THE STRAIGHT WHITE MALE STRIKES AGAIN (AND IS STRUCK…)

These days an article published in the new magazine The Critic, sponsored by Brexiteer billionaire Jeremy Hosking, has made a bit of noise. In their launch issue of November 2019 editors Michael Mosbacher and Christopher Montgomery announced that “Our writers will subscribe to no editorial line nor serve the interests of any party, faction or cause. We ask them to write because we expect them to be honest, and lucidly so. Look to our contributors and fault us if they are not”. However, it seems to me that the critic calling himself (because this is clearly a ‘he’) Secret Author (a “former professor of English and creative writing at a leading British university”) who signs the article “Decline of the English Novel” (https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/july-august-2020/decline-of-the-english-novel/) has a clear agenda. This is dominated by the defence of things as they were when white, straight, middle-class novelists ruled uncontested.

Secret Author bemoans in the July-August issue that the weekend arts sections run full of “a cornucopia of alleged talent”, when, in fact, the “awfulness of most of the fiction” available today is “one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern cultural life”. What’s wrong with the English novel?, he wonders. Three factors: lack of technical ability, the snobbery that has radically undervalued the middlebrow novel, and, brace yourselves, a lack of religious belief and moral standards. Religious belief is not “a fit subject for a novel” (obviously he means Christian belief, for I am sure he would immediately reject fiction about any other religion), “while ‘moral behaviour’ is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week”. I would agree that too many new novels are usually overhyped and that technique could be improved in all fronts, but this appeal to traditional values is plain wrong.

This is where I started thinking that, unless this critic is past the ripe age of 100, he must be a troll. His idea of a good novel is one in which “the fount of all moral goodness flows from a country house in Gloucestershire and the lower orders are portrayed as shiftless and venal”, the kind “no one in these enlightened times would dare to publish it”. If, he sentences, you ignore “God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics (of great importance to a sociologist but a desperate yawn when peddled by writers of both right and left) and some very minor social interactions”. Ah, here is what bothers him: that the ‘others’ who are not white, straight, male and middle- or upper-class have something to say at all, and that their work is appreciated.

The Guardian article by Rhiannon Lucy Coslett, “The Novel is Dead – Again. And this Time, It’s Women Who Have Murdered It” highlights how Secret Author identifies Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney with this “supposed decline” of the English novel (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/10/novel-dead-again-women-murdered-it-sally-rooney). Coslett claims that Rooney in particular “drives men wild” with “jealousy” but I must say that although I am not a man and I have no reason to feel jealous of Ms. Rooney I intensely dislike her novel Normal People. I am not going to fall into the trap of defending anything a woman writes just because I am a woman, though I will certainly refrain myself from attributing to Rooney faults that should be shared by the whole publishing industry, above all, the frantic search for the next masterpiece that burns so many young writers out. Let Rooney and all the others have a career before calling them superb.

I do agree with Coslett, however, that the problem with men like the Secret Author is that they do not understand that the Great White Male Novelist has also been expressing the identity politics of his type but without seeing them as such. The problem is, she says, that he is “still cloaked in too high a regard for some to see he has as much of an identity as anyone else”. I am not sure that I see the connection between high regard and identity, for me this is a matter, rather, of a general failure on the part of reviewers and scholars to make the label “men’s fiction” as visible as “women’s fiction”, or any minority label. Coslett concludes her article by re-assuring the indignant Secret Author that “No one wants to make the Great White Male Novelist extinct – they just want more diversity in publishing” for readers “who truly love books are hungry for a range of perspectives”.

I am afraid this is not true. The title of the interview with new Australian novelist Jessie Tu in the same publication, The Guardian, is “I will probably never read another novel by a straight white male” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/01/jessie-tu-when-you-dont-see-yourself-on-the-page-you-literally-dont-exist). Tu is the author of A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing, a novel about former child prodigy Jena Lien “who, as a young adult, now uses men to fill the void left by fame”. This includes her looking for validation from a powerful “older guy, he’s white, he’s a fucking douchebag” and he is, in essence, toxic but still socially valuable. This seems to define as well the “straight white male author” that Tu will not read again because “Those guys are always going to have readers … I’ll spend the rest of my life reading black writers and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people and LGBTQA people, because there’s so many books out there written by these people who don’t have the platform naturally that conservative straight white male guys have”. I could not agree more, yet at the same time I believe that this is absolutely wrong.

Tu’s words explain much better than Coslett’s what is happening now: a fragmentation of the reading public which can hardly end privilege and promote change. Coslett’s ideal readers “hungry for a range of perspectives” runs the risk of disappearing, if they are there at all, or of never emerging, if they are to materialize in the future. I have no doubt whatsoever that the white, straight, middle-class male writer is still privileged by the critics and very popular with readers but the way to undermine that privilege and that popularity is not at all ignoring him, hoping that, somehow, his work eventually loses appeal and his readers move onto other texts.

The way forward I think is twofold. On the one hand, privileged writers and readers that respond to that basic description need to be made aware of their own identity politics and educated in an appreciation of any other identity politics. On the other hand, the production of the WSMCM writer needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny anyone else passes regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, gender. I’ll cite, once more, black, lesbian, left-wing, working-class Scottish author Jackie Kay, currently the Scottish Makar (or poet laureate), to stress that the moment we examine in which ways Martin Amis is a white, straight, conservative, middle-class, male English novelist we will have gained much. If we only see Martin Amis as a major writer and Kay as an author marked by her identity politics we are stuck in square one. Do create critical categories that speak of ‘white man’s fiction’, or ‘heterosexual male fiction’, etc., instead of just letting WSMCM authors go on undisturbed and even send now and then a Secret Author in their defence.

Tu’s loyalty to BIPOC people and LGBTQA people is praiseworthy but also worries me because this battle is not just about who you remain loyal to but about how you re-educate people. Imagine you are a white, straight, male, middle-class man intent on starting a career as a novelist from a position that I am going to call anti-patriarchal and totally respectful of diversity. How would you react to Tu’s words? Why should you be automatically classed with the male writers of the past and be denied any chance to offer a different perspective? What is more, how are Tu’s words and invitation to appreciate BIPOC and LGBTQA authors? Do they want to be put in those categories? Why does Tu, the Australian daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, want to put herself in a category beyond the category ‘writer’? How can Tu and Secret Author communicate at all? Many questions, as you can see.

As a critic working on Masculinities Studies, or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities, I often feel very foolish trying to convince others that we need to read men’s texts from the same identity politics position we use for the rest. Haven’t WSMCM authors received enough attention I am constantly told? Well, yes and no. They have received attention for their art, if you want to use that word, but not for their politics except to criticise how they represent women and the minorities. We have not really looked into self-representation, into how identity politics is altering (or not) the way men write. Secret Author would then understand that the absence of God and of upper-class morality in the current English novel has nothing to do with the rising presence of the women and the minorities but with the abandonment of these issues by the WSMCM writers themselves. Why Evelyn Waugh has no current equivalent might be a pertinent question to ask but within the field of what should be called Men’s Fiction.

This has to do with a strange tension between representation and authorship. As critics we are doing plenty to examine representation, increasingly including in this examination male characters (just see my previous post). But we are strangely reluctant to the see the so far dominant critical categories also as critical categories for authorship. Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam, the authors of Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age which I discussed last week, never think of Pixar as Men’s Cinema in the same way Women’s Cinema is assumed to exist in, for instance, Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (2015).

If someone who is not a WSMCM author creates a text, their difference from the WSMCM norm is always incorporated into the way their authorship is read. However, and I know that I am repeating myself, we have great difficulties to see WSMCM authors as specifically conditioned by their identity even when we discuss how they represent the persons of their same type. It’s an either/or question: either we stop using identity politics for everyone who is not a WSMCM author, of we also use them for WSMCM. We cannot just allow the norm to remain unexamined and split the reading public into mutually ignorant segments. Whatever needs to happen will happen, of course, but one thing we do not need is literary separatism.

Secret Author, I know you are a troll planted there as clickbait for The Critic, which needs all the publicity it can get in this early stage of existence. You might have a point but if there is anyone to blame for falling standards in the English novel perhaps you need to look at you own kind for falling standards in criticism.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

LUNCH WITH A WRITER: NECESSARY ENCOUNTERS

I have had the good fortune of sharing a few lunches followed by a long afternoon conversation with author Care Santos, whom I met thanks to my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Care has a long, accomplished career both in Spanish and Catalan, which includes major awards Planeta, Ramon Llull, and Nadal. Since 1995, she has published, I’m quoting from her official web (https://www.caresantos.com/index.htm), twelve novels, six short story collections, two poetry collections, and countless books for young adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty-three languages. I personally love her novel Desig de xocolata, which I have read in Catalan but is also available in Spanish. That’s another singularity of her career: Care self-translates most of what she writes and has what might be called a true bilingual career.

I read recently one of those articles that questions the role of criticism (in relation to cinema, not that it matters) and a critic defended herself in it arguing that ‘you don’t have to be a hen to discuss eggs’. I’m not sure that this is the best possible analogy but it’s a useful starting point to consider the odd relationship between writers and academic literary critics. I find it odd on many fronts: authors (hens) write the books (lay the eggs) which we the literary critics praise or condemn but a) analysing a literary text (examining the egg) is not the same as reading it (eating the egg) and b) we also produce texts (we are also hens). If, as a literary critic, I write a book, am I an author as well, like the ones I analyse? We also get reviews and care about sales (well, impact). But what kind of writer am I? Try to imagine what it would be like to produce art criticism by creating a painting, or to discuss ballet by dancing, and you might get the idea of what worries me.

For these reasons, I am a bit embarrassed whenever I meet any writer who makes a living by selling their storytelling. I admire Care very much because she has the capacity to construct character and plot, and can do that book after book. That is the kind of admiration that leads most of us to read fiction and that may inspire whole academic careers. At the same time, I feel embarrassed that there are tenured positions like the one I enjoy (despite my occasional ranting) to teach Literature, whereas writers must struggle at all times to make a living. A few years ago British author China Miéville suggested there should also be state-sponsored positions for writers, and he created quite a stir. A negative one, for questions such ‘who would decide the appointments?’ soon came up. Funnily, nobody objects to the fact that writers with long, brilliant careers, like Miéville or Care, must constantly seek other activities to complement their income. You might think that Care’s frequent visits to secondary schools to discuss her own YA fiction with readers is part of her job, but while she is doing that she is not writing, which is her real job.

I am very grateful when a writer patiently replies to my questions about their methods. I find that even those with a fearsome reputation for being very rude enjoy discussing their craft. I had the chance to ask James Ellroy publicly in a recent post-interview Q&A session whether he agreed that sometimes characters dominate the narration and he didn’t bite me. ‘Bullshit’, he said, but he meant that in relation to writers who claim they have no control over their fictional people: ‘Whenever a writer says that the characters have taken over’, Ellroy explained, ‘he lies. He would have reached that same point anyway’ (yes, Ellroy used ‘he’). Care allows me to ask many questions, which is wonderful, and she is also eager to comment on what helps her in her task; for instance, she finds attending courses on writing plays extremely helpful to improve dialogue in novels. That’s for me a very valuable insight into the links between drama and, well, novels.

If I don’t have the chance to ask authors in the flesh, I try to read what they have themselves written about their careers. Stephen King’s On Writing is indispensable. Isaac Asimov’s memoirs (I, Asimov) provide inquisitive readers with plenty of information about the writer’s relationship with editors and publishers, and about the market. For instance, Asimov was amazed to discover that whereas the short fiction he sold to magazines did not produce royalties, books did. Since he had so many in the market simultaneously (he published 440!!!) Asimov became a wealthy writer before really being a best-selling author. He only realized that he could be one when his publishers Doubleday offered in 1981 a 50000$ advance for a new science fiction novel that would end his long absence from that genre. Foundation’s Edge became indeed Asimov’s first top of The New York Times book list publication after more than forty years as a writer.

I have read someone criticise Asimov’s memoirs (which, by the way, Care knew very well) for offering too much information on his business deals. I must clarify that Asimov also offers very candid insights into his straightforward style and into the difficulties of adapting to new times in such a long career: by the time the 1960s revolution in science fiction happened, he felt his work to be outmoded. Hence, the importance of the 50000$ advance for him to feel self-confident again. I personally feel that learning about the material conditions of production should be an integral part of literary criticism, but not to further uphold the idiotic principle that texts written for money can be no good. What I mean is that how writers progress financially (or not) is also part of their career; actually, for them the most important part, now and in the past. I have already praised here Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 (1995) as a crucial volume to understand Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and the other female writers of their time. Read it and marvel that even Austen worried about contracts rather more than about her reputation in posterity.

Logically, I would not ask any writer point blank about their income but I’m not above asking whether they consider their financial rewards sufficient. What I cannot bring myself to ask is what they think of the existence of teaching positions in the field of Literature. Things were perhaps easier when the author we taught were mostly dead people, but I have many doubts about how we relate to living authors. Care was mystified regarding the obstacle course that any academic career is today but this is the same for all fields, whether you teach Literature or Nuclear Physics. What I often have difficulties justifying is that, again, the concept of tenure exists for teaching but not for writing. I want to believe that we teachers are a sort of adoring mega-fans at the service of the writer and, so far, every writer I have contacted has thanked me for my interest. Still, I’m not sure this is a relation among equals, not out of anyone’s fault but for structural reasons.

One aspect that could be easily remedied is making the link between authors and academic literary critics more public. Let me give you an instance. The public session with James Ellroy which I have mentioned here took place last month, when he visited Barcelona to present his new novel, This Storm. He’s not an author I know well as a reader (I just know his L.A. Confidential) but, given his world-wide popularity and his personality, I expected the presentation to be stimulating. And it was, very much so, except for the presenter…

Typically, nobody thinks of academics for this type of act and Ellroy’s publishers Random House (I assume) chose fellow noir writer Carlos Zanón (not to be confused with Carlos Ruiz Zafón) as his presenter. Zanón coordinates now the literary festival BCNegra devoted to detective fiction and is himself a well-known author in the field. I have not read any of his books, though. I just will tell you what I saw: a man uncomfortable with his role as presenter not because Ellroy was not receptive (he was extremely friendly!) but because (this is my hunch) perhaps Zanón felt he should at the receiving end of the homage his American colleague was getting. Zanón warned that Ellroy had refused to answer politically-oriented questions and seemed frustrated that the interview would be thus limited. The fact is that I subsequently read an interview bounded by the same parameters and it was brilliant. Actually, the audience’s questions were far more exciting than the presenter’s. And, by the way: I was the only English Studies specialist in the room, unless I missed some younger colleague I have not met yet. (I am myself constantly missing visits by authors because I’m too busy writings about authors…).

Thanks, Care, for your time and attention (and thanks Isabel for the introduction). Ours are very necessary encounters for us, academics in literary criticism, a salutary reminder that in the end we know little about the writer’s day-to-day worries. Hopefully, this also helps you as a writer!!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/