One thing that always held me back as an English major is that I sometimes let my emotions about literature run away with me. In fact, this is one of the key reasons I don’t think pursuing a Master’s Degree in English is a good path for me. If I don’t like something, I just don’t like it. It’s hard for me to analyze it because I get all plebeian about having to look critically at shit I hate.
One of my biggest literary pet peeves is literature that is hostile toward women. I went to a college with a required freshman course that surveyed the literature, art, history, and politics of the Ancient Greek and Roman empires. The wannabe scholar in me knows I should be able to keep Plato grounded in the horribly misogynistic context of his time, but I straight up hate reading that he thinks women will always be inferior to men. Not that I blame Plato for not being thousands of years ahead of his time (and that essay I linked to argues Plato was actually somewhat ahead of his time, so I’ll admit I may just be getting confused). It’s just damn depressing to read that some of the misogynistic crap I see every day has reaches back to what are acknowledged as some of the deepest roots in Western culture.
Misogyny is still a fact of literature. I’m not just talking about David “I’m Not Interested in Teaching Books by Women” Gilmour, or the fact that today’s (male) literary darlings don’t see gender bias in the world of publishing. I’m also talking about the fact that a lot of the most respected works in the twentieth century can be really alienating for women to read.
This week, Amanda Hess at Slate wrote about n+1‘s latest pamphlet, No Regrets, in which a group of female writers talk about formative experiences they had reading or not reading certain works. I haven’t been able to order No Regrets for myself, but what Hess had to say stirred something within me. (And the New York Magazine published an excerpt.) This portion in Hess’s article struck a particular chord with me:
Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘Fuck you.’ “
My disgust with On the Road is one example of many disappointments with twentieth century literary greats—and not just the ones Emily Gould calls “midcentury misogynists.” I couldn’t see Franny and Zooey through and gave up entirely on Catcher in the Rye. I know The Great Gatsby‘s Daisy Buchanan is supposed to be awful, but she’s really awful. Reading The Sun Also Rises infuriated me: I finished the book but I resisted it at every turn and it took me three weeks and I remember nothing but my hatred of Lady Brett Ashley. I would prefer that novelists skip female characters altogether than endure another flat female character treated as an object and a life-ruiner on the page—as Cormac McCarthy does in Blood Meridian, which I wrote my undergrad thesis on.
It sucks to feel like a bad student of literature when your personal feelings obstruct your analysis. In the not too distant past, I watched Midnight in Paris and bemoaned Rachel McAdams filling the role as “the shrieking harpie fiancée” on my Facebook page. One of my friends asked if maybe McAdams’s character was supposed to be ironic or somehow a statement on the tenuous nature of nostalgia or something like that (that status is now buried in a sea of other outrages). I’ll admit, I was kind of embarrassed that I’d been so rage-blinded when her character was onscreen that I didn’t delve into the reasons why.
One of the things I learned in school was to avoid the biographical fallacy and separate authors’ lives from their works like whites and yolks. Sometimes it’s really hard to do that, especially when you read some of the things these authors wrote or said, or when you learn that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife.
But when I read some of these so-called great works of literature, those attitudes are so obvious you can smell them coming off the page. It’s saying, “This is a work that the establishment says is great literature. Don’t you want to love great literature?” I do want to; I may even want to try again because I feel like I’m failing my duty as a student of literature by hating and avoiding them. But the perspective of so many of these great works is so exclusive I find it alienating. Hess and No Regrets describe it much better than I can, so here’s another long quotation to chew on:
Just by reading the book, the woman reader is forced to grapple with her relationship to being that girl, framed in opposition to the boy whose full story is being told. It’s not just that the roles of women are conscribed in the books, but that a woman reader is conscribed in the experience of reading the books (and her experience living in the world when the book is finished). The men who read them can easily slip into the role of “the deceptive, neurotic, charmingly flawed hero balancing competing claims for his affection … the bearer of narrative,” Emily Witt says, but women are resigned to “the role of the bovine female,” in the mind of the narrator and that of the reader, man or woman.