politically incorrect among the Hollywood crowd.

I am a class complementarian, not a classist. There’s nothing better or worse about being a count or a serf. They are just different roles. Some people have an inherited propensity to give orders and others to receive them. Due to status competitions among titled aristocracy the greatest art disproportionately comes from the upper classes. It was Tolstoy who wrote War and Peace and not one of the nameless forgotten who worked on his estate — this no mere coincidence.

If you look at the evidence without politically correct blinkers on you will see that titles and property are highly heritable. You can’t argue with reality. It all goes back to the Serengeti.

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:05 am

geo: I didn’t mention you by name, and wasn’t thinking of doing so. I was smushing together and then exaggerating the tones of the two threads for comic effect. I realize that it’s not fair for posters to pick on commenters because we have a big platform to stand on while you are just stuck down here in the threads. You did piss me off the other day, but I’m not mad now, and I understand you really didn’t intend to claim at any point that I was lying when I said I could read books.

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bad Jim 09.27.13 at 5:06 am

Lee A. Arnold: moreover, a string quartet shares the sonata form with a symphony, and takes up about the same amount of time.

I wanted to argue that no major composer after Schubert wrote more than a handful of quartets (except of course Shostakovich) because there’s less money in it; the audience is too small. The problem is that Schumann & Brahms both bequeathed us 3 quartets and 4 symphonies. Tchaikovsky wrote 3 quartets and 6 symphonies. Perhaps a rough equivalence between symphonic & quartet production is the norm, and Verdi, Debussy, Ravel, with one quartet each and no symphonies, and Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, and Nielsen with no quartets (as far as I know) are the outliers. Presumably they were dealing with different markets.

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:06 am

162: I take it all back, Hector, bravissimo!

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Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 5:06 am

Belle Waring,

You are simply incorrect about premodern England. in Christian societies (as opposed to various oriental cultures) marriage always required the consent of the parties involved , and forced marriage was not permitted under canon law.
It is also rather silly of you to say that ‘no one let women do anything’, historically. And I find your comparison of Christian civilisation to Saudi Arabian barbarism to be outrageous.

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b9n10nt 09.27.13 at 5:07 am

And isn’t art inspired by status competition (male evo-psych cliche) limited in comparison to that art inspired by the “drive” to communicate and accurately discern another’s inner life (female evo-psyche cliche)?

I mean, if evo-psych cliches are what we’re eating with, why not order liberally to see what’s tasty?

218

dr ngo 09.27.13 at 5:13 am

Havergal Brian wrote bigger symphonies, with larger musical forces, than Mahler. Why isn’t he in this discussion of the greatest composer of all time? Surely there’s someone out there who will champion his cause? Bueller? . . . Bueller? . . . Straightwood?

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Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 5:14 am

B9n10nt,

Actually, that’s an excellent point.

220

Joseph Brenner 09.27.13 at 5:30 am

“Tristram Shandy” is a book about the way human brains are
broken: nearly everyone in it is obsessed with some sort of
trivial nonsense. Are they oblivious to a woman’s suffering?
Sure, but then, they’re oblivious to everything else, too.

The main characters are not heroes in any sense, the way they
think and behave is not at all exemplary: you can have sexist
characters without having a sexist narrative.

221

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:40 am

Hector, often analogies are used when situations, rather than being identical, are simply analogous, in that they share certain features which the speaker wishes to highlight. while, at the same time, it is obviously not the case that the two situations are precisely the same, since, were that true, there would be no need to elucidate the one with reference to the other.

222

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 5:43 am

Mao Cheng Jii @124: have you been reading Crooked Timber since before 2006? Because if not, then I think your notion of what people write about at Crooked Timber may be fatally and totally and tragically wrong. Perhaps it is rather the case that you should be reading a different blog. Because I’ve been here that whole time.

223

bad Jim 09.27.13 at 5:55 am

I’m going backwards through the comments (I thought Memento was a wonderful movie) and ought, as usual, to apologize for missing the point in my previous comment. Then I chanced on this, which is rather precious:

She does not write about people at the limits, but, like Austen, creates meticulously observed dramas of quotidien life.

How is this different from the work of Updike and Bellows or pretty much any Serious Novelist? Most people who write about what they know are likely to get stuck in this trap. Even veterans wind up doing this after they’ve written their war novels.

It’s funny to see Hemingway both lionized and dismissed, and Vonnegut merely dismissed, when Vonnegut is nearly Hemingway’s only heir when it comes to prose. The studied simplicity is easy to mock, and no longer in fashion; perhaps like many artistic innovations its sole appeal is its originality and can’t bear repetition, or perhaps it’s simply very difficult to do well (as Hemingway and Vonnegut amply demonstrate).

I think the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel demonstrate my point; both are surprisingly spare, jarringly strange, and irrefrangibly resistant to imitation. Perhaps if there had been money to be made in writing quartets they might have been tempted to write another.

224

b9n10nt 09.27.13 at 6:04 am

But bad Jim, does anyone imitate anyone after Romanticism de-legitimizes imitation?

225

b9n10nt 09.27.13 at 6:18 am

And to pile on Straightwood (I think) orchestras are for large halls, quartets for smaller ones. You’d no more claim that a large-type book read at a distance was better than a small-type one read up close was grander. Okay that’s going too far, but the point is that Beethoven himself exposes your point: yes the 9th can work us up something awful, but his late quartets are just as grand, if in a more intimate (read: more real) context.

Even where the subject is the world and not the self, Bartok’s quartets create a vastness that is equal to Wagnerian dimensions. And so too with Stravinsky (though we’re back to the concert hall, usually): an economy of instrumentation opens the curtains and brightens the room, so to speak.

For me, the

226

Walt 09.27.13 at 6:21 am

To be fair, Straightwood’s 133 makes clear he’s only interested in the big themes: war, peace, and what happens when you’re suddenly turned into a bug.

When I was in college, I overheard a conversation between my girlfriend at the time and another friend on the subject of my reading habits. They agreed that in general I had good taste in books, that my love of Farewell to Arms was inexplicable because that book was terrible. My girlfriend hated it so much that she hid it somewhere in my room where she would never have to see it.

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bad Jim 09.27.13 at 6:30 am

“Literature is about different ways of being human.”

That would leave Ursula LeGuin out in the cold.

I’m not enthralled by the Kaija Saariaho piece Lee Arnold linked. I’m a fan of the Kronos Quartet, hardly a hidebound traditionalist, but it doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. Thanks, though.

I’m amazed by the number of people who found Dostoevsky a tough slog. I read him in high school and found him easy going, like Tolstoy (or like Dickens, whom I avoided, because who needs that?) That stuff was written to be easy to read for the readers of the day, so once you’ve assimilated the module for reading Victorian literature, you’re set.

“Ulysses” was work, I’ll admit; I had to set aside a week for it. I felt better for having done it, but mostly out of pride. I doubt it was worth the effort. The same summer I read Sartre’s trilogy “The Roads to Freedom” which was somewhat more enjoyable.

228

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 6:31 am

I’m not throwing away any Vonnegut! I mean, sure, I sort of have a hoarding problem and wouldn’t let John throw away a couple of books I found on the sidewalk one time, that were horrible which I discovered– ANYWAY, no, I think Vonnegut is excellent, and like many schoolkids I was also introduced to Hemingway upside down, oldest works first, and I thought, “who is this asshole?” Later I read more, and earlier Hemingway and liked it a lot better, but he does not have a sense of humor to save his life, that man, no. Vonnegut is hilarious. In general more than half–a great deal more than half, even–of progress made in writing in the 20th century was in SF or speculative fiction or detective novels or fantasy, or something other than Roth’s claustrophobic toilet and its minute themes, which no woman would care enough about to discuss.

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 6:35 am

bad Jim: agreed on the Dostoyevsky. What do you people want? Horrible family drama, murder, revenge, unknown bastard children, disputes over inheritance, political terrorism–what the fuck else are easy-to-read thrilling Russian NovelTM by Tolstoy ever supposed to be about? Or novels generally? Or if you don’t like long, and you prefer terrible existential despair, there are these little Notes down here which I can…

Hey, do you guys read Gogol enough? God I love Gogol.

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bad Jim 09.27.13 at 6:37 am

b9n10nt, I assume you’re joking. Romanticism and Impressionism became default settings in their respective genres. Originality gets attention, but familiarity sells.

It always gets down to meaning and purpose. Half kidding, since meaning is typically a category error, but for an artist, purpose is pretty clear: getting paid for your work.

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Tim Chambers 09.27.13 at 6:40 am

@178

Perhaps when the neo-liberals have accomplished their Dickensian utopia we can get back to writing “great” literature again.

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GeoX 09.27.13 at 6:44 am

I like Dostoevsky fine, but it’s easy to see how people would have trouble with him, given that very long stretches of his novels consist of dour people dourly expostulating on dour topics at very great length. I read Karamazov back-to-back with Karenina, and the difference really couldn’t have been more pronounced. Tolstoy’s writing felt bright and brisk, whereas Dostoevsky’s felt grim and claustrophobic. It’s not a value judgment; I like them both, but there’s a pretty durned vast gulf between them.

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bad Jim 09.27.13 at 7:01 am

Belle: this is what I like: George Orwell, who had already written about the horrors of being middle-class or working-class English or an expatriate imperialist, also volunteered in Spain, impatiently demanding to be trained with a machine gun, and was shot through the neck. (The thing I remember most from “Homage to Catalonia” is his sense of humor. He related how, when the Communists went to search his place for Trotskyist literature, his wife fended them off with appeals to her privacy. They were Spanish. They obliged.) So of course he went home and wrote whatever he thought was needed at the time, then after the war wrote science fiction.

That’s the sort of story that makes a mock of anyone else’s resume.

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Phil 09.27.13 at 8:23 am

Coming in (or piling on) late, but I don’t think anyone’s challenged Straightwood @172 on the close-reading front.

The moment of supreme tension in this excerpt is the decision Henry makes to give his pistol to Bonello, with no assurance that Bonello will not shoot him in order to desert or to avenge his comrade.

That’s these three sentences:

Bonello came up. “Let me go finish him,” he said. I handed him the pistol.

It is a supreme achievement of Hemingway’s minimalist style that he can communicate so much fear and courage with so few words.

As my English supervisor used to say, show me in the text. Show me where he does that. All I can see is unusually laconic Boys’ Own action writing. You’ve brought your own fear and courage to it, inferred from the narrative (which has set up the situation you describe). You can get that effect from anyone who can write narrative (which isn’t everyone, admittedly).

See the post bianca linked to on the other thread. Some writing does that thing, some (most) doesn’t. I haven’t read enough Hemingway to pass judgment on his work in general, but that extract certainly doesn’t.

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Niall McAuley 09.27.13 at 9:28 am

If the broadest possible scope and highest stakes conflict are what makes a novel great, then E.E. “Doc” Smith is the greatest American writer. In his classic Lensman series, an arms race escalates from battling starships to destroying planets using star powered weapons to using entire faster-than-light anti-matter planets as weapons. And all of that is only the latest spat in an eons-long war between good and evil races of ultimate power behind the scenes.

It’s barely-readable pulp adventure, of course, but faster-than-light anti-matter planet bombs!!.

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Bruce Baugh 09.27.13 at 9:50 am

Substance McGravitas, that was a good bit of Monty Python re-purposing. :)

237

Walt 09.27.13 at 10:10 am

I love Lensman so much, and yet it is so terrible. I admire its commitment to its premise, in that if someone invents a superweapon in book 1, they still have the superweapon in book n, while we all know that in the next Star Trek movie they will mysteriously have forgotten how to cure death. It means that while in book 1 the Lensman fight pirates, by book 3 it’s all out war between two galaxies.

I read it well after I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, so I don’t even have the excuse of not knowing better.

238

Mandos 09.27.13 at 10:18 am

In Straightwood’s “subsumption” theory of Great Literature, Lois McMaster Bujold subsumes them all because she can write an epic space battle about traditionally feminine themes.

239

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 10:27 am

Heller has also got to be worth a mention if we are talking about great writers of the 20th century. Is there a better anti war novel than Catch 22? Plus it is hilarious! A large number of these “great” novels seem a little…. Serious for my tastes.

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Phil 09.27.13 at 10:31 am

I’ve just remembered my first encounter with Jane Austen, which came via a book of quotations when I was about 14. I read out the one about

the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour

and said, in so many words, “She’s actually admitting that she writes next-to-nothing about next-to-nothing! How can that possibly be worth reading? She’s practically saying herself that it’s not worth reading!” Just down the page was a quote from Mr Woodhouse (An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome) – “I mean, look! A boiled egg! She’s writing about – one of her best lines is about a soft-boiled egg!”

My family collectively gave me a resigned stare and said, “You just have to read it.” (They were right, of course.)

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Phil 09.27.13 at 10:35 am

I read Catch-22 in the mid-70s, turned my head back round and started on His New One – Something happened – with whoops of glee. Which didn’t last long.

I think Something happened is probably my closest encounter with the kind of male narrative voice we’ve been talking about (as I said @53, “a certain kind of in-turned serious male authorial voice which ends up not actually giving a very good account of anything– not even the subject himself”). I didn’t like it.

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Walt 09.27.13 at 11:16 am

I think Heller really only had one book in him, and after he wrote that he didn’t know what to do. So in Something Happened he’s imitating the Important Male Novelist style, which he’s worse at than his contemporaries.

243

Zora 09.27.13 at 11:17 am

I’m glad Hector St. Clare mentioned Jane Austin. She is one of my favorite novelists. For those of you who are not familiar with her work, here is a brief discussion:

http://richardhartersworld.com/cri/2001/austinbio.html

She certainly put paid to the notion that women could not write action novels!

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 11:47 am

Catch-22 is a hilarious book. One of the main things lacking in the Serious Male Writers up there is a sense of humor. Vonnegut, and Pynchon can both be very funny, and A Confederacy of Dunces is also hilarious. Taking yourself too seriously is a bad quality in a writer.

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Anon 09.27.13 at 11:47 am

Belle: “Later I read more, and earlier Hemingway and liked it a lot better, but he does not have a sense of humor to save his life, that man, no.”

I just tried to imagine comic interludes in, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and I think it’s probably a good thing that he’s so humorless. It would be hilarious for all the wrong reasons. But then I seem to remember some funny bits in A Moveable Feast, no?

Also: Gogol, yes! And: I think only one person, not many, expressed difficulty with Dostoevsky, though I did admit only some (I’m looking at you, The Possessed) are at times a slog. Sure, there’s some grimness, but there is also so much wackiness and hilarity. Then everybody gets brain fever.

Straightwood,

While I don’t think any one feature of a novel has overriding importance and cannot be compensated for by other aspects, I do think subject matter and theme are of high importance, and I do think seriousness of theme can *all other aspects being equal* make an artwork more significant. There’s some plausibility to the broad generalization that important novels are about important themes. But “life and death” is a bit too simple: there are other important subject matters. And even if we take, say, mortality to be a principal important theme, it doesn’t follow that the setting or plot have to be explicitly and primarily about mortality. I think Thomas Hardy novels are novels about serious matters, including life and death, but some of his novels are, in another sense, novels about sheep shearing. Even in Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea is not explicitly about life and death in the same way that For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms, but then it still about big themes, isn’t it?

So, while I disagree that life and death is the all important subject, and I don’t think subject matter trumps all else, even if it did, isn’t it a mistake to identify the subject matter too closely with the setting? Actually, many novels and movies about life and death–specifically, war and crime, are shockingly shallow, since they don’t in any deep or interesting way reflect on or understand their subject matter. Consider the cliche (probably simplistic and false in some way) that art is about “higher” things, while the pursuits of uncultured philistines focuses on animal life: food, sex, survival. Again, a false distinction, but notice that the cliche treats *life and death* in its most basic form as *beneath* the concern of art. So if life and death is an important artistic subject, it’s in how it’s treated, and that means that any novel can potentially do it, regardless of setting.

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Sumana Harihareswara 09.27.13 at 12:00 pm

Whether you honestly believe that it can’t be Great Literature without violent death, or you simply enjoy speccing out fanfic in which we add explosions to the literature of the domestic: NOTES TOWARD AN INFERNOKRUSHER MANIFESTO.

And for scope and scale, there’s Olaf Stapledon. More happens in two paragraphs of Star Maker than happens in most entire novels. Entirely ordinary example (Ch. 8, “The Beginning and the End,” Section 2, “The Supreme Moment Nears”):

The supreme moment of the cosmos was not (or will not be) a moment by human standards; but by cosmical standards it was indeed a brief instant. When little more than half the total population of many million galaxies had entered fully into the cosmical community, and it was clear that no more were to be expected, there followed a period of universal meditation. The populations maintained their straitened utopian civilizations, lived their personal lives of work and social intercourse, and at the same time, upon the communal plane, refashioned the whole structure of cosmical culture. Of this phase I shall say nothing.

(The paralipsis! Even more laconic than Hemingway! And he repeats his refusal, e.g., “Of the other insectoid worlds, I shall say nothing.”)

bad Jim at 223, would you mind expanding on that? (Also, is your nickname a Moxy Früvous reference?)

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b9n10nt 09.27.13 at 12:30 pm

bad Jim:

Oh you’ll know it when I’m joking, dammit.

Maybe I’m not sure o your point: I can’t tell the difference between a number of Classicists up till Haydn/Mozart. From there it gets easier, no? That’s all. I mean there’s always imitation among those who are consciously NOT presenting themselves as artistically elite, but there was a time when (in music, at least) when originality of voice was not yet a necessary qualifier for Greatness.

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Walt 09.27.13 at 12:35 pm

Sumana, by a weird coincidence I was trying to remember the infernokrusher joke yesterday, but I couldn’t. (“Steampunk” came up in one of those rare conversations not near a computer.)

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Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 12:43 pm

Yes! Doc Smith’s Lensman series, and Olaf Stapledon, and this one Greg Bear novel in which some of our ultimate descendants, who have been bred for this purpose and live inside a star, must push the star into a black hole in order to destroy the universe in the correct way, that is, one which somehow propagates back through time to influence the titanic struggle between humanity and an alien race–these novels are the best novels. Of necessity. You might think, oh, hey, the Dune novels have a pretty wide scope. But they ain’t got nothing on Stapledon (if only those and the Lensman books we any good.) Additionally this is why novels that include faster-than-light drive are better than novels that don’t. What is the horrible promise, “I will make them eat horseflesh” when compared to a suicidal orbital ship mind in an Iain M. Banks novel? Horseflesh–ha! In the Banks novel a would-be terrorist is killed when a drone materializes in his body in the form of a swarm of terrifying alien wasps as he is standing in front of a mirror, keeping him conscious for long enough to register what is happening before he becomes a pink mist around the wasps.

250

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 12:58 pm

Talking about comic novels from that generation, I have to admit I found JP Donleavys The Ginger Man pretty funny when I first read it (in secondary school though, so probably ages 13-17)
It seems to always show up in those top 100 most important novel lists (though I cant see how its important, and its problematic on any number of levels IIRC) I dont know what Id make of it now though

251

Henry 09.27.13 at 1:17 pm

Yawn. Could someone from The Management post something crookedtimeber-like, please

It’s funny how a specific subset of CT posts by a specific subset of CT posters, keep getting dismissed by certain comments as trivial, silly or unworthy. Each time it happens to Belle, to Maria, to Eszter, to Ingrid, to Tedra I feel as if there’s some hidden underlying pattern to it, but I just can’t figure out what that pattern might be for the life of me. Can anyone help me here?

252

The Dark Avenger 09.27.13 at 1:30 pm

Just a little correction: The Lensman series doesn’t have an anti-matter planet from another dimension, the negasphere was created by the Galactic Patrol after a Conference of Scientists determine how to make one.

Have you ever seen a negasphere strike a planet?
The negasphere is built of negative matter. This material–or, rather,
anti- material–is in every respect the exact opposite of the every-day
matter of normal space. Instead of electrons, it has positrons. To it a
push, however violent, is a pull; a pull is a push. When negative
matter strikes positive, then, there is no collision in the usual sense
of the word. One electron and one positron neutralize each other and
disappear; giving rise to two quanta of extremely hard radiation.
Thus, when the spherical hyper-plane which was the aspect of the
negasphere tended to occupy the same three-dimensional space in
which the loose planet already was, there was no actual collision.
Instead, the materials of both simply vanished, along the surface of
what should have been a contact, in a gigantically crescendo burst of
pure, raw energy. The atoms and the molecules of the planet’s
substance disappeared; the physically incomprehensible texture of
the negasphere’s anti-mass changed into that of normal space. And
all circumambient space was flooded with inconceivably lethal
radiation; so intensely lethal that any being not adequately shielded
from it died before he had time to realize that he was being burned.

It was a planet from N-space, another dimension where the physical laws of our universe didn’t apply, which had an intrinsic velocity greater than that of light, which of course, is impossible in “our” universe, that was also used as a weapon against the ostensible home of the Boskone conspiracy, Ploor.

253

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 1:33 pm

Yes, Henry, I must say it’s a puzzler. I’ve been wondering about it myself for ages now. I did think that Mao Cheng Ji typing “crookedtimeber-like” looks just the tiniest bit as if he were headed towards typing “crookedtmember-like.” Hmmm. That doesn’t seem to shed any light on the subject though. Well, I’m out of ideas.

254

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 1:37 pm

Belle Waring,

Yes I know what an analogy is, I just thought your was a remarkably poor one.

Arguably, if the Manhattan cocktail party crowd had been running things a frw centuries ago, Muslims might have conquered Europe, and then your dystopia might actually have come to pass. happily for all of us, they weren’t.

255

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 1:41 pm

It is interesting to learn that I’m not part of “The Management,” though! I wonder who is? We should ask Mao. I think it might be illuminating!

Hey, Mao Cheng Ji: which of the posters do you think are The Management and which the…ah…secretaries? Workers on the factory floor? Shopgirls? Longshoremen? Light Infantry? Hm? I really am quite burning with ardor to find this out. I guess I’ll have to follow you around asking you until you tell us, how tedious. And then what if you have to get a new pseud over a silly little thing like this! And have to start from square one! No, I think it’d just be better is you told us now, don’t you?

256

Belle Waring 09.27.13 at 1:45 pm

Well Hector, I think that people who were constantly drinking and being entertained by witty repartée, clad in expensive clothes in the latest fashion, who didn’t want to get their hands dirty or have to do what anyone else told them–ever–were, in fact, already in control of Europe, and it’s a lucky thing too!

257

Random Lurker 09.27.13 at 1:50 pm

@Hector 253

How is this that the “Manhattan cocktail party crowd” is able impose its iron high heel on Christians, but is not able to defeat Muslims?

I mean, if nazi-feminists really existed, they would immediately invade the middle east after seizing power in the “west”.

Also, do people who want to ban the “burqua” in europe count as nazi-feminists or not?

258

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 1:52 pm

Once more unto the breach of the aesthetic philosophical peace.

As an artist develops facility, he or she attempts to command progressively greater resources. Short story writers attempt novels and song writers attempt operas. They don’t do this out of boredom or experimentation. They move from simpler forms to greater ones because the larger forms are more demanding tests of ability. Success in the deployment of a wide range of artistic materials is a measure of artistic merit. This is why we regard actors who undertake a broad range of roles as superior to character actors trapped in the same part. The argument that thematic scope and scale are irrelevant to quality of literary work leads to the absurd assertion that a Haiku is potentially as great a work as an epic poem.

Confusing thematic scope with wham-bam pulp fiction is a deliberate misreading of my argument. A symphony can contain within it the most delicate notes of a solo instrument, but the solo performance cannot include the symphonic crescendo. This is what I mean when I say that writers who have broad thematic scope subsume the techniques of those who engage more limited topics. Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare if all he wrote were comedies of manners with clever repartee.

The aversion to quality comparisons seems to be a deeply-rooted modern intellectual neurosis, but such comparisons are an overwhelming fact of life. Writers are ranked and rated. Their works are ranked and rated. Even their critics are ranked and rated. I grant that it is unfair to expect women of past centuries to have tackled the grandest literary themes. Certainly their confined social circumstances limited their thematic scope, but women have had free access to literary endeavor for decades in America and Europe. Where is the female Camus? Where is the female Pynchon? Where is the female McCarthy?

259

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 1:57 pm

look people if the completely fictitious parody i have in my head of actual people had been running an imaginary society five hundred years ago then surely the hypothetical muslims i am imagining would have totally overrun this made-up continent i am talking about

I know I shouldn’t, but it’s so, so easy.

260

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 2:01 pm

Straightwood’s latest is easily refuted merely by silently mouthing the syllables “Jorge Luis Borges”. The greatest author of the twentieth century never progressed beyond the simplest, least demanding form of literature.

261

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 2:02 pm

A-and Kafka was a better short story writer than novelist.

262

John 09.27.13 at 2:02 pm

David Gilmour

Now this is interesting. The author wrote a book ‘Lost Among Houses’ about attending Canada’s premier private school Upper Canada College, in the early 1960s, and having a father who committed suicide.

The novel is autobiographical.

That and Doug Bell’s ‘Run Over’ (Bell went to another Canadian private school, but lived near UCC in the exclusive neighbourhood of Forest Hill, Toronto) are the 2 books which really speak to my high school experience, more than ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Chocolate Wars’. There really was a very ‘Lord of the Flies’ sense about what was going on.

There are parallels to my own experiences (not the father bit) at another Canadian private school in the 1970s. But very much a UCC clone– Branksome Hall girls would far rather date a UCC boy than one from our school, there was an absolute pecking order on which school had the ‘best’ boys from the perspective of the cloistered girls schools. The UCC boys would wander round the first year at university asking ‘why would anyone attend ?’

It is worth understanding how intensely *male* that environment was. And heterosexual male. The worst thing possible was to be called ‘gay’ or a ‘fag’.

The teachers, especially the phys ed teachers, reinforced this. Although there was an undercurrent of paedophilia (in interest if not in act), eg in the music programme, the phys ed teachers were the archetype of the homophobic repressed homo-erotic desires (see World According to Garp). Casual violence towards students was common, either in ‘fun’ or in anger– I remember being beaten up by a wrestling coach for some imagined slight of indiscipline, and a science master who took a sadistic delight in caning us for various infractions.

Be it as it may, this was in the much more liberal 1970s.

Women were a myth. It was as close to an Army boot camp, or a monastery, as you could get.

It was an environment designed to cultivate misogyny and an aggressive heterosexuality.

So Gilmour is straight out of that environment, and from the pre liberation era.

It has obviously affected him quite deeply.

Nowadays as a teacher it would make him quite striking, and memorable, because of course nobody talks that way any more (well, I thought nobody talks that way). At least not in a modern literature classroom. He’s a bit like the Straussians in the political science world, finding a genuine right winger in a politics department is such a shock. And indeed Alan Bloom, Thomas Pangle and Cliff Orwin had precisely that impact at U of Toronto political science at that time, and were at total odds with their department colleagues. Saul Bellow’s portrayal of the late Bloom in ‘Ravelstein’ still makes me laugh.

Not to defend Gilmour nor his views, but to understand, psychologically, where he is coming from. For a man whose father committed suicide, it must be hard to define yourself as a man.

263

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 2:03 pm

(Kinda mantric, those syllables, when you get right down to it.)

264

Nigel Holmes 09.27.13 at 2:04 pm

.

265

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 2:05 pm

Are the “Manhattan cocktail party crowd” and the “Georgetown cocktail party types” the same group? Or does one group drink manly gin based martinis and the other weak and feminine vodka based ones?

266

Jim Demintia 09.27.13 at 2:05 pm

“Where is the female McCarthy?”

Umm… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_McCarthy_%28author%29

267

Random Lurker 09.27.13 at 2:07 pm

@Straightwood 257

While I know very few of english literature and so I’ve nothing to say about this thread, I’d like to point out that one of the most famous modern italian poems, “Mattina” by Ungaretti, is composed exactly of 17 letters, 2 hypens, and one line feed (plus the title).

268

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 2:11 pm

Whats the problem with cocktails? I wouldnt drink them every night but they’re (by and large) delicious

269

Niall McAuley 09.27.13 at 2:14 pm

I’m not sure where Stifftodger is going with this scope business, as the typical GANBAD novel described upthread has a very narrow scope: a tight focus on the contents of the authors shorts, a kind of literary Wicked Willie pop-up book.

270

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:15 pm

@259

Thus, you would assert that there is no vector from smaller to greater forms, and it would be common for writers to begin as novelists, then progress to short stories, and end up with Haiku compositions as their supreme efforts?

@264

Damn you, uneditable CT posting system! I remembered Mary as soon as I clicked the submit button.

271

JanieM 09.27.13 at 2:16 pm

Short story writers attempt novels and song writers attempt operas.

I doubt you could gather any convincing evidence that this is generally true of writers, but I’m not going to waste any more time than that pursuing the subject.

The only reason I’m responding to a Straightwood comment at all is because the line I quoted reminds me of something I once read/heard, perhaps from an Irish writer I knew a long time ago when she gave me a book of Irish short stories to enjoy (knowing that the novel was by far my preferred form): Most writers create their short stories out of the leavings of their novels. Irish writers create their novels out of the leavings of their short stories.

*****

I’ve been too busy these last few days to jump in here, but I want to add my appreciation for Faulkner (yes to Absalom, Absalom and Light in August, and for me, Go Down, Moses) and mention my tendency to get bored with Ursula LeGuin except for The Left Hand of Darkness, which surely is about different ways of being human.

Then, before getting back to more boring but bill-paying activities, since the thread is ranging all over the place with authors at this point I want to put in a word for Louise Erdrich. And if I don’t stop there I’ll be here all day explaining, sorting, and qualifying. So.

272

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 2:18 pm

Coincidentally, b/c of this thread I was googling Edna O Brien and came across this article which Hector might enjoy

” Last summer, I was invited to a book party at the somewhat unlikely venue of Mahiki, the Sloane nightclub much frequented by Prince Harry, Kate Middleton et al. All around me were the usual suspects: novelists, publishing people, lots of journalists. It was fun, but noisy, and crowded, and you had to move carefully in order not to spill your cocktail.”

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/06/edna-obrien-ireland-interview?INTCMP=SRCH

273

JanieM 09.27.13 at 2:20 pm

Are the “Manhattan cocktail party crowd” and the “Georgetown cocktail party types” the same group? Or does one group drink manly gin based martinis and the other weak and feminine vodka based ones?

Not, they’re just what the vocabulary-substitution algorithm generates when someone points out the idiocy of claiming that the conversation here is being carried on by “the Hollywood crowd.”

274

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:21 pm

As an artist develops facility, he or she attempts to command progressively greater resources.

[citation needed]

Short story writers attempt novels and song writers attempt operas.

Some do, some don’t. Some short story writers remain short story writers for their entire lives; some go on to write other things. There’s no obvious sense in which short stories are inferior to novels; in many cases, they are superior. In any case, there’s no way of telling from the number of pages whether a work is good or not.

They don’t do this out of boredom or experimentation. They move from simpler forms to greater ones because the larger forms are more demanding tests of ability.

This presupposes some serious mind-reading on your part. The motivations of artists are diverse; some really might think that way, and some might just be trying to write novels because they’re operating under the mistaken assumption that you seem to share that the “larger forms” are somehow more aesthetically “valid.”

Success in the deployment of a wide range of artistic materials is a measure of artistic merit. This is why we regard actors who undertake a broad range of roles as superior to character actors trapped in the same part.

I like it when you speak for me. Or maybe it’s the royal “we” that’s being used here?

The argument that thematic scope and scale are irrelevant to quality of literary work leads to the absurd assertion that a Haiku is potentially as great a work as an epic poem.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

I will read this 100 times before I read e.g. Don Juan once more, and not because it’s short and the latter is long, but rather because I consider this to be a far and away superior work of art.

Confusing thematic scope with wham-bam pulp fiction is a deliberate misreading of my argument.

No, the problem with your argument is quite simple. You want to extend a certain interpretive charity to male writers (e.g. Hemingway) whose work is every bit as circumscribed as what you complain about, but you refuse to extend the same charity to female writers. In other words, you want to say, of course Hamlet/A Farewell to Arms/Ulysses is not just about a prince/some soldiers/some dude’s day; if you read it like that, you’re missing the substance of the novel for the frame on which it is hung. But you refuse to allow female writers like Austen the same level of subtextual reading; if Austen sets her novels in drawing rooms, then you take it for granted that they are just about drawing room society, and not simply another way of exploring larger themes. Now where have we seen double standards before…?

The aversion to quality comparisons seems to be a deeply-rooted modern intellectual neurosis, but such comparisons are an overwhelming fact of life.

I’m more than ready to go to bat for various writers whose work I love, and to laud them over others. I simply don’t believe that the criteria you are trying to impose on the rest of us are a valid way of doing that. Also, “THIS IS LIFE, LIBS, DEAL WITH IT,” is the laziest form of argument ever.

Writers are ranked and rated. Their works are ranked and rated. Even their critics are ranked and rated.

This is an idiotic way of approaching literature.

Certainly their confined social circumstances limited their thematic scope, but women have had free access to literary endeavor for decades in America and Europe.

Ahahahahahahahaha

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Where is the female Camus? Where is the female Pynchon? Where is the female McCarthy?

WHY THE FUCK DOES THERE NEED TO BE A FEMALE PYNCHON

There isn’t even another male Pynchon, though not for lack of trying! Why is it necessary to somehow map writers across gender to each other? What a stupid and reductive way of thinking! We don’t need female Pynchon’s or female McCarthy’s, because their absence doesn’t tell us a single goddamn thing about the quality of female authors. I mean, what is this other than the very same bullshit dudes have been pulling over millenia: assume that the standard is male and demand that women measure up to the standard, rather than allowing for the fact that there are simply different kinds of writers and different kinds of writing, and that “male fiction” isn’t the measuring stick of quality.

This is bullshit. Total, complete, fatuous bullshit. You’re not interested in a dialog about literary merits, you’re interested in forcing your aesthetic straightjacket on people who have no use for it, and when you get push-back, you get all huffy about Universals and Thematic Scope and fuck knows what else.

275

Jim Demintia 09.27.13 at 2:22 pm

Seriously, Straightwood, even if I were to accept your argument about scale, which I don’t, because you can’t make a convincing case that scale determines style (see Austen), but even if I did, have you actually read ‘Middlemarch’? Its thematic scope (science, representative politics, religion, epistemology, art history, etc.) is much, much vaster than Hemingway, Camus, and McCarthy and on par with even a kitchen’s sink novel like ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.

276

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:23 pm

Thus, you would assert that there is no vector from smaller to greater forms, and it would be common for writers to begin as novelists, then progress to short stories, and end up with Haiku compositions as their supreme efforts?

HO HO HO HAVE I GOT YOU NOW CLAIMING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT WE KNOW TO BE ETERNAL VERITIES?!

Are you just secretly a time-traveler from the 19th century? Fess up!

277

William Timberman 09.27.13 at 2:28 pm

Straightwood @ 257

…the absurd assertion that a Haiku is potentially as great a work as an epic poem.

As the man was supposed to have said, quantity has a quality all its own. Now THERE was a man, right?

Are you familiar with the principle that because of its very indeterminacy, what is implied can be greater than what is said? Except for those dead souls masquerading as aesthetes, of course.

I recommend a course in Tokugawa aesthetics, or if that would be too tedious, perhaps someone could lock you in a room full of netsuke for 24 hours. It would be a mitzvah, both for you and for us.

278

Phil 09.27.13 at 2:30 pm

Each time it happens to Belle, to Maria, to Eszter, to Ingrid, to Tedra I feel as if there’s some hidden underlying pattern to it, but I just can’t figure out what that pattern might be for the life of me. Can anyone help me here?

Well, those posters are all unlike me; they’re also unlike (for example) Chris Bertram and John Quiggin, to name but two CT regulars. They differ from me (and from Chris and John) in a very straightforward and obvious way: their names are all either five or six letters long, and they all have a vowel in first or second position.

So there’s your problem, Henry.

279

js. 09.27.13 at 2:35 pm

Dude, Straightwood:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

You were saying?

280

Mandos 09.27.13 at 2:37 pm

Certainly their confined social circumstances limited their thematic scope, but women have had free access to literary endeavor for decades in America and Europe.

Have they? News to me. Or maybe, you were just looking in the wrong places.

One of these things must be true.

281

Tom Slee 09.27.13 at 2:39 pm

I am embarrassed to say that when I was 17 I used exactly the argument that Straightwood is using about symphonies being inherently better than concertos to try to impress a girl who was a proficient piano player. Needless to say, I was not successful. Fortunately, by the time I was about 19 I realized it was a fatuous argument.

But, Straightwood, please read Jon Elster’s Ulysses and the Sirens, and also Ulysses Unbound, in which he explores the idea that constraints are essential to good art, and explains why artists voluntarily impose all kinds of artificial constraints on themselves (the chord sequence of the blues, for example) specifically in order to produce better art.

282

Bruce Baugh 09.27.13 at 2:39 pm

Someone needs to goad Straightwood into claiming that his principles also show that astronomy is innately more worthy than epidemiology, and bridge-building more worthy than nanotechnology.

283

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:41 pm

@274

Anger and vituperation are not appropriate responses to philosophical argument, although they do uphold the traditions of CT blogging. We are concerned here about distinguishing degrees of artistic excellence. I’m not “forcing” anything on anyone. I am trying to explain something complicated to people eager to quarrel.

To answer your urgent query, WHY THE FUCK DOES THERE NEED TO BE A FEMALE PYNCHON, I would point out that Pynchon’s readers undoubtedly include a great many women. The great novelists do not occupy sex-segregated niches. Their appeal is universal. Women writers, for a variety of reasons subject to endless debate, generally do not create works that have the scope and complexity, and thus universal appeal, of their male peers. (Where is the female David Foster Wallace?)

We can go round and round on whether a Joseph Cornell box is as artistically successful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but if you don’t accept scale and complexity as valid metrics of artistic merit, then my arguments will fall on deaf ears.

284

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 2:41 pm

Say what you will, Straightwood is mounting an interesting defense of his views.
Speaking of the importance of Haiku and Borges, let’s quote him on the matter:

On Salvation by Works
One autumn, one of the autumns of time, the Shinto divinities gathered, not for the first time, at Izumo. They are said to have numbered eight million. …

They were downcast, but did not show it: the visages of divinities are undecipherable characters. They seated themselves in a circle on the green crest of a hill. They had been observing mankind from their firmament or from a stone or from a snowflake. One of the divinities spoke:

Many days, or centuries, ago, we gathered here to create Japan and the world. The fishes, the seas, the seven colors of the rainbow, the generations of plants and animals have all worked out well. So that men should not be burdened with too many things, we gave them succession, issue, the plural day and the singular night. We also bestowed on them the gift of experimenting with certain variations. The bee continues repeating beehives. But man has imagined devices: the plow, the key,. the kaleidoscope. He also imagined the sword and the art of war. He has just imagined this weapon which could put an end to life. Before this senseless deed is done, let us wipe out men.
They remained pensive. Without haste another divinity spoke:

It’s true. They have thought up that atrocity, but there is also this something quite different, which fits in the space encompassed by seventeen syllables.

The divinity intoned them. They were in an unknown language, and I could not understand them.

The leading divinity delivered a judgment:

Let men survive.

Thus, because of a haiku, the human race was saved.

285

Phil 09.27.13 at 2:44 pm

They don’t do this out of boredom or experimentation. They move from simpler forms to greater ones because the larger forms are more demanding tests of ability.

I used to read a lot of sf short stories, and I would tell anyone who would listen that the sf short story was the highest form of literature. (This was partly coat-trailing and partly self-mockery, but at least 33.3% sincere – if what you want from fiction is to see an unusual idea followed through to its logical conclusions, the sf short story does it better than any other form I know.) Then I noticed that some of the idea-story guys I was reading – Asimov, Silverberg, Niven – had also written novels & I tried out a couple of those. Big mistake. Very different thing. In no way superior. (I’m not saying there aren’t any sf novels with the inventiveness and spark of a good sf short story. I am saying there aren’t many. I can think of a couple of Dicks, The Space Merchants and er.) Stephen King short stories, same same.

I wouldn’t want to impugn anyone’s motives, but it does occur to me that it might be a hell of a lot easier to make a living writing novels than short stories.

286

Phil 09.27.13 at 2:48 pm

Women writers, for a variety of reasons subject to endless debate, generally do not create works that have the scope and complexity, and thus universal appeal, of their male peers. (Where is the female David Foster Wallace?)

Say what? David Foster Wallace has “universal appeal” in a way that (say) Carol Shields doesn’t? I don’t want to browbeat you, but do you actually know what you think you’re talking about any more?

287

Lynn Gazis-Sax 09.27.13 at 2:49 pm

OK, I’m fascinated by this comment, by Hector St. Clare (#27):

“To my mind, a writer is at his best when he evokes the basic and eternal truths of human nature. since one of those truths is that the sexes are essentially different, with different talents, interests and roles, the best writers will probably be considered politically incorrect among the Hollywood crowd.”

Question 1 (to Hector or anyone else): Can you name for me a novel that falls flat, as a novel, because it fails to treat the sexes as sufficiently essentially different? One that, for instance, is unreadable, or produces implausible men or women, because it fails to account for the essential differences of the sexes?

Question 2: In contrast, can you name for me a novel that falls flat because it treats the sexes as *too* different?

Question 3: If the answer to question 1 is “no,” and the answer to question 2 is “yes,” can you also name a novel in which the male and female characters are clearly different in gendered ways, but that works as a novel, and doesn’t fall into the trap in question 2?

Personally, I can’t think of any novels that I could supply to answer question 1 (in theory, a novel could fall flat that way, but I don’t know of one that actually *does*), but I think it’s easy to find novels that work as answers to both questions 2 and 3. (I.e. there are ways of writing women differently from men, for a given time and place, that ring true, and there are ways of writing women differently from men that ring as if you didn’t actually know any real life women.)

288

NickS 09.27.13 at 2:50 pm

written brilliantly about a sheep-shearing competition

Playing this over in my head I ended up thinking of the brilliant comic poem from The Cyberiad (“a poem about a haircut! But lofty, nobel, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter ‘s’!”)

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

But, really what I wanted to say was that one of the songs I remember my dad singing when I was a kid is “Waiting For The Rain and, based on positive associations, if nothing else, I claim that it is a brilliant story about sheep shearing.

That reminds me of the other song I know based on a Banjo Patterson poem, “Song Of The Artesian Water

Looking that up now and finding the poem it reads as almost a parody of excessively masculine writing:

Though the shaft is always caving and the tubes are always jamming,
Yet we’ll fight our way to water while the stubborn drill is ramming —
While the subborn drill is ramming deeper down.

(Is that too juvenile, perhaps. I do have fond memories of the song.)

289

NickS 09.27.13 at 2:52 pm

Whoops, lost the link to “Another Fall of Rain.”

290

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 2:52 pm

To the stout defenders of Japanese poetic concision, I should point out that minimalism poses a kind of black hole problem of aesthetics that leads to the music of John Cage and films of Andy Warhol. Those who repudiate scope should consider the collision of musical cultures in Asia and the West. Americans and Europeans have not been swept up in a movement to adopt the limited tonal palette and artistic confines of Asian music, but Asians have become prominent participants in the culture of Western Music. Western music simply provides a broader range of expression for musical artists. QED

There, I said it. One group’s artistic achievement’s are superior to those of another. May the CT gods strike me dead.

291

Lynn Gazis-Sax 09.27.13 at 2:52 pm

Re: #164: My own favorite deadpan account of life and death is actually a deadpan *reaction* to violent death. It’s the moment in _High Wind in Jamaica_ when one of the children reacts to John’s death by asking, if I remember right, first “Is John dead?” and then, when the answer is yes, “Can I have his blanket?” (And yes, it was written by a man. So I’ll give points to a male author there. Also, Richard Hughes’ Emily is a real character, just as real as any of the male characters in the book. And the scene where she kills someone, considerably less deadpan than the Hemingway scene in #164, is also well rendered.)

292

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 2:53 pm

Incidentally, Jerry Vinokurov’s remark about sheep shearing being dull is remarkably classist.

293

sc 09.27.13 at 2:55 pm

“who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”

“the Tolstoy of the Zulus is Tolstoy.”

294

MG 09.27.13 at 2:56 pm

As an artist develops facility, he or she attempts to command progressively greater resources. Short story writers attempt novels and song writers attempt operas.

straightwood, I guess Bach (only wrote church music, geeze) is the lesser composer compared to Pete Townsend of the Who (TWO rock operas, dammit), amiright?

295

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 2:59 pm

Anger and vituperation are not appropriate responses to philosophical argument

I imagine you sitting in a smoking jacket and sipping Scotch while you try and lay out your complicated philosophical argument for why, gosh darn it, dudes are just superior. My goodness, what vituperation I am being subjected to for laying out such a comprehensive philosophical position for being allowed to ignore the creative output of the majority of the human race! You poor thing.

We are concerned here about distinguishing degrees of artistic excellence. I’m not “forcing” anything on anyone. I am trying to explain something complicated to people eager to quarrel.

We, always with the we! Right, I get it, we’re the morons and you have the unvarnished truth.

To answer your urgent query, WHY THE FUCK DOES THERE NEED TO BE A FEMALE PYNCHON, I would point out that Pynchon’s readers undoubtedly include a great many women. The great novelists do not occupy sex-segregated niches. Their appeal is universal.

This is not an answer to my question. The appeal of “great novelists” is far from universal. You’re just asserting things without anything to back them up.

Women writers, for a variety of reasons subject to endless debate, generally do not create works that have the scope and complexity, and thus universal appeal, of their male peers. (Where is the female David Foster Wallace?)

Yes they do. The inability of their male peers to recognize this fact is not an indictment of female writers. It is, in fact, an indictment of dudes who see dude things as a Universal Standard and demand that everything else measure up to it. This is so easy for any impartial observer to comprehend that I can’t help but conclude that your failure to comprehend it is purposeful and deliberate.

We can go round and round on whether a Joseph Cornell box is as artistically successful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but if you don’t accept scale and complexity as valid metrics of artistic merit, then my arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Your problem is that other people don’t accept that artistic merit is not a straight ruler and that being Really Big is not, in and of itself, a metric of success. You are engaged in the repeated act of universalizing your own particular preferences and waving away objections by appeal to warmed-over Platonism. I’m not sure why you expect anyone to take this nonsense seriously.

296

godoggo 09.27.13 at 3:00 pm

St. Matthew Passion is basically an opera, even if it’s religious.

297

MG 09.27.13 at 3:01 pm

Gogol is the bomb.

“Confederacy of Dunces” is one of the most hilarious novels ever.

Am wondering about the overlap between the “Manhattan cocktail crowd” and the “Georgetown cocktail crowd”. Am waiting for Hector to tell me in detail the nuances of each scene.

298

Anon 09.27.13 at 3:01 pm

@260: The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 2:02 pm: “and Kafka was a better short story writer than novelist.”

Absolutely. And a better aphorism writer than short story writer. But they’re all great.

299

Elly 09.27.13 at 3:02 pm

They don’t do this out of boredom or experimentation. They move from simpler forms to greater ones because the larger forms are more demanding tests of ability.

This makes about as much sense as claiming that a painter moves from tiny canvases to large ones. That’s simply not how it works.

(However, it should maybe not be shocking that someone who calls himself Straightwood might be obsessed with the idea that size matters.)

300

Anon 09.27.13 at 3:02 pm

@295: MG 09.27.13 at 3:01 pm: “Gogol is the bomb.”

Very on the nose.

301

Lynn Gazis-Sax 09.27.13 at 3:04 pm

Re: #167: ” Is there any theme too small to support a great literary work?”

Well, that theme certainly *wouldn’t* be love and marriage, a huge theme in most people’s lives. There are lots of crummy novels about love and marriage, but they aren’t crummy because the theme is too small.

Also, in effect you’re arguing, not just that novels of what you consider greater scope are better *all other things equal*, but that they’re better no matter what their other faults.

For instance, I think that Hemingway’s _The Sun Also Rises_ is seriously marred by its portrayal of the Jewish character Cohn (the fact that the portrayal of the main antagonist in the novel is marred by anti-Semitism is hard to escape), and that Lady Brett Ashley isn’t that well rendered a female character. I think that, in contrast, George Bernard Shaw, in _Pygmalion_, delivers a believable leading woman to match his believable leading man, with a great sense of humor. For that reason, though I like some Hemingway, I prefer this particular Shaw piece to this particular Hemingway piece.

But if I follow your arguments about scope and range, my preference for Pygmalion over The Sun Also Rises doesn’t just show that my tastes differ from yours; it shows that I’m wrong, and misguided, because a work that includes bull fights and a war injury that’s written with some craft will *always* be better than a drawing room comedy that’s written with some craft, even if the work with bull fights and a war injury contains some flaws that the drawing room comedy doesn’t. That strikes me as misguided.

It also means that _The Great Gatsby_ only really picks up steam as a novel when Daisy runs Myrtle over with a car. Till then, it’s pretty much about love and parties, no?

302

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:04 pm

@292

The pipe organ, for which Bach composed, is called the “King of Instruments.” This grand title is granted because of the tremendous range of musical resources the organ provides as compared to, say, the drum, or the piccolo. There was active competition for hundreds of years in the construction of progressively greater and finer pipe organs because it was deemed important to give composers GREATER SCOPE OF EXPRESSION. Arguments that scale and complexity don’t matter fail to explain the emergence of the costly pipe organ and its appeal to composers and performers.

303

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:05 pm

I’ll take “The Hunter Gracchus” or “Report to An Academy” or “In the Penal Colony” over most novels.

304

LFC 09.27.13 at 3:11 pm

Anon:
isn’t it a mistake to identify the subject matter too closely with the setting?

Yes, exactly. This is Straightwood’s mistake w/r/t Middlemarch. It’s set in the English countryside but what it’s about, in large part, is the perennial tension between ideals and reality as refracted through the situation of a talented woman in a society that denied women full opportunity to use those talents. It’s about the great themes that have attracted novelists forever: politics, class, hypocrisy, exploitation, marriage, love, ambition, human weakness, self-delusion (see Casaubon), and how the pressures to conform can undermine, warp, and finally crush the resolve/ability to do something significant with one’s life (see the doctor Lydgate).

To say that Middlemarch is about “the vicissitudes of social life in a country village” (straightwood @158) because most (not all) of it is set in the countryside is wrong. This confuses what a novel is *about* with where it is *set*. It would be like saying that Hamlet is about “the vicissitudes of court life in a castle in Denmark” or Heart of Darkness is about “the vicissitudes of traveling by boat on a river in Africa.”

305

Niall McAuley 09.27.13 at 3:12 pm

The Manhattan cocktail crowd are, of course, a mix of Old Money traditionalism and “lunch is for wimps” Wall Street dynamism, signature cocktail: the Old Fashioned.

In Georgetown, we find a mix of D.C. Power Brokers and Academic types, signature cocktail: the Dry Martini.

306

Sam Dodsworth 09.27.13 at 3:17 pm

Arguments that scale and complexity don’t matter fail to explain the emergence of the costly pipe organ and its appeal to composers and performers.

Ah, the mighty pipes that great art requires! It seems… emasculating that I can do as much and more with my phone nowadays.

307

Anderson 09.27.13 at 3:17 pm

Arguments that scale and complexity don’t matter fail to explain the emergence of the costly pipe organ and its appeal to composers and performers.

Riiiight, which is why the pipe organ dominated and continues to dominate post-Baroque music.

I think Straightwood is just a little preoccupied with his organ.

308

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 3:19 pm

I must congratulate Straightwood for courageously taking on the entire CT ‘commentariat’ and keeping his answers classy and honest. For responding to powerful reasons against his views, to brilliant counter-examples, even to rudeness and ridicule with thought and earnestness.

If I’m reading him right, he’s proposing two things: a sexist, racist thesis, which is shallow and wrong (as many on this thread have already proven), and a separate, different theory for a standard way of measuring artistic achievement based on scope and complexity; this argument has depth and cannot be so easily dismissed except by modernist appeals to the relativity of all aesthetic values. Since Straightwood obviously doesn’t buy post-modernist or deconstructionist arguments, attacking his views from this angle will not be very productive.

309

Niall McAuley 09.27.13 at 3:23 pm

The development of the pipe-organ in the Romantic period is in fact a precursor to and proof of the inevitability of the INFERNOKRUSHER movement.

At this point I must note that the American gag “If it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it” does not work on this side of the pond, as over here baroque rhymes with Ragnarok.

310

GeoX 09.27.13 at 3:28 pm

As an artist develops facility, he or she attempts to command progressively greater resources. Short story writers attempt novels and song writers attempt operas.

Mmm, right, okay. Longer=better. Got it. But I can’t help but note that, by this extremely sophisticated and sensical measuring stick, George Eliot kinda kicks the shit out of your beloved Hemingway. Thoughts?

311

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:30 pm

@301

No question that Middlemarch is one of the all-time great novels, but it is a triumph of virtuosity over thematic restriction. Life and death are not at stake in Middlemarch in any fundamental sense; what is at risk is self-actualization, something that resonates well with modern readers, but still falls short of heroic drama. Middlemarch is probably the best observed study of human self-delusion ever written, but if Eliot had been allowed a greater scope of experience, she probably would have written something with greater range, and still have delivered her brilliant insights into the follies that make up our lives.

This is the point that seems to escape critics of my argument of subsumed technique. The greatest writers don’t give up anything in exchange for tackling grand themes. They just do more with more. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about murder and revenge, life and death, but it is full of finely observed characters, philosophical speculation, and eloquent language. He gives up nothing and delivers more. That is what defines a great literary masterpiece: it has it all.

312

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:31 pm

No, you don’t get it. You see, George Eliot write about, and only about, English village life, which is very parochial, while Hemingway is very concerned with men doing manly things, which is very universal because

/farts
/sniffs own farts

313

William Timberman 09.27.13 at 3:33 pm

Straightwood @ 299

We aren’t saying they don’t matter; we’re saying that they don’t matter in the way you claim they do. Is a calliope superior to a shakuhachi? Depends on the nature of your aesthetic ambition, doesn’t it? And that strangely mutable word superior in your 288…exactly what aesthetic freight is it shlepping from place to place in your reasoning, eh? You don’t seem to have spent a lot of time considering what motivates your penchant for invidious comparisons. I think you should.

314

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 3:33 pm

As we all know, no woman has ever written anything interesting about murder or revenge or life or death. I mean, has anyone ever been revengedly murdered to death in a drawing room? I think not! QED.

315

PGD 09.27.13 at 3:34 pm

Post-18th century literature in English is probably the area of art where it is *hardest* to make the argument that men are somehow naturally superior to women. If you stack up Austen, Elliot, Cather, Woolf, etc. etc. against your top ten male novelists it becomes very difficult to argue that the men are clearly ‘better’ than the women. (The Nobel list upthread is particularly ridiculous — Sinclair Lewis is a better writer than Cather?). In fact, the level of achievement by women novelists is such that it might cast some doubt on arguments in other areas that ascribe male/female differences over this period to social discrimination; women certainly overcame that in writing at least. (Although of course barriers differ by field).

316

Phil 09.27.13 at 3:36 pm

There, I said it. One group’s artistic achievement’s are superior to those of another. May the CT gods strike me dead.

That’s a bit extreme, but if you were to dial it down to “may they strike me bored with this whole thread, while obscurely feeling that I won the argument so conclusively as to need no further comment”, I’d say Amen.

317

GeoX 09.27.13 at 3:37 pm

So wait, what happened to the “longer=better” thing? Are we now meant to think that that’s NOT true, and that a two-page story about dudes shooting machine guns at each other is better than a long novel about love and marriage because BLARGH WAR DEATH BLOODY RRRRR? Why, it’s almost as though Straightwood hasn’t thought all this out very well.

318

LFC 09.27.13 at 3:38 pm

Cleanthes @305

The problem is not so much the “scope and complexity” thesis per se, it’s the way Straightwood is APPLYING it.

Straightwood at 158:

She [George Eliot] does not write about people at the limits, but, like Austen, creates meticulously observed dramas of quotidien life. Now, you may argue that the existential tension of life is a fractal structure, as easily depicted in a village political intrigue as in a sword duel, but the difference remains. Talented novelists who choose to write about life and death struggles take precedence over those who write about the vicissitudes of social life in a country village.

Middlemarch is not ‘about’, in the most relevant sense for this discussion, “the vicissitudes of social life in a country village” any more than Henry V is “about” the Hundred Years War.

If you were a student and were set the question “what is Henry V about?” and the sum total of your answer was “Henry V is about a king who leads his soldiers to victory in battle” and didn’t write anything else about, you know, the themes of the play, you would flunk.

What is Moby Dick about? It’s about a whaling voyage.
What is Middlemarch about? It’s about “the vicissitiudes of social life in a country village.”

Right.

319

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 3:38 pm

Hey I just figured out who Straightwood is! Behold:

I’m not so much for Beethoven qua Beethoven, but as he represents the German dialectic, the incorporation of more and more notes into the scale, culminating with dodecaphonic democracy, where all notes get an equal hearing. Beethoven was one of the architects of musical freedom—he submitted to the demands of history, despite his deafness. While Rossini was retiring at the age of 36, womanizing and getting fat, Beethoven was living a life filled with tragedy and grandeur.

320

LFC 09.27.13 at 3:39 pm

Straightwood:
I posted 315 before seeing your 308. Sorry. (Further response forthcoming.)

321

Phil 09.27.13 at 3:43 pm

That is what defines a great literary masterpiece: it has it all.

Tell us about Hemingway again. Superiority of Hemingway to George Eliot, in particular. In the having-it-all department.

322

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:45 pm

@312

Discard the Nobel list and choose any rating list you wish. How about the Modern Library Hundred Best Novels?

http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/

Belle is certainly right about historical and cultural impediments, but what about the last 50 years?

323

LFC 09.27.13 at 3:47 pm

@308

Life and death are not at stake in Middlemarch in any fundamental sense; what is at risk is self-actualization, something that resonates well with modern readers, but still falls short of heroic drama.

Ok, I see what you’re saying. I guess I just don’t think “heroic drama” as you are defining it is necessarily higher up the hierarchy of artistic merit (or however you want to phrase it). But we can agree to disagree about that.

324

dbk 09.27.13 at 3:49 pm

@MPA @263: Thanks for asking about the Georgetown vs Manhattan cocktail party crowds and whether they overlap. Are these people the “literary” set in NYC and DC (DC has a literary set?) … ?

Phil@236 and @283
There’s also the opening line of P&P: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. – which employs the same sort of Austenian irony. And glad you caught Austen’s own disclaimer in her two inches of ivory remark. The short story as a genre, it’s still my favorite.

Contra some commenters here, the short story is not a wanna-be novel , but a different literary genre; the problematic genre is the so-called “novella”, which requires the gifts of both short story and novel writer to produce something that may be very great (think: Death in Venice/ Notes from the Underground / Billy Budd/ The Awakening ), but which very rarely ends well. A fascinating hybrid.

Today I had a discussion with two close friends who read alot (more than I’ve ever heard of, much less read) of literature in several languages, and the consensus seems to be that de gustibus non est disputandum in matters literary – or musical. That said, they certainly believe there is such a person as a cultivated, experienced reader/listener (i.e one who has read/listened widely and thought deeply about what they have read/heard) and who, even given his or her own personal tastes, is able, ceteris paribus, to recognize even a novel (musical work) he doesn’t personally care for as “great”. It’s not all a matter of opinion, of “I just like that because I do.”

I can acknowledge Thomas Mann’s MM as very great. I just don’t want to read it again, though I would be interested in Buddenbrooks and Dr. Faustus. I’ve had enough Dostoevsky; other writers like Pushkin and Turgenev and Gogol beckon. And why not? They’re not Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but they’re great writers – and I acknowledge this by wanting to experience them as well.

As regards George Eliot and limited/limiting English country life-qua-subject, I find her thematic range vastly greater – intellectually and morally – than her setting and subject matter per se. Sometimes we identify an author almost exclusively with a single novel (I assume people are thinking of Middlemarch with its English countryside setting), but she wrote other important works of considerable interest. I always longed for a chance to teach Daniel Deronda with The Princess Casamassima, or Silas Marner and The Merchant of Venice, or …

Hector@150: Was that a joke? I can’t figure out whether you’re making fun of us, or whether you genuinely believe that the West hasn’t featured patriarchal structures throughout its 2,500 or so years (or 3000). Or do you think they’re a thing of the past? Because I could contribute to a thread – actually, I could write the entire thread, on late 20th century sexism towards women. Anyway, you’re kidding, right?

325

Jim Demintia 09.27.13 at 3:50 pm

Are the two actual murders that take place in ‘Middlemarch’ not enough to count as relevant to “life and death” or or something?

326

Anderson 09.27.13 at 3:51 pm

Cleanthes: anyone defending Hemingway as an exemplar of “scope and complexity” is not, in fact, making a serious or interesting argument. Hemingway has his virtues, but not those two.

327

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 3:59 pm

@318

I didn’t say that Hemingway is superior to Eliot. Middlemarch is better than anything Hemingway wrote. I think that if Eliot had had Hemingway’s scope of experience, she likely would have written something even greater than Middlemarch. Both Hemingway and Eliot closely observed the dynamics of personal relations and the fragile delusions underlying them, but Eliot was never afraid for her life.

In 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes. He chartered a sightseeing flight over the Belgian Congo as a Christmas present to Mary. On their way to photograph Murchison Falls from the air, the plane struck an abandoned utility pole and “crash landed in heavy brush.” Hemingway’s injuries included a head wound, while Mary broke two ribs.[113] The next day, attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe, they boarded a second plane that exploded at take-off, with Hemingway suffering burns and another concussion, this one serious enough to cause leaking of cerebral fluid.[114] They eventually arrived in Entebbe to find reporters covering the story of Hemingway’s death. He briefed the reporters and spent the next few weeks recuperating and reading his erroneous obituaries.

Source: Wikipedia

328

peggy 09.27.13 at 4:01 pm

Late to the party, but the $25,000/mo in child is simply wonderful, as are you Belle.

329

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 4:08 pm

Anderson @ 323. Point taken. It seems to me that Straightwood hadn’t fully formed his thoughts when he started posting on this thread (neither have I).

Expanding a little on Straightwood’s thesis, a complex (or great) artist incorporating into the themes of his or her work (his/her scope) themes of life and death (heroic drama) would produce a better, richer work than would otherwise be the case. So, it’s not length that matters, but the range of strands from the trivial to the heroic incorporated into the artist’s tapestry. That’s why both writing about sheep-shearing and INFERNOKRUSHER fail, they lack scope. We must also not miss the part about great artists of the argument: mediocre artists will produce mediocre art no matter what. Great artists like Kafka can produce things like The Hunter Gracchus or Report to An Academy or In the Penal Colony or Odradek or The Metamorphosis which are complex, original, rich in scope and deep.

330

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 4:12 pm

@326

Yes, that is what I am getting at. My problem is that I am overloading artistic “scope” to accommodate size, complexity, harmonics, and stylistic range. This has led to a lot of confusion, which is mostly my fault. Words are poor tools when our thoughts outrun our vocabulary.

331

Anderson 09.27.13 at 4:15 pm

Are the two actual murders that take place in ‘Middlemarch’ not enough to count as relevant to “life and death” or or something?

They weren’t committed with machine guns.

332

chomko 09.27.13 at 4:18 pm

Straightwood @327: “Words are poor tools when our thoughts outrun our vocabulary.”

…so perhaps Belle’s (and everyone else’s) points about the skill and artistry required to depict “plausible interior lives” using those “poor tools” is a bit stronger than you’re crediting, whatever scale the authors elect to write at?

333

fidelio 09.27.13 at 4:19 pm

Thank you, Belle, for providing such interesting posts, and my thanks to everyone else for the all entertaining directions you have dragged this discussion towards.

This is perhaps irrelevant but not useless.

334

Anderson 09.27.13 at 4:23 pm

329: cha-CHING!

335

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 4:25 pm

Straightwood @ 327

Flaubert said it better:
Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

336

Svensker 09.27.13 at 4:29 pm

I take it that Straightwood thinks the cello is a more advanced, complex and intellectual instrument than the violin.

When our son was little he thought that the biggest person in the room was, by definition, the oldest. Our son, however, grew out of his childish understanding.

337

Phil 09.27.13 at 4:30 pm

I didn’t say that Hemingway is superior to Eliot.

I beg your pardon. You said that Hemingway is superior to Jane Austen. So that’s

Bonello came up. “Let me go finish him,” he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road. Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.

vs

“Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Burgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything that I can describe; and your wit and vivacity I think must be acceptable to her, especially with tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite.”

Superior in what sense, apart from “easier to read” and “more dead people”?

338

Mandos 09.27.13 at 4:31 pm

Yes, that is what I am getting at. My problem is that I am overloading artistic “scope” to accommodate size, complexity, harmonics, and stylistic range. This has led to a lot of confusion, which is mostly my fault. Words are poor tools when our thoughts outrun our vocabulary.

The thing you’re implying all along is that there is some kind of essentialistic or biological reason why—according to you—women have not produced as much writing with your definition of “artistic scope.”

1. Could it be instead that the question of “scope” is a bit subjective? That you aren’t seeing the “scope” in women’s writing that, e.g., a female reader might see?

2. Why can’t I make this argument about any number of identity-slices of the population? Like racial ones, for example.

People are still talking about a pay and opportunities gap for women. It shouldn’t be any surprise that in the hierarchy of Highly Valued Novels Of The Literati, there are fewer women. Patriarchy is hardly “solved”.

339

Elly 09.27.13 at 4:32 pm

Life and death are not at stake in Middlemarch in any fundamental sense; what is at risk is self-actualization, something that resonates well with modern readers, but still falls short of heroic drama.

Dude, have you READ The Iliad?

340

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 4:34 pm

@329

I think Belle is just railing against poor craft, but the deeper problem is the post-modern conclusion that the complexity of phenomena is not decipherable by any artistic strategy based on mimetic accuracy. The modern interplay of character, accident, and reason is so turbulent and unstable that coherent literature is impossible. That’s why the quasi-fantastic world of Pynchon’s novels is oddly more realistic for a modern reader than the solid, precisely rendered worlds of Austen or Eliot.

341

JustAnon 09.27.13 at 4:34 pm

<blockquote cite="OK, so you are not convinced that thematic scope is a criterion for literary excellence. We may then argue, reductio ad absurdum, that no topic is too narrow to disqualify a writer from greatness. Thus, if George Eliot had written brilliantly about a sheep-shearing competition she would still be superior to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, because her consummate craft overwhelms any deficit of subject matter. Is there any theme too small to support a great literary work?"

Whale hunting. Talk about a small theme! That’s even smaller than bear hunting. Or boxing.

342

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 4:42 pm

M
andos @ 334
I disagree a little bit with you. When it comes to literary works post 1960, the issue of the patriarchy dis-empowering women writers has largely been solved . Just look at the explosion of talented female writers we’ve had in the last 60 years or so:

Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute, Clarice Lispector, Kathy Ackerman, Cynthia Ozick, Carole Maso, Eudora Welty, Shelby Hearon, Marilynne Robinson, Shirley Hazzard, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter, Fay Weldon, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel, Edna O’Brien, Carol Shields, Karen Russell, Olga Tokarczuk, Ana Blandiana, Christa Wolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, Elsa Morante, Agatha Kristof, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Muller, Marie NDiaye and a very long etc.

343

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 4:46 pm

Have you read Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy Straightwood? They deal with your big themes; western imperialism in the Gulf, the rise of petro-states etc..
I’ve only read the first one as didnt know the others were out in English until recently, but Im interested to hear what anyone else thought of ’em

344

Tom Slee 09.27.13 at 4:59 pm

To get back to the original topic for a moment, the University of Toronto has put out a statement about David Gilmour which reads:

On Wednesday September 25th, the University of Toronto and Victoria College learned of comments made by David Gilmour, a noted Canadian author and journalist, relating to his literary preferences and choice of teaching materials. Mr. Gilmour is not a member of the University of Toronto faculty. However, Mr. Gilmour teaches University of Toronto students taking an elective seminar course through Victoria College.

Mr. Gilmour’s comments have received a great deal of attention through both traditional and social media. The administration has heard from faculty, staff, students and alumni alike who were understandably dismayed by the remarks made in his recent interview.

One might hope that, in a university environment, teachers would encourage respectful airing of differences of opinion, and that, by airing their own views in a respectful way, they would encourage students to examine critically their own beliefs as well as those of their teachers and classmates.

Mr. Gilmour has since apologized in several venues for the offensive implications of his remarks. The University and Victoria College will also ensure that students in his class are under no misapprehensions that Mr. Gilmour’s literary preferences may be translated into assumptions about their innate abilities.

345

Theophylact 09.27.13 at 5:03 pm

While on the other hand the highly regarded Edward St Aubyn has a scope and manner not so terribly unlike that of Austen. Blacker, certainly.

346

js. 09.27.13 at 5:07 pm

Eliot was never afraid for her life.

If you think women in the 19th century never had to fear for their lives, you… might want to sit this one out.

347

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 5:19 pm

DBK,

Sexism is certainly a problem in the cultures of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but I hardly think it exists to any great degree in Amrrica or Europe nowadays. (Though of course we have the men of Lepanto to thank for that, more than we have Amanda Marcotte). I’d be interested to see your arguments to the contrary, in order that I might more roundly refute them.

348

Hector_St_Clare 09.27.13 at 5:22 pm

I’ll retract my support for Mr. Straight Wood’s remarks about battles and heroism vs. quotidian village life, as on further consideration I think rural life and sheep shearing can be quite interesting. However, I still think my remarks about male on male sexual competition providing an impetus to great art and achievement, and about the essential differences between the sexes, are well taken.

349

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 5:23 pm

“are well taken”

Well taken by who you manic?

350

PGD 09.27.13 at 5:25 pm

If you accept Straightwood’s ‘grand themes’ thing you are left with the argument that Emma Bovary is somehow diminished as a novel, or is not among the greatest novels ever written — which seems totally ridiculous to me.

Same with ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.

I don’t think his claim is really even worth the extensive arguing-with its getting here.

351

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 5:28 pm

Hector
Can you PLEASE ELABORATE on the differences between the Manhattan and DC cocktail circuits as requested above..

352

Jerry Vinokurov 09.27.13 at 5:36 pm

This seems relevant here.

353

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 5:48 pm

You know I really like P. G. Wodehouse.
/Got nothing
//Really enjoying reading these comments.

354

eddie 09.27.13 at 5:57 pm

Thanks Bell. My gripe was not whether or not you’d read Pratchett, but that, if you had, why’d you still think Pynchon et al were, as you put it, “Important”.

355

Trader Joe 09.27.13 at 6:08 pm

The Manhattan vs. DC cocktail crowd.

The Manhattan crowd

They will arrive by taxi. The Manhattan crowd will drink anything accept a manhattan. The discourse will be opinionated, loud and dominated by males obsessed with money, sex and power in that order. The Yankees, the Giants or the Mayor will be mentioned in every conversation. The evening will end when the bar closes. They will depart by limo.

The DC crowd

They will arrive by public transport. Drinks will be primarily carbonated and not alcoholic. If alcoholic, it will be scotch, or a manhattan. The discourse will be wide ranging but indecisive. All parties will be heard, but not listened to and dominated by males obsessed with power, money and sex, in that order. Sports will not be mentioned. They will depart by Prius.

356

Dan Hardie 09.27.13 at 6:11 pm

Talking about humourlessness, I think that ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (that’s by Phillip Roth, if anybody needs telling) is a genuinely funny book. Praising Roth isn’t going to go down well with most of the people here, but let’s give it a shot.

Possibly to get ‘Portnoy’ you need to have been a teenage boy. I don’t know what masturbation is like for teenage girls: whether it can become the same nearly all-consuming compulsion that, for about a couple of years, it was for me and all my male school friends. (Yes, I know, way too much information there.) ‘Portnoy’ didn’t describe how I felt as a teenager, but it did capture almost perfectly a big part of my adolescence, one that all respectable writers before Roth had never admitted to.

The problem with ‘Portnoy’ isn’t that Roth is humourless. Rather, I’d say that the problems are:

1) Roth can’t write women with any depth at all. Portnoy’s mother is a funny carictature, but still a caricature. As to the other women in the book: literally all I can remember about The Monkey is her nickname, and I can’t remember anything about the others.

2) Roth has no idea how the novel should end. And that’s true of all six Roth novels I’ve read.

3) ‘Portnoy’ falls pretty much to pieces when the protagonist leaves his home town and embarks on adulthood.

4) And I think that in the end, ‘Portnoy’ isn’t really a novel. It’s a prose rhapsody- on masturbation, chiefly, but also on how it feels to grow up bright and trapped (and male) in a small town in a loving but sometimes claustrophobic family.
I felt there was a groping (forgive the term) towards significance in ‘Portnoy’, perhaps so that Roth could justify it as being an important novel. But the significance at the end just feels bolted-on and phony.

Lots of teenage boys have over-protective (they think) mothers, exhausted fathers, boring hometowns, and hugely over-active masturbatory lives. Roth depicts the young adult Portnoy as crippled by his adolescence, but why would he be? Your dad was a bit quiet, your mother was a bit loud, you did a lot of wanking- get over it.

I still think it is an important piece of writing, because it was the first book to capture a significant part of many male (and perhaps many female) adolescents’ lives, and to make that funny. As I say, I just don’t think it succeeds in the way that Roth wanted it to.

Apart from ‘Portnoy’, my favourite Roth is the short story (forget the name) in ‘Goodbye Columbus’ about the Second World War soldier who comes back from the front line to a training job, and begins reflecting on his survival, and thinking about his future, while being importuned by a pushy recruit. It’s the only story in ‘Columbus’ that doesn’t have a female character, IIRC, and that’s probably why it’s the strongest.

I thought ‘American Pastoral’ also didn’t work as a novel, but again, parts of it are extraordinarily evocative: especially the easiness of middle-class life in New Jersey for ‘Swede’ Levov after he comes back from the war, and then how completely things fall apart for him, and for Newark, after Vietnam and the race riots. The passage where Zuckerman attends his high school reunion was really fine, I thought: again, more of a prose rhapsody, or a short story, than part of a coherent novel.

I’ll stick my neck out even further and say that I thought that the portrait of Merry Levov as an angry adolescent was very good, even compelling, and not actually sexist: perhaps the only really good piece of writing about a woman that I can remember from Phillip Roth. But again, the ending was feeble, and much of the plot aims at realism but just isn’t believable.

I think Roth certainly has great gifts, but I don’t know that he wrote any really successful novels- and part of the reason for that was that he had difficulty seeing women as anything much except objects of desire. But he had quite a lot of problems in seeing men with any depth as well: for ‘Portnoy’s complaint’ to be the really great novel that Roth wanted it to be, Alex Portnoy would have to be interesting for more than just his masturbation.

357

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 6:21 pm

You ever read The Plot Against America Dan? I have heard it is quite good. I have a copy on my bookshelf I hope to get to one day.

358

GiT 09.27.13 at 6:30 pm

LFC @ 320 is onto the right of it. Sure, it is a misconstrual of Straightwood’s argument to characterize it as “more complex = better.” But that hardly matters because the argument at hand is not really much better.

It’s more complex = more potential to be better. The main problem, however, is that the music analogy here is complete bullshit. Settings, subject matter, and theme are not sorted in a hierarchy of complexity and dynamic range. There is not a quantitative difference in the scope of “grand narratives about war” and “not-so-grand narratives about whatever those poor stunted women write about,” in the way that there is such a hierarchy between triangles and pipe organs.

Grandiosity is a value judgment (a rather transparently patriarchal one, at that), not a measure of possible complexity. Even if we grant that more potential complexity enables greater potential heights of excellence, it’s simply not the case that narratives about struggles over life and death “subsume” other thematic concerns in the way that a full orchestra “subsumes” a string quartet. Thematic concerns do not stack around each other like Matroyshka dolls. A quotidian novel about daily life (or whatever we’re stereotyping womanly concerns as) can just as much subsume more grandiose themes as vice versa. There’s not a fixed ordinal ranking with “sheep shearing” at the bottom and “going to war” at the top.

359

Dan Hardie 09.27.13 at 6:32 pm

“Dostoevsky, for example, fails the 50 page test.”

Seriously? I could not put ‘Crime and Punishment’ down- even though I desperately wanted to at times, because much of what it describes is so very, very grim.

I don’t think I’ve had a reading experience quite like reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ aged 20. Partly it felt like being trapped in a horrible sweaty nightmare, but I emerged thinking that no author I’d ever read followed things as closely as Dostoyevsky, or was like him in providing literally no false comforts for himself or for his reader.

360

Dan Hardie 09.27.13 at 6:34 pm

VictoriaMPA: Ah, no, ‘The Plot Against America’ is dreadful, and I really recommend against reading it. Read a politician’s self-serving memoirs, a tell-all showbiz book, a Tom Clancy thriller: anything but that.

361

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 6:34 pm

Thematic concerns do not stack around each other like Matroyshka dolls

They do not; this is, however, a beautiful image. I am going to lull myself to sleep tonight thinking about my books opening and swallowing one another.

362

Anderson 09.27.13 at 6:42 pm

Not too late for this week’s raves and rants on sex & literature, here’s Edward Mendelson arguing for the resemblance of The Crying of Lot 49 and Mrs Dalloway.

Like all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and, despite their misplaced reputation for high-tech cleverness, all of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, including his latest one, both books point toward the kind of knowledge of the inner life that only poems and novels can convey, a knowledge that eludes all other techniques of understanding, and that the bureaucratic and collective world disdains or ignores.

363

Anderson 09.27.13 at 6:46 pm

Trader Joe: definitely put me down for the D.C. circuit.

364

Dan Hardie 09.27.13 at 6:46 pm

Belle @229: ‘Hey, do you guys read Gogol enough? God I love Gogol.’

Me too. If you haven’t read ‘Dead Souls’, go out and treat yourself at once. It gave me that experience you get so rarely of reading a book and feeling that you’ve been walking around for your whole life with your eyes shut. And it is truly funny.

Normally I either don’t read footnotes, or read them at the end, but the notes to the most recent Penguin translation are excellent, especially on the meanings of the extraordinary names Gogol gave to his characters.

365

MPAVictoria 09.27.13 at 6:49 pm

“VictoriaMPA: Ah, no, ‘The Plot Against America’ is dreadful, and I really recommend against reading it. Read a politician’s self-serving memoirs, a tell-all showbiz book, a Tom Clancy thriller: anything but that.”

Well that is disappointing.

366

Anderson 09.27.13 at 6:50 pm

358: Dan, you will appreciate Derek Parfit’s forenote to his endnotes in Reasons and Persons: “Read these notes, if at all, later.”

367

Phil 09.27.13 at 6:56 pm

My gripe was not whether or not you’d read Pratchett, but that, if you had, why’d you still think Pynchon et al were, as you put it, “Important”.

Bianca’s blog post, which I linked to earlier, might help. I like Pratchett – I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading most of the Discworld books – but he doesn’t try to do what Pynchon does on more or less any given page.

368

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 7:07 pm

@352

My next thought experiment is Jane Austen’s versions of the Illiad and Odyssey. In the first, we focus on Helen and her handmaidens negotiating the intricate politics of court intrigues and love relationships. Occasionally, there is some clattering and a cloud of dust outside Troy, but with each passing day we see more deeply into the rich inner life of a beautiful and talented woman trapped in profound emotional conflicts. In the second, Penelope is abandoned for years by her thrill-chasing husband and struggles with managing a household while besieged by rich, handsome, but unworthy suitors. Odysseus comes home and messes up everything.

Regarding a hierarchy of plot and themes, please explain how it is just as easy for Jane Austen to chronicle great European land battles as it is for Tolstoy to depict family struggles.

369

Trader Joe 09.27.13 at 7:12 pm

@362

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!

Available on Amazon and far better Jane and the Odyssey.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

370

James 09.27.13 at 7:19 pm

Straightwood@362:

You will, of course, want to explain how well Homer, working in dactylic hexameter with the resources of Greek epic, will do in depicting fine-drawn psychological detail of an early Iron Age (contemporary with Homer, not five centuries in the past) civic / domestic plot.

371

Anderson 09.27.13 at 7:21 pm

363: its scope alone makes it a greater work than anything written by those stuffy Victorian lady-writers.

372

Phil 09.27.13 at 7:22 pm

with each passing day we see more deeply into the rich inner life of a beautiful and talented woman trapped in profound emotional conflicts

Admit it, you haven’t actually read any Jane Austen.

373

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 7:25 pm

@364

This would not have been a problem for Homer. His Sheepsheariad would have been a carefully observed drama of competitive sheep shearing in a small town in the Peloponnese. The anxiety of wives and lovers as the crucial shear-off approaches would form a powerful counterpoint to unexpected market fluctuations in wool prices and the ever present danger of improper relations between shepherds and flocks. Oh, the power, the grandeur of it! If only Homer had not been distracted by macho legends and stayed with the herd.

374

William Timberman 09.27.13 at 7:27 pm

Phil wins the thread. (The Straightwood 20% of it anyway. It’s been a looooong slog.)

375

Anderson 09.27.13 at 7:28 pm

368: +1.

376

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 7:29 pm

People who haven’t read Homer shouldn’t comment on him, from the Odyssey:

Awaken’d princess Nausicaa; she her dream
Remember’d wond’ring, and her parents sought
Anxious to tell them. Them she found within.
Beside the hearth her royal mother sat,
Spinning soft fleeces with sea-purple dyed
Among her menial maidens, but she met
Her father, whom the Nobles of the land
Had summon’d, issuing abroad to join
The illustrious Chiefs in council. At his side
She stood, and thus her filial suit preferr’d.
Sir! wilt thou lend me of the royal wains
A sumpter-carriage? for I wish to bear
My costly cloaths but sullied and unfit
For use, at present, to the river side.
It is but seemly that thou should’st repair
Thyself to consultation with the Chiefs
Of all Phæacia, clad in pure attire;
And my own brothers five, who dwell at home,
Two wedded, and the rest of age to wed,
Are all desirous, when they dance, to wear
Raiment new bleach’d; all which is my concern.
So spake Nausicaa; for she dared not name
Her own glad nuptials to her father’s ear,
Who, conscious yet of all her drift, replied.
I grudge thee neither mules, my child, nor aught
That thou canst ask beside. Go, and my train
Shall furnish thee a sumpter-carriage forth
High-built, strong-wheel’d, and of capacious size.

377

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 7:34 pm

Nice; and Nausicaa was of course no stranger to the killing fields herself.

378

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 7:39 pm

Modesto Kid. You just made a new friend. That link is priceless!

379

GiT 09.27.13 at 7:44 pm

Why would I have to explain that? It’s a non-sequitur. Tolstoy served in the army. So what? The implicit claim seems to be that a greater diversity of experience enables a greater range of possible effective writing. Now explain how you qualify “experiences” into a discrete set of isolable and measurable units which you can then weight by their potential thematic depth, such that “going to war” (or “trying to be a novelist”, as seems to pretty much describe most of the life of, say, Franzen or McCarthy) contains more literary potential than “whatever women who don’t get to go to war do.”

380

The Modesto Kid 09.27.13 at 7:46 pm

Pleased ta meetcha, Cleanthes. You could repay my good deed by telling me how to pronounce her name; I have been saying something like ‘no-see-KAH-uh’ based purely on guesswork.

381

Trader Joe 09.27.13 at 7:48 pm

@366
Dang. Was hoping to steal it with Zombie Jane Austen.

I haven’t read much Austen or Homer, but as Anderson points out zombies are inherently more complex and I read about the first 50 pages of it in an airport one time while waiting for a delayed flight and it easily passed the 50 page test.

I was particularly impressed by the fact that both the male and female zombie characters were equally well developed in demonstrating their emotional need for brains. These weren’t two dimensional zombie renderings but arguably the most profound and deeply written zombie characters ever.

382

GiT 09.27.13 at 7:48 pm

@367 – So basically, it comes down to the fact that you think armed conflict is more interesting than other things. Nice “philosophical argument” there.

383

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 7:57 pm

Cormac McCarthy can write convincingly about what it is like to fight for your life inside a Mexican prison because his experience of the world includes a few rough spots. In the sublime Suttree, he can also write about living down and out on a houseboat and being the lover of a mad prostitute. This range of subjects does not make McCarthy a great writer, but it expands his range of credible subject depiction beyond that of writers who has lived safer and more conventional lives.

The arguments here against the advantages of what I call thematic scope seem to knock down straw men, such as “big means good,” or “great writing must be macho writing.” An ambitious work of literature is like a symphonic composition; it benefits from richness of orchestration, thematic complexity, and wide range of effects. To the degree that men have access to experience that affords them greater creative scope, they have an advantage over otherwise equally talented women writers.

384

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 8:03 pm

“he can also write about living down and out on a houseboat and being the lover of a mad prostitutes”

This is ridiculous. It’s just reportage surely? Anyway, why couldnt a woman have such an experience. Are they afraid of the water?
Anyway, somewhat relatedly, I just recently finished Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beatiful Forevers (what life was like over a 3 year period for a family in a Mumbai Slum) and its really good. Well written (reported) non fiction can stand its own against even the best fiction, imo

385

GiT 09.27.13 at 8:16 pm

“To the degree that men have access to experience that affords them greater creative scope, they have an advantage over otherwise equally talented women writers.”

Men to not have access to realms of experience more complex than women because they are men, and things that men have tended to do or been able to do that women have not are not inherently possessed of greater creative scope than things that women have tended to do which men have not, or which women have had to endure but men have not.

386

Anderson 09.27.13 at 8:18 pm

To the degree that men have lacked access to experience that affords them greater emotional scope, they have a disadvantage versus otherwise equally talented women writers.

387

GiT 09.27.13 at 8:18 pm

And of course Cormac McCarthy’s roughspots (none of which, I presume, actually involve fighting for his life in prison) enable writing about fighting for his life in prison, while no women’s rough-spots could do the same, because clearly there is something ineffable about male rough spots, while women, lacking enough internal fire to really experience things with the same gravitas, will forever be incapable of writing compellingly about fighting for one’s life in prison.

388

Ronan(rf) 09.27.13 at 8:24 pm

I mean, if you want to read what life is like in Mexico’s ‘roughspots’ read Anabel Hernandez’s Narcoland. This argument is bizzare

389

FredR 09.27.13 at 8:25 pm

McCarthy is a bad writer though…

390

GiT 09.27.13 at 8:26 pm

More generally, listing things you think are really neato (land wars in europe, houseboats, sex with prostitutes, shooting deserters!, you know, the true pathos of what it really means to be human!) and things you think are not so biff bam zoom fantastic (living on a 19th century English estate, dealing with male suitors while your husband is lost at sea) isn’t actually an argument for the “great complexity” of the former and the stunted, narrow vision of the later, it’s just a statement of your own insipid preferences.

391

FredR 09.27.13 at 8:38 pm

‘the sublime Suttree’

You liked all that cheesy, vague Five Easy Pieces nonsense?

392

Tom Slee 09.27.13 at 9:01 pm

women, lacking enough internal fire to really experience things with the same gravitas, will forever be incapable of writing compellingly about fighting for one’s life in prison

Right. Emma Donoghue’s “Room” does not exist. It would only be possible for someone held in prison in a shed for seven years.

393

godoggo 09.27.13 at 9:02 pm

Just in case I’m part of the “subset” to which Henry was referring, I’ll note that I recently used the blogging-as-jerking-off analogy at Henry Rollins’s blog (“the internet, after all, is but a great circle jerk, this blog but one cracker, and you can quote me on that”). I had to double-check on whose post I was commenting, and I see that it was indeed a woman, but it’s just a general point that I feel warrants emphasizing of late.

394

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 9:02 pm

@384

I am not making a choice between rough stuff and domesticity as preferred exalted subjects. I am asserting that a greater RANGE of experience and thematic interests puts more colors on the palette, tools in the box, instruments in the orchestra … All other things being equal, this makes a difference in the final literary product. Belle rightly points out that historically women have had narrower options, but for several decades, in Western countries, most of these limitations have been removed. Belle would assert that we are now dealing with a lag effect as women writers shake off the residual prejudices of the academic and literary establishments. I’m not so sure.

395

godoggo 09.27.13 at 9:03 pm

“on whose post I was commenting” here

396

GeoX 09.27.13 at 9:07 pm

But this is just nonsense. Cormac McCarthy would be totally incapable of writing a Jane Austen novel. The idea is self-evidently idiotic.

397

dbk 09.27.13 at 9:23 pm

Fwiw (probably not much by this stage in the thread), one of the most famous passages in Homer presents not only images of a city at war, but images of a city at peace: herds and herdsmen, oxen, viticulture, the harvest season, and … a sheep farm. For this authentic version of the Sheepsheariad, cf. Il. XVIII.

Small request: Jane Austen was not a Victorian author. She died before Victoria was born. Most of her work was written during the Georgian period, and revised/published during the Regency. (Nor, btw, was she a “Romantic”).

Hector @341. The men of Lepanto, indeed. (I don’t know Amanda Marcotte.) Small caveat: I have spent my adult life in a country other than that of my birth, in a region which didn’t reap the benefits of Lepanto. This is something you would have had no way of knowing, but it’s not terribly germane to the general argument.

Without going into the details of the social and professional encounters that gradually taught me that being a girl intellectual just wasn’t going to be as much fun as I’d thought when I was … well, reading Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady and Pride and Prejudice and all that, here’s what I’ve gradually come to understand: the law is one thing, its observance in letter another, and its observance in spirit quite another, and it’s the latter that ultimately matters. There may be laws – there are laws – on the books that prohibit overt discrimination, but there are a thousand ways to discriminate covertly, and believe me, they’re employed, regularly – even in “the West”. Here’s one example from the country where I live, which has very progressive equal rights legislation on the books: women of child-bearing age are fired as a matter of course by private corporations/businesses upon marriage (normally, the day after they return from their honeymoon). In a court of law, various explanations (down-sizing, e.g.) will stand up, even though the judge, the plaintiff, and the defendant all know why the firing took place – the employer doesn’t want to pay for pregnancy leave. Another incident: I’m talking to sb on the BoD of the place I work; the job of CEO is open and I’m trying to decide whether or not to go after it: “Hey dear, we love you to death, but X will never, EVER, have a woman CEO” (it’s an American organization).

I’m not entirely certain I want to hear your round refutation – I’ve probably already heard it about twenty times at every stage in my career. But hey, I can listen to it again.

398

GiT 09.27.13 at 9:27 pm

And yet “having narrower options” is in fact an experience which is different, and incompatible with, the experience of “having many options”. When it comes to “human experience” it is not the case that ‘having done a greater variety of things adolescent minded men consider noteworthy when marking off a list of significant experiences'” means that one has actually had a greater and more complex range of experience. He with the longest fulfilled bucketlist is not he with the most resources upon which to draw in order to write successfully.

The paucity of good women writers in the past is not a function of their lack of sufficient life experiences to write compellingly, it’s a lack of the material conditions necessary for ‘being a writer.’ Belle was not saying in @211 that, because women were constrained, they did not have sufficient experience to produce literary works of merit. She was saying that they were quite materially constrained from engaging in the practice of writing . That is very different from being materially constrained from having things to write great literature about.

Women have not recently become more prominent in the literary scene because only ‘after we got rid of that sexism stuff in 1987’ or whatever women now had access to a range of experience capable of supporting good writing. They have never lacked for the range and depth of experience necessary for good writing. What they have lacked for is sufficient opportunity to work as writers and be taken seriously by others while doing so.

399

Sasha Clarkson 09.27.13 at 9:33 pm

I didn’t care much for either of Belle’s articles. The original group of authors seemed cherry-picked for the purposes of dislike; in this, excessively long-winded, one, she doth protest too much methinks.

However, Nobel Prizes are a serious red herring: just look at the list of Peace Prize winners. Eg Kissinger anyone?

400

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 9:39 pm

@392

Orwell and HG Wells were both dirt poor and struggled for years before they could make a living writing. The struggling, impoverished writer is so cliched a figure, that your assertion that women are economically inhibited from writing is unsupportable. George Eliot succeeded on the strength of enormous talent at a time when society was totally male-dominated. Arguing from anecdotes is pointless. It is up to modern women writers to deliver the goods. Any woman today who writes something as good as Middlemarch will not lack for success.

401

etv13 09.27.13 at 9:40 pm

And let me just refer once again to the current sophomore English curriculum at a highly regarded high-school in an affluent California town (listed in my comment @89): 100% male authors, 100% male protagonists. Would any of these works pass the Bechdel test? What does this say to the 15-year-old girls in that class about their place in world literature, as producers, as subjects, as readers?

402

js. 09.27.13 at 9:46 pm

Hey, still-talking-Straight-outta-my-ass dude,

Do you actually know _anything_ about Orwell’s biography? Can you get one fucking thing right here?

403

Random Lurker 09.27.13 at 9:49 pm

I would like to point out that a large chunk of the odyssey is Telemachus having great barbecues with the jet set of greek aristocracy of the time, and is quite crappy.
Then, we read of Odysseus attending a party (rather boring) .
Then we have a very short account of O’s adventures, that is the only part that is still famous because it’s funny, then we have a very long part about plotting revenge once back home (during a party !) .
The prevalent theme of the Odyssey is clearly partying, not macho adventures. We see only the adventures because we couldn’t care less of socialite gossip of 1500 bc, but it is there.

@Modesto Kid

+100pts for the Nausicaa picture (in Italy we spell that name as nowsykoho, with all the o spelt as in “now” , but I don’t know if it is the correct greek spelling).

404

medrawt 09.27.13 at 10:14 pm

Sasha @393 –

the original group of authors was cherry picked to specifically include the set of prestigious mid-late-20th c. authors Belle is talking about and whom Franzen seems likely to cite (and/or actively does cite) as his immediate literary forbears. A similar canon grouped and diagnosed by Franzen’s contemporary and friendlike person David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists, in an essay about Updike. If you want to argue that no real profit or understanding is gained by understanding this group as a Group, cool, but you can’t pretend that other people, prior to Belle, have not arranged them as such.

405

GiT 09.27.13 at 10:31 pm

I never said it was strictly *economic* inhibitions which deprived women of the ability to write. And whether economics were or were not alone responsible has nothing to do with the claim that the lack of sufficiently great writing by women is a product of their lack of experiences about which to write compellingly, supposedly evidenced by your own fatuous opinion that most of what women have written is not as fantastic as what the greatest male writers have written.

Either way you spin this argument about ‘literary quality as a function of the capaciousness of experience of its authors’ seems dubious. It seems to be either:

a. the realm of possible “women’s” experiences is obviously less capacious than the realm of possible “men’s” experiences, therefore the output of the greatest women writers is lesser in quality than that of the greatest male writers, because boy howdy did Orwell and Wells and McCarthy live real fully diverse lives overfilling with literary grist, while women are clearly boring and dull, if only relative to such great men, even after we liberated them all that one time.

or

b. women’s writing has been less well received by [me, the public, literature professors, whatever], hence of less quality, therefore the experiences which gird it are less capacious, because differences in quality in great writing are driven by capaciousness of experience

So we’re left with either risible claims about what are or aren’t sufficently dynamic, complex, unique, and literary experiences, or a bunch of dubious assumptions masquerading as an argument.

(that great works written by men are greater than great works written by women; that your -or some other organ’s – preferences in ‘great literature’ reflect an objective ranking of quality; that the order of this ranking is primarily a function of vastness of experience, such that one can infer from differences in rank to differences in the quality and variety of experience of the authors – indeed in this form the whole things begs the question concerning experience and quality of fiction).

406

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 10:33 pm

@396

Well, that’s more like the good old CT warm reception. I was beginning to think this place had lost its raffish charm. I have all four volumes of Orwell’s letters and essays, and I enjoy them immensely. Although his family was middle class, Orwell scraped by on grinding out stories, reviews, and articles until his success with Animal Farm, fifteen years after he started writing. Orwell’s misery as a maltreated scholarship boy at an exclusive school (Such, Such Were the Joys) makes for memorable reading and provides insight into his lifelong hatred of injustice and oppression.

407

kent 09.27.13 at 10:34 pm

I can’t believe I read the whole thread! Fascinating throughout.

I don’t know if anybody here watches ‘the big bang theory,’ but both Straightwood and Hector make a lot more sense if you imagine their words coming out of the mouth of Sheldon Cooper.

408

Straightwood 09.27.13 at 10:46 pm

@405

So what is your view? Is it that in a hypothetical world of perfect fairness in academia, publishing and relations among the sexes, that women would create just as many works of great literature as men? Do you believe that they would engage the same subjects as men? Do you believe that the closets and attics of the world are full of neglected unpublished masterpieces by women authors victimized by sexism?

409

GiT 09.27.13 at 11:03 pm

My view is that it is not the case that differences you perceive in the quality of extant men and women’s fiction is a function of a differential ability to have sufficiently literary experiences across men and women.

410

Substance McGravitas 09.27.13 at 11:05 pm

However, Nobel Prizes are a serious red herring: just look at the list of Peace Prize winners. Eg Kissinger anyone?

Argument a serious red herring, as if the same people are dealing with physics and medicine. Not that I quibble with the ridiculousness of the Peace Prize…

411

Katherine 09.27.13 at 11:24 pm

Is it that in a hypothetical world of perfect fairness in academia, publishing and relations among the sexes, that women would create just as many works of great literature as men?

Well, yes. Why, do you consider that to be an outlandish proposition?

Also, should anyone care to know,

412

Substance McGravitas 09.27.13 at 11:27 pm

Substance @113: ignorant or impatient

Where did you get that? How about just “mistaken” or “overlooking something”?

Lacking “necessary knowledge”=ignorance, lacking “patience”=impatience. Both those “I” words describe ME ME ME in many many areas, but with luck I will manage to avoid circumstances in which self-deprecation – which I think was what you were aiming at – can be mistaken for an insult to someone I respect. Not that I have avoided such mistakes in the past of course…

413

Katherine 09.27.13 at 11:37 pm

Should anyone care to know, a woman – gasp! – has done a female version of the Odyssey called The Penelopiad. She’s called Margaret Atwood. She’s quite well known for expansive themes and scope, despite her disappointing femaleness.

414

Cleanthes 09.27.13 at 11:40 pm

Actually, Samuel Butler made a very convincing case for the original Odyssey having been written by a woman.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aoto/index.htm

415

js. 09.27.13 at 11:48 pm

Although his family was middle class, Orwell scraped by on grinding out stories, reviews, and articles until his success with Animal Farm, fifteen years after he started writing.

In other words, Orwell was not dirt poor. Anyway, you were saying something about “scale and complexity” (let’s let the misogyny rest for a sec, eh?), and I gave you “In a Station of the Metro”. Here it is again:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Here’s the thing about this poem you seem not to have noticed: it is motherfucking complex!. If it could shit, it would shit complexity. You seem to have this bizarre notion that scale and complexity are directly correlated. This is so manifestly false that it is frankly embarrassing to have to point it out.

Mutatis mutandis.

If you want to think about “scope” in a way that bears any interesting relation to literature, then—to speak metaphorically—you want to think three-dimensionally. It’s like you’re obsessed with surface area, and you’re completely missing how depth might affect the “scope” or “complexity” of a work.

ps. Read the poem closely; it has as much claim to being “about life and death” as War and Peace.

(RE: the women writers thing, don’t give me bullshit lists—tell me who you’ve actually read, then tell me why The Waves or 3 Lives is inferior to anything at all written in the 20th century, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll talk.)

416

GiT 09.27.13 at 11:50 pm

Alongside Katherine’s response to the first of the quite telling questions, I would say that no, I would not expect there to be a difference in the subject matters men and women write about, apart from some quantitative variation, because men and women are capable, and already do, write about all the same subject matters, and Equality Land isn’t likely to change that.

417

Tim Chambers 09.27.13 at 11:52 pm

Talk about a discourse on sheep shearing. How about one on beets. Some shades of Edward Dahlberg in it methinks, or a parody of him, perhaps. Does anyone know the author of it?

THE BEET IS THE MOST INTENSE of vegetables. The radish,
admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire,
the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough,
yet there runs through them an undercurrent of frivolity.
Slavic peoples gel their physical characteristics from potatoes,
their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from
beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to
suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of turnip…

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The
beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The
beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried,
all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon boat
stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once
connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling
desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his
eyes.

In Europe there is gown widely a large beet they call the mangel-
wurzel. Perhaps it is mangel-wurzel that we see in Rasputin.
Certainly there is mangel-wurzel in the music of Wagner, although
it is another composer whose name begins, B-e-e-t–.

Of course there are white beets, beets that ooze sugar water
instead of blood, but it is the red beet with which we are concerned;
the variety that blushes and swells like a hemorrhoid, a hemorrhoid
for which there is no cure. (Actually, there is one remedy
commission a potter to make you a ceramic asshole — when you
aren’t sitting on it, you can use it as a bowl for borscht.)

Ah old Ukrainian proverb warns, “A tale that begins with a beet
will end with the beet”

That is a risk we have to take.

418

etv13 09.28.13 at 12:09 am

Tim Chambers @417: Tom Robbins? I remember a lot of talk about beets in Jitterbug Perfume.

419

rm 09.28.13 at 12:12 am

Tom Slee @392: Or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

420

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 12:22 am

Katherine,

Your ignoring the reality of male on male status competition as a driving force for art. men seek status in order so they can attract women, and for some, creating art is a means to achieve status.

421

godoggo 09.28.13 at 12:38 am

But what is your view on the reality of male-on-dog status competition?

Oh, come on, you can’t expect me to keep THAT to myself.

422

PatrickfromIowa 09.28.13 at 12:40 am

Nearly a hundred years after Ulysses, which conclusively proved that the epic is regularly found in the mundane, and the mundane in the epic, we’ve had this discussion. Damn.

Joyce, having never borne a child, lived a far safer life than Nora. He was poor, to be sure, but he was a grifter and sponger in ways that only a man could be.

Give me Pynchon, Atwood, Woolf, Proust, David Mitchell, the Brontes, Dickens, Munro–ah hell, there are enough that I could die of old age on the desert island with books unread. And it would be the variety that would keep me happy. Part of Belle’s point, I think, isn’t that the writers critiqued have flaws. It’s that they have the same flaw, which rubs the same spot over and over until a blister appears.

Samuel Beckett’s characters’ world is by far the most limited and constrained of any I’ve read. But, I’ll tell you what, I’m okay with his Nobel. (By the way he risked more than Hemingway, but felt no compulsion to wank on and on about it.

423

LFC 09.28.13 at 12:43 am

etv13 @401
And let me just refer once again to the current sophomore English curriculum at a highly regarded high-school in an affluent California town

Yes, that list was almost entirely of male writers, wasn’t it. What struck me more though, and others have already remarked on this, was that on this admittedly anecdotal evidence the 10th grade English curriculum seems to be stuck in a time warp. I read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, iirc, as part of the 10th grade curriculum roughly 40 yrs ago. There’s nothing esp *wrong* w/ it, I suppose, but if one were conspiracy minded, which I’m not, one cd imagine a cabal meeting a half-century ago or whenever and decreeing that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ will be read by 10th graders in perpetuity. (And in a country w/o a mandatory natl curriculum, where each state still has a lot of control over its public education system, that would be quite a feat.)

424

Straightwood 09.28.13 at 12:46 am

OK, let me restate what I understand to be the consensus in this mighty colloquy:

1. Only a dreadful combination of oppressive circumstances has prevented women writers from creating works the equaling those of their male peers in both quantity and quality. The recognition of a few exceptional women writers simply proves that there is a conspiracy.

2. Quality comparisons across literary forms are impossible and irrelevant, and the excellence of a small or short work cannot be compared to that of a large or lengthy work. A fine haiku is equal in value to a fine multi-volume novel.

3. Analogies between Music, Art, and Literature are worthless. Size, scope, context, and technique mean completely different things in each field.

4. Men and women have the same experiences, see life the same way, and have the same artistic insights. Men who doubt this have sexual problems.

5. The thematic scope of a work has no bearing on its literary quality. A brilliant work written about a single hydrogen atom can be as great as an encyclopedic masterpiece encompassing all the heavens.

6. People who disagree with the CT consensus are ignorant scum worthy of villification.

Have I got it right?

425

js. 09.28.13 at 12:56 am

1. Only a dreadful combination of oppressive circumstances has prevented women writers from creating works the equaling those of their male peers in both quantity and quality.

Why do you keep saying this as if it’s some kind of ridiculous proposition, when it’s fairly obviously true?

Also, that Pound poem is not a haiku, and dear old EP would be one pissed off motherfucker if you told him that he was a “lesser artist” because he didn’t write fat tomes. He’d come find you.

426

LFC 09.28.13 at 12:57 am

@Hector:
You’re ignoring the reality of male on male status competition as a driving force for art. men seek status … so they can attract women, and for some, creating art is a means to achieve status.

I’m going to ask a simple question that refers to the contemporary period. Do you actually, seriously believe this is why any male writers write novels, plays or anything else in the 21st century? Note: I don’t think it’s esp. *ever* been true, but I want you to say whether you think it’s true today.

I’m really glad btw you have that qualification “and for some.” Otherwise, an author like Tony Kushner wd be interested to hear that he wrote Angels in America in order to make himself more attractive to women! ROFL.

427

Cheryl Rofer 09.28.13 at 12:58 am

Straightwood @424: No.

428

Jon H 09.28.13 at 1:00 am

Zamfir @75: “And to focus on the matter at hand: are there many men who eat mentrual pads?”

That must be what happens at those Odd Fellows groups. I always wondered.

429

Tom Slee 09.28.13 at 1:01 am

Thank you Cheryl Rofer.

430

etv13 09.28.13 at 1:01 am

LFC@423: Unless that new movie about Salinger is going to reveal something very surprising, the list of authors is entirely male. So is the list of protagonists. And, yes, the curriculum appears to be stuck in time. I read Of Mice and Men in high school back in 1974. They are still reading Flowers for Algernon in jr. high, too. And it can’t be that they’re saving money by passing out the same old books, because I had to shell out $14 to buy her copies of The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Maybe we could enrich Toni Morrison or somebody instead?

431

rm 09.28.13 at 1:11 am

I’m not sure it’s been said enough that the idea there is a gap in quality between present-day male and female creative writers (let’s just skip past the ridiculousness of dividing all authors into Team Mars and Team Venus, oy) IS ENTIRELY AN ARTIFACT OF THE PRECONCEPTIONS OF A SEXIST READER and is NOT AN OBSERVED REALITY.

I know most here understand that, but I fear that the tirelessness of our bullshitting troll may be burying that basic point under a flood of . . . words. He argues as if his preconceptions are objective realities, and it’s hard for everyone who argues back to always return to fundamental philosophical principles in every single comment. But without doing so we risk validating his basic delusion.

432

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:25 am

To be clear, on further concideration I’d like to dissociate from the thoughts of Mr. Straight wood. My argument here is founded not on literary criticism, but on the unchallengeable realities of evolution.

433

Collin Street 09.28.13 at 1:34 am

No doubt the unchallengeable realities of evolution have been supporting you in email.

434

Straightwood 09.28.13 at 1:39 am

@431

Does your observed reality recognize critically compiled lists of great literary works?

There are 9 works by women on the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels (Editorial Board’s list). The Modern Library reader’s list of the top 100 has 16 by women.

There are 14 books by women writers on the Time 100 Best Modern Novels list.

The current NY Times Fiction hardcover bestseller list has 5 out of 16 titles written by women.

Are these lists part of some collective delusion?

435

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:40 am

LFC,

I would say yes.

436

ralph 09.28.13 at 1:43 am

Epic. Epic. God bless Belle.

437

Tom Slee 09.28.13 at 1:49 am

Does your observed reality recognize critically compiled lists of great literary works?

Do those lists include Updike, Franzen, and Roth? Because if so, we can go back to the beginning and do this whole damn thing again.

438

Belle Waring 09.28.13 at 1:51 am

Is it that in a hypothetical world of perfect fairness in academia, publishing and relations among the sexes, that women would create just as many works of great literature as men?
Self-evidently true, yes. Further, consider, that almost every woman who every lived risked her life time and time again in an enterprise far more likely to result in her own death than being an English soldier in a given battle against Napoleon would: childbirth. Remember what Medea had to say about this? Have you ever looked at the tombstones in an old cemetery and seen who is buried there? There are forests of markers in Arlington cemetery, it is true, but every graveyard in every town in all the world has the same markers “died aged 19 years old with infant Eulalie 1 day old may she rest in peace.” Read the biographies of great statesmen and generals. Most of them have been married more than once–not because they are raffish divorcés, but because their wives died, once, and then again. Life and death? LIFE AND DEATH?

439

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:59 am

I don’t know about literature, but I stand firmly by the idea that in a world of perfect fairness, where people were free to follow their bliss, leadership positions and high status positions would mostly be filled by men, because that is what they would naturally gravitate to. for clear evolutionary reasons. Men are naturally the more status oriented, competitive sex.

This whole thread is like smith college political correctness gone out of controls.

440

The Modesto Kid 09.28.13 at 2:01 am

To Collin Street go the laurels.

441

JanieM 09.28.13 at 2:03 am

Death in childbirth: I was going to bring it up, but I see that PatrickFromIowa and Belle got there first.

Belle @438 is priceless and takes away a lot of the pain of wading through the Straightwood train wreck.

Why doesn’t everyone just reply to every Straightwood comment with, “Go away until you figure out that your head is not the world”? Or even just, “Go away.”

442

rm 09.28.13 at 2:07 am

When positivists read cultural criticism that assumes our human, lived, cultural world is socially constructed, sometimes they think the critic is saying “nothing is real” or “it’s all a collective delusion.”

When positivists write cultural criticism themselves, sometimes they assert that socially constructed ideas are Iron Laws of Reality, and end up arguing in circles that what they perceive is real because they perceived it, or that the wisdom of communities is not contestable because that way lies relativism and the collapse of structured hierarchies, such as the Great Chain of Being, or bigger Scales that Subsume Lesser Scales.

I’m trying to be polite and engage your ideas because you are mostly polite, and because you seem reachable unlike Hector “Evo Psych is My God” St. Clare. But, look, your ideas are nonsense on the level of basic assumptions. You are arguing math problems in Base 8 with all of us using Base 10. We are engaged in incommensurable discourses.

Those lists of Great Novels are interesting and have some virtues and I could find both good and bad reasons for the gender imbalance on each of them, but our problem comes before all that. I think those lists are contestable, socially constructed reflections of a culture where patriarchal thinking, sexist assumptions, bias in publishing, and actual material circumstance have all left a legacy; I think those lists are just one more voice in the mix of literary discussion. You are treating them as if they are experimental results of a test of the hypothesis “boys > girls.” Nonsense; that’s not even wrong, as the saying goes.

443

Squirrel Nutkin 09.28.13 at 2:15 am

434 Oh Gawd, the Hit Parade theory of excellence. I think you must be getting tired.

444

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 2:16 am

RM,

Actually, I am a Christian, and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is my god. Behaviour all ecology and the light it sheds on human society is merely a side interest.

445

GiT 09.28.13 at 2:16 am

1. The alternative to “circumstances” preventing women from writing great books is that “being a woman” *in itself* (rather than, “being treated as women are treated in particular situations,” which is mutable) prevents writing great books. Now what claims, exactly, would you assert that support the latter statement, other than the appeal to the “fact” that now all circumstantial barriers are removed in the West and we haven’t yet, in your humble opinion, seen enough good writing out of the womenfolk to think they have the same innate capacity to write Great Fiction as men, lacking a Y chromosome and all that?

2. No one needs to argue that such comparisons are “impossible or irrelevant”. The question is whether it is apt to say that a great short story is superior to a great novel because a novel is longer and thus has more space in which to do things well or poorly.

I don’t think anyone has objected to saying that great novels are better than shitty poems with respect to their quality, so the possibility of cross-form comparison is hardly at issue.

I wonder if you restrict yourself to “literary” for a reason. Do you think that the same sort of ordinal ranking which exists within “things that are written” (novel beats short story beats poem) exists across “things that are art”? Are Opera and Film at the top because argumentum ad Gesamtkunstwerke? Does painting outrank photography? Is sculpture almost as lowly as a simple craft? Is music greater or lesser than writing? Or is there, in fact, a qualitative disjunction here such that talking about how the greatest novel is greater than the greatest symphony is greater than the greatest painting is just utterly daft?

Now entertain the notion that it might be the case that such disjunctions occur not only inter-media but also intra-media, because one can approach (and excel at) entirely different projects using the precise same tools, and that there are more ways to distinguish the ambition or quality of projects than the quantity of words, labor, colors, notes, instruments, or whatever else they use.

3. Analogies between different kinds of art aren’t worthless, but the analogy that male experiences subsume female experiences in the way that an orchestra subsumes a quartet is worthless. The notion that men going to war subsumes women living in a highly constrained patriarchal society and having to deal with operating within it is worthless. The notion that men experienced everything women stuck in domestic life experienced PLUS exciting manly things only they got to do is worthless.

4. This just implicitly begs the question that one must have direct experience of something in order to write about it in great literature fashion. The question is whether women are limited in their experience in ways that foreclose writing literature at the same level of excellence as men. Whether they do or don’t have the same experiences is irrelevant.

5. The thematic scope of a work has bearing on its quality. This does not mean that, ceteris paribus, greater thematic scope means greater quality. Similarly, a man’s height has bearing on his athletic skill. This does not mean that, ceteris paribus, a taller man is better at any given athletic endeavor than a shorter man. More and best aren’t the same.

6. Poor you.

446

bekabot 09.28.13 at 2:18 am

I know most here understand that, but I fear that the tirelessness of our bullshitting troll may be burying that basic point under a flood of . . . words.

Well, from Straightwood’s perspective, Straightwood is right, and what he’s protecting is the truth. You can tell ‘Cuz Words, or because of some of at least a few of the words Straightwood releases from his hoard. (He hasn’t heeded Nietzsche’s injunction to be shamefast about sharing: that it matters not what boon of illimitable value you have to give the world, you shouldn’t be eager to start doling it out: let the disciples come and find you. But some people are just too generous.)

For example, Straightwood’s a fan of life-and-death situations, when he isn’t a fan of sheer scale. Stories about the army, stories about Mexican prison fights, that’s the kind of thing which appeals to him. And why? Because, he says, situations like that involve questions of life and death and therefore (there’s an absent connection there, but never mind) are superior, as narrative material, to situations which don’t. It doesn’t matter to Straightwood that many women throughout history have gone in danger of their lives and that if it were a mere matter of one’s life’s being at stake, women writers would not lack for literary fodder. But anyone who’s a woman knows that the kinds of ways a woman’s life may be in danger are not thought suitable as material for the best fiction. Much of that stuff is dull and some of it is biological. Icky-poo, IOW. Straightwood is a victim of the partial blindness which drives men like him to explain to women, passionately and at length, that they (the women) have never been called upon to die in wars. The men who deliver these explanations believe them, mostly because (because they’re not obtuse in the exact same way they seem to be at first) they believe that the ways in which women die in wars are not the correct ways, the proper ways, the decent ways, the ways which get celebrated in the stories. The epics note such deaths without a fuss. If Homer doesn’t make a big deal about it, why should Straightwood?

Then there’s the other thing which can happen, which is that an insignificant death can be recalled out of insignificance by means of the effort of an observer. The observer may even participate in the death, or may have caused the death, but by noticing the death and giving it its due weight the observer redeems the death from obscurity, along with the person who has suffered it. Properly understood, this is a religious exercise, and it seems to make quite an impression on Straightwood. He cites a passage out of Hemingway which is of this nature and presents it as an example of the kind of thing women just can’t do (at least, so I understand him). This means that to Straightwood, women may be appropriate as memorials (gathered in distress around a gravesite, for example) but are no good as memorializers. Women may mourn but female mourning is ineffectual. Women may reminisce, but what their reminiscences are is chatter. Women cannot summon, women cannot compel, women can perform no priestly functions. I have no doubt that Straightwood is very earnest on this count.

So why should Straightwood care about anything women write? If I am confronted with a body of literature produced by people prevented from dying in ways I think valid, prevented from living in ways I think admirable, incapable of redeeming themselves and incapable of redeeming other people, why would I be disposed to like their stuff? Mind you, by that same token I would not be disposed to dislike their stuff, but that would be because it would be so irrelevant to me and so irrelevant to my experiences that there would be no point in my having much of any reaction to it one way or another. Why go there? (I would think). A person might as well join the crowd of kooks who look for messages in chemtrails. Might as well start reading tea leaves. Might as well start thinking kittens really talk.

I’m sorry if the tone of this contribution is intemperate. I’m also sorry if I misunderstand Straightwood, though I don’t expect I do.

447

PatrickinIowa 09.28.13 at 2:18 am

Anderson at 362: Thanks. I don’t know if I’ll agree after I reread Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s a fascinating take, and it reads Pynchon in a manner that resonates with the way I do.

Also Belle, again, at 438. Exactly.

448

rm 09.28.13 at 2:27 am

Wait, kittens don’t talk?

Bekabot, that was a wonderful look into the heart of the abyss. You just know the abyss is typing out a long response back at you, as we speak.

449

bekabot 09.28.13 at 2:34 am

Wait, kittens don’t talk?

Okay: “Might as well start thinking kittens talk in anapestic tetrameter.” (That should be safe enough.)

You just know the abyss is typing out a long response back at you, as we speak.

Maybe, but the abyss is going to have understand that I’m not going to be able to stare back down into it before tomorrow, if then.

Thanks, BTW, for the compliment.

450

Cleanthes 09.28.13 at 2:37 am

Hector @ 444

Yes, I too once was a Christian. Those were good times indeed, God had a plan for my life and I had a friend in Jesus. And then, foolishly, I read the following cursed words on a little pamphlet, and it was all over for me, I was alone in the universe, racing towards death.

[spoiler alert, don’t continue reading if you don’t want to have your faith tested, you’ve been warned] “‘And the stars of heaven shall be falling down, and the powers that are in heaven shall be moved’. As you can see, Jesus Christ was just a poor ignorant peasant from Palestine who thought that the stars were little brilliant dots hanging on the night sky and they could fall upon the earth during times of stress”.

451

Straightwood 09.28.13 at 2:46 am

@446

This is well-reasoned, but still an accusation of sexism. I do enjoy and respect the great women writers, like Austen and Eliot – and Penelope Fitzgerald, an aging modern. (To my taste, Virginia Woolf’s work is overwrought.) I don’t believe sexism sufficiently explains the paucity of great women writers in the modern literary pantheon. I don’t see enough evidence to judge if and when this will be remedied. The discussion has been stimulating, and I thank those who have participated in good faith. Good night, all.

452

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 2:48 am

Cleanthes,

You’re aware that the Bible uses stars as a literary metaphor for angels? And that, in addition, maybe Jesus Christ talked to his prescientific followers in an idiom they understood? No particular theory of astrophysics is being propounded here.

If that’s your best argument against God, than the new atheists are in much worse shape than I’d imagined.

453

Cleanthes 09.28.13 at 2:56 am

Hector, I’m not an atheist either of the new or the old variety, I’m not just Christian anymore. Those little poisonous words killed my faith in Jesus at a time when I was young and not very sophisticated; so, I just moved to other things. I learned my lesson, though: I no longer willingly test the tenets of my belief.

454

rm 09.28.13 at 2:57 am

Hector, I am a Christian too, and I think Cleanthes’s point is obviously irrelevant, but —-

—- dude, what the fuck-all does that have to do with putting your faith in the ridiculous evo-psych just-so stories you are spouting? Those are not the science of evolution, and they are not the science of psychology, and if there is a valid science of evo psych (I’m not claiming to know that) they are not that either, they are bare evidence-free assertions that “women are like this, men are like that, because it’s fact because I say so.” No. No, that will not do. I wonder if you are one of those who misread the Bible to justify patriarchy, and are grasping at sciency-sounding rationalizations for that.

455

b9n10nt 09.28.13 at 3:42 am

Manly man literature fans, I’m not sure you’d agree with the following but you might gain a new perspective on Great Epic Themes of Literature:

How humans act in times of acute stress is more likely to reflect a relatively barren, fight-or-flight consciousness that short-circuits the deeper and subtler faculties. Sing to me of the gentle unwinding of traumas past and the crises that keep the ego fully sentient, for the immediate fear of death and acts of violence are biological and mundane. Write the scenes wherein the acute stress visits if you must, as your art may call you to describe taking a shit, or a routine sexual performance. The stuff of great literature needs these like a song needs a title, the music is so much more.

456

Substance McGravitas 09.28.13 at 3:44 am

Stanislaw Lem reviews the non-existent book Gigamesh which is obviously better than Ulysses because it has more stuff in it.

I feel I am somewhat closer to Straightwood’s aesthetic than most here because I like heavy metal. Louder=better. Faster=better. More complicated=better. Concept album=better. But, you know, heavy metal is stupid.

457

Cleanthes 09.28.13 at 3:49 am

rm at 454

Well, it looks like you spooked him, and now the chance is gone. And I was so close to bagging me one spotted troll, too.

1- Gain the mark’s attention. Check.
2- Gain the mark’s trust. Check.
3- Spring the trap on the mark. Blocked by rm.
4- Fun and Profit. Lost.

Hector was supposed to ask who did I worship now instead of Jesus, and I would have answered:

Ishtar, of course.

458

sc 09.28.13 at 3:50 am

434 comments and hector hasn’t referred to “santa monica feminists” yet?

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GiT 09.28.13 at 3:55 am

I believe the trolling algorithm is set not to repeat epithets so often. He already used that one relatively recently. We’ll have to go through Left-Bank intellectuals, San Francisco techno-liberals, Portland dykes, and who knows what else till we work our way back around to Santa Monica feminists.

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Tim Chambers 09.28.13 at 4:01 am

@439

You apparently don’t know much more about people than you say you know about literature. Men more status oriented than women? What do you think women put on designer duds and jewelry for? To attract men or intimidate other women? Why do you think we have the expression, behind every great man, there’s a woman? I live in a society (one of the most sexist on earth) where a woman’s status is measured by what her husband’s company is and what his position is, and women dress up in their finest duds just to go to the supermarket or attend a PTA meeting.
Women are extremely competitive. And it isn’t being sexist to say so.

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b9n10nt 09.28.13 at 4:05 am

& another idea to throw out there regarding status-anxiety and artistic acheivement:

How many celebrated novelists, composers, painters, actors, etc…reach their heights early in their artistic practice. If men are more commonly elite artists because of biosocial drives, then shouldn’t there art suffer from age and success, when their hormone levels have tempered and their social standing has stabilized? Isn’t it the case that this evo-psych principle should operate within the organism and not merely at and not at a mythical distance between rival males? A bull will mellow when the testosterone wanes, but celebrated artists do not seem to follow this pattern.

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Meredith 09.28.13 at 4:50 am

What Belle said, esp. @438. I have been so absorbed in baseball that all of this has been a relaxing distraction for me. I also read in the last few days a really interesting book about Jews in American academia. (Book was more specific, but you could genus-it that way.) Just to throw a wrench in the works: other dynamics besides male/female are at work, maybe? Like Roth, whom I find really boring: boring to me (even though my first make-out session, in NJ, no less, was with a Jewish adolescent whose experiences with me Roth was maybe capturing?). I feel like Belle is leaving room for my boredom, said adolescent male’s yearnings and confusion, lots of such. But meanwhile asking, why is that adolescent male so privileged?

Yet, a part of me is worried about leaving out Jewish experience. (And Catholic — Joyce, Proust and all. Not to mention Muslim, Hindu, and so forth — there are rich traditions all around) I dunno. There are worlds being overlooked here (says this aged shiksa, who hopes to be a grandmother of Jewish and “Muslim “children, the latter in scare quotes since that side is thoroughly secularized).

Keep reading and read a lot, with sympathy. That’s all I’ve got to say.

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The Dark Avenger 09.28.13 at 4:51 am

3. Analogies between Music, Art, and Literature are worthless. Size, scope, context, and technique mean completely different things in each field.

You don’t even understand music, speaking as one who can read and perform piano music of some complexity, like Rachmaninoff or Bach.

By your own theory, Schubert should’ve been the greatest opera composer of all time, given his undeniably great songs, but, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, the few operas Schubert did write were unmitigated flops when they premiered, and are almost never performed to this day.

Artistic progress many times proceeds in a non-linear, non-hierarchical way. Your attempt to make analogies between musical works and literary works would be laughable, were it not for the obvious fact that you take them so seriously in your attempt to put women writers down.

Where is the male “Sense and Sensibility”? Has any Southern male writer wrote a short story as farcically humorous, tragic and at the same time a microcosm of Southern domestic life as “Why I Live at the Post Office”? What work is the masculine equivalent of “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

I hope I’ve made my point clearly even to one such as yourself.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 5:19 am

Straightwood #424: “Have I got it right?”

Not even close. The point is you think in absolute terms, polar opposites, index-card categories. That is always the ego, trying to avoid expansion of being. I can tell you from experience, the game is not worth the candle.

There’s a Sinatra Rat Pack movie, early 1960’s, where a scene starts with a handful of women sitting around a living room, chatting. Frank comes in with the other actors behind him, says, “Okay you broads, take a powder,” and the women all get up en masse and exit the scene.

If you said that today, of course you’d be killed.

Then came a little something called women’s lib. We are less than 50 years into it, and there are still some traditional women who don’t understand it with some tragic results. But it’s pretty clear that women are now doing good work in all the arts and sciences. And it’s pretty clear that their quantity and quality have begun to match the men. So it seems to me very likely that in literature, Austen, Eliot, Woolf etc. were harbingers of a change that has finally begun to accelerate.

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bad Jim 09.28.13 at 6:14 am

b9n10nt, it’s commonly observed that most people who achieve something do it when they’re young. I remember Bertrand Russell saying that, and Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that there are no second acts in American lives.

The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.

― Daniel C. Dennett

I made this point long ago, perhaps in the previous thread. Damned few artists are consistently good. It’s notably rare for mathematicians to be productive throughout their lives. Novelists should be judged on their best work, and forgiven for having chosen a difficult way to make a living.

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bad Jim 09.28.13 at 7:02 am

Let’s face it. Men don’t want to read women writing about their lives because, instead of making them look heroic, it makes them look petty and foolish. It exposes a side of life they would otherwise be allowed to overlook. It isn’t gratifying.

It would nice to be able to say that this is something we’ll eventually be able to rectify by doing a better job of balancing household responsibilities, more equitably sharing the care of the young and the old, but that prospect is receding into the mists of the distant future if the spectacle of pulling out a gun and shooting someone seems more vividly real than doing laundry.

Generally speaking, though, how can you tell who the writer is? Print offers a sort of Turing test, and it’s well known by now that you can’t discern gender from the text (Asimov provided a hilarious example in a foreword to a James Tiptree, Jr. collection).

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Jon H 09.28.13 at 7:09 am

Re: childbirth

It seems to me that childbirth is a *far* richer subject for an author than, say, a soldier shooting a deserter. All manner of emotions can be wrapped up in the birth of a child, hope, worry about ability to support the child, fear of bearing a daughter instead of a son, etc. Plus the pain, and the hazards of childbirth itself.

I wonder if a male author could *really* capture childbirth in prose.

It’s not like a woman can’t adequately capture the death and destruction of war. Were Margaret Bourke-White’s war photographs somehow lacking compared to those of a male photographer?

for example: http://timelifeblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/001199240.jpg?h=372&w=563

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Lynn Gazis-Sax 09.28.13 at 7:13 am

@ #446: Re: “For example, Straightwood’s a fan of life-and-death situations, when he isn’t a fan of sheer scale.”

In some ways, I sympathize more with his life-and-death situation preference than with his preference for scale. I don’t see novels as at all inherently superior to short stories (for instance, though Hemingway does write well in both lengths, I actually like his short stories “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean Well Lighted Place” best of his works). But “push your characters to their limits” has value, and, though life-and-death situations aren’t the only way to do this (the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is surely pushed to her limits), it can be a good way.

On the other hand, life-and-death situations aren’t all that scarce in women’s writing, whether it’s Eliza escaping on the ice, or the fate of Tessie in The Lottery, or even Beth falling ill and dying in Little Women. (Some such situations are better writing than others, of course, but the same is true of life-and-death situations in men’s writing.)

469

GiT 09.28.13 at 7:23 am

@463 To be fair to Straightwood’s arguments, I think the claim would be more along the lines that Schubert’s failure to perform in the more dynamic and capacious realm of opera is evidence that, despite his success at penning lieder, he is simply an inferior grade of composer compared to Rossini or Bellini &etc.

Schubert could only handle a singer and a piano, while Rossini had the virility and gusto to handle many more instruments at once. The failure of Schubert’s operas is just confirmation that he lacks the necessary vigor to keep that many balls in the air.

If lieder were as dynamic and complex as opera, he would have had the potency necessary to produce an opera worthy of adoration. The genre in which he was most successful is, in its essential properties, less impressive than the genres in which he failed to produce anything seminal. After all, Rossini composed some nice canzonettas.

In the end this is all probably because Rossini’s father was for some time a political prisoner, while Schubert’s dad was just a boring old schoolmaster. Much deeper wells of experience with Rossini, you see.

470

Katherine 09.28.13 at 7:29 am

Katherine,

Your ignoring the reality of male on male status competition as a driving force for art.

Nope, I’m just ignoring you and your cockamamie gender theories. Bored now.

471

Katherine 09.28.13 at 7:36 am

Bah, the second paragraph should be in italics as well.

472

philosofatty 09.28.13 at 8:38 am

…Roth’s claustrophobic toilet and its minute themes…

Haha! This should totally be an anthology of Roth criticism!

I haven’t read all that much in the Great Male Narcissist canon or whatever, but I want to suggest that the critique that these authors fail to create satisfying female characters is kind of a red herring. It’s a feature for sure, and maybe it’s kind of the best data point you can hang on to through the thick of denialist counterattack, but the truly obnoxious thing about these authors is the murkier situation of how they all perform the “Great and Repulsive Masculine Self” thing as the actual main literary event and then this very thing (again, murkily) is what enables their canonization. It’s instructive to look at aspirants to this tradition that missed the boat worse than Jonathan Franzen. For instance, this thing is the literary thunder Bukowski is trying to capture under the guise of Henry Miller worship, or, similarly, that Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” (also infused with various occult forms of male-ness worship) is aiming for. If you think about it, I think it’s actually hard to even imagine the possibility of three dimensional female characters in the same fictional universe as religious expositions of Updike’s penis + the autumn foliage, so it seems like their absence can’t really be the problem with that. Rather, it’s the fact that Updike’s novels, and the Updike mythos generally, are just all about the latter kind of thing (rather than that they fail to contain the former kind of thing). Compare with sexist genre fiction of mid-century–the disparity between male and female characters is at least as bad as in important novels, even if there is less “depth” overall–but that stuff isn’t bad in the full spectrum of sexist and misogynistic ways. I think it’s because that stuff generally doesn’t overtly take the Updikean amplified masculine ego as an object of religious contemplation like the mid-century males do, and so became Great. I mean how would they even do what they do with three dimensional female characters in the mix? Literally what I can actually imagine here is Norman Mailer waving around the binder of women. Plus, I want to at least keep an eye on the idea that misogyny is deep down inconsistent with rendering actual masculinity in the highly authentic way that big important literary novels are supposed to. (I haven’t read Bellow, so he is subtracted from my opinions.)

473

Igor Belanov 09.28.13 at 9:02 am

“So it seems to me very likely that in literature, Austen, Eliot, Woolf etc. were harbingers of a change that has finally begun to accelerate.”

I don’t think these authors were writing books in order to further the cause of women’s lib. They just happened to have the ability and the means to indulge in writing at a time when most women (and men for that matter) were unable to achieve their potential. In this age, when many of the barriers to a literary career have disappeared, a wider range of people have the opportunity to produce great, good, and bad literature. The disappointing thing is that people still feel the need to set up stereotypes, and others write according to these stereotypes. It should really be about time that authors were judged irrespective of their sex, and I think that trying to establish an index of sexist authors is hardly advancing the situation. Rejecting an orthodox ‘literary elite’ is one thing, but countering it with some sort of moral elitism is not progress.

474

Peter Erwin 09.28.13 at 11:03 am

bad Jim @ 466:
Asimov provided a hilarious example in a foreword to a James Tiptree, Jr. collection

Are you perhaps thinking of Robert Silverberg’s introduction to the Tiptree collection Warm Worlds?

(To his credit, Silverberg amended this introduction later with a rather gracious acknowledgment of his error; see the first comment to the post I linked to.)

475

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 12:29 pm

Tim Chambers,

Sigh. You think your countering my point, but you’re actually bolstering it. Those women are achieving status through the men they attract. with men, it’s the other way round.

In the matter of gender rolls, evolution agrees with Ephesians.

476

b9n10nt 09.28.13 at 12:46 pm

@ bad Jim:

Love the Dennet quote. Sure, and especially in math, philosophy, science you achieve your heights by your mid-20s and that’s it. And I certainly entertain the though that artists are people and hence driven to achieve status through whatever vehicle is open to them. But acheiving social status and acheiving artistic greatness don’t correlate well. I’m not too familiar w lit; in music, composers often reached their artistic prime well after they had found their metaphorical rock to call home. If there is something other than mating-focused-status-seeking to explain Mozart’s and Beethoven’s and Stravinki’s and Mahler’s latest and greatest works, and if this pattern is found in lit., this would count as speculative evidence against the speculative idea that Hector promotes.

477

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:01 pm

B9n10nt,

Sexual desire, and the subsequent quest for status, doesn’t end when your out of your 20s.

478

b9n10nt 09.28.13 at 1:06 pm

philosofatty:

I wanted to say that the “great & repulsive masculine self” was a unifying theme of the GMN’s, but I hadn’t read enough to know. Now that you say it, I wan to posit this:

Writing is hard. And the ego has little to say about what will happen on the page. One trains and learns various techniques for language and story-telling, one finds a room and a typewriter: the Muses are summoned. The characters and stories that come to you and what is expressed through oneself isn’t at all like the consciously-planned egoic operations that deliberate over wooing a mate or plotting a career.

Thus, it can be misleading to say that the GMN’s underwrote female characters the way they may have written a commencement speech or planned a vacation. The adoration of the maldeveloped male ego came to them perhaps as a reflection of their world, and an indictment of it. Perhaps these flawed characters give evidence of a world deeply in need of feminine assertiveness and gender re-alignment. Condemn these works and their authors? Or celebrate them as guides out and away from patriarchy.

@ badJim: I think the society can learn to grow men that do not have their own femininity sterilized and shamed. Many more male readers can enjoy female authors and feminine themes today now that a repressive masculinity is more commonly exposed as a character flaw and a weakness.

479

b9n10nt 09.28.13 at 1:09 pm

Hector: no but it typically abates, and thus so too should its inspirations. Shouldn’t we expect the Nobel Prize in Lit to be like the Nobel for Physics, if what your contemplating is true?

480

niamh 09.28.13 at 1:25 pm

Belle, going back to the OP, here’s someone fighting the good fight, just up the road from David Gilmour.

481

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:32 pm

B9n10nt,

Well, the ‘people peak in their late 20s’ thing isn’t even true for science in general, it’s specifically true for physics and math, but not so much for biology (which relies less on raw intellectual power and creativity than physics or math, and requires more a more complicated set of skills). I never said man on man sexual competition was the only driver of artistic creativity, just that it was one such.

482

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:35 pm

Look at how many teenagers want to be in a rock band because they think it will make them a magnet for the girls. There is your proof.

483

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:36 pm

For the record, Halldor Laxness wrote an epic novel largely about sheep shearing, and won a Nobel Prize for it.

484

Anon 09.28.13 at 1:39 pm

@448 “Wait, kittens don’t talk?”

I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat…. This cat began its glance by asking me with a glance ‘Can it be that you mean me? Do you actual want that I should not merely do tricks for you? Do I concern you? Am I there for you? What is that coming from you? What is that around me? What is that?!’ There the glance of the animal, the language of anxiety, had risen hugely.”

That is, for the record, only a comment on the funny question of whether animals talk and not at all a comment on the thread topic or anyone in it.

Perhaps the strangest part of Buber’s cat channeling is that his cat apparently sometimes did tricks for him?

485

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 1:40 pm

Specifically, one of the goals of the book was to show how struggle against the elements and poverty could be as heroic as struggle against an enemy in battle.

486

Jerry Vinokurov 09.28.13 at 1:57 pm

Stanislaw Lem reviews the non-existent book Gigamesh which is obviously better than Ulysses because it has more stuff in it.

yessss perfect vacuum drop

Meredith,

If you see this post, could you share the title of the book you’re reading about the Jewish academics? I’m curious. Thanks!

487

Jerry Vinokurov 09.28.13 at 2:13 pm

The other funny thing about this whole “men just LIVE MOAR” business is that it’s so obviously false. I mean, look at Joyce: what did he do with his life? It was nothing but drink, sex, and writing, in some order, all sustained by continual mooching off his friends. And yet somehow, this guy who really didn’t have any terribly interesting experiences to speak of (or at least none that would separate him in any meaningful way from the mass of other human beings) wrote two of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. One could always come back and say, well, surely if Joyce had lived Hemingway’s life, he would have been even greater, but that’s an unprovable counterfactual; in fact, what I suspect would have happened if Joyce had lived Hemingway’s life, is that he wouldn’t have written what the actual Joyce wrote. He would have been a different person, and author, altogether.

And the list continues. Faulkner never got closer to serving in a war than being a British reservist (too short for the USAF!) and spent the majority of his life, as someone already said, as the town drunk. Wallace Stevens sold insurance; what could possibly be more bourgeois or quotidian? T.S. Eliot bounced around between various university towns and taught school. None of these guys had any experiences that would have particularly separated them from anyone else, and somehow this didn’t seem to impact their literature. So the whole criterion falls apart under any realistic scrutiny, and what’s left standing is a simple double standard: men’s “experiences” count, and women’s don’t. The man is the default and all is to be judged by reference to him. That is the sum and total of Straightwood’s theory of literary criticism, despite all the fancy words used to gild it. It’s not worth taking seriously because it isn’t serious; just garden-variety sexism from six decades ago dressed up in fancy language.

488

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 2:28 pm

Igor Belanov #473 “I don’t think these authors were writing books in order to further the cause of women’s lib.”

Thanks, I did not mean to imply that. I used the word “harbinger” metaphorically for “indicator”, as in the name “harbingers of spring”.

489

Igor Belanov 09.28.13 at 2:41 pm

@ 487

Quite right. The majority of the population live fairly mundane and ‘unexciting’ lives when judged against the likes of Hemingway, and even the bohemianism of Joyce. Yet some fictional reflections on the ‘human condition’ must consider boredom and the ordinary, not just violence, infidelity and obsession.

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JanieM 09.28.13 at 2:50 pm

Jerry Vinokurov: I mean, look at Joyce: what did he do with his life? It was nothing but drink, sex, and writing, in some order, all sustained by continual mooching off his friends.

This is a great point, along with the rest of #487.

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bill benzon 09.28.13 at 2:52 pm

@Crookedputter
“Americans and Europeans have not been swept up in a movement to adopt the limited tonal palette and artistic confines of Asian music, but Asians have become prominent participants in the culture of Western Music.”

Though they surely were influenced, say Mahler in Lied von der Erde.

And we’ve been swamped by and swimming in African rhythm for well over a century.

492

Phil 09.28.13 at 2:55 pm

Asimov provided a hilarious example in a foreword to a James Tiptree, Jr. collection

Any details on this? Mind you, you can’t blame the good Doctor for getting suckered – coming to it cold there’s nothing to give away the writer of “The women men don’t see” or “All the kinds of Yes”, and not a lot to give her away even in retrospect. I think in one of her own forewords Sheldon said that James Tiptree Jr was a man, so to speak.

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Phil 09.28.13 at 2:59 pm

Never mind about the Asimov – just seen the Silverberg link. Comments apply, though.

I want to at least keep an eye on the idea that misogyny is deep down inconsistent with rendering actual masculinity

Mmm. Or the possibility that the misogyny we’re talking about might be one aspect (albeit a hella big aspect) of a more general failure to get out from behind the author’s own eye-sockets. When Kafka wrote “The bone of his own forehead obstructs his way; he knocks himself bloody against his own forehead” he wasn’t (as far as we can tell) recommending this as a way of writing Great Novels.

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Lynn Gazis-Sax 09.28.13 at 4:05 pm

@ #482: Anecdotally, it’s true that being in a rock band improved your odds of being a Lynn magnet, when I was college age (although those improved odds could be countered if you were a sufficient asshole). On the other hand, anecdotally, I wound up acting in a play, at the same age, because I wanted to make myself an Andre Braugher magnet, so to some degree the sexual inspiration to creativity works on both genders. (Feel free to argue that, for evo psych reasons, it works more powerfully on men.)

495

Lee A. Arnold 09.28.13 at 4:50 pm

@487 — I think Ellman reports that Joyce and Hemingway were on the same side in a pub fight. Joyce yelled, “Hit him, Hemingway!”

496

bill benzon 09.28.13 at 4:59 pm

Who’s going to claim comment #500?

497

Anon 09.28.13 at 5:55 pm

I’ve been thinking more about “life and death” as a theme in novels. The initial examples were about life *or* death situations in which characters choose between them by risking death or taking life. They force the character and reader to confront mortality, the inevitability and finality of death. They are not novels about death but about how we handle living with that fear and expectation. They are stories that reflect on their own stories end, that force us to see past the way stories comfort us with the illusion that we outlive stories. But this means they aren’t primarily about death but about life–namely, about that peculiar form of life that is the human, that has to live with the fear and expectation of death: life *as* death, as awareness of the process that leads to it.

For this reason, there’s no reason to think that the standard “life or death” settings are the best opportunities to make great novels about life. On the contrary, they often put us in a frame of mind that reinforces the illusion: the soldier’s story is usually that of the survivor of someone else’s story. I confront the possibility of my own death in the others, but then I escape it. The “toughness” of such stories is in part the characters’ tendency to react to the risk and fear of death by hardening their view of others: seeing the enemy, the criminal, the other as someone whose story ends because he has no story, he is just a feature of my own or the narrator’s story. They confront death in the world to deny it in themselves. This isn’t always the case, but it’s sometimes the case.

In any case, stories about life are also stories about life as the fear and expectation of death. Childbirth is also about death in this sense: not just the fear of death in childbirth, but also the anticipation of the parents, the family, the community: we give birth to overcome mortality, to write about childbirth is to write about life’s awareness of and resistance to death.

The same of course is also true of novels about love and marriage: they are about procreation. And they are about “life as death” in the very specific sense that they are about people conscious of their mortality, of the end of their own story, and responding to that consciousness: trying to produce more life against the inevitability of death.

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bob mcmanus 09.28.13 at 6:28 pm

Ain’t gonna be 500, but:

James Joyce: “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.”

Illuminating, from a fancy gorged
By apparition, plain and common things,
Sequestering the fluster from the year,
Making gulped potions from obstreperous drops,
And so distorting, proving what he proves
Is nothing, what can all this matter since
The relation comes, benignly, to its end?

499

Main Street Muse 09.28.13 at 6:29 pm

Stories help us arrange the chaos of our lives, which focus around life, love, loss and death.

There is sexism in how literature is taught, which influences what we judge to be great works of art. Jane Austen is criticized for not taking us to war in that era of great wars; but for “limiting” her focus to that “two inches of ivory” found in the drawing room. She’s brilliant, fantastic and one of the great writers – but some clearly won’t be teaching her – not the right gender, not the right “bigness.” No one diminishes James Joyce – who perfected the “day in the life” storytelling – for the same flaw.

Hemingway perfected the “writer as art” phenomenon – it is the curse of the modern American male writer. Toni Morrison scribbled away quietly until Oprah shined the spotlight on her. We thankfully can focus on Morrison’s work without the distractions over what man she’s bedded or wedded lately. Nor do we need to know what safari’s she’s lately returned from…

500

William Timberman 09.28.13 at 6:37 pm

If Finnegan’s Wake represents the grandest of ambitions, Dubliners represents a modest ambition more than achieved. Let Molly’s final affirmation represent the futility of all ambition. Joyce may not have been a woman, but never was he merely a dick.

501

bob mcmanus 09.28.13 at 6:40 pm

Stories help us arrange the chaos of our lives, which focus around life, love, loss and death.

eating, excreting, talking, walking

502

Tehanu 09.28.13 at 6:40 pm

Hector, Hector, Hector … what is this “evolution” of which you speak? It certainly isn’t anything like the evolutionary theory developed over the last 150 years or so by actual scientists. So your constant evocation of it, in defense of your ridiculous ideas about how utterly, totally, completely different you are from one of those icky grils you put up the sign about on the treehouse, is — shall we say — one of the dumber efforts I’ve seen in years of reading blog comments. I particularly liked the part about how “one of those truths is that the sexes are essentially different, with different talents, interests and roles.” Who exactly defined those “roles,” Heckyll? How exactly is your “essence” different from that of a person with different genitals? You don’t need food, water, shelter from sunburn and cold? Or perhaps you don’t have eyes or an amygdala?

All your comments — not just the first one, which I’ve quoted — just go to show that what I figured out freshman year in college is really true: there’s nobody more stupid than an educated idiot.

503

Anon 09.28.13 at 7:51 pm

Woops, in @497, “there’s no reason to think that the standard “life or death” settings are the best opportunities to make great novels about life” should be “about *death*.”

Eliot and Auston’s novels really are masterpieces about “life and death” in the sense at issue, not just superior in other ways.

For the same reason, Thomas Hardy’s novels are sheepshearing novels about life and death of the highest order.

504

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 8:16 pm

Thehanu,

I may or may not be an educated idiot, but I am a scientist, though I study plants, not people.

505

stubydoo 09.28.13 at 8:22 pm

There was a famous female author who spanned much of the last century churning out umpteen lovingly and meticulously crafted books, every single one firmly focused on the topic of life and death. You may have heard of her – her name was Agatha Christie.

506

Bloix 09.28.13 at 9:33 pm

#487 – “Wallace Stevens sold insurance; what could possibly be more bourgeois or quotidian?”

Wallace Stevens was a lawyer and insurance company executive who spent most of his career as a VP at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was good at his work and enjoyed it, turning down an offer of a professorship at Harvard (his alma mater) because he preferred to remain with the Hartford.

507

bill benzon 09.28.13 at 9:38 pm

#499

Consider the position Kenneth Burke articulated in his essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that:

. . . surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world. Surely professional participation in that activity is an honorable activity.

508

bill benzon 09.28.13 at 9:39 pm

Whoops:

Consider the position Kenneth Burke articulated in his essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that:

. . . surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world. Surely professional participation in that activity is an honorable activity.

509

Hector_St_Clare 09.28.13 at 10:05 pm

Lynn Gazis-Sax,

I’ve no doubt the sexual impulse to artistic creativity does work on both sexes to a degree. Your point is, as usual, well taken, and you certainly defend the feminist case more effectively than most of these Crooked timber bozoes.

510

Straightwood 09.28.13 at 10:19 pm

The point about women facing death in pregnancy is valid, as is the observation that before the advent of sterile surgery and antibiotics, early death was a common occurrence, with women facing as much risk of it as men. But literature is about conflict, and there is no more elemental conflict that that of people trying to kill each other. Consider Patrick O’Brien’s series of novels about British naval action in the Napoleonic wars. The Aubrey-Maturin series is a marvelous mixture of intrigue, nautical lore, natural science, character studies, and naval combat. I wouldn’t call it high art, but it is not the sort of thing that women write. Belle would argue that they will, in time. I’m not so sure.

511

dbk 09.28.13 at 10:22 pm

@504 Hector
Oh, you’re a botanist? That’s wonderful. I often wish I’d studied one of the natural sciences instead of the topic of this thread – literature. It’s pretty admirable that you were game to follow it from start to finish, given the sometimes-abstruse nature of the lit-crit discussion.

@505 stubydoo
Ah, a writer after my own heart! I’m currently re-watching (for the upteenth times) the Poirot BBC series, and concentrating on the “archaeological murders”. Just watched Appointment with Death last evening.

512

godoggo 09.28.13 at 10:52 pm

I figured there’d be something at Do The Math about women and noir and I was right.

http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/2012/09/newgate-cs-calendar.html

513

MG 09.28.13 at 11:57 pm

Super bummed that 500+ comments and I still don’t know the Hector’s definitive guide of the Manhattan and DC cocktail scenes. I will try to content myself with the Beantown scene (Kidding! No cocktails! White wine for the ladies and IPA for the men. Everyone is super frumpy).

514

GiT 09.29.13 at 12:09 am

“I wouldn’t call it high art, but it is not the sort of thing that women write.”

Plenty of women write historical fiction and military (science) fiction. Many of them are themselves veterans of war or come from military backgrounds. Stop making a fool of yourself.

515

GiT 09.29.13 at 12:17 am

516

Helen 09.29.13 at 12:51 am

“I doubt that Belle takes much comfort in the stupendous “success” of EL James and JK Rowling, whose book sales likely exceed those of any living male writer.”

Straightwood, why do you reckon these writers use their initials and not their first names as their authorial handles? Any idea?
Your time starts now. You may use notes, but no googling.

517

Svensker 09.29.13 at 12:54 am

Yeah, nothing happens in women’s lives, especially in the old days. Just look at the Brontes, stuck out on the moors, hardly any visitors, living a placid, domestic life. Dull, dull, dull.

518

Helen 09.29.13 at 1:04 am

Pete, I suspect Fifty Shades of grey is unpopular among the Manhattan martini-bar set, as it reinforces the patriarchy, or whatever the jargon is these days.

Oooh, zing, snap! Got us bang to rights there guvernor! Besides the fact I’m from the Australian suburban pub set, but we are EQUALLY TERRIBLE.
Teh devastating arguments, they are devastating!

519

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 1:10 am

why do you reckon these writers use their initials and not their first names as their authorial handles? Any idea?

Clearly, it is because of the prejudice that exists against female writers. If the sex of these writers became widely known, their sales would plummet and their incomes would vanish.

520

Belle Waring 09.29.13 at 1:55 am

You do realize that that is, in fact, the reason? That actual manuscript submissions rejected under female names are often accepted under initials which suggest maleness? Can you really be as stupid as all this?
NO DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF DNF

521

The Dark Avenger 09.29.13 at 2:25 am

Straightwood has probably never heard of the Night Witches from WWII:

“Night Witches” is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы), for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war.[1] At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 1,000 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.[2]

522

PJW 09.29.13 at 2:51 am

Michael Berube will address some of the issues discussed in this thread at an upcoming event at GWU — The Canon Anew on Oct. 25:
http://gwenglish.blogspot.com/2013/09/michael-berube-in-residence-at-gw-as.html?m=1

523

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 3:45 am

@520

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance received nearly 100 rejections. Confederacy of Dunces was multiply rejected, which led to the author’s suicide. It’s hard to get published. Perhaps you haven’t heard of SL Carpenter or ML Buchman. Of course, some authors, like Jessica Blair and Jennifer Wilde are brave enough to eschew the initials.

524

bad Jim 09.29.13 at 5:30 am

Peter Erwin: It’s entirely possible. I’m 62 and acutely aware that memories are perishable. I was recently admonished here that something I attributed to Betrand Russell was actually the work of Aldous Huxley. It feels right that it was Asimov; he was not afraid to admit mistakes. Silverberg, whom I love, doesn’t seem old enough to have made a fool of himself in the same way, but you might well be right.

A few years ago my mother hosted a political gathering, and Gregory Benford, a local, was in attendance. He scrutinized our extensive book collection from top to bottom, left to right, without saying anything. (Which anyone would do. Look! Books!) Fortunately we have a few of his, one or two even hardbound. I hope he was gratified.

525

Lee A. Arnold 09.29.13 at 5:53 am

I got Isaac Asimov’s autograph. In the middle page of a book. He turned away from the podium after an evening lecture at Glassboro State College about the technology of the future, and I was the only one waiting back stage, nervously fidgeting. He said in a thick Brooklyn accent, “I think you have something for me to sign!” I said, “It’s my favorite short story. Do you remember the last line?” He had written it 20 years before. Without missing a beat he said, “It’s such a beautiful day, I think I’ll walk!” But then, no one could ever forget that story… He had beautiful penmanship, big round cursive letters.

526

Bloix 09.29.13 at 6:22 am

#510 – I stand behind no man [sic] in my praise for Patrick O’Brian. I’ve read the full series three times.

But as a writer whose subject is war, O’Brian does not come within hailing distance of Pat Barker, who is for me the greatest war novelist of the twentieth century. I admit that perhaps I would find that Vasily Grossman is greater if I read Russian, but as I don’t I can only say what I know and that is that Barker is a writer of unparalleled perception and power.

And Pat Barker, of course, is a woman.

527

bad Jim 09.29.13 at 6:23 am

Brad DeLong brought the NachtHexen to our attention. Fucking marvelous. Flying nearly silent biplanes – motorized boxkites – over the German lines, slowly dealing death without warning. Of course, since these were little planes, they had to keep going back to the base to get more bombs, so the number of missions they flew was extraordinarily high. Or maybe that’s just the way women are, relentlessly lethal.

528

Jon H 09.29.13 at 7:23 am

And then there’s pilot Lt. Col Kim Campbell of the USAF, whose single-seat A-10 Thunderbolt was seriously damaged by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire after her group had hit their targets and started heading back. Hydraulics were knocked out and the controls weren’t responding, so she had to use the manual mechanical overrides for the 1 hour flight back to base and the landing.

“On the ground it was discovered that her A-10 had sustained damage to one engine and to the redundant hydraulic systems, disabling the flight controls, landing gear and brakes, and horizontal stabilizer. A detailed inspection revealed hundreds of holes in the airframe and that large sections of the stabilizer and hydraulic controls were missing.”

Apparently few pilots have ever landed an A-10 in manual mode.

And of course there’s Tammy Duckworth, who was flying a Blackhawk and got hit with an RPG, losing both legs and almost losing her right arm.

529

Martin James 09.29.13 at 7:39 am

I don’t read CT very often but I do often wonder if Belle Waring is right about women and sex. I am a man and she is a woman, so advantage to her, but why does she so frequently write about it?

All stereotypes are true, that’s why they are stereotypes, right? Why do Bill and Hillary seem more like reality, where one just has a hard time imagining Hillary being as sexually driven as Bill? Why don’t women pay money for sex more often?

I’m surprised how few people here read literature to doubt themselves, to think in ways they don’t like, to be bored or confused; all the posters here seem to be on a grand mission of literary confirmation bias.

Why is no one here to be taught how they wrong?

I’m trying to learn from Belle, even though she seems to exaggerate a bit in her rhetoric. I agree with her that many male writers have poorly crafted women characters and that the better writers have better female characters. But I’m not convinced that having any women at all in a work is that essential for it being great (Plato’s dialogues for instance) so why would we be that concerned about books that make major mistakes with minor characters?

530

bad Jim 09.29.13 at 8:01 am

I feel it’s my duty, as a man, to say this isn’t half as scary as having to take care of somebody: dress this wound, change this diaper. (I only mention these as tasks I shirk, having hired others to perform them.) Acts of violence tend to be brief, but the work of care goes on forever.

That’s not to say one is man’s work and the other woman’s, necessarily; but one story can be told simply, and the other doesn’t have an end. “They lived happily ever after” isn’t true; everyone dies, and mostly squalidly, which isn’t something to regret, but neither very special. Guess who gets to clean up afterwards. I know my way around a mop and a broom, but for some reason women laugh at me when I wield them.

531

Vance Maverick 09.29.13 at 8:17 am

Martin @529: try a thought experiment. Novel A contains nothing but white people, because, let’s say, it’s set in Iceland in 1850. Novel B contains white and black, but the black characters are mere accessories for the action of the white ones, with no interiority. In novel C, all the characters, black and white, are equally human. In which of these, regardless of their other possible merits, are the “major mistakes with minor characters” a problem?

532

bill benzon 09.29.13 at 8:39 am

It just occurred that a version of this very conversation, gender roles in fiction, has been taking place in a very different way in another corner of cyberspace: so-called “digital humanities” over at Ted Underwood’s The Stone and the Shell:

Genre, Gender, and Point of View
http://tedunderwood.com/2013/09/22/genre-gender-and-point-of-view/

A new approach to the history of charter?
http://tedunderwood.com/2013/05/08/a-new-approach-to-the-history-of-character/

533

bad Jim 09.29.13 at 8:55 am

Since I’ve screwed up so often in claiming that someone wrote something sometime, and also boasted of my accumulation of books, I’ll note that the most precious perquisite of a collection is being able to pull something out and say “You have to read this!” If done enough times, unfortunately, it means you can’t pull out the same book later to verify a citation. Moreover, I’ll insist that no one has ever said this before.

534

Helen 09.29.13 at 11:37 am

Straightwood:

Both Hemingway and Eliot closely observed the dynamics of personal relations and the fragile delusions underlying them, but Eliot was never afraid for her life.
(Quote)
In 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes…(yada, yada)….

Surely you’re aware, Straightwood, that childbirth was a dance with death for every women in those days? Not to mention common diseases like measles, mumps and various respiratory diseases being much more lethal in the years before antibiotics. Not only could any ordinary woman expect to be in fear of her life several times during her lifetime, she could expect to watch her loved ones battle with these things which we hardly give thought to these days.

535

Sasha Clarkson 09.29.13 at 12:13 pm

Belle @438 and others.

Life and death? You really need to do better! ie provide statistical evidence and not anecdotes/opinion to support your claims. Eg, age-stratified male/female survival statistics, or perhaps what was the proportion of widows to widowers in a particular society and age-group – and class. (Being upper class was not necessarily an advantage before the advent of modern medicine.) The English side of my family are descended from miners and steelworkers, so I could give counterexamples from my own family: but without generalised statistics, they would be meaningless anecdotes too.

I have no idea about the statistics myself. However, it is interesting that the human species has evolved to produce slightly more male than female offspring, despite it seeming rather superfluous for the purposes of reproduction. This must have at least some historical relevance to relative mortality.

536

Belle Waring 09.29.13 at 12:33 pm

Martin James: your premise is that all stereotypes are true, and that is why they are stereotypes. Really? Are you sure you don’t maybe want to spike the ball, because…OK, run this shit out, but it’s your funeral: Are Jewish people tricky, likely to defraud you out of your money, scheming, possibly bankers who secretly control the world with their outsize influence in DC and in Hollywood and the press? Are black men some sort of savage creatures like gorillas, who kill one another so often because we have basically handed Tec-9s to a bunch of silverbacks? Are girls who sleep with eight or more men in a month sluts who give it up easy, so that it would be hard to even imagine anyone being able to rape them when they just act like hookers who don’t get paid all the rest of the time? Are Chinese people inscrutable? Are black women so sexually voracious that white men can never satisfy them? Are white people smarter than black people? Are women bad at math? Is it really, in actual fact, relevant to your comprehension of math whether you look down there and see a dick, or not? For real though? Are Japanese people inscrutable? Cut to the chase, are Asians inscrutable? You try to scrute those little fuckers and they just deeeedle deelde dee melt into the jungle mist, as if they had never been there? Are French men better to have sex with? Than Italians or is that, like, a tie? Are almost all prominent women politicians secretly lesbians? Are all female athletes who are not hot, white and blonde secretly lesbian, or something worse (one is reminded of Taki’s complaint when the Williams sisters were trouncing Kournukova that they were animals–black beasts, maybe). Are Polish people all stupid? Are Irish people all alcoholics?

Additionally: I am not certain you could have misunderstood me more totally had you set out to do so on purpose. “I’m surprised how few people here read literature to doubt themselves, to think in ways they don’t like, to be bored or confused; all the posters here seem to be on a grand mission of literary confirmation bias.” I have read lots of literature that I didn’t and don’t particularly enjoy–that was the seed of this whole thing! I said I didn’t read certain authors with much pleasure; I have in fact read them, though, because they are widely agreed to be important authors and I was curious about them (again, one wonders how I would know I didn’t like them if I hadn’t tried.) I…I just re-read your post and think this is obviously not worth my time because you are not trying to understand my point at all and you think non sequiturs about Bill and Hilary are somehow illuminating. Just a final point to consider: I left the country and moved with my husband to Singapore when he got offered a job after getting his PhD, and though I’ve got an MA and have taken every PhD exam in the world (including orals, Berkeley’s weird that way), I never wrote a dissertation and thus do not have the PhD that I would otherwise have earned in Ancient Philosophy. As a specialist on Plato. So it has come to my notice that there are–well, there’s Socrates channeling Manic Pixie Dream Sophia or whatever–no women chatting in the Platonic dialogues, but that they are none the less very excellent. Great, even. Even, the sort of thing I would spend years of my life, just, years reading in Ancient Greek. I should have read downstairs with my grandmother. I read up at the top of the house in my brother’s room, at my great-grandfather’s desk, all covered with green, Moroccan-tooled leather. I would make a big pot of Earl Grey tea and take it up there on a tray with the cream and all, in her Edmé china, all yellowed. It was selfish and I miss her. Dear readers, please stop blowing my minds with your crazy awesome suggestions/examples SERIOUSLY THIS IS GETTING EMBARRASSING FOR EVERYONE.

537

Belle Waring 09.29.13 at 12:39 pm

Sasha Clarkson: I don’t need to do shit. Straightwood’s argument was idiotic on its face, mutated several times as it was repeatedly and brutally dismembered, and ended with him praising the high art of the Aubrey-Maturin novels because something Patrick O’Brian didn’t fight any Napoleonic sea battles something has a penis something something research. This isn’t even a statement of literary preference anymore, it’s like a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer who is playing with a GI Joe doll.

538

Main Street Muse 09.29.13 at 2:41 pm

Okay – so every time I see the headline for this post, I burst out laughing at the imagined sight of such a thing… Thanks for the laugh Belle!

539

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 2:46 pm

@537

I hate to break it to you, Belle, but the war is over. I’m going through the NYT Book Review this morning and the cover review is Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Botany of Desire.” Moving on to the T of C, the first nine consecutive works out of 11 reviewed in the Fiction section are by women. You are rather like the Japanese soldier in the jungle handicapped by the lack of a working radio.

I’m sorry that you couldn’t get your PhD, but abusing CT bloggers is not a good anger management therapy. Your studies of Plato should have made you aware of the distinction between discourse and bickering. I think you need to find out what makes you so furious and channel that energy into productive endeavor.

540

Cleanthes 09.29.13 at 2:48 pm

Belle @ 536
Honestly, you’re way too nice to mr. James. He’s just ignorant. It seems he doesn’t know who Diotima of Mantinea was. He’s also completely unaware of Plato’s Symposium and so he can claim that there are no women on Plato’s dialogues. But, he’s hardly alone about commenting on books he has not read, Schopenhauer recommended doing so to those who had purchased his World as Will and as Idea and didn’t want to read it.

541

Belle Waring 09.29.13 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for the advice Straightwood. May I make a suggestion also, that you change or amend your pseudonym in some way? Because every time you want to enter a discussion of this kind there is bound to be…innuendo? It is difficult to try to have a serious discussion about whether men have more power and driving force as writers, and a greater scope of experience, and so on with someone whose name can easily be re-imagined as Nohomoerection. Perhaps it is meant only as an antidote to our crooked timber, which needs amending? In that sense it seems fine, thoughtful or charitable even. I suppose when we’re all sufficiently used to it it won’t read funny at all, merely as you.

542

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 3:04 pm

@541

How about Crookedmember, or Peterpecker, or Timbercock? Seriously Belle, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

543

Dave Maier 09.29.13 at 3:05 pm

Just for the record, while today’s NYTBR does indeed feature a piece about a female author on the cover, that book is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. The *review* is by Kingsolver and *its* title (riffing on M. Pollan is it?) is The Botany of Desire.

544

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 3:15 pm

@543

Doh! As my pennance, I will list the titles and authors of the NINE CONSECUTIVE fiction works by female authors reviewed in the fiction section of today’s NYT Book Review:

“The Signature of All Things” Elizabeth Gilbert

“Almost True Confessons” Jane O’Connor

“Half the Kingdom” Lore Segal

“The People In the Trees” Hanya Yanagihara

“The Lowland” Jhumpa Lahiri

“Burial Rites” Hannah Kent

“The Story of a New Name” Elena Ferrante

“A Guide For the Perplexed” Dara Horn

“Archangel” Andrea Barrett

545

Nine 09.29.13 at 4:04 pm

Sasha Clarkson@535 – “However, it is interesting that the human species has evolved to produce slightly more male than female offspring, despite it seeming rather superfluous for the purposes of reproduction.”

Is this true at all ?

546

Hector_St_Clare 09.29.13 at 4:19 pm

Nine,

Yes. the facts are the facts, even when they make some people uncomfortable.

Belle Waring,

Jews do in fact have outsize influence in society relative to their numbers, I’m not sure this is at all controversial. I’m also not clear why Mr. straight Wood has to change his pseudonym just because you find it amusing.

547

GiT 09.29.13 at 4:19 pm

548

GiT 09.29.13 at 4:21 pm

” I’m also not clear why Mr. straight Wood has to change his pseudonym just because you find it amusing.”

She’s taking the piss out of him. Get a grip.

549

Hector_St_Clare 09.29.13 at 4:24 pm

Women generally give birth to more girl babies under stressful conditions, as girls a better/safer ‘bet’. The mating success of a male is closely linked to status and social dominance, while the mating success of a female is not. It’s been claimed that good looking women tend to have more daughters, as looks does influence mating success for females more than males, but the statistics there turned out to be faulty, so as yet it’s merely a conjecture.

550

Hector_St_Clare 09.29.13 at 4:25 pm

Of course, this is all very politically incorrect and anathema in Georgetown, I’m aware

551

Phil 09.29.13 at 4:30 pm

Last I heard there was a slight M>F gender imbalance at birth and a slight F>M imbalance at ages 18 and above, owing to differential childhood mortality. Whether you can hang any kind of evolutionary label on this, I wouldn’t know.

552

bill benzon 09.29.13 at 4:50 pm

@”Okay – so every time I see the headline for this post, I burst out laughing at the imagined sight of such a thing…”

Me, I wonder if they eat them straight, or with, say, mango chutney.

553

Lee A. Arnold 09.29.13 at 5:25 pm

Nine: “Is this true at all ?”

Yes: the sex ratio at birth favors males by 2-5%, though that varies with conditions, though it never stopped baby girls from being killed disproportionately more, in various cultures; and Yes: males are, on the whole, superfluous — indeed, superfluous in many more things than reproduction strategies…

Because facts are the facts! even when they are brought in support of ridiculous theories.

554

Nine 09.29.13 at 5:34 pm

GiT @548 – Ty for the link, but Clarkson’s claim was abou evolution, so i imagined it might have some basis in the math of reproductive fitness or something of the sort. Does sex-selective abortion/smothering the female child in the cradle count as a mechanism of evolution ? I doubt it.
Hector seems the very personification of Poe’s Law crazy so there’s no way to tell his claims apart from evo-psychobabble.

555

Nine 09.29.13 at 5:35 pm

Lee Arnold – Ty.

556

delurking 09.29.13 at 5:41 pm

Since Straightwood and Hector claim to like facts, here are facts.

http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2012

One day’s reviews at one newspaper is not a world changed.

557

delurking 09.29.13 at 5:43 pm

I will add that I realize, of course, this will not change Hector’s mind or Straightwood’s. They have shown (Hector here and elsewhere, Straightwood in this thread) that they are the sort of “thinkers” who form their belief systems first and then ignore any facts that don’t fit those belief systems.

To be fair, though, in Hector’s defense, I don’t know how you could be a Christian otherwise.

558

bekabot 09.29.13 at 7:09 pm

In the matter of gender rolls, evolution agrees with Ephesians.

I love this. It makes me picture the female rolls lazing around baking in a pan while the male rolls sidle up to squirt them full of meringue.

559

Anon 09.29.13 at 7:09 pm

“they are the sort of ‘thinkers’ who form their belief systems first and then ignore any facts that don’t fit those belief systems.”

To be fair, there is evidence in everyday experience as well as in scientific research that we are all that sort of thinker. Which still leaves questions of degree, admittedly.

560

Straightwood 09.29.13 at 10:37 pm

“they are the sort of ‘thinkers’ who form their belief systems first and then ignore any facts that don’t fit those belief systems.”

Where has it been empirically established that the disparity of male/female publishing success is entirely the consequence of simple sexism? There are Harry Potter sized profits to be made by publishing whatever people want to read, irrespective of the sex of the author. How can a crassly commercial publishing industry also be inflexibly sexist? Certainly sexism is present in publishing, as in most other businesses, but it is not the only possible explanation for the imbalance in what people are reading.

561

Hector_St_Clare 09.29.13 at 10:40 pm

Bekabot,

Do you care to discuss the actual begavioural ecology at issues, rather then the spelling?

562

Hector_St_Clare 09.29.13 at 11:19 pm

Re: Yes: males are, on the whole, superfluous — indeed, superfluous in many more things than reproduction strategies…

Males are superfluous at the group level, but from the individual point of view (other things being equal) it’s beneficial to produce more of the less common sex, which is why the gender ratio works out to 50:50, plus or minus a bit depending on circumstances (which I mentioned above).

563

Helen 09.30.13 at 12:21 am

1. Only a dreadful combination of oppressive circumstances has prevented women writers from creating works the equaling those of their male peers in both quantity and quality.

A data point I just stumbled on:

http://kellysue.tumblr.com/post/62662579394/a-woman-from-the-audience-asks-why-were-there-so

“A woman from the audience asks: ‘Why were there so few women among the Beat writers?’ and [Gregory] Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the ’50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”

Stephen Scobie, on the Naropa Institute’s 1994 tribute to Allen Ginsberg

564

js. 09.30.13 at 12:21 am

It makes me picture the female rolls lazing around baking in a pan while the male rolls sidle up to squirt them full of meringue.

Am I the only one who thinks of a toilet paper marketing strategy gone horribly wrong upon reading “gender rolls”. That’s straight up awful, isn’t it?

565

Hector_St_Clare 09.30.13 at 12:26 am

I’ve often felt that we should have an Christian bakery chain called “Gender Rolls”.

566

Matt Austern 09.30.13 at 1:57 am

Has anyone else noticed that “straightwood” has made two quite different and arguably incompatible arguments? It’s not just a matter of amendment and mutation; the two are as different as the two creation stories in Genesis, and reconciling them might require equally strained exegesis.

Argument 1, as amended: there aren’t as many great books by women as by men because women in the past didn’t have the necessary life experience to write books with a sufficiently grand subject matter.
a. Some subjects (or maybe themes, or plot elements, or settings; I’m not sure the distinction has been made clearly) are more important than others and art with those plot elements is better than art without them.
b. Stories about life and death and killing inherently have more grandeur and force than other stories.
c. Women haven’t had the life experience to write those stories, because their lives have been too constrained. In particular, female authors of the 18th and 19th century weren’t able to write grand enough fiction because were never in danger of death.
i. Death in childbirth or by disease or starvation doesn’t count. Has to be violent death, preferably in a war, because what’s important is conflict.
ii. The fact that women have always died in wars doesn’t count. It only counts if you’re killed while holding a weapon.

Argument 2: there still aren’t many great books by women, and obviously it’s not just because of sexism because it’s absurd to think that there’s any such thing as sexism today, and obviously there will never be many great books by women because that’s absurd too, and how about that, huh?

Argument 2 is somewhat underdeveloped compared to argument 1, but it ought to be pretty obvious that there’s some tension between the two. If the assertion is that women still have constrained lives compared to men, then that’s in flat contradiction to the claim that there’s no important sexism today. If the assertion is that women are incapable (for some unspecified reason) of writing great fiction no matter what their life experiences are like, then all of the elaboration of argument 1 is unnecessary and can safely be dropped.

567

delurking 09.30.13 at 2:56 am

Well, Joanna Russ covered all of Straightwood’s argument, if we can call it an argument, in her seminal work, How To Suppress Women’s Writing, which I believe got mentioned earlier in the thread.

What his argument boils down to (as Russ says) is shifting the goal posts, constantly, because his only actual thesis is “it can’t be real writing if girls do it.”

More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Suppress_Women's_Writing

568

Straightwood 09.30.13 at 3:10 am

@566

Is it impossible that there are at least two factors involved in the lesser success of women in modern literature? Here are the candidates:

1. Sexism, undeniable present historically, but tapering off now in Western culture. With multiple women setting book sales records, it is hard to make the case for gross sexism limiting women’s publishing success.

2. Thematic differentiation, resulting from differential scope of experience and sex-related authorial preferences. Perhaps men write on a broader range of subjects, better matching the range of interests of the reading public. As women gain entry to every field of endeavor, the thematic range of their writing will likely increase, but their subject preferences may not.

Culture changes slowly and prejudices do not vanish overnight. In a few decades we may be able to determine which of these factors was dominant in the current era, but right now, the answer is unknown.

569

js. 09.30.13 at 3:35 am

Perhaps men write on a broader range of subjects, better matching the range of interests of the reading public.

Would this be because women aren’t so much a part of the “reading public” or because what women-writers are interested in is quite completely different from what women-readers are interested in?

570

GiT 09.30.13 at 4:09 am

“Perhaps men write on a broader range of subjects, better matching the range of interests of the reading public.”

Please provide an example of a subject about which men write, but which women do not.

If the subject matter men tend to write about better match those of the reading public, this almost certainly has nothing to do with differences in the breadth of subject matter considered by “men” vs. “women,” but rather with frequency of engagement with the subjects.

But matching the interests of “the reading public” also seems rather irrelevant. “The reading public” is majority women and the authors read most are probably women (Christie, Cartland, Steele). If matching the reading public is the game, it seems women are better at it and they’ve already won. All men have left is Shakespeare.

The question is about matching the critical literary establishment which adjudicates questions of canonization and greatness. Of course that game seems a bit rigged when the standard appears to be “what appeals to Straightwood and what he thinks is important.”

571

Matt Austern 09.30.13 at 5:03 am

I really wouldn’t mind an argument along the lines of “I like war stories and most war stories are written by men”. Doesn’t sound very fancy or intellectual, doesn’t make any pretensions to universality, but its modesty and its explicit _I_ give it its own claim to respect.

(There are some pretty good war stories written by women, by the way, but I’m quite willing to grant that most of the good ones are written by men. And I happen to like some war stories too. I also like some books that aren’t war stories, though.)

572

Helen 09.30.13 at 5:33 am

Hector, or Hector-bot programmer, I can’t stand this any longer. Sorry to be a pedant, but this is causing me physical pain. Please read:

“Your”:
[yoor, yawr, yohr; unstressed yer]
Pronoun
1.
(a form of the possessive case of you used as an attributive adjective): Your jacket is in that closet. I like your idea. Compare yours.
2.
one’s (used to indicate that one belonging to oneself or to any person): The consulate is your best source of information. As you go down the hill, the library is on your left.
3.
(used informally to indicate all members of a group, occupation, etc., or things of a particular type): Take your factory worker, for instance. Your power brakes don’t need that much servicing.

“You’re”
[yoor; unstressed yer]
contraction of you are: You’re certain that’s right?

(Dictionary.com)

573

Hector_St_Clare 09.30.13 at 5:37 am

Nitpicking spelling is the last refuge of the man who knows he has no better retort to make.

I think you folks should address the substance, not the syntax.

574

Zora 09.30.13 at 9:02 am

I have just read and loved Fond Memories of Vagina, by Garland Grey. It seems relevant.

http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/07/01/fond-memories-of-vagina-martin-amis-the-pregnant-widow/

575

Axi 09.30.13 at 9:06 am

Clarice Lispector. One of the greatest writers of all time.

576

Helen 09.30.13 at 9:11 am

I’m not getting into any opinions about spelling vis a vis your arguments, Hector, just asking you to cut out that annoying thing which is the lexical equivalent of continuously banging your shoe against the table leg.

577

dave heasman 09.30.13 at 11:11 am

I’ve only reached comment 155, and someone may well have pre-empted me, but Hector St Clare, you are Arnold Harvey and I claim my five pounds

578

Torquil Macneil 09.30.13 at 12:32 pm

“Straightwood, why do you reckon these writers use their initials and not their first names as their authorial handles? Any idea?”

It may be true historically that more women used initials to disguise their sex, but I don’t think it is true of Rowling and James. Bloomsbury has no aversion towards women writers for children and James was self published. In many cases. today, it is a positive advantage to be a woman when approaching publishers. The whole industry, in the UK at least, is dominated by women at every level. I am surprised that we don’t have more cases of men writing under female pseudonyms, I think it is probably because there is still something sniggery about me pretending to be women.

579

rm 09.30.13 at 12:43 pm

Bloomsbury told Rowling they would have a better chance of selling a book to boys if the author were not named “Joanne Rowling.” Lacking a middle initial, she chose her grandmother’s name to make a middle initial and became J. K. This is known.

580

rm 09.30.13 at 12:49 pm

And then, how are books marketed? Here, look at this.

581

Torquil Macneil 09.30.13 at 1:16 pm

RM, I hadn’t heard that story, but it is a very different thing from Rowling disguising her sex to get published. And anyway, Bloomsbury were wrong. I know of other authors who have been told that that women authors are preferred because they are easier to market at women and women are the only people who read new novels. That’s why the covers are ‘girly’ too. And it makes a big difference in sales.

582

delurking 09.30.13 at 1:49 pm

Speaking only for myself, Hector, your inability to tell “your” from “you’re” is driving me buggy as well.

You claim to have a higher degree and to work in the sciences and you can’t manage this very basic grammatical rule? I agree with several of the others on this thread. You’re playing us.

583

Phil 09.30.13 at 1:49 pm

If the book you’re trying to sell is about a small boy having magical adventures at boarding school, the dictum that women are the only people who read new novels may not necessarily apply.

584

DaveL 09.30.13 at 1:58 pm

Torquil Macneil @581. I think the conventions for YA fiction, which is what Harry Potter is, are different, at least in terms of the covers and marketing. Look at the Potter covers, or the Hunger Games series covers, just to pick two.

585

Torquil Macneil 09.30.13 at 2:03 pm

Harry Potter isn’t YA, it is children’s fiction. But I guess the conventions are different. My point was that Rowling did not need to disguise her sex to find a publisher.

Phil, I was overstating a tiny bit, but children’s fiction is different.

586

Hector_St_Clare 09.30.13 at 2:16 pm

De Lurking,

I do work in the plant sciences. Belle Waring can no doubt look up my e-mail and affirm to you that I am who I purport to be.

As I said before and I’ll say again, spelling is the last refuge of men and women stuck with no better arguments to make.

587

faustusnotes 09.30.13 at 2:37 pm

From now on I will eschew all statistical methods not authored by men. Who needs GLLAMM when you can fudge it with GEEs?

588

ralph 09.30.13 at 2:38 pm

Although I’d much rather pillory Hector simply because his views are not mine, I have to say that some people’s brains just don’t grok the spelling dealie. My hands cannot correctly type “its” and always render that as “it’s” although I actually do know the difference (I have to proof every email for that one). Matt Yglesias is another one who drives me nuts, because although a very heavy and serious writer he makes horrible spelling errors all the time and is very well aware of it. I’m OK with Hector making this confusion or any others, so long as I can understand clearly what it is that I’m disagreeing with.

589

Martin James 09.30.13 at 2:59 pm

Vance asked,
try a thought experiment. Novel A contains nothing but white people, because, let’s say, it’s set in Iceland in 1850. Novel B contains white and black, but the black characters are mere accessories for the action of the white ones, with no interiority. In novel C, all the characters, black and white, are equally human. In which of these, regardless of their other possible merits, are the “major mistakes with minor characters” a problem?

I thought I knew the answer, and that it was B, but now I’m wondering if it is a trick question and the answer is C. The reason is that only in C where it is assumed that all were equally human would it matter if the minor characters were mistakenly drawn, but in B where they were assumed to have no interior life and we take it for granted, then the mistakes don’t matter. I guess that is my whole question. Can I bracket the women and give them the same treatment as a reader that the author does (not very realistic examination) or does the need for the bracketing represent a defect in the literary work. I guess I’m proposing, but not that aggressively defending the thesis that if Novel A is a good work, then Novel B or C with the women cut out could be an equally good work.

Take the analogy to science fiction. How important to science fiction is the science? Does bad science make for bad science fiction. There is an argument for it and if someone said, “Works with bad science are usually bad science fiction” I might agree but I might also say, just bracket that stuff and enjoy the rest.

I think Belle’s thesis is similar. I agree that better writers have better female characters but I also think there is a strong case that judging a writer by what the writer does poorly rather than what the writer does well, is not the right standard.

I’m trying to take her modest thesis at face value and decide how far it applies. I’m just torn about this. Take anything one knows well, say for example, fly fishing. If an author has a character that goes fly fishing and the description is just completely absurd, does that make it a lessor work? Yes and no, right?

590

Martin James 09.30.13 at 3:11 pm

Cleanthes,

Ahhm not a Smaaht man, but I do know what the Symposium is about.

Surely, you are not advocating not being nice to ignorant people, are you? That’s just plain mean. If anyone deserves a soft hand its the ignorant.

I have read the symposium (although admittedly not it greek and not that well nor that recently.) I was wavering when I wrote the term “Plato’s dialogues” because I am so ignorant that I couldn’t recall whether it was the Crito or the Apology or that other Ph one that I can’t spell that I was thinking of and whether when someone mentions his wife and children and Socrates responds whether that counted and how much… but at least Belle seemed to understand the point.

But to reveal my ignorance even more, maybe Aristotle is a better example, he probably writes about women less accurately than Plato. Are his works less than great because he is inaccurate about women?

591

Martin James 09.30.13 at 3:55 pm

Belle,

Thank you for the response. I am trying to take your thesis seriously and not the Straw Belle that the comments seem to discuss.

I did not put you in the class of people that was reading for confirmation bias. You discussed reading “your vegetables” and that is just one of many reasons that I find your posts worth reading.

One other reason I enjoy your posts is that I have lived a very sheltered life and you have more experience with and are willing to openly describe topics related to female sexuality. I grew up with people who wouldn’t say hysterectomy or cancer in mixed company let alone come anywhere near holding any of the statements that you list as stereotypes.

You rightly point out that I should have been more careful with my use of the term stereotype. I was using the term as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

My only defense before I’m buried is that from your list, it does seem to me that to the extent the ones you list are not true they have also become much less widely held as stereotypes.

I don’t want to attack Straw Belle but the list does seem to mainly include negative stereotypes of women and ethnic and racial minorities. Why not also Asians are better at math, or white men can’t jump or republicans are mean spirited or Jews make great lawyers or fat people are lazy or Southerns are racist?

But back to your thesis. I’m very interested in the aesthetic underpinning for the extent to which poor female characterization is correlated with bad writing. As a way of understanding the thesis and extending it (not as a way of a straw thesis placeholder) I wonder what standard we would use for an authority writing about characters that hold the stereotypes you describe. What is the interior life really like of people who hold these stereotypes? As you have presented them, they are both widely held (because they are stereotypes) and absurd based on a rational examination of the facts. Even in a third person narrative, wouldn’t a poor description of the interior life of a woman be consistent with the worldview of the characters described more completely. Given how biased our stereotypes are, don’t they need to lie to us to tell us the truth.

I read Coetzee’s book Disgrace as an assigned reading for a book group. In the opening chapters, he describes how the character views his relationship to the prostitute he frequents. I’m sure the subtlety was lost on me because of my lack of experience with prostitutes and their customers.

His view of their relationship was apparently very different from hers, but I just have no idea between Coetzee, and the two characters who is the most realistic. Is the author realistic because Johns can be unrealistic about how prostitutes see them, or is he unrealistic about how prostitutes view their customers, I mean Stockholm syndrome exists, or is he unrealistic that any John ever thought about a prostitute as being an idea.

I just found it all to be sad and realized that it meant that I probably belonged to the class of people that the author intended to paint in an unfavorable light, but I’m not entirely sure. For all I know that author may may had his heart broken by a prostitute. How would we ever know?

592

Cleanthes 09.30.13 at 4:34 pm

Martin James @ 590

I don’t doubt your intelligence at all. And I apologize if I gave you that impression. I just happen to think that people voicing opinions easily contradicted by facts are ignorant of the facts. There are other possible interpretations, some people are trolling, others are malicious, others are just careless. I didn’t think you were doing any of those things, for the record.

Many of us are guilty of posting ignorant opinions on the intrawebs. I myself made that mistake yesterday too, while commenting on rock music, and I was immediately corrected by people who are not ignorant on the subject.

What I advocate for is to correct the ignorant statements and not sugarcoat it, just to be nice.

Sadly, in order to avoid voicing an ignorant opinion, I cannot comment on Aristotle’s works since I have not read him, so I have no clue.

593

bekabot 09.30.13 at 5:00 pm

Dear Hector,

You have me wrong. I think it’s cute.

594

GiT 09.30.13 at 5:15 pm

@585

“My point was that Rowling did not need to disguise her sex to find a publisher.”

But this is sort of a red herring, because if Rowling doesn’t have to hide her sex to find a publisher, she still may have to hide it in order to find an audience.

595

Katherine 09.30.13 at 9:08 pm

596

GiT 09.30.13 at 9:56 pm

Jezebel again has something relevant:

http://jezebel.com/is-dave-eggers-new-novel-a-ripoff-of-a-female-writers-1428445249

From the medium post by the author:

“Likewise, society makes assumptions about women that make us guilty by default: our work is supposedly minor, less valuable, and limited to the personal, where the work of a white man is presumed to be “universal”, “essential”, and relevant to all…. The assumption the media makes in these instances is that something is not important unless a familiar, male white face does it. So, when Dave Eggers decided to rewrite my book as his own novel about a young woman working her way up through Facebook, the Wall Street Journal called it a treatment of “the essential issues of the day.” From all appearances, it is an unnervingly similar book, and I wrote it first (and I imagine mine is more authentic and better written, because I actually lived and worked in this world and am also a good writer). The difference is that Eggers is a famous man and I am not.”

For some strange reason this all makes me think of unbent lumber.

597

Robert 10.01.13 at 1:29 am

It’s fascinating to see such angry, contempt, and bullying certitude expressing itself through the ideology of political correctness. Outside the academy this sort of militant Hemingway-is-trash, the-problem-is-dirty-mansplaining-dudebro-breeders, very quickly dies a quiet death of embarrassment. Which in a sense is to its credit. I certainly wish the anger, contempt, and bullying certitude of the Ted Cruzes of the world were similarly marginalized!

I like books a lot, and I like to talk about books, but I can’t say I have ever felt any urge to measure great writers against one another. Austen vs Hemingway vs Faulkner vs Joyce? No, thank you. They are partners, if they have any true relationship to one another. They aren’t rivals. To those dismissing female writers as unforceful or “Serious Male Writers” as lacking this or that, let me remind you of a hard truth: you will in all likelihood live and die without ever producing any piece of writing, large or small, that could be exchange for the most minor of the works of the authors in whom you are sitting in judgement, without civilization being the loser.

If you value a sense of humor in a writer, I suggest you also value it in a critic, namely yourself; you can start by recognizing the inherent humor in someone like you pontificating on the failings of Austen or Dostoyevsky.

598

Nathanael 10.01.13 at 2:54 am

Oy.

I find myself responding to people from a previous comment thread.

First, I have to be clear about something: if you like reading Faulkner, great. If you like reading Hemingway, fine. But are they *important* in the sense that they were actually *influential in broader culture*? Well, Hemingway’s reporting was, that’s documented; his novels and short stories weren’t, and that seems pretty clear too. There is no meaningful “Hemingway school” of later important writers. Faulkner had no influence whatsoever, as far as I can tell, on anyone except English professors. So: not canon material according to my definition of canon, which is based on influence.

There are a lot of authors I love who don’t belong in the canon because they aren’t actually important.

—-
Second, regarding the Hitchhiker’s Guide: I have an essay which I need to finish and publish about why it is, in fact, the most important novel of the 20th century. The summary: previous generations in the “Western” tradition, since at least the beginning of the Industrial Era but probably for centuries, viewed the world through an “orderly world” tradition: there was some kind of order, whether religious or mechanical, and this was the structure of the world. The few writers who disagreed with this simply wrote kaleidoscopic screams of terror, lacking clarity.

Douglas Adams, in all of his works, examines and discusses the role which chance plays in the world. Not fate; chance. And he goes through it in a hundred different permutations, carefully, and emphasizes it repeatedly. This is a core theme of his, and it’s one which is contrary to the entire worldview of almost all previous authors.

If you’ve studied enough science, you’ll realize where he got these views — it’s based in the world as we know it today. Someone brought up on Douglas Adams is much less likely to believe in “a place for everything and everything in its place” or “everything happens for a reason”.

It’s a book which marked a fundamental change in the views of people, throughout society, and which pushed that change forward. And I can’t find another 20th century fiction book which did the same for any of the other major changes in viewpoint which have happened in society. (I can think of some equally-or-more important nonfiction books, but no such fiction books.)

That makes it the most important novel of the 20th century.

599

Nathanael 10.01.13 at 2:58 am

And to wend back around to the original point of discussion, one of the ways in which the people trying to define the “canon” end up with a stupid “canon” is by using definitions of “important” which have no objectivity to them. I think “historically influential in broader society” is a useful definition of “important” — there may be other definitions, but English professors don’t usually even try to define “important”.

600

delurking 10.01.13 at 4:04 am

“If an author has a character that goes fly fishing and the description is just completely absurd, does that make it a lessor work? Yes and no, right?”

Here’s the thing, though. If our writer is going to undertake to write about fly-fishing, without bothering to learn about fly-fishing truly and properly, what does this tell us about our writer?

I submit to you that it tells us our writer is either lazy or not very observant or not very bright or not very interested in doing his job, in which case why should we listen to this writer about anything, much less the very important subject of fly-fishing?

Or — you know — 1/2 of humanity?

601

Belle Waring 10.01.13 at 5:36 am

Comment 600! Sweet victory is mine!
Martin James: “I don’t want to attack Straw Belle but the list does seem to mainly include negative stereotypes of women and ethnic and racial minorities. Why not also Asians are better at math, or white men can’t jump or republicans are mean spirited or Jews make great lawyers or fat people are lazy or Southerns are racist?”

OK, what about these? Do you think these stereotypes are true? What difference does it make to the claim that all stereotypes are true that some of the stereotypes are positive? I assure you that most Jewish people would be offended if you told them that their religious beliefs/cultural identification predisposed them to be good lawyers. Because what is the stereotype of the Jewish lawyer but one that amounts to: Jewish people are tricky and clever and they will out-maneuver you in negotiations and you will end up cheated of your money or your rightful claims if the other side hires one of those Jewish lawyers? Do you realize that that is, in fact, the same stereotype I referred to above?

“I wonder what standard we would use for an authority writing about characters that hold the stereotypes you describe. What is the interior life really like of people who hold these stereotypes? As you have presented them, they are both widely held (because they are stereotypes) and absurd based on a rational examination of the facts. Even in a third person narrative, wouldn’t a poor description of the interior life of a woman be consistent with the worldview of the characters described more completely.”

This I really don’t understand at all. I’m talking to you because you seem to want to talk in good faith about the issues. But what on earth does ‘the [actual, I presume] interior life of an person who believes (whatever stereotype above)’ have to do with a ‘description of the interior life of a woman, in a fictional account’? Oh, I suppose you mean, ‘couldn’t a novel accurately convey that the main character is racist or sexist by having him assume things about other characters in the novel that amount to sexist or racist views.’ Sure, a novel could be an excellent one in which the narrator was an unreliable narrator because we learn that he is sexist and then he describes the behavior of women around him in a sexist way. We the reader, and the novelist herself, would look at this character from the outside and think, ‘he’s a sexist jerk, and I can tell because he describes women as screeching harpies, and says there would be less domestic violence if women kept their traps shut.’

602

Belle Waring 10.01.13 at 6:05 am

LOL comment 600 fail.

603

lurker 10.01.13 at 6:52 am

‘Because what is the stereotype of the Jewish lawyer but one that amounts to: Jewish people are tricky and clever and they will out-maneuver you in negotiations and you will end up cheated of your money or your rightful claims if the other side hires one of those Jewish lawyers? Do you realize that that is, in fact, the same stereotype I referred to above?’ (Belle Waring 601)
Every culture has stereotypes. The clever and/or unscrupulous stereotype and the dumb stereotype, anyway. Antisemitism is something more. Not arguing against you, just that perhaps ‘stereotype’ here refers to two superficially similar things, one of them seriously damaging and the other not so much. (If it turns out that Cardis and Regiomontanos are actually severely persecuted minorities who should get refugee status in any civilized country, I’ll stand corrected.)

604

john c. halasz 10.01.13 at 7:39 am

#604:

“Birthing is hard and dying is mean, so get yourself a little loving in between”- Langston Hughs.

605

john c. halasz 10.01.13 at 7:40 am

#605:
Hughes.

606

rm 10.01.13 at 2:19 pm

Nathanael: “Faulkner had no influence whatsoever, as far as I can tell, on anyone except English professors”

I suppose Toni Morrison is, technically, an English professor. And most acclaimed American authors of the last seventy or so years have taught creative writing.

I’m sorry, dude, I like Douglas Adams too, but I think your claims are a little over the top. Adams is not the first person to notice that the race goes not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all. And Hemingway’s terse style is of massive influence, as is Faulkner’s gothicness and prolixity and stream-of-consciousness-icity. I can tell you love books, but you need to read with more negative capability and be slower to enthrone one author as The Only One.

607

rm 10.01.13 at 2:21 pm

Also, English professors have a hard time finding objective standards for literary value because, you know, there are no objective standards for literary value. The humanities are squishy that way.

608

Martin James 10.01.13 at 7:43 pm

Belle,

I not only want to talk in good faith about the issues, I’m trying to learn things from your posts.

In order to learn I’m trying to distinguish between a few different things. The first thing would be cases where someone says, certain authors don’t interest me because they don’t include women (or insert you identity of choice ). That seems like a a pure preference, but not what I understand you to be saying.

One could also say, that an author needs to have a good moral outlook to be a good author. In other words, one could be completely accurate but “choose the wrong side” and therefore be a less than great author. This would be a slaveholders and sexists are suspect on their face type argument. I also don’t think you are making this argument but there might be some influence of this mixed in.

The point I think you are making is that if an author is biased in such a way that that the descriptions of women are inadequate, then that author tends of be a less adequate author overall.

On balance I agree with you. However, I am more inclined to think that if the main subject matter of the work does not directly address gendered perspectives (and I realize in some ways gendered perspectives affect everything) then I want to be able to say we can ignore the characters less completely filled out.

Since there is so little agreement about what makes for a good literary work, its hard to know how central gender issues are to a good literary work. Take Pynchon for example. In Against the Day, the entire cast of characters and plot situations are so diverse that one can never quite tell what the point is and what exactly his humor is. I don’t recall if you have placed Pynchon on the scale of better or worse female character development. Pynchon’s V. is a book that I enjoyed reading but I have no idea if it is a great book or a book with accurate female characterizations.

If you can offer (or point me back in this long thread to) examples of authors with better and worse female characterizations, both male and female, I could make a better assessment of your thesis. How do Nabokov, Bellow, Updike, Mamet, Roth, Steinbeck, Faulkner, etc. compare. And how do they compare to Lessing, Morrison, Cather, McCullers, etc.

Thank you for your responses. I appreciate them.

609

Martin James 10.01.13 at 8:03 pm

Delurking,

You are making the case for the yes, it does make it a less great work, but if one is going to be realistic, then inadequate information is part of the whole picture. If an author “bones up” on fly fishing then that is in some sense cheating and artificial. Should we expect our authors to be so thoroughly knowledgeable.

“Or — you know — 1/2 of humanity?”

As for half the population being ignored, most literary novels concern themselves with a very small slice of the population, usually, but not always, the interesting ones.

610

bill benzon 10.01.13 at 8:07 pm

“Since there is so little agreement about what makes for a good literary work, its hard to know how central gender issues are to a good literary work.”

That has waxed and waned over time. Back in the 1960s it started coming on strong. One can only hope that, from this point forward, there is no retreat, ever.

Next project: give children’s lit more love and respect. After all, as one of those DWMs has said, “The child is father to the man.” Mother too.

611

GiT 10.01.13 at 8:13 pm

” If an author “bones up” on fly fishing then that is in some sense cheating and artificial. Should we expect our authors to be so thoroughly knowledgeable.”

How is it “cheating and artificial? Do we expect good writers to write well by doing serious research and work, or by, what, simply channeling their inner muse and true authentic self?

612

clew 10.01.13 at 8:56 pm

551 is what I’ve read — as a setup in a math bio class; we were being led to realize that it’s not the ratio at birth that matters for sex-ratio strategy, but the ratio for generation n+1. There was a footnote remarking that the ratio is a bit more skewed at conception and that higher infant and child mortality in boys is probably explainable by more brittle genetics (that is terrible phrasing, sorry); fewer implant, fewer reach nine months in utero, and fewer live through childhood independent of social norms.

Other belated and nearly-irrelevant detail: I’ve sheared sheep. There is much matter in it. It’s a combat that hurts no-one — if you’re good — it’s quite funny, because mud! and wrestling! sheep look very silly when sheared! and also it’s spring, and everything is new and warming, and the lambs are sproinging. But your hands are so cold, and if you get it wrong you can damage the fleece and the sheep, and the right way to do it is very exhausting, although if you’re small and have a small flock you can build cunning ramps and dead-ends instead. And then wool, and hope of warmth or wealth. But managing animals is psychologically odd; so much care for them in the short term to use and kill them. Even though they’re looking back at you and going about their own lives.

“The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”

I missed anyone patiently pointing out the realistic context of Georgian marriage comedies. Austen’s women had awful possible deaths — Lydia could very well have ended up raped and beaten to death and thrown in a ditch. Wossher who marries the creepy cousin cleric had a fair risk of starving to death slowly in genteel poverty. Most of Austen’s female characters have families rich and decent enough that they *probably* won’t starve, but they own nothing that can support them.

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Martin James 10.01.13 at 9:32 pm

GiT asked,

How is it “cheating and artificial? Do we expect good writers to write well by doing serious research and work, or by, what, simply channeling their inner muse and true authentic self?

Well, they must do that research from something, either direct experience and prior authorities and well, as most of us agree, prior authorities are suspect. At least if they channel their inner muse and true authentic, we know they believe what they are writing directly and not by relying on authorities.

Take Belle’s issue of the interior life of women. What better authority than Freud for most of the 20th century but how accurate was he about women?

What authority can a person consult for 1. Under what circumstances are women aware of their own motives? and 2. Under what circumstances will they tell the truth about their motives.

What authority other than one’s own conscience can ground how the opposite gender should be treated? One can provide empirical data about capabilities but that still doesn’t lead to a “should” in relation to morals and ethics (or if it does, one must at least admit that the understanding of morals and ethics changes considerably over time.)

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delurking 10.01.13 at 9:43 pm

“Should we expect our authors to be so thoroughly knowledgeable.”

About fly-fishing? No, unless they are writing about fly-fishing, which as far as I know very few writers actually do. (Don’t write about Scotland if you know nothing about Scotland, Austen advises. I’ve found that good advice.)

But about humanity? I would say yes.

If we have a writer who can’t be bothered to pay attention to the subject of his craft (which is usually humanity), because he is too lazy or or too bored or insufficiently interested in this subject, then why would we want to hear what he has to say about humanity?

As for your claim that he is not writing about humanity, he is writing about people, and a small group of people at that, why, yes, this is true.

And when he writes about that small group of people, if he has failed to get his details about the women in that group right —

(because he has been too lazy or too bored or insufficiently interested in actually observing the actual women that make up half of his actual world, so that he now has to “bone up” on them, as though they were some arcane subject, like fly-fishing, which he has no real interest in, because girls? Oh seriously! Who would be interested in such a trivial as girls!)

— again, if he can’t do that, why would anyone trust him to be right about the rest of his work?

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delurking 10.01.13 at 9:50 pm

Women (I repeat, Martin) make up half the world.

The amazing research that most writers do when they decide they want to write about people (of either sex) is that they pay attention to what people do: how they act, what they say, what they think, what they write on their blogs, what they tell each other when they’re hanging out in coffee shops and ER waiting rooms, and so on.

A writer who wants to write about people, of whatever gender or nationality, creed or country, talks to, hangs out with, observes, listens to, and pays attention to people.

You hint that women will lie (o noes) and that therefore it is impossible to know what a woman is and that therefore it is impossible (I guess?) to write about women accurately.

As someone famously said, everybody lies. That’s something writers know. That’s something we pay attention to — who is lying, why they are lying, what they lie about.

Henry James’s advice to writers: “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.”

Humans are much harder to learn than fly-fishing, true. But they’re not impossible, unless you’re lazy, bored, or just too slack to do the work.

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.01.13 at 9:52 pm

You know who knew a little something about fishing?

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JanieM 10.01.13 at 10:00 pm

Just because I love this opening:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean

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Anderson 10.01.13 at 10:08 pm

Henry James’s advice to writers: “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.”

I adore that line – worked it effectively in a couple of grad-school application essays – so pardon if I lovingly quote it in context:

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

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Martin James 10.01.13 at 10:23 pm

Delurking,

But given that the writers Belle is talking about, by their good writing about men, are not lazy, bored or too slack in general, just towards women then aren’t we somewhat criticizing their choice of material?

I think it true that the further a person’s interior life is from one’s own, the more difficult it is to tell motive from action. The world is underdetermined that way; we can’t tell motives definitively from action, so we rely on our own experience of the world.

In other cases, it just a matter of perspective. Two authors could be seeing exactly the same behaviors and one says “See, women are half-empty and another looks at the same behaviors and says “Nope, they are half-full.”

In my case, Jean Genet is an author who describes feelings that I never would have guess existed in a human being. Being somewhat naive and a person on whom very much is lost (hence the need for the Belle Warings of the world to provide me the gory details), I always doubt my sense of irony. I don’t find it where some others do and I do find it where some others don’t.

Since I read books not to find out what is true about people ( I have psychology and sociology and the other human sciences for that) but to experience one person’s private world where the rules are not the rules of reality but the rules of imagination, then I will cut the author considerable slack about many things (women, fly fishing, politics, religion, etc. ) if they tell an artful story. I’m not setting myself up as the arbiter of taste, I’m just saying that to my untrained eye, that type of aesthetics is not completely wrong from the start.

Furthermore, if one isn’t lazy then why would one write books.

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The Modesto Kid 10.02.13 at 1:03 am

Faulkner had no influence whatsoever, as far as I can tell, on anyone except English professors.

Spoken like somebody not familiar with the late-20th-C. fiction of Latin America.

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Bloix 10.02.13 at 2:35 am

“[I]f I look around at the really great writers of the recent decades in North America, I think of Alice Munro, I think of Don DeLillo, I think of Denis Johnson. These are people who are not invisible, but they have clearly set up rather strict boundaries. Alice Munro, you know, she’s got work to do. She has the work of being Alice Munro to do… The writers who have become models for me are the ones who manage to have some public life—we’re all communal—but a restricted one. Writers have audiences and responsibilities to those audiences. But we also have a responsibility to remain ourselves. It’s a balancing act. And again, the Internet and social media are so seductive, are so immediately gratifying in that addictive-substance way, that you can get carried away from yourself rather easily.”

– Jonathan Franzen

ttp://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/jonathan-franzen-on-the-19th-century-writer-behind-his-internet-skepticism/280168/

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Belle Waring 10.02.13 at 4:31 am

Martin James: I did actually answer/suggest this solution to the question “can an author who hates women in a particular way that makes him unable to write convincing female characters get out of this problem without much trouble?” (We could be more charitable and just say ‘fails to care much about as autonomous fellow humans’ or ‘observes very badly’ or something.) The answer is the William S.Burroughs answer: leave us out. Just don’t have women in the novel. This is particularly easy to do in a war-time novel, so you can do this and make Straightwood happy at the same time. Catch-22 has pretty feeble female characters (by which I mean, poorly written with comparison to the adjacent male characters) but they are minor enough that it really doesn’t detract much from the novel. Hemingway’s best sometimes get over the hurdle in this way–he is really cripplingly concerned about his own masculinity (it often appears, when reading the novels. This may be an intentional effect, or a stylistic epiphenonmenon, but let’s leave it for the moment.) Not to the 10th power, Mailer-style, but badly. When there are no or very few women in the novel, and such that exist are really just ciphers–nameless prostitute A–then it’s not very jarring. I mean, the waiter in the restaurant isn’t getting much of a look-in either, is he? That black man in Cuba helping you at the dock? Unless he’s going to validate your manhood by saying “you for sure really are a MAN who knows how to handle a boat, Mr. Hemingway name of main character!”

I don’t care if they have a good moral outlook so much as I care if they write good books! I can’t repeat this anymore without freaking out! If someone is just terrible at writing female characters, but they do it anyway, then the novel is usually bad! The novel–not the person. The novel is usually bad. And not always. Pynchon’s V–I said, Pynchon’s authorial voice is quite sexist in a way that is salient when you read his books. But you kind of can’t/don’t care, partly because you are lost in a barrage of hilarious delirium, and the rest because he’s just such a compelling author that you say, aw, shit, and you just read it anyway. Except it is horrifying. V is really scary. Roth–I said, terrible. Bellow, again, I don’t know. Mamet–playwrights are odd cases because there is literally a space for a real woman to fill and she may end up, if she is a very good actress, sucking all the air out of the room. That said, he is obsessed with macho penis-measuring contests. That said, when there are women in his plays they are pretty amazing. So…Win? Updike? Seriously we went through this. Steinbeck…I haven’t read any in many years, so I don’t know that I’m qualified to say. My feeling was that everyone seemed stilted but I think that was the result of not being that grown up when I read it. Faulkner is like Superman, he can do anything. He can crack the moon into pieces with his fists. There’s no point asking what he can’t do. Except there is! How are his black characters? Most ‘canon’ artists get out of this jail by just leaving a huge part of our nation’s history and people out. You get brave when you try. But how do you do? I would have to think on it. Nabokov: OK, Nabokov is the fucking Batman. He’s been keeping Kryptonite boxing gloves in his closet for the day he has to punch Superman in the face, and win, despite having no superpowers. Now–do women write more convincing women? Well, yeah! Does Toni Morrison write stories about the South that are even more gut-wrenching than Faulkner’s? Yeah (and think about it, that’s motherfucking gut-wrenching)! And it’s because there are black characters in her novels as well as white ones, and the white ones aren’t stupid cartoons, they are recognizable humans, treated, even, with compassion. If Faulkner had to sit down and read Beloved he would cry like a little baby. I cried like a baby! About 12 separate times. Books written by women aren’t always better than books written by men, that would be stupid. Books written on one topic by women aren’t better than books on the same topic by men. This is true even if there are only female characters because it is set in a horrible workhouse for “immoral” girls run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. That’s because the male writer might be Nabokov with one hand tied behind his back. And all the other authors would say, “shit, this is some rigged bullshit. You didn’t tell me Nabokov was going to be in here!” But in general, and in the cases you suggest, do the female authors write more convincing female characters, without sacrificing as much on the male side as their counterparts do? A million times yes.

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Martin James 10.02.13 at 6:20 am

Well done Belle, well done. I understand much better now, thanks.

All I can do know is bow down and whimper that its just not fair because women really are inscrutable. They are, they are, they are…

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bill benzon 10.02.13 at 11:09 am

This seems obliquely related to this discussion.

Consder Melville’s Moby Dick, which is a frequent candidate for the Great American Novel honors. It dates back to 1851 and so is way before before the period under consideration. It has no female characters to speak of.

But, as Gregory Jusdanis points out in this post, there’s an early chapter where Ishmael hops in bed with Queequeg, it being the only bed available in the inn, and it’s as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Which, according to Jusdanis, it was at that time and place. If that scene were to happen today we’d assume that they were gay or the author would be scrawling “no homo” all over the place and we’d be scratching our heads: WTF?

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Phil 10.02.13 at 1:31 pm

Harold Bloom, who wrote the notes to the Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick, was all over that scene (and several others where the presence of a gay subtext is more debatable). Among other things, he highlighted a reference to Rogers’ cutlery (Queequeg’s harpoon was as sharp as…) and pointed out that Queequeg’s totem Yojo is “O joy” backwards.

Jusdanis’s reading seems more straightforward & better informed, which is always a good combination.

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Helen 10.02.13 at 11:59 pm

(Sigh)
Martin James @609

As for half the population [that is, women] being ignored, most literary novels concern themselves with a very small slice of the population, usually, but not always, the interesting ones.

You do realise what the corollary of that statement is, don’t you?
Or don’t you?

And this:

All I can do know is bow down and whimper that its just not fair because women really are inscrutable. They are, they are, they are…

Some, or most, of the difficulty in highlighting sexism is that it is so deeply embedded in the thinking of many people that they simply can’t see it.

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Martin James 10.03.13 at 12:48 am

Helen,

Belle said she didn’t care if authors were sexist (or had other good morals) as long as they wrote good books that didn’t have poorly drawn female characters.

You said, “Some, or most, of the difficulty in highlighting sexism is that it is so deeply embedded in the thinking of many people that they simply can’t see it.”

Other times people see it and like what they see. Not me, of course, but some people.
That’s part of what male writers like Naipaul don’t like about female writers: they think people care.

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Martin James 10.03.13 at 4:51 pm

Belle,

I have one additional comment based on reading your other thread on this topic.

I think the reason that many of the male writers do not write female characters well is that they are somewhat slutty and it blinds them to accurately observe and interpret women.

So, there are 2 ways to be less sexist about the double standard that women are termed slutty for behavior that men are not so termed. One can stop thinking of the women as slutty or one can start calling the men slutty as well. Most people choose the first some choose the second. Solzhenitsyn is an example of an author more inclined to call both slutty. It was in his works and those of other Russians that the contrast to American authors first became so noticeable to me.

Slutty is not the word I really should use – disloyal or just myopic might be better. They generalize from the women that have sex with that most or all women want to have sex with them. They are generalizing from a small sample of people attracted to them, that most others are attracted to them and lose perspective.

You frame it that they blame their lack of control on the women, I would tend to frame it that they confuse their personal experiences with human experience. People with a smaller circle of sexual partners may be less experienced, but also more objective in observing human relations. They have less need, hence less bias and therefore more clear powers of observation. This obviously depends on the degree to which humans are motivated by sex. I am not saying authors are more motivated by sex, I’m just saying 20th century male author’s need to overstate their sexual attractiveness plays out as poorly drawn female characters.

It would be nice to read now an then an author whose sexual passion was unrequited. (I know I’ve set myself up for he’s projecting his lack of sexual experience onto others) but that might not be right. I’m saying that I know what male macho is like, all men do, what I want in an author is instead clearheadedness.

Eunuchs of the world, write!

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