Friday, November 13, 2009

Get Over It

Lately I've been re-reading some of Lorrie Moore's stories, from both Self-Help and Birds of America, especially Self-Help. I'd been meaning to do so even before learning that she had a new novel out (A Gate at the Stairs), but certainly its appearance moved the stories a little higher on my pile. Then I read this post from Paul Dorell at flyover about the novel and its reception. The post has more to do with Moore's depiction of the American Midwest ("flyover country") in the book, but I'm more interested here in the short comment thread that followed. One reader referred to an allegedly "strong undercurrent of Misandry in her stories", which was supposedly exemplary of the "male-bashing cant [that] became a kind of popular de rigueur" in recent decades. I replied that "no such undercurrent exists". Dorell took the reader's side, saying that in Moore's work "the men are often implicitly responsible for the relative unhappiness of the women" and "tend to be ciphers whose main significance is their bringing of grief to the women", and that Moore has "virtually nothing to say about how [a functional adult relationship between a man and a woman] is possible or worthwhile".

Well, two things occurred to me when I read these words. First, the characterization bore little resemblance to my memory of Moore's stories. Therefore, I thought to myself, I will read them again. Second, and much more important, who fucking cares? That is, since when is it Lorrie Moore's responsibility to write about "functional adult relationships"? More to the point, it is not her job, nor any other woman's job, to make men feel better about themselves, nor is it the writer's job to objectively depict all sides of every one's reality, as if that were even possible. But, for many women--I'd go so far as to say most--it is in fact men who are primarily responsible for bringing grief and misery into their lives. Writing from such a perspective--the perspective of a woman's actual experience--is not automatically "anti-male" or what-the-fuck-ever.

Having now read many of the stories again, I am not in the least surprised to find absolutely nothing to support the kind of hyper-sensitive reading I am responding to. Naturally, I needn't have bothered. For I returned to flyover, looking for the link provided above, and I see Dorell's final comment, responding to me. Apparently Lorrie Moore's recent stories are "more male-neutral" (thank God for that!) but "some of her earliest writing seems to seethe with the the sort [of] anti-male feminism that was the hallmark of her generation of women who are now in their early fifties to mid-sixties". Thankfully, he says, we are now in a "post-feminist world". Golly.

No. It takes a certain kind of man to make such a remark. Basically, if you're capable of making a blanket statement about "anti-male feminism" then you have been missing the point on a massive scale for years. Frankly, men in general are lucky that most feminists are nothing like "anti-male". They'd certainly deserve it if they were. Look, men are in no position to criticize women on this score. It doesn't mean that every woman is always right or that every man is always wrong, but the experience of women means something. It matters! If the preponderance of women report that things are a certain way, then it would behoove men to fucking listen. And when it comes to fiction? Though I don't think Lorrie Moore's stories can in any way be characterized as "anti-man", if it so happened that they could be, my position is that men need to get over it.


Andrew Seal said...

These are probably the type of people who take it in stride when they find a (nearly) relentless parade of manipulating, duplicitous, and generally "castrating" female types in the fiction of, say, Bellow.

Dorothy W. said...

Well, bless you for writing this. The relief I felt when I read this post shows me how seldom I hear arguments like it.

soft hubris said...

Mad Men does an excellent job of presenting a woman's plight without misandry. I know it's not a novel, yet as a TV show it does an incredible job of depicting how male and female roles were often "performed."

Misandry = misogyny, there's no way around it. For some, it's difficult to understand women in a position of power (or accepting that they are not always victims). But I am sorry, women are equal to men and are capable of the same sort of pernicious thinking.

Colin Gray said...

Yes, it would behoove men to listen. No, Moore has no responsibility to make men feel better about themselves. But that you even feel compelled to write "it doesn't mean every woman is always right or that every man is always wrong" is a sure sign that you're generalizing epically and carelessly. "Look, not all Muslims are terrorists." "Hey, I'm not a racist, but." Never ends well. All I'm saying.

Richard said...

soft, I decided to publish your comment only because you make a common kind of remark that I plan to address in another post. (I haven't seen "Mad Men".)

Colin, you're being pointlessly dick-ish. And your comment is incoherent. It's true I'm generalizing, but I'm not being careless. I say, as an aside really, that "it doesn't mean every woman is always right or that every man is always wrong" in part to pre-empt another common type of complaint, which is analagous to the kind of anecdotal evidence which often begin "I'm not racist, but". That is, my remarks are structurally the exact opposite of that.

Paul Dorell said...


Regarding the male question, I think you're overreacting to my problem with Moore. Obviously she can write whatever she likes. My comments are in the context of what I consider to be good literature, and I may not represent the norm because I think realism is the best literary form. I don’t recant my view that Moore's writing about men isn't always a good example of realism. Arguably, her depiction of women isn't realism either. Despite her appeal and skill as a fiction writer, she is writing in a highly literary genre that possibly belongs in poetry rather than fiction.

I have distinct feelings on the matter of the history of feminism in the U.S. since 1960. My view is that, like most political movements, feminism during that period was taken over by ideologues. It is true that many men acted like despicable cads, and that feminism may have improved their behavior somewhat over the years. But the strong ideological elements presented a warped view of reality, which in my opinion had a negative effect on male-female relations that has lasted for decades. There was the false assertion that women and men are essentially identical, which has now been discredited by advances in neurology and biology. I have no problem with the promotion of equal rights and was dumbfounded when the Equal Rights Amendment failed, but it is now quite well established that female brains and male brains do not function identically.

What has disturbed me is that many of the educated American women I know who came of age from about 1965 to 1980 showed signs of indoctrination. They often had unrealistic expectations about their relationships with men, what sorts of careers they should pursue, how well they could raise children, and in some cases they showed signs of narcissism, which they misinterpreted as empowerment.

I'm probably older than you and have life experiences to bear me out. The women I'm thinking of often got divorced and never found a relationship that satisfied them. Some were poor mothers. As a result, I'm much happier with women in my age group who did not grow up in the U.S. of that period.

Some of Moore's writing and behavior reflects a disaffection towards men, which inclines me to lump her in with her peer group. In 2008, she told The Guardian that her ex-husband "is actually an asshole. He actually does it for a living. It's amazing that people can get paid for that, but he can." She also publicly disparaged him in a speech at the 2009 BookExpo America. This attitude is in accord with some of her writing and to me reflects some of the unproductive brainwashing I’ve witnessed in her feminist peers.

Richard said...

Paul, your reply doesn't help your cause. Your choice of words—-indoctrination, brainwashing, etc—-reflects a remarkable condescension towards women and the issues feminism seeks to address. There certainly have been arguments advanced by some feminists that I have serious problems with, but there is no one feminism, never has been, never will be. No doubt many women have had unrealistic expectations. I hardly think this is the fault of some ideological feminist “indoctrination”; as with most things, the root problems are capitalism and class relations.

I’m not going to go into any more detail on this here. These are huge topics that I have no intention of treating superficially in a comment box.

Moore’s fiction is not realist, or at least not the kind of realism you seem to favor; criticism of her needs to take this into account. But that aside, I repeat that there is no anti-male streak in her writing, persistent or otherwise. Your simply repeating over and over again that there is isn’t compelling. And it matters not in the least that Moore’s called her ex-husband an asshole in public. In what way is this relevant? It’s not.

Paul Dorell said...


OK, if you want specifics, I’ll give some. I won’t reread any of her work, but I’ll provide some of my impressions. In Self Help, the first story, How to be an Other Woman, which I think is by far the best in the collection, is about a woman who begins an affair. At first it seems that the only other player is her boyfriend’s wife. Finally she learns that she is just one in a string of affairs. This is a very well-executed story, but it offers only the perspective of the female victim. There is no exploration of or interest in why the boyfriend behaved this way, which I think would have made the story less gimmicky. Another story in the same collection, Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love, is also about a cheating boyfriend. Likewise there is no discussion between the two, and they break up with no clarification of exactly what has transpired.

In Like Life, a much better collection, Two Boys deals with two rather immature young men and the travails they cause for their female victim. You’re Ugly, Too, one of her best, includes an absolutely tacky and insensitive date, once again with no substantive interaction with the female protagonist.

By the time of Birds of America, Moore seems to have moved on to less contrived topics, such as a fictionalized rendition of the illness of her adoptive son in People Like That Are the Only People Here.

My feeling after reading these stories is that the women are getting a free pass and complete control of the narrative while the men are impotent tools constructed to fit an artificial story line. I also think that there is a good chance that there are autobiographical elements to these stories, which makes her relatively late marriage, her subsequent divorce, and her snarky, unprofessional comments about her ex-husband quite relevant.

I’m not particularly interested in capitalism and class relations, though they may have some tangential relevance here. Feminism seems more relevant to the specific stories I’ve mentioned. I fully support the sort of feminism espoused by Mary Wollstonecraft, who ironically was dumped and betrayed by her cheating American boyfriend, but think it bears little resemblance to the feminism I experienced in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wollstonecraft would have been appalled by modern militant feminists. In my opinion, the kind of feminism extolled by Gloria Steinem and others was largely intellectually bankrupt and encouraged a wave of ignorant behavior that still survives in some of the more absurd permutations of political correctness. As you may gather from my comments, political correctness is also of little interest to me, though obviously it is still in vogue at the University of Wisconsin, where Moore works. Any appearance of condescension here is merely repugnance for bad ideas.

Richard said...

Capitalism is not tangential to anything. It is the air we breathe. The difficult choices women have had to make are in the context of the normalization of the activities of men in such a society. Most of my problems with feminism have to do with (white, middle class) mainstream feminism’s accommodation to power. That is, it hasn’t been radical or militant enough. The choices available to men are bullshit choices which, to my mind, the best feminists challenge as not worth making. (I remember Barbara Ehrenreich years ago making the point that women or gays trying to get accepted in the military was not a battle she was willing to take on.)

With respect to Lorrie Moore and her fiction, I wasn’t actually asking for specifics, but instead arguing that your take on the stories is unsupported by the stories themselves. Since you have offered specifics, nothing has changed. I am not persuaded, for example, that the stories are “gimmicky” for lacking “exploration of or interest in” the behavior of the male’s in the stories, or that this lack is what might prevent her from being a great writer, or her stories great literature. In addition, you are quite wrong that her female characters get a free pass; neither are they merely victims of some male’s bad behavior. Do you make the same sorts of criticisms about male writers? I have no trouble believing that Moore’s stories are somewhat autobiographical. It nevertheless remains irrelevant that she called her ex-husband an asshole.

Paul Dorell said...

I also consider the fact that we’re in a capitalist system important, but don’t think there’s much anyone can do about it currently. This is part of a long historical process, and if I had to guess, I’d say that American-style capitalism will decline significantly over the next hundred years, and we’ll end up with some sort of hybrid between socialism and capitalism that looks more like France today. There are special problems making changes in the U.S. due to a democratic process that is constantly gamed by corporations that have become adept at manipulating public sentiment to serve their interests. The feminism in the U.S. that I’m familiar with has primarily sought parity with men, which isn’t much of a change. From an economic standpoint, I think both men and women are going to have a rough time from now on due to globalization and increased competition from abroad. The standard of living here isn’t going to improve much for most people in the foreseeable future.

My basic point about Lorrie Moore is that the men in her stories are at worst ogres and at best bland figures who lack personalities. The primary tension in the stories I mentioned is between the women and the men, specifically with respect to how the behavior of the men is deeply disturbing to the women. The women and men do not discuss their differences, and the stories end abruptly with the women feeling almost suicidal. At an emotional level, the message is simply “men are a problem.” To me, this is just a reiteration of old feminist dogma and sheds light on nothing. If Moore had done it just once, I wouldn’t be critical. But she’s done it repeatedly, and I gather she’s done it again in her new novel, though I haven’t read it. Apparently the protagonist, Tassie, has a boyfriend named Reynaldo who lies about his background, abandons her, and turns out to be a terrorist. This is the exact same theme in a new guise. The bottom line is that the reader is probably supposed to feel sorry for women who repeatedly exercise no critical judgment, do not engage in dialogue with their boyfriends, and then blame them when the relationships predictably go awry.

I pick on Moore only because she seemed to have so much potential, but hasn’t lived up to it. Actually, I’ve never read any American writers other than Moore, male or female, about whom I became ecstatic. My favorite novel is Middlemarch. Henry James’s later novels, by comparison, are some of the most self-indulgent ones I’ve ever read. Portrait of a Lady, an earlier novel, is one of the best American novels, but falls far short of Middlemarch in my opinion. I’ve been off fiction for a long time, but am currently taking a stab at Lauren Groff, Dan Chaon and Michel Houellebecq (the latter I understand is politically incorrect in the extreme).

Richard said...

Ok, this is my last comment on this. And I'm not going to say anything about capitalism or such larger issues here, including the history and nature of various strands of feminism, since that's what the rest of the blog is for.

But about Moore. You are consistently asserting that the stories are one thing, reducing them to that one thing, some message. I'm saying they are not that thing. I do not think the "message" is "men are a problem". I do not think women are portrayed as victims of men, or that the reader is simply supposed to feel sorry for them. They are, however, about these women, about their (often bad) decisions and actions. The stories do not imply that the women are justified in doing whatever it is they did, but that the men are to blame for it all. The men are not the focus, not even in a negative sense. My point has been that to see the stories in the way you have says more about you the reader than about what's actually going on in the stories.

I like both Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, too, but not unproblematically. I've written about them both here previously.

Paul Dorell said...

OK, I’m ready to wrap this up too. My final comment is that in what I consider to be great literature, the text reveals deep truths about reality. Moore has successfully revealed some familiar emotions and perceptions that few writers are able to capture on a page, but that’s pretty much it. I can’t believe that you don’t find her scenarios stunningly lopsided with respect to their adoption of a female perspective. In a novel of the caliber of Middlemarch, you can see the world through the eyes of multiple characters. George Eliot was able to do that in part because she knew her characters inside out. It grates on me that Moore has never incorporated a single well-rounded male into any of her short stories or novels. If you check out reviews like this one:, you will note that I am not alone in thinking that reading Lorrie Moore can feel like getting stuck inside her head. Possibly you go in for this solipsistic style, but I and many others don’t.

Richard said...

I knew I shouldn't have said that was my last comment.

I didn't say I didn't find the stories one-sided. In fact, I said just the opposite, while claiming that this is not only not a problem, but appropriate. You say it bothers you that Moore has never written a single "well-rounded male" character. But are the female characters "well-rounded"? I don't think so. Moore doesn't write that kind of fiction.

Moore is not only not writing a 19th century novel, she writes as the assumptions of that kind of fiction have long been called into question by serious writers. While many writers--and readers--seem to be untroubled by such problems, which is itself a problem, if you ask me. Which is to say, what she does isn't "solipsistic", but, arguably, more honest than the world-building of the Eliots of the world. (Fyi, my real beginning in discussing the matters is here.)

Paul Dorell said...

Final comment number two: It’s true that Moore’s female characters are sketchy, though they do clearly express an emotive point of view that can only be called female, whereas the male characters mentioned come across as remote, noumenal beings. I don’t really care what “serious writers” think about 19th century novels, and I don’t think most of them are worth reading. For the record, I’m not a fan of modernism, let alone postmodernism. The Enlightenment, for all its faults, was a much better thing than most of what followed, and this was a model for writers like George Eliot, who is now often minimized as a sentimental believer in human progress. My taste in paintings looks backwards to Vermeer through the Impressionists and perhaps as far as Paul Klee. In music I had a conventional teenage Dylan and Doors period, only to end up finding Beethoven and Debussy far more rewarding. Returning to the subject of Lorrie Moore, even though she may be honest in her way, she seems to miss or dismiss the feelings and perceptions of some who are just as real as any of her beleaguered heroines. Whether this is solipsism or not, it is a serious omission for which she offers no account.

The Promiscuous Reader said...

I haven't read anything by Laurie Moore, and am not likely to do so soon, so I can't comment on her work in relation to the discussion here. The remark of Paul's that caught my eye, though, was:

"What has disturbed me is that many of the educated American women I know who came of age from about 1965 to 1980 showed signs of indoctrination. They often had unrealistic expectations about their relationships with men, what sorts of careers they should pursue, how well they could raise children, and in some cases they showed signs of narcissism, which they misinterpreted as empowerment."

Maybe this is true; I wouldn't know, since I'm gay and I haven't had intimate relationships with women, though I've had many close friendships with women both gay and straight; and with men, both gay and straight. But it seems to me that you could substitute "men" in there and it would be as true, that educated men who came of age in the same period showed signs of indoctrination, often had unrealistic expectations about their relationships with women, what sorts of careers they should pursue, and so on. This appears in the male fiction of the period (Bellow, Roth, others), in pop music, in high and low cultural analysis. It predates the period too; consider the hysteria over Momism in the 40s and 50s. I think that "indoctrination" well describes the upbringing and cultural input men received that gave them that sense of entitlement, and enraged disappointment when women turned out to be people with minds and interests of their own -- planets in their own right, as it were, not just satellites.

Men expected, and still expect, service from women -- sexual, domestic, emotional. Because women do have other career options available to them now, they don't have to regard the provision of such service as their destiny. If many women of my generation have been dissatisfied in their relationships with men, it is often because of the difficulty of achieving a more equal balance of support with them. I don't see this as being due to "narcissism" in women; but one could diagnose many men with intriguing disorders from the armchair with as much justice. A lot of women have noticed this, and written about it. Maybe it was unrealistic of them to think that men could learn to treat women as equal partners, but I don't think it was unfair. A number of women of that generation seem to have had better luck with younger men, too.

In the older literature I've read, women writers and their characters had a rather jaundiced view of men, and their work was often devalued by male critics as a result. I don't believe that men are incapable of learning to recognize that women are human beings; but it does seem to be very difficult for them. That includes gay men, by the way.

Richard said...

Thank you for your comment, Promiscuous Reader. It's more to the point than my comments in reply to Paul's have been (outside of the particular question of Moore's fiction).

Paul Dorell said...

Promiscuous Reader/Richard,

It’s true that my comment about indoctrination could apply to men in a broad sense. In the post-war period of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, behavioral models for men were at least as rigid as they were for women (you can see an exaggerated version of this in Mad Men). Then came a series of social movements starting with the opposition to racism, then the protest against the Vietnam War, then the promotion of women’s rights. The latter developed with the writings of Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and others.

That period was something I experienced directly, since I graduated from college in 1972 and got married in 1973. I may be over-generalizing based on one example, but the problems in my marriage reflect problems related to feminism in other people I know from the time. My ex-wife came from a conservative, upper-middle-class family in a small Midwestern town. Her father was a successful lawyer and a traditional patriarch who doted on his wife. Her brother, who was encouraged to excel, ended up with a Ph.D., and is now a dean at a major university. She, on the other hand, was considered less important within the family, and her parents mapped out a career for her as an R.N., probably hoping that she would marry a doctor and never have to work. She rebelled against that, and the feminists provided her with plenty of ammunition. The problems came later, when she seemed to want to have the best of both worlds. She wanted the financial security and prestige of a professional husband who doted on her, yet she also wanted to be treated as an emancipated woman who was entitled to special treatment without having to make any sacrifices. In my view, the fact that she did not have a realistic idea of how our marriage could work is what caused her to divorce me. This has been borne out by her subsequent life: after 24 years she has not had a single partner despite needing and seeking one. I must add that her child-rearing efforts were similarly questionable, as she quickly gave up on our daughter at age 10 and shipped her off to live with me, and attempted to do the same with our son when he was 16. There were other psychological factors in play, but I won’t elaborate since that’s another subject.

My failed marriage encapsulates the ideology-driven narcissism I was referring to, though I have seen it elsewhere and particularly in some of my subsequent relationships with women from the same age group. I’m only focusing on the effects of feminism of that period, but there were larger changes in play. Chief among them would be economic changes. After 1960 it became increasingly difficult for working men to support stay-at-home wives, and when women became major breadwinners in families, their horizons widened, making the feminist movement possible and leading to direct competition with men in the workforce. The rest is history, and the model of a heterosexual nuclear family with a stay-at-home mom is approaching extinction.

I think the particular tensions that developed between college-educated men and women who came of age in the ‘70s during the peak of the feminist movement are less than apparent to those who grew up later. There was a hardness and bitterness in women that is less obvious today. Equality based on sex, sexual orientation and race may still be far from ideal, but that has certainly improved significantly in the U.S. over the past 40 years. My argument is that you can still see some of that old bitterness in Lorrie Moore’s work, if not her life. You can separate the text from the author, but in my years of reading I’ve found that biographies of writers often reveal a great deal about the thoughts and subtexts in their work.