I recently read this (absolutely brutal) review of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s books. I’ve not read the books reviewed, which are largely about the biracial authors’ view of race. I doubt I will based on that roasting. I will also not comment on the thesis of either the review or the books, because God knows nobody needs to hear a white lady’s take on race in this year of our lord 2019.
What I want to talk about is how the author talks about women. How a lot of male authors talk about women.
Content warning for sexism and abuse, folks.
From the review:
[…] As a teenager he thrashes his black girlfriend Stacey across the face after dragging her into the woods. This isn’t the routine horror of misogynist violence as inflicted across the planet by men of every color; Williams’s brain, perhaps the real victim, has simply been warped by Biggie Smalls. And Pappy had never approved of Stacey; he found her coarse and disappointing. After the incident, he refers to the “herd of mules and donkeys” that threaten the “thoroughbred,” his son.
Williams also retreads quite a lot of Losing My Cool: Stacey reappears as a fourteen-year-old who “danced beautifully, like a woman not a child”—though he neglects to mention the time he backhanded her across the face.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is nearly forty.
How men write women is a problem, and I don’t particularly enjoy reading it. W. E. B. Dubois wrote about double consciousness, which built upon previous philosophers’ assertions that a mind is made up of both the actor and a superego, an ideal self that comments on what we’re doing. This ideal self isn’t always kind. And it can be hijacked by the prevailing sensibility of the culture and turned into self-surveillance:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
I experience this feeling along the axes where I am marginalized. The sensation is really difficult to shake when I read portrayals of my marginalization from the point of view of people who are outside of it. Unfortunately, men’s bad portrayals of women are part of the literary canon. And I, being a literary author, have to be aware of them as a matter of professionalism.
Here’s what I’m aware of:
Haruki Murakami, who to my knowledge has no accusers, but whose women characters I can’t read because he doesn’t write them. His works are in translation. Maybe I or his translators misread him. Waifs who barely exist on the page, who are girlish but not young anymore and who the narrator congratulates himself for masturbating to. What else do we know about her? Nothing, she’s not the point.
Junot Diaz. There are passages in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that didn’t sit quite right with me. Just… something unsettles me. I know the difference between portrayal and sympathy (portraying a problem is not automatically problematic), and yet something does not quite click for me. I’ve read Lolita. I am not bothered by Lolita. Nabakov manages to convey Humbert Humbert isn’t reliable, manages to whisper around his narrator the full horror of what Dolores went through. But Diaz’s sexists are never particularly unreliable. As an author, Diaz is never interested in following how the women in his stories feel about their mistreatment, preferring to pretend they don’t notice. This feels like unreliability on the author’s part, because women do notice. It feels off. I am not alone: women are often unsettled by Junot Diaz, but as the article behind the link claims, that’s fine. Fully portraying sexism without making room for women doesn’t mean Junot Diaz is sexist. I mean, he is, but, you know.
Let me not accidentally imply this is male authors of color exclusively. Bret Easton Ellis is especially inessential for me to read as I age, even as he bellows after me I’m just not EXTREME enough for Flamin Hot Cheeto flavored Franzen. With some reluctance, I lump Chuck Palahnuik in here. Palahniuk tells a cute story about how he brought a story to workshop about a teen fucking a rapidly deflating sex doll to critique. All the women in the group were uncomfortable, but made sure to set him up with the mentor who’d eventually get him a book deal as they gently booted him out. Who were these women? What do they write? They’re strangely essential to his success, but also not important, much like every woman is to any man in a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Let me be clear, I think I probably like Palahniuk as a dude. I even like his prose. I just don’t need to hear that story again.
David Foster Wallace’s treatment of several exes, including Mary Karr, who he tried to push from a moving vehicle, was an open secret even as he became beatified in the literary canon and we venerated his corpse. He really was very good. I don’t think I notice women in his work except by their absence. I mean, they’re there, just… infrequent and a bit thin.
Or Ellie Weisel, who I never got a weird feeling from (though I’ve not read much of his work). He groped a teenager.
Or that time Harlan Ellison groped Connie Willis on stage, then spent the rest of his life wounded and angry that everyone was mad at him.
I could go on about that time Jonathan Safran Foer was rumored to have left his wife for Natalie Portman, who was very confused and happily married. And then there was Moby’s portrayal of Portman (Moby is not an author of fiction, but I include him here because he has written memoirs). It just feels bottomless. I am tired.
Male literary giants being unable to write women is such a fucking cliche at this point it’s hard to even find something to say about it that’s not been sad. It’s bad. Literary men unable to write female pleasure is behind a lot of the bad sex in fiction award nominees’ badness. The inability to inhabit a woman as a person, as a body in space, goes from shitty-but-almost-tolerable to absurd in sex scenes.
Literary men sucking shouldn’t feel like a betrayal, but it does. Junot Diaz’s victim looked up to him, as did Ellie Weisel’s. David Foster Wallace wrote lovely things about compassion and alienation and depression. Beyond documented violence against his girlfriend, he had a reputation for cruising signings for women to use like groupies. There’s this sense that he’s the man from The End of the Tour; frighteningly vulnerable, shy, compassionate, in pain. What drew men to him, the talent and wish they could have gotten through to him, was like the lure of an anglerfish to women, who did get close to him and were swallowed whole.
And maybe that’s who he was and I shouldn’t feel betrayed. When men act like this, maybe they’re acting according to their nature. But I don’t get a whole other nature to inhabit while men do what men do at the expense of the women around them.
What strikes me about the example up top from Thomas Chatterton Williams and why it prompted me to write all this is how clumsily the badness is hidden. Here’s a nearly 40 year old man talking about a girl he knew 25 years ago repeatedly; what she represented to him, how she ended up being symbolic of the the hip hop that he blames for his own violence, how she “danced like an adult.” All of this meaning wraped like padding around the fact he backhanded a child. Being a child himself at the time means that, if he were to keep the story to himself, we would graciously forget it. But since he has brought it up: centering what he feels about that and what he represents to her is some Humbert Humbert shit. What he thinks it means doesn’t matter. What does being dragged into the woods and beaten represent to Stacey? Will anyone ever give her a bullhorn and a stack of cash to talk about it?
Let’s go back to Mary Karr. David Foster Wallace committed suicide, and she, you should know, is a poet. She also only dated him briefly, and was not his partner when he died. Every time she does an interview, she’s asked about David, to the point I’m sure she’s sick of being seen as his reliquary. She wrote a poem shortly after his death, which you should read. David Foster Wallace is more fully human when she portrays him than any woman David Foster Wallace ever wrote.
Men and their struggle to see women as fully human is attractive in a writer because we live in an oppressive system designed to treat women as less-than-fully human, but also because it’s complicated. It’s an in-built point of view that brings all kinds of tension to a work. These men want to reach out but, they’re surrounded by women they can only see as rapidly deflating sex dolls, and it makes them very sad, bless them. See? That’s complex. It’s a literary conflict. And God, it is so very boring. It’s Joseph Garcin’s hell from No Exit, the curse of using women as mirrors which reflect only their own self-loathing, repeating the same cycle of harm and self-harm endlessly. And I am sympathetic, but I am bored. I am ready to close the door on this kind of man and his story. We’ve heard it before, and we know how it goes.