Literary sexism: Still pervasive and real

Mary Gaitskill might not agree with me. But brilliant men and women get different critical reads, and it must stop

Published October 18, 2013 4:07PM (EDT)

     (David Shankbone)
(David Shankbone)

Recently, the Rumpus published an essay of mine examining and analyzing male critical reception to Mary Gaitskill’s fiction — specifically, fiction from her pre-"Veronica" era. Some people liked it. Others were outraged, and accused me of misandry and gross generalizing of males (more on that later). A lot of people also seemed to take at face value my mock-moratorium, issued in a tone of comically frustrated, high-toned hyperbole, on men “gassily” and patronizingly discussing her work. Many readers seemed to miss the fact that the essay was a close, passionate analysis of Gaitskill’s writing just as much as it was a critique of misogynistic interpretations. A few days after the piece came out, I was informed that Mary Gaitskill was writing a public response to be published in the same forum.

I knew it wasn’t going to be good. There was an ominously corrective connotation to the very phrase “public response,” an intimation of official refutation. And I was right; she did contradict, albeit with respectful reference to how “moved and gratified” she was, my assertion that her work has been interpreted and, at times, demonized in a sexist way that’s indicative of a much larger critical and societal bias. The response wasn’t bad in the way I worried it’d be. It was bad in a different way.

Initially I was worried she would make me doubt the validity of what I believed in regard to how women’s writing — especially writing featuring sex, “damage,” darkness and “unlikable” female protagonists — is pompously pathologized when examined through a dominant male-centered lens. I worried she’d take me to task for having the temerity to interpret her work; I worried she’d accuse me of hypocrisy for psychoanalyzing her characters even as I decried others’ attempts to do so. And I figured that if anyone had the acumen and persuasive firepower to convince me I was full of shit, it’d be her. In short, I worried her response would make me want to back down.

It didn’t, though. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her work, but whether or not she personally agrees with me is immaterial. While I respect her desire not to be dragged into the fray of a controversy she didn’t ask for in the first place, I’m not eating my words.

First of all, I didn’t write the piece as a misguided, sidling overture to Gaitskill; I wasn’t seeking an affirming head-pat from her. It didn’t occur to me that she’d even see it or read it. Nor did I cast her as a damsel in distress and myself as a white knight. That would be ridiculous. I’m aware that plenty of individual men — critics among them — have championed and adored her work. (Although I do appreciate the great, aggrieved pains taken by several people to point this out to me in the past week, as if it’s a blinding, game-changing revelation). She’s a National Book Award finalist, and "Bad Behavior" was a massively successful debut — you don’t get that kind of recognition if you’re ghettoized or sidelined. So, again, the essay wasn’t about me presumptuously purporting to speak as a mouthpiece for Gaitskill, or gallantly rescuing her from what I mistakenly, hysterically perceived to be obscurity and persecution. Rather, the piece used certain critical perceptions of her work as a lens through which to make a larger commentary about pervasive gender bias in reviewing and reading.

What I find odd about her response wasn’t that she didn’t agree with me. It’s that it sounded political. And by that, I mean like a politician. It wasn’t an engaged response. It was brief, and it was gracious; but it reminded me of a carefully tempered press release. It wasn’t an invested, rigorous engagement with the essay; it didn’t acknowledge the validity of the larger issues being broached, or even dispute them, for that matter. The primary goal seemed to be to disassociate herself from any intimation that her work hasn’t been embraced by men, and to make it clear that she welcomes men to read and discuss it. She acknowledged that, yes, certain male reviewers have reacted with insane “bitchiness” (her word) to her work. But then she takes pains to absolve and name-check the ones who didn’t. She also mentions that female critics have also been “nasty” about her work.

In this, she’s doing exactly what the essay’s detractors did. Their main grievance, voiced with outraged entitlement and in isolated response to the piece’s first two (intentionally ludicrously hyperbolic) paragraphs, was that I was “generalizing” men. (Really, people, do you think I literally believe every male approaches a Gaitskill book with a tumescent boner, which shrinks incrementally as the pages turn? This shouldn’t have to be explicitly spelled out as a disclaimer.) If the people who hated the essay read beyond those over-the-top, firebrand, mock-jeremiad introductory paragraphs, they might find that the rest of the piece liberally prefaces the words “men” and “critics” with the words “certain” and “some.” As it is, people who hate the essay, at least from what I’ve heard so far, find it difficult to articulate their reasons beyond variations of “I’m a man and I don’t react to Gaitskill that way” (or, if they’re a woman, “I know tons of men who don’t react to Gaitskill that way”).

This response, in its sadly circumscribed, knee-jerk defensiveness, makes it all about them: their individual specialness, the shining exceptions they embody, how their feelings have been injured by what they perceive as my eagerness to implicate them in a offense they didn’t directly commit. As if the essay has nothing to say to them beyond that. As if, because they like and appreciate Gaitskill or any other female writer, they’re absolved from any obligation to critically examine, confront and acknowledge that there is a dominant critical lens, and that it skews male, and that writing by women is often misinterpreted and invalidated by this lens in ways men’s writing is not. The people who responded this way seemed utterly disengaged from the larger point of the essay. Their sole reaction was self-referential resentment at my failure to append individual exemption clauses and gold stars. (One delightful gentleman went so far as to compare me to Ann Coulter — because we’re both so passionate about gender equality, I guess). And I’m sure that the people who disliked and decried the essay are feeling smugly justified in light of Gaitskill’s endorsement of their view. See, women have been mean to her too! (As if women don’t internalize sexism.) In my view, her verdict does not constitute the last word on this issue. It’s about something larger than her, and larger than the individual men who champion her, and larger than the individual women who don’t like her.

After pointing out her male champions, Gaitskill went on to say she has no idea what possessed the three critics I cited to get so “bitched up” about her work. Her apparent puzzlement is problematic to me, because it implies that the critical responses I singled out were bizarre anomalies, completely divorced from any real social or cultural context, indicative of nothing beyond some weird, random, bee-in-his-bonnet gripe on the part of each of these critics. It doesn’t matter that the James Wolcott review I cited came out in 1988. It doesn’t matter that the long overview in The Nation came out in 2009. If anything, the time lapse goes to show that these attitudes aren’t obsolete; the Nation critic expressed very similar sentiments — about the characters’ sickness, darkness, pathology, and the larger “post-feminist” zeitgeist that contributed to their dysfunction — to Wolcott’s; he just managed to sound less like an inflammatory fuddy-duddy in the process. (By the way, I also criticized the fact that none other than feminist Susan Faludi endorsed Wolcott’s hand-wringing distaste for Gaitskill in "Backlash"; no one seemed to pick up on that shocking deviation.)

I’m not cherry-picking isolated examples here because I love to be outraged. This stuff is real, and it’s pervasive, and it’s certainly not limited to Gaitskill or any other individual writer. To neglect to acknowledge that a larger bias exists, or to sidestep the issue completely by citing male champions and female detractors, is to be complicit in deflective gaslighting. I understand and respect that Gaitskill doesn’t view herself as a victim of large-scale, systematic sexism in reviewing; that’s fine. I’m not forcing a victim status on her. But I do think the critics who responded to her in a sexist way are representative of a pervasive misogyny that saturates the contemporary literary landscape. That doesn’t mean she’s a helpless huddled lamb, cringing in its wake. But it does mean it exists.

It’s a demonstrable cultural reality that’s been exhaustively documented by VIDA, that’s been encapsulated in the whole “unlikable protagonist” brouhaha between Claire Messud and Publishers Weekly, that’s unwittingly showcased in a lot of things that come out of Jonathan Franzen’s mouth these days (Edith Wharton’s lack of fuckability, anyone?); that was illustrated in that ridiculous Vogue photo shoot in which dead male literary lions were portrayed by real, contemporary male writers like Jeffrey Eugenides and Junot Diaz, while their female counterparts were portrayed by supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

Want more? There’s Canadian author and professor David Gilmour’s blithe assertion that he doesn’t teach female writers, only “serious heterosexual men” (and his subsequent pathetic backpedaling); Teddy Wayne’s 2012 Salon piece bewailing, among other things, how male midlist fiction writers are commercially sidelined by precocious, provocative women who write about adolescent sex and domesticity (a thesis championed by many a disgruntled bro in the comments section, and which echoed the sour pronouncement made to me several years ago by a male classmate: “You won’t have any trouble publishing your book. You’re a young woman who writes about girls and sex”); and William Giraldi’s buffoonishly, almost parodically bombastic New York Times Book Review tear-down of Alix Ohlin, which purported to be all about craft and objectivity but was also implicitly — and what’s worse, probably wholly unconsciously — sexist.

And, yeah, those are just a bunch of things I name-checked. If I wanted to, I could name-check a lot more. The question is this: How many things do I have to name-check before it’s clear that they’re part of an ingrained pattern, not mere aberrant glitches in an otherwise irreproachable meritocracy?

There’s a predominant, gendered bias that colors the reception and interpretation of literature. Is this news to anyone? It’s demonstrated repeatedly almost every time a female fiction writer puts out a book featuring sexual conflict, victimization, misanthropy and “dark” psychological states of mind. (And I’m not talking about "Gone Girl." I’m talking about literary fiction.) Does that mean such books never get praised and lauded? No. Nor does it mean they don’t also get framed in a reductive, aghast, minimizing, “let’s attach a ready-made half-baked cultural explanation to account for this horror” manner that, say, Denis Johnson (whose work I love, by the way) never has to deal with.

In her recent review of the novel "Gone Girl," Gaitskill, after calling the book “sick and dark,” flippantly alludes to how she herself is often called sick and dark. This is kind of what I’m talking about. I can’t count how many times her work’s been described (not only in critical forums, but in workshops, among friends, in casual writerly conversations) as sick, scary, dark, fucked-up, extreme and, tellingly, cold. In other settings she’s expressed a frank awareness of this. There seems to have been a sea change after she published "Veronica"; there was chatter of her “settling down,” growing more tempered and well-rounded in her portrayals. The Nation critic I cited in the essay, for his part, excoriates "Veronica" and "Don’t Cry"; he says they fail artistically because they no longer reflect her sick, twisted, maladjusted mindscape, and as such lack tension and insight. She’s capable, he says, of only writing well about herself.

I disagree; but I’m certainly familiar with that allegation. Women whose fiction lavishes burrowing, intense attention on females’ emotional interiority and inner lives are often accused of navel-gazing, of only having one subject, of writing glorified journal entries, of only being capable of dramatizing a single, limited psychological realm: their own. It’s the “smallness” charge; it’s the dioramic ghetto I referenced in my original piece. Gaitskill’s been accused multiple times of repetitively dramatizing the same basic dynamic and portraying the same kind of character over and over (at least until "Veronica" came along). Junot Diaz, who does pretty much the same thing (and who is also, needless to say, brilliant), is never called out on it. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a writer dramatizing the same dynamic repeatedly or specializing in a certain type of character. I think it’s obsessive; I think it’s the sign of a writer contending bravely with the urgent wellspring that compels him or her to write. I think it’s what writers do. But when women do it, it’s framed pejoratively; when men do it, it rarely merits mention.

People, including apparently Gaitskill herself, seemed to interpret my essay as a defense of her. It wasn’t; I didn’t write it for her. I wrote it because this shit needs to be ripped to shreds. Not for her sake, clearly, because she’s at a perch far beyond its reach; but for the sake of everyone who came after, and who is still coming.

It amuses me that she felt the need to disavow my comically hyperbolic mock-moratorium, like an embarrassed dignitary forced to publicly reverse some wild-eyed, deranged directive that’d been issued by a rogue functionary without her sanction or consent. The moratorium wasn’t mine to seriously issue or enforce, and it’s not really hers to revoke. What I jokingly “prohibited” was “gassy” discourse — in other words, discourse that’s pompous, ill-informed, short-sighted, paternalistic and intended as a self-aggrandizing platform for the speaker to air out a bunch of blowhard theories with no relevance to the topic at hand.

I’m not muzzling real, engaged, thoughtful discourse, from anyone, of any sex. My original goal was to write something that did justice, in its reflective rigor and honesty, to the work it aspired to address. So, if you want to do the same, discourse away. Ice dildos are optional.

By Suzanne Rivecca

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Jonathan Franzen Junot Diaz Mary Gaitskill Media Criticism Sexism The Rumpus Vida