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.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The writer's true problem: Everything Passes

Over the Summer I was asked to contribute to a symposium on Gabriel Josipovici's novel Everything Passes and its relation to contemporary English-language literary fiction (a relation of distance). For various reasons the symposium never happened, so I'm posting my short essay below. It should be read with this context in mind. For another view, please see Stephen Mitchelmore's contribution at This Space.

How is Everything Passes different? It looks and feels almost like a poetry chapbook. It's very short--a mere 60 pages--and the writing is sparse; there is much repetition and lots of white space. Events are barely narrated, with specific details, images, sounds, repeated. A man standing at a window. Footsteps, snatches of conversation. What's going on? Slowly a narrative of sorts can be pieced together, but we can never be quite sure of it; it remains just around the corner (perhaps on the next page? but no). The writing is suggestive, not journalistic; the events are elusive, just briefly coming into focus. The repetition has the effect of slowing the reading, a necessary slowing-down, for it would be very easy to speed through this book, missing much.

Then, all of a sudden we're reading casual literary criticism about Rabelais. The text speeds up with the speaker's excitement in the topic. What's all this about? What does the noisy, ribald, bursting-at-the-seams Rabelais have to do with this quiet, restrained narrative? The man standing at the window is a writer and a critic, a teacher perhaps, a mentor certainly. His ideas are the sorts of ideas one would find in Josipovici's own criticism. It is this literary criticism, enjoyable and thrilling on its own terms, that I think is the key to this book. What is he saying?
--Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther is the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he said, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
He wants to "tell people about [Rabelais's] modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now." He wants "to make our culture aware of what he sensed and how he responded to the crisis of his time, which is also the crisis of our time." He wants to "clear the ground for a genuine renewal of fiction writing in our day." Rabelais is also "the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous." And yet, in the speaker's personal life, the glimpses we get are of one who insists on his own authority. This irony is perhaps the tragedy of his life; some of that which he insists on in art he cannot live. Though, consistent with his thesis, he is not forthcoming about what he himself needs or wants.

In Everything Passes, there is little "fine writing", though it is obvious that words have been chosen with care. What is the difference? What so often passes for literary fiction is very story-driven, even plot-driven, for all the periodic complaints from some about the alleged plotlessness of literary books. As such, the finely wrought sentences in such books end up being merely journalism, albeit journalism about fictional characters (or fictionalized people). The form of the novel is taken for granted (though different historical examples may be recombined as the author so chooses) as if the novel was simply there to be filled up with whatever story the author wants, as if this were a perfectly justified endeavor. In Everything Passes, the form is consistent with its content, with whatever it is there to say. The invocation of Rabelais (and, by extension, the lineage of writers including Cervantes and Sterne) is to a purpose. And since Everything Passes itself seems to look nothing like those rollicking books of the past, the connection must be much deeper. It has to do with what the writer can do, what the writer ought to do, now that he or she cannot know who will read. When he says that the writer "had gained the world and lost [his or her] audience"--this is not a facile statement implying simply that the audience is irrelevant (it does not refer to audience expectations, as built up by centuries of writers ignoring this problem), and that therefore anything goes, the writer can do whatever he or she wants. It means the writer no longer has any natural audience, though in theory anyone could be reading. And yet the need for the writer to be responsible remains. This is part of the writer's true problem. Everything Passes is both in part about this problem, and an example of one writer's solution to it.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Maintaining Masculinity

Speaking of baseball, as I was in passing below, I want to make a quick observation about sports fandom and the negative work it continues to do to reinforce accepted norms of masculinity and competition.

Around June this year I unexpectedly found myself obsessively following the Phillies again, really for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1993 (after which I had moved just far enough away from home so that I couldn't catch games on tv or radio). In part this meant spending way too much time on fan forums and message boards connected to the Philadelphia newspapers at As a result, I encountered the kind of sports-talk I'd always generally successfully avoided in the past, much of which is, of course, painfully sexist and otherwise retrograde. The most appalling in my view being the feminization of players who were struggling. The focus of this kind of talk was usually pitcher Cole Hamels.

In 2008, at the age of 24, Hamels was the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Much was made of his "Hollywood" good looks, his beautiful wife. He was on top of the world. Then this year he got off to a bad start, hurt his elbow, and never really settled into a decent groove. All season long there was speculation about his mental toughness, his maturity, his ability to not let mistakes, his or his teammates', rattle him, in sharp contrast to his apparently icy demeanor in 2008. Whereas last year he was the hero, this year it wasn't enough that he be merely the goat. On the boards he was now a "princess" or a "queen", a "prima donna". He was "pretty"; when things didn't go well, and he was unable to shake it off, he was a "pussy". Thus feminized in his struggles, it was only a short step to speculations on whether he might be gay, with the kind of mean-spirited certainty and graphic coarseness one encounters so often on the Internet. I probably don't need to spell out the kind of language used in such attacks. The sexism and misogyny and homophobia in these remarks is obvious and unfortunately not terribly surprising. But it is instructive. Thus we have reinforced for us that to be a woman is to be weak, to be unable or unwilling to handle pressure, to not be tough enough. If you are a man and are perceived to not be manly enough or to be otherwise failing in pressure situations, then you may as well be a woman and may quite possibly be gay, both of which are understood to be distinctly negative conditions, both unfortunate deviations from the masculine ideal. The logic is impeccable. The people making such remarks would no doubt claim it's all in good fun. It always is, isn't it? Not everyone says these things, of course, but no one objects or calls anyone else out. The relationship between this and the feminization of the enemy--or, even more important, of any would-be internal opposition (you gotta be "strong" on Iraq, you can't "lose" China)--that happens during a war, or even during ordinary politics, is clear. The norms and limits of masculinity must be and will be maintained.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Peeking Through

Er, right. I didn't expect to drop off like that. The last couple of weeks have slipped past me in a fog of sleepiness (so sleepy) and distraction (the World Series, where my Phillies lost, no shame, but to the Yankees, those bastards). Nonetheless, I do have a few things in the works. In the meantime, check out Yareah, a bilingual literary monthly, the November issue of which is largely devoted to Kafka, including my short piece, "Kafka and Brod" (which originally appeared here).