Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Why can’t men write anymore? " Is that right?

"Why can’t men write anymore?" Choire Sicha asks in "Papa Hemingway! Where Are the Men?"

She goes on to list a few male writers who have recently enjoyed a modicum of literary limelight: "From Dave Eggers to Jonathan Safran Foer to Dana Vachon to Joshua Ferris to Jeff Hobbs to Charles Bock to Mr. Gessen, JT Leroy outdid them all. And he was a lady. And a bona fide nutjob."


Okay, well, admittedly, none of these guys are on my "desert island survival book list," however, in all fairness, they're hardly the worst writers around either (and some, such as Jonathan Safran Foer--at least in Everything is Illuminated (I haven't read his new book)--are arguably talented. I have a friend with excellent taste is literature who loved Egger's first book, and another who liked Ferris.

Moreover, given all the floating turds fouling the publishing pool (written by people of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders,literary predilections and political affiliations), it seems odd to single out a couple guys to skewer as bad "male" writers.

Finally, um, excuse me, but Papa Hemingway? Puhleeze. I don't care if he's part of the canon, since when did his particular brand of anorexic prose become THE standard by which the decline of (virile, male) literary civilization should be measured? He sure as hell ain't my papa.

Don't get me wrong--I actually loathe one of the writers on the list above. I find his work shallow, pretentious, and altogether too desperate to appear clever and ironic at all costs (cuz, like, if we like actually acknowledged we gave a shit about anything the world might come to an end, or, our hipsterific, pseudo-jaded, scare-quote-mongering personae might, like, turn out to be ordinary dorks who are just too scared, or lazy, or selfish, or banal and unthinking for such profoundly uncool stances as earnestness, engagement and (gasp!) reverence}.

BUT. I don't really think it's really a gender thing. And he's not even a terrible writer. I just don't like his attitude.

Sure, part of me likes the idea of turning the tables and hyphenating the once hegemonic, hence default, gender. I never liked phrases like "woman writer," and wondered why no one ever says "male writer," but now, reading this, although I wish I could cheer the impetus behind the piece, actually, I just can't. The inversion of the old "standard" just turns the wrong-headed equation on its head, reinscribing it, instead of getting past it.

Sicha's article has its moments, to be sure: "The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone. Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author. And they are bewildered, I think, because their bewilderment shows in books that try to understand class and economic conditions even as they are being happily further ensnared by them. Their books read as if this were the first time they’d ever thought of all this."

This is funny, with some insight, perhaps, but surely there are better and easier ways into a Brooklyn brownstone than literary fiction? And if it is consumables you're after, opening a hip restaurant or hangout is a better bet at financial security, and if it's trendy enough, a better chance to schmooze the glitterati.

Moreover, I find the empirical rigor of the article wilting at sight of counter-evidence to the claim that men's writing has begun to suck-ofy. Salman Rushdie (even IF his prose is not quite the luxuriant tour de force of days gone by when he really took the time to write his books, as in his brilliant The Moor's Last Sigh, Midnight's Children, and others, but he can still write the pants off most of his peers even on a lazy day)? Check! David Foster Wallace? Check! Jeffrey Eugenides? Check! Norman Rush? Check! Will Self? Check! James Salter? Check! Jonathan Franzen? Check! Aleksander Hemon? Check (and he only recently started writing in English!).

I could keep going on, but really, what's the point? I'm sure you've got a spate of your own examples of excellent (male-written) literary fiction. And of course we could all also make a list of equally powerful women writers, I said. That's not really necessary, is it? There are so many of them out there (Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Monica Ali, Doris Lessing, A.L. Kennedy, ZZ Packer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Porochista Khakpour, etcetera--in addition to ones named by Sicha) now that we no longer have to worry about balancing chips on our shoulders (except maybe when good writers are demeaned by silly fixations on their head shots, or treated as if their writing is somehow lesser because they don't look like hags). Yet in spite of the fact that there's good work out there, there's always a lot more that's just awful.

But so what? Mediocrity is the norm; excellence, the exception. Every era has its doomsday sayers, calling out that the apocalypse is nigh (this holds in every artistic medium and milieu) and bemoaning the sucky state of works that have managed to squeak past the Quality Police. Every one of us has moments of frustration reading some poorly concocted cocktail 'o caca that's received unwarranted praise. I've been there. I can relate.

My friend Cindy (an outstanding literary translator, guitar noodler, abandoned cat adopter and wearer of many hats) and I recently indulged ourselves in a (rather uncharitable) frenzy of picking to bits one of the worst (most pretentious, presumptuous, poorly researched) lit fic novels to invoke China in recent years. The flaws, far too many to list, included totally fake, unbelievable dialogue--so culturally off that it seemed ludicrous to see it being attributed to a Chinese artist--and the botched historical and cultural details--right down to an invented description of a piece of performance art that could never in a million years have been executed in Beijing during the period in question, not merely because it was stupid and lame and not the sort of thing those artists were doing, but because the hardware required for the performance (electric heaters) would have blown the fuses on the little ramshackle flats where those artists' lived and made their works.

I know. I lived in one of those places. In fact, I lived in the place the story was supposed to have taken place. Fall and Winter of 1996 through the Summer of 1997 (the story there is set in 1993-94). I know because I almost froze to death because the little electric heater I bought (the lowest wattage, I might add) blew out the power in the entire communal courtyard every time I turned it on. This wasn't just where I lived, but all the pingfang across the city (probably across China). The power grid in such places couldn't handle that sort of thing. But of course, someone who came to China for a couple weeks to research a novel, for which she already had a handsome, possibly unwarranted, advance, wouldn't know something like this. And this is just one of myriad little details that she gets completely wrong.

I'm not saying a novel has to be historically and ethnographically pitch perfect, just like I'm not going to say I hated the movie version of Memoirs of Geisha just because Chinese actresses were used to play Japanese roles--it's not about ethnically privileged access to authenticity--white people can rap, Italians can play Greeks and and Greeks can play Mexicans, and able-bodied people can play disabled people, and gay people can play straight people--and anyone can write about anything.


Or if you're going to get it wrong, it had better be part of the point of the story. Like my friend Guo Xiaolu's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, where the protagonist gets a lot of things wrong because she's new to the language and the culture...but that's the POINT OF THE STORY.

In this other novel, the one Cindy and I ranted about, flabbergasted by positive reviews, I don't think the author was trying to get the details wrong. She made a research visit or two. She even talked (via a sort of a translator who isn't really fluent but at least lives here) to one of the people involved in the history on which the book is based. And what's more, she even read a couple books about the scene, one of them quite decent. However, trying hard is not enough. I'm not saying only write what you know--but at least have the humility to know what you DON'T know and make the effort to find out, not just a couple facts (which she still got mixed up, or wrong, or took out of context), but the about the context, without which those pathetic few "facts" are discombobulated and bleached of significance.

So, yes, I totally understand the urge to trash that comes to all of us now and then. But notice. I didn't name the author. If you're really in the know about the scene in question AND you've read the book, you MIGHT be able to guess, but I'm not going out of my way to hurt someone who surely tried to do a good job. Moreover, it's hard enough to really accomplish something, let alone do it well. Surely it is more valuable to laud excellence than to eviscerate mediocrity. Give it a strong defense, not an empty panegyric. Take a stand on what's good and right in this world of little, situated truths and applaud those who've managed to do something well.

It's easy to catch a whiff of blood and go into feeding frenzy mode, but really, at the end of the day, that's a useless waste of energy. I've been there, done that, so I'm hardly holier than thou. I went to grad school after all. But after that first year of scornful trouncing and contemptuous tearing down everything in my path, I had to turn to the real work of creating, and discovered that creating something is much harder than destroying. Oh Nietzsche, poor dear Nietzsche (so maligned as the patron saint of the sophomore poseur who misunderstands him and uses her bastardized interpretations as an excuse to shit on people and call it strength!)--Nietzsche knew: first comes the camel, disciplined and loaded down with duty (knowledge, values, etc.)--then comes the lion (the great negator who annihilates those handed-down values and virtues), but it takes a child to create, to become a self-propelling wheel, a new movement, a YES! For the task of creation, only the child has that power. May we all be more like children and focus our energies on the great task of creating rather than the easy blood sport of tearing down.

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