I haven’t dusted off the blog for a while, perhaps largely because there hasn’t seem to be much worth commenting on, but Atomic Kristin is a wealth of interesting ideas, intelligently presented, and her latest post stimulated some thoughts that were too lengthy to dump (politely) into a comment section.
It’s been so long that I rather passively let WordPress’s new (alien and awful) “block editor” take over Bitmaelstrom.com—they’ll pry the classic editor out of my cold dead hands before I switch on Moviegique.com—so I don’t even know how to blog any more. But here goes:
Kristin raises a number of interesting points, as usual, and (as usual) they’re interesting to me in part because they reflect a world I don’t really participate in. So when she asks “must women read books about bastards?” my response is, “Wait, why does anyone have to read anything about anybody?” But that’s a little glib.
I hope we can agree on nobody should be telling anybody what fiction they should or shouldn’t read, at least not for pleasure. I think there are severe limits defining “well-read” as well—and I further think that the 20th century saw the systematic destruction of art in the West and that those lists are generally garbage as a result, and have been my dad was in school. (Perhaps I’ll use the blog to highlight my hilarious struggles to avoid reading Joyce’s Ulysses.)
There’s an associated article on lithub.com I didn’t make it through because it brought in politics—and if you think penises are boring, try politics sometime. (Wait, what’s that about penises? Stay tuned!)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when people scold must-read lists, it’s very often because they want to replace the crap that’s on the list with their own crap. And that’s fine, I suppose, because the list they didn’t like (in this case from Vice.com, of all places) was itself put together half-assedly (at best) and probably just to generate clicks. Later on, Kristin refers to important books and I hope she’s using the term as reservedly as I would for items on such lists.
I haven’t read most of the stuff she references. I haven’t read Lolita or Fight Club and only a little Bukowski. I know about the first, saw the movie about the second, and saw a documentary of the third. They all seemed pretty degenerate to me (though I like the Fincher film). But maybe that’s just my POV: One of my friends is related to Neil Gaiman and my response to that is always “Isn’t he kind of a degenerate?”
It’s a fair bet. We live in degenerate times. Degenerates are going to be the rich and famous ones, as a rule of thumb.
I’ve read one Updike book, and that was recently (“Witches of Eastwick”) and it was shortly after I read the one Tom Robbins book I’ve read (“Even Cowgirls Get The Blues”) and I was positively embarrassed by both. They both seemed like unsubtle courting of the “woke” ladies of the day—the wordier but not particularly more convincing version of the modern ally’s “I’m a male feminist” mating call (said call having the same effect on a savvy modern female as the sight of a sewer clown has on a Maine middle-schooler). These seem to fit neatly into Kristin’s concept of the penis-book-disguised-as-a-vagina-book.
I’ve also recently read “Portnoy’s Complaint” and I’m at an actual loss as to why anyone outside of a very narrow cohort of Boomer pseudo-Jews would pay any attention to it all. Modern “literature” is a minefield of awfulness and I can’t recommend it. I have on some level regretted every book that I have ever read on the basis of a Boomer recommendations of “literature”.
Women are not immune to the hyper-sexualized trash of modern literature, of course. Read “Fear of Flying”, e.g., which is all about a vagina’s miserable quest to live up to the penis’s worst traits. (Or don’t read it, because it’s as deathly dull as any penis book. It reminded me greatly of the abysmal “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”.)
Here’s where Kristin and I agree totally: Penis books are boring. I hope Kristin would join me in the assertion that vagina books are also boring.
I’m compelled to point out women often fail badly at writing men, too, e.g., “Frankenstein” where the young Baron Frankenstein’s behavior seems more like, oh, a 19-year-old girl than any kind of a man. (But we will cut the 19-year-old Mary some slack.) If there are more examples of men being spectacularly bad at writing women, then I suspect it is because men have had more opportunities to do so. But that is the price, as it were, of dominating literature and making it a more shameful practice for women. (Mrs. Radcliffe and Jane Austen’s struggles are interesting to reflect on in modern times.)
Seriously, No Lists!
At about the 2,000 word mark—the true sign that Atomic and I are literary soul mates—I almost want to trot out the Internet cliché and ask what list hurt you? But as I said above, that’s glib. Human beings make communities, and those communities have markers, and those markers are based on shared agreements. We have to agree, more-or-less what good books are—at least if we want to talk about them, and especially if we hope to write them.
As a side note, this is why Ready Player One was so jarring to me. It’s so poorly written on every technical level. As someone who wishes to write and wishes to be read, I could not in good conscience write anything remotely that illiterate. But I know many smart, well-read people who love it. And my heart aches.
I will take Kristin’s word for it that the books on the list are phallocentric. (I mean, Vice, right? You might as well look at Hustler‘s literary picks.) The Updike and Robbins I read were as well, however poorly disguised as “feminist”. But I will object strenuously to any notion that I, as a male, wish to read these books any more than she does.
Less, in fact, because I can’t separate myself from the characters (or authors!) in the same way that she can. I don’t want to read about shitweasels because I, too, have more than enough coverage of the subject in both real life and literature. Furthermore, I have my own personally embarrassing experiences being a shitweasel. And not last of all, I don’t need more shitweasel role models. I, too, find my truest representations in—well, sometimes not even in YA novels, but straight up kidlit.
In short, I will unabashedly say: These lists suck. The prestigious people running literary communities are frauds. They endorse degenerate books the way the frauds running the visual arts endorse talentless, ugly, artless art. I will take up the banner for any celebration of good technique, art and beauty—or even highly compelling ugliness that also includes a good ethical base (as John Gardner would’ve referred to it, in a literary/artistic sense of ethics).
I don’t feel qualified to speak too directly on the whole Hemmingway thing except to say I’ve never bought into the idea that he was the Greatest Writer Of The 20th Century—an idea pushed around a lot when I was a kid. Sometimes spareness is sign of a great talent, like good haiku or Picasso’s bulls, and sometimes it’s just a reflection of an inability to write any other way. I suspect, in Papa‘s case, it was both.
In any event, as Gardner said: Literary trends are as much fad as anything, and no particular trend invalidates another trend. Hemmingway can’t disprove florid writing any more than H.P. Lovecraft could disprove Hemmingway.
Please Try To Understand. You’re A Man. I’m A Woman. We’re Just Too Different.
The last thing I wanted to talk about is the first thing that Kirstin talks about. Men are bastards and women should read about bastards as a form of self-defense. She writes:
And these delightful pursuits maybe made you think – as I did, with every fiber of my being, until life beat it out of me – that most men are looking for a special woman that suits them better than all the other ones, that he’ll love her for who she is even if she’s different from him or high maintenance and he would never expect her to change, and once he finds her he will be completely devoted to her forever and she won’t have to work slavishly at keeping him every second of the day and of the night.
Atomic Kristin, “On Glorious Bastards”
And I’m so sorry (you have no idea how sorry I am) to report that this is completely bullshit. A woman being special and unique in the eyes of any man effortlessly and forever is a line of crap that people have sold us to get us to buy romance novels and to get us to behave ourselves, because if our man thinks we’re special just the way we are, what happens if we change, so we’d probably better not.
There’s a lot to unpack in this, not least of which is a heartbreaking view of the sexual dynamic from a good woman. And I hate intensely the idea that she (and many other women and men) have been pressured into unwanted sexual encounters.
And it would be (again) glib to point out that this is the product of second wave feminism; that in the name of “liberating” women sexually, they left women vulnerable and without the social support to say “no” and get polite society to back them up on that (with a fair amount of social risk to those who would do the pressuring). It’s glib, of course, because that feminism was part and parcel of the (largely successful) greater plan to destroy Western civilization—the very same philosophy that produced the lists she decries.
But like most such plots, no matter how clever or nefarious, it gained a foothold by addressing valid grievances. That’s important.
Sufficiently outlined, underscored, caveated—I still must protest.
It’s not completely bullshit. There are men who really are looking for that special someone. (This may, in fact, be most men. Even the Game guys talk about who they’ll settle down with.) Men who really will love her for that specialness. Who aren’t looking to “trade up” and don’t generally view romantic relationship as exchangeable commodities.
Now, those guys screw up from time to time—and sometimes badly, breaking the hearts of women they would die for, but still have trouble living for. Just as guys discover their princesses—the virtuous, pure-hearted, self-sacrificing heroines of their tales—also screw up, and end up broken-hearted and pursuing things like “Game”.
The “Game” community reduces this to “everyone has a sexual market value and everyone is looking to trade up and that woman who says she loves you will throw you over for someone with a bigger wallet (etc)”. That’s called being “red-pilled” and the passage above reads like Kristin buys into that—at least from the standpoint of men being like that.
You know what happens when you reduce human beings to stimulus-response machines and—worst of all—have some “success” at it? You end up a soulless, nihilist husk—or, weirdly enough, a 19th century evangelist preacher.
So, it’s not surprising that 60 years of undermining male/female relationships results in this sort of ennui, but it isn’t the only possible way. There was a time when men and women were building a family (before the world and even before God). And it meant you recognized that your partner stumbled, and you forgave and went on. And when you yourself stumbled, you could be forgiven—especially if you did better.
And hardest of all, it meant you saw the Prince Charming/Princess Buttercup in them even when they could no longer see it in themselves and basically dared you to see it. Obviously I’m talking ideals here—but without those ideals, we’re left with a dog-eat-dog world which leads to broken homes, promiscuity, unhappy children and the breakdown of society
It’s an oddity, and a very hard-to-believe thing until you get the hang of it: You do no one any favors—least of all yourself—by expecting the worst of others. It’s easy to get into a tit-for-tat situation and there are even some experiments with game theory (not Game, but the real, economic/mathematical study) that suggest that it’s necessary in certain political/economic situations. But you do not want to be in a relationship like that.
The sexual dynamic is supposed to create and support a team. Sometimes that means carrying the other person. In some cases, the carrying may be nearly literal, as when a woman has a difficult or dangerous pregnancy. In most cases, it is a much more challenging metaphorical carriage, as when a man suffers a long depression and loss of esteem.
Kristin is absolutely right that the literature is designed to make a person buy into the notion presented. But it’s not to make us buy romance novels, or to make women, specifically, behave. It’s to make everyone behave, because what we have now is what happens when no one behaves.
Literature was quite consciously set up this way to encourage good behavior, to promote understanding the foibles of others, and even to show a way to better living. Furthermore, these penis-based lists (and their vagina-based sistren) were equally consciously designed to destroy that.
And now, we’re all basically a bunch of dicks.