THE (IMAGINED) WOMAN READER AND MALE ANXIETY: My September Column at Bookslut

Recently, in The New York Review of Books, Elaine Blair wrote, “Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers — specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.” The novelists she uses to illustrate her trenchant and entertaining theory are Michel Houellebecq, Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Richard Price, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace. She sees their fiction as a reaction to their immediate predecessors — John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth — dubbed by Wallace as the “Great Male Narcissists.” The Contemporary Male Novelists, asserts Blair, are neurotically conscious that the contemporary Female Reader — who, the statistics prove, keeps publishing economically afloat — finds the near-total self-absorption of the GMNs repugnant: for the FR, Wallace imagines, Updike is “just a penis with a thesaurus.” The CMNs fear the FR is no longer willing to interpret rampant misogyny as searing self-portraits of mangled masculinity, but rather as just more misogyny and who needs it? Their livelihoods threatened, the CMNs are doing the utmost in their narratives to tell the imagined female reader that they are at least hyperaware of their own utter self-absorption. So nowadays “female characters get to remind the hero that he’s a navel-gazing jerk, but most of the good lines, and certainly the brilliant social and psychological observations, still go to the hero.”

Male anxiety about the woman reader is as old as reading itself. In Belinda Jack’s new book The Woman Reader, she meticulously explores the manifestation of this anxiousness historically. Some men encouraged and cultivated their women readers: Ovid created characters such as Byblis and Philomela to show his empathy for the female plight. Others, such as Lucian and Juvenal, wrote biting satires expressing their disgust for literate and intelligent women. During the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and John Knox "all corresponded extensively with well-read women, whose knowledge of letters and tracts exerted significant influence on the reformers' positions," especially regarding what women should and should not be allowed to read. Rousseau, in his Emile: Or, On Education, wrote that women should read and "cultivate their minds" but only enough to please their husbands. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Richardson had an extensive female readership and kept up correspondence with them, often asking for their input and opinions. "My acquaintance lies chiefly among the ladies," he wrote, "I care not who knows it." William Makepeace Thackeray condemned Richardson as an inferior writer of "sentimental twaddle," read only by "old maids and dowagers."

In our time, the complex anxiety the male author feels vis-à-vis his female reader reentered popular consciousness with Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah fiasco when Franzen, upon the publication of The Corrections in 2001, expressed in an NPR interview his misgivings about a future appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, her audience almost entirely comprised of women: “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience,” i.e., the legitimate and legitimizing male audience he imagined was enjoyed by the GMNs and all the literary luminaries before them. Upon the publication of his next book, Franzen buried his disdain for his imagined female readers deep in his pockets and eagerly appeared on Oprah. Yet this powerful economic force of female readers has not altered the great disparity in publication between men and women writers; sadly, the VIDA Women in Literary Arts statistics continue to prove this year after year. The legitimizing White Male Standard Approval Franzen desires maintains its iron grip on all of us.

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