Saturday, September 28, 2013

Novels, Dillweeds, and Defeat

Sometimes I publish a post and have the sinking feeling immediately afterward that in the time it took me to write the damn thing, something happened somewhere else on the internet which rendered it redundant... irrelevant... or just plain wrong. There are these other beautiful occasions, however, when the internet conspires to confirm a point I just made and I get to feel a tiny bit prescient.  Remember the claims I made in my last post about the fate of the novel?  Well, this last week, Jonathan Franzen set off a fresh round of ballyhooing and bellyaching about-- you guessed it-- the decline of the humanities and the death of the novel.  And in this particular cri-de-coeur about the crisis facing contemporary authors, he did not list the names of any contemporary authors he might be hoping to salvage from the apocalypse-- apart from Jonathan Franzen.  

His article in turn inspired some mockery at Crooked Timber, which cycled into a post from Belle Waring arguing (seemingly) that the death of the novel is not quite such a big loss because so many novelists are "such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books."  And this judgement about novelists (admittedly restricted up front to "Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century") does not mention a single novelist of middle age or younger.  Apart, that is, from-- you guessed it-- Jonathan Franzen, clocking in at a mere 54 years of age, who seems to have become the sole representative of what was once a whole class of individual: the "rising star of high- brow literary fiction."  The novelists who are excoriated by Waring as dillweeds (for the most part with justice) are: John Updike (d. 2009), Norman Mailer (d. 2007), Philip Roth (age 80), Saul Bellow (d. 2005), William Gaddis (d. 1998), Don DeLillo (age 76), Thomas Pynchon (also age 76)-- you get the idea.  

So the relevant class of novelists is restricted to those who are either dead or established their reputations in the 1960s-- and then on their evidence we are told that novels are perhaps not worth saving anyways (this at least is what I take to be the connection between Waring's post and the Franzen article, because otherwise, I can see none).  What about the young writers who are still publishing novels?  They do exist somewhere, and people read their books.  But they have entirely fallen off the radar, it would seem, of people on the internet who write in broad strokes about the humanities and American cultural life.  They have even fallen off the radar of Jonathan Franzen, who is one of them.  

So this post of mine is concerned first with 1) saying I told you so (I'm done with that now), and 2) addressing this question of whether the sexism of recent American novelists renders the genre irretrievable anyways.

This second question, posed by Waring's post, can be further subdivided: 1) Is it true that there are enough dillweeds of the sexist variety among novelists to justify a broader thesis about the genre?  2) If there are, what does this imply about the value of their novels?  Does being a sexist dillweed prevent you from creating good art?

I'm going to mostly defend Waring on both points, though this fact must not be taken to imply a completely positive judgment of her post.  The whole thing is a bit grating, as it is written in the kind of Ritalin-popping, energy-drink consuming, pop-and-high-brow-culture-mashing mode that the internet has birthed as its own unique style.  Perhaps all of us blog dwellers should be allowed to be kids again in our online personas, but some people abuse the privilege.  It really is a bit much, for instance, when these eminently middle-aged academics on Crooked Timber who have kids and mortgages MAKE EXTRAVAGANT USE OF HOSTILE CAPITALIZATION and bold things irrelevantly and make references to Grand Theft Auto V to prove a point about literature.  But anyways-- moving on to the substance.

Are the dillweeds really as rank and numerous as has been suggested?  Basically, yes.  Statements like: "pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books, for many intelligent people" sound like inflated rhetoric.  But it really is astounding to what a large extent the Big Theme of literature authored by heterosexual men in the second half of the twentieth century seems to have been the evilness of women.  Why would this be the case?  The "Great Male Narcissists" as they were famously described by David Foster Wallace-- did not participate in any other respect in the post-60s conservative backlash.  They were for the most part reliable sympathizers with mainstream liberalism and the academic New Left where wars and race and social policy were concerned (the later Saul Bellow perhaps excepted here).  Yet they were notoriously hostile to feminism-- and to women more generally-- and their novels show it.  

Who is "they" here?  I'm not able to render a verdict on all the names Waring places in the dillweed sector. I haven't seen anything in Pynchon, for instance, that screams sexism, but I haven't read Gravity's Rainbow and Waring apparently has.  I haven't read much DeLillo or Gaddis at all.  But some of the other names seem to belong rather unarguably on the list-- Updike, Norman Mailer (the man who stabbed one of his countless wives at a dinner party), etc.  If we broadened the category to include writers from across the Atlantic, the picture is not much rosier: J.G. Ballard, V.S. Naipaul... these guys are not going to win NOW image awards any time soon.

I even have to place some of my all time favorites on the list.  Philip Roth for instance.  You can perhaps salvage the early stuff-- even Portnoy's Complaint.  Yes this book contains female love interests with monickers like "The Monkey," but its story is also told by a classically "unreliable narrator" whom I don't think can be reduced to just another alter ego of the author.  As Roth has described the book in later interviews, it is not so much autobiography as self-parody-- an exploration of a particular mythology of American male Jewishness that was still in process of being hammered out in that era by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Roth himself.  All the classic bits are there-- the Mahjong-playing, Oedipus-complex-inducing mother, the constipated, emasculated father, the bar-mitzvahed protagonist whose "good boy" facade bravely obscures a seething inner world of sexual fantasy.  To really be sexist these things would have to be intended as something other than self-referential comedy.  

But Roth's later and more "serious" stuff is harder to defend on this basis.  His novels tend toward outright paranoia and misogyny in direct proportion as they attempt a greater degree of "realism."  Read American Pastoral.  You will be told by reviewers that it is a heartbreakingly true-to-life portrait of the decline and fall of the American Dream.  You will find instead that it is a compelling and vividly-written protection of the nonetheless implausible terrors and insecurities of its author.  It features a long-suffering, saintlike Jewish father; his emotionally-needy knock-out of a shikse wife who screws a friend of theirs behind his back; their psychotic, bomb-making daughter who joins the radical wing of the New Left and ends up living as a Jain nun in a sewer in New Jersey; and a gaggle of other female hysterics and loonies, such as the daughter's cultish disciple Rita Cohen who tries to seduce the father and the mumu-and-love-bead-sporting feminist academic who sows corruption and indecency wherever she treads (Philip Roth, by contrast, being such a partisan of family values).

Obviously, negative portrayals of female characters are not necessarily sexist.  Similarly, suggesting that something real and vital was lost in the post-60s fracture of American family life is not mere paranoia.  This could all be evoked in a novel with candor and plausibility.  But there is a line somewhere between harsh realism and lurid sensationalism and Roth's later stuff seems on the wrong side of it.

How about, say, Martin Amis, who is usually included on similar lists of chauvinistic male authors?  I would make a case here that there is a more genuine distance between the views he puts into the mouths of his male protagonists and his own attitudes than there is in the novels of Roth.  If you read his nonfiction and see, for instance, the way he writes about his parents, or his sardonic response to some of the crasser masculine fantasies in the novels of J.G. Ballard, I don't think you will come away viewing Amis as a misogynist, however much he seems to enjoy writing novels about violent, porcine, and woman-hating low-lives.

Waring is not sure about whether Franzen should be included among the dillweeds, even though he sparked the rant in the first place.  One episode from his article that might tilt the scales in the dillweed direction runs as follows: 

"Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I'd come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. [...] I was angry at the world in a way I'd never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn't actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hanover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin, where I was living on a Fulbright grant, and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus."

But this seems to be not so much sexist drivel as bizarre non-sequitor.  It is indicative not of misogyny but of a different problem with Franzen's whole argument in the article quoted above.  His main point is absolutely correct and cannot be reiterated often enough: that the accelerating pace of change in modern techno-capitalism is destructive of human values and is making it increasingly difficult for people to establish psychologically-necessary levels of stability and continuity in their lives.  But this completely true and humane observation is presented through a lopsided focus on, well, Jonathan Franzen, and all the irrelevant things that make him angry, including German women who won't have sex with him-- or who maybe he didn't want to have sex with in the first place... or something.  

But anyways, with or without Franzen, Amis, or a few others in the mix, there are enough examples to justify the observation that male insecurity and a corresponding hatred of women were clearly the characteristic pathologies of the last great generation of novelists.  Why this might be deserves a post of its own.  What I want to ask is how and to what extent this diminishes the artistic value of their productions.  

The primary fact to note is that if you belong to an identity group which is portrayed negatively in a novel-- and especially if the negative portrayal just seems obviously wrong-- you will not and cannot enjoy that novel.  This may sound like it is mixing ideology with aesthetics, but it is really just a banal fact about human psychology-- one which applies to all groups, not just ones with defined constituencies.  I am always miffed, for instance, when the popular media depicts fictional mainline Protestant pastors preaching about hellfire and damnation or "talking to God" like Evangelicals (I have you in mind, Mindy Project!)-- because these are just not things that would ever happen, and anyone who knew anything about mainline Protestant pastors would know this.  Similarly, I have no desire to read books or watch TV shows where all the female characters are uniformly bright and pretty and emotionally precocious while all the male characters are drooling oafs.  I doubt I will ever pick up Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963) because, at least according to its parodies, this pretty much describes the make-up of its cast.

None of this has anything to do with accurate parody, which can be appreciated from within the group at which it is thumbing its nose.  I have no objection to "Stuff White People Like," e.g. for this reason.  What makes negative portrayals grating, sometimes intolerable, is when they just don't bear any relation to reality.  I think it's pretty obvious that the depiction of women in the works of the Great Dillweeds does not meet this necessary minimum of realism or plausibility.  The women in these books are, by and large, not believable human beings.  They are not even believable as caricatures, which have to contain their own kernels of truth to work as effective satire.  So this answers the question of whether or not it would be possible for women to project themselves into these novels, to see their own experiences reflected in those of the characters, or to identify with anyone in the cast.  They would not be.

Some portentous intellects might argue at this point that this question is irrelevant.  It has nothing to do, they may tell us, with the true appreciation of great literature, which must not be confused with using books for the sake of escapist fantasy and self-projection.  But this distinction, I would argue, is a false one.  Based on reasoning from the last post, which you can either accept or reject, I cannot see that literature has any value except to the degree and in the fashion that it allows the reader to resonate with an experience it portrays and thereby broadens her or him.  So-- and this is Waring's whole point-- the sexism on display makes for bad art, not just bad ideas.

Is there anything left to be said then in defense of the Great Dillweeds?  I can't see any reason to dispute the line of reasoning above-- but I also feel like now I need to provide some account as to why I still read Philip Roth and Martin Amis, etc.  I need to explain why I think it is valuable to read them, why V.S. Naipaul's novels are still pretty good even when they are patently self-justifying and add insult to the injuries he already heaped on the real women in his life, and so on.

The best answer I can come up with is that, for all their implausibility, there is still a type of emotional reality to these novels that is reflective of lived experience as these authors perceived it.  That doesn't mean they actually knew women in their lives who were like this, which seems incredibly  unlikely (though Roth did have a pretty disastrous first marriage to a woman who sounds, at least in his telling, like she had some role in escalating the psycho-drama of their lives). But I do think these novels capture a genuine feeling, from whatever source, of defeat, of humiliation, and of pain and bewilderment in the face of trying to live up to impossible standards of virility.  

We don't like to admit that these are real feelings and that we might even identify with them ourselves on occasion.  When we are evaluating novels though our P.C. lenses, we get to feel good about ourselves for getting outraged in all the right places.  We get to participate in a fantasy of our own-- that we, as critics and readers, are free of all resentments, that we are paragons of virtue, of sexual health, that we are so confident in ourselves and our successes that we can afford the magnanimity implicit in all the egalitarian ideologies of our era, etc.  But of course, this really is just a fantasy for all of us, no matter how successful and pure of heart we may appear in the eyes of others.  As Orwell once aptly put it, "any life when viewed form the inside is simply a series of defeats."  As much pleasure as we might get from portraying ourselves as wholly free of insecurity and resentment, there will also be times in our lives when we need the consolation that can only come from sharing in the feelings of defeat of another via literature.

From a feminist perspective, it is no doubt absurd that these privileged and famous men who were larded with praise their whole professional lives should get any sympathy for feeling "defeated."  These are highly successful people we're talking about. Can we not expect them, of all people, to have enough generosity of spirit not to be so threatened by women's successes as to devote their entire authorial lives to denigrating them?  Yes-- we can certainly expect this, so what I am saying here is not intended as a defense of these men on moral grounds.  But there is still an artistic value in the fact that they seem to have captured a real human feeling of vulnerability and persecution--even if they themselves had no real right to lay claim to these feelings.  

One of the best things Martin Amis has written is his long defense of the poet Philip Larkin, reprinted in The War on Cliche.  Larkin's poems are pretty hostile to women, and his posthumous reputation suffered because of it.  Two examples of his poems will suffice, "A Study of Reading Habits" and "Wild Oats," but more could be adduced.  Yet what is clear from these poems apart from the misogyny is that they are not the work of someone who perceived himself as effortlessly successful and therefore free to be indifferent to the failures of others.  This is someone who was portraying with cruel honesty his own insecurities and hang-ups.  If we criticize such a portrayal in poetry, Amis argues in his defense, we stray too close to the idea that it is wrong for people to ever feel emotionally disturbed or unhealthy or unbalanced-- and that it is doubly wrong to express the reality of such feelings in works of art.  Yet what poets in history who are any good at all were ever models of emotional health and imperturbability?  What good would any art be if it restricted its subject matter to those thoughts and emotions which are approved by our superego and our moral cognition?

If you have stumbled across some novels or other artistic representations which seem to you to be appallingly lopsided and unimaginative in the way they portray a group to which you belong, an exercise which might help you to appreciate them somewhat more (without excusing their limitations) is to try to understand what real vulnerability is animating them-- because there usually is one.  There is probably a genuine feeling of hurt, for instance, against religious megalomaniacs and insensitive men which underlies the examples I gave above of the unjustified stereotypes which always grate on me.

It is so often the case that the works that seem to be most brazenly celebrating the power, success, and influence of their authors in fact reveal the deepest insecurity and anguish.  Think of Nietzsche, for instance.  His theory of the uebermensch has often been understood as the self-justifying and legitimizing ideology of an indifferent ruling class.  It may be partially this-- but it is also, in its original form, a great exercise in the poetics of defeat.  The uebermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is actually a pretty sorry figure.  He doesn't fit in with the "crowd" and he only has "acrobats and corpses" for friends.  His vaunted "superiority" is really just a token consolation for his outsider status.  This tells us rather more about the deeply troubled soul who was Nietzsche than would an attempt to read the book as simple cheerleading for the rich and powerful.

It is success, perhaps counter-intuitively, which breeds the egalitarian outlook.  Defeat breeds a self-image of virtuous superiority, resentment, misogyny, and so on.  If we are going to take egalitarian ideas seriously we therefore-- paradoxically-- have to extend a certain degree of sympathy to their opposites-- if only in order to understand the pain in which they originate.

It is a good exercise in general to see the rage and hatred that is directed toward us for whatever reason not only as unjustified persecution (though it usually is this too)-- but also as a product of some deeper hurt that has not been properly expressed and is therefore being misdirected.  This is a good interpersonal skill, but it is also a particularly valuable means of reaching an appreciation of works of art which we thought would always be too fundamentally hateful for us to enjoy.  It is worth taking advantage of these means not for Philip Roth's sake or Philip Larkin's sake, but because our lives become richer, fuller, and more vivid the more books and poems-- and perspectives-- we are able to appreciate.

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