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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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THE SULTANA OF SUBVERSION: THREE HARD-BOILED NOVELS BY DOROTHY B. HUGHES: My July Column at Bookslut

The serial killer Dix Steele in Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 noir classic In a Lonely Place professes to his friend Brub Nicolai, an LAPD detective assigned to the “strangler” case, to be writing a detective novel. Brub responds: “Who you stealing from, Chandler or Hammett or Gardner?”

Hughes herself stole brilliantly from her fellow pulp writers, added her inimitable twist, and became the “Queen of Noir,” the “Mistress of Dark Suspense.” She, in turn, was stolen from by the likes of Jim Thomson, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and Sara Paretsky. She wrote thirteen novels, of which three were adapted to film, most famously Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place
starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

An award-winning poet and critic, Hughes worked for a time in Hollywood, including a stint on Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Her influences ranged beyond the masters of the genre to Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, and Shakespeare, but also to more obscure authors such as Anne Petry and Nella Larsen. For Hughes, any encounter with another writer’s work contributed to the shaping of her own, reading itself being the supreme influence.

The above exchange between her characters Dix and Brub is, of course, self-referential, but the inward nod is particularly Hughesian because she’s identifying with her murderous protagonist and because Dix’s novel doesn’t exist. His imaginary opus is a ploy to pump Brub for information. Yet the novel we’re reading is a detective novel narrated from Dix’s point of view. Whose novel is it? In exquisitely noir fashion, Hughes’s fiction and Dix’s fiction become darkly entangled, and readers are compelled to question subjective reality. As a writer, Hughes is dead set — stylistically, thematically, narratively — on destabilizing our expectations and preconceptions as readers, as human beings. She is the Sultana of Subversion.

As will happen with women writers, Hughes’s books fell out of print, nearly forgotten until 2004 when The Feminist Press launched the fabulous new series Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp, including informative essays by literary scholars. Two of Hughes’s novels The Blackbirder
(1943) and In a Lonely Place were the lead titles.
This month, New York Review Books is publishing Hughes’ last novel, The Expendable Man
(1963), with an afterword by Walter Mosley. (Also available in the UK from the wonderful Persephone Books.)
Whether Hughes’s name will ever be said in the same breath as Chandler and Hammett remains to be seen, but her revival is significant, not least because her books, from within a masculine, often misogynist literary genre, offer an alternative vision that might be described as feminist. (Hughes, who rejected classification, hated the term.) Her books not only refuse to cater to the “male gaze” so prevalent in popular culture, they include a critique of that gaze using the tools and tropes of popular fiction to expand our ways of seeing.

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“Arm Yourself Against My Dawn”: Revisiting Jean Strouse’s groundbreaking biography of Alice James

In a colorful, chatty, and ironically self-aggrandizing letter to her Aunt Kate, Alice James concludes with a quip: “Forgive me all this egotism but I have to be my own Boswell.” Alice James had to wait nearly a century, but she eventually found her Boswell in Jean Strouse. First published in 1980, Strouse’s dazzling, bold, and formidable Alice James: A Biography has recently been reissued as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series and justly so. Strouse’s study, composed in radiant prose, is easily a classic of biography, deftly and elegantly incorporating social history, family history, the history of the science of psychology, and literary criticism. Above all, the book is a paragon of feminist literature in which a marginalized life is brought into focus and examined from multiple perspectives, validating a previously neglected experience and suggesting alternative ways of approaching the past. Like Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson , Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James represents a major advance in the development of the genre, and is as relevant and powerful a piece of writing today as when it was first published.

Alice James was born in 1848, the fifth child and only daughter of Henry and Mary James, and sister of William James, the psychologist and philosopher, and Henry James, the novelist. Her father, who had lost his leg as a young man, was an eccentric writer and philosopher who devoted himself to his children’s moral instruction. He thought travel the best education and much of Alice’s early childhood was spent traipsing around Europe. This impermanency made an already insular family even more codependent. The family eventually settled in Newport and then Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alice’s father doted on her and encouraged her learning but was adamant that she adhere to her true nature and duty as a woman. In an article entitled “Woman and the Woman’s Movement” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1853), he wrote “Woman is… inferior to man… She is his inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect, and his inferior in physical strength… Her aim in life is… simply to love and bless man.”

Alice’s mother did her utmost to comply with this ideal of maternal and wifely devotion. With the help of her unmarried sister Katherine, she ran a smooth household, shielding her husband and sons from any domestic worries while pursing their higher intellectual callings.

Alice exhibited superior intelligence, pungent wit, marked ambition, and competitiveness. At first her precociousness fit in with the peculiarities of the James family universe. But, as is typical of so many girls, when Alice hit puberty, her own desires and expectations clashed dangerously with both the family ethos and that of the world at large. Life’s lesson, she later wrote in her diary, was “to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” Her solution to the problem of her existence took a violent, yet socially acceptable, form. She became chronically ill.

Read the rest of my May column here at Bookslut

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