Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Women Won't Let Men Read

Photo: notable-quotes.com
 "Any man's life, told truly, is a novel." - Ernest Hemingway

Surely Papa didn't mean it: "Any man's life, told truly, is a novel." Certainly, he must have been speaking of mankind, individuals of the human race, and not deliberately or dismissively excluding the fairer sex from his huge generalization.
But maybe he meant it just exactly the way it comes across today. More than any author before him, and as stridently as any of his imitators since, Hemingway identified the profession of writing as man's work. And his entire life away from the typewriter seemed to be a celebration of masculinity - shooting wild animals on safari, fighting bulls in the ring, and habitually wearing that military-style safari jacket with the epaulets and all those pockets - which became the very badge of the latter-day cigarillo-chomping, proudly male novelist, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Is it any surprise that the women of the publishing world would retaliate against this unspeakable discrimination? In Hemingway's era, perhaps the most talented female novelist was Edith Wharton, whose baroque prose style rivaled Henry James, her longtime friend. While not singling out Wharton as the enemy, Hemingway railed against baroque style in any form. Clean and simple were his sentences, and the clarity of journalistic prose benefited greatly. But it impoverished artistic prose. To this day, agents, publishers, and the few editors who are left harp on the principles of Hemingway's plain-vanilla style. Frankly, I'm sick of it, but that's a topic for another blog.
Perhaps thanks to Papa Hemingway, the quest for the "great American novel" in the twentieth century was considered by the publishing industry and audiences alike to be a man's game: All those Johns - John O'Hara, John Steinbeck, John Cheever, John Updike. And then there's Philip Roth, who promoted the self-centered maleness of masturbation to high art and never wrote a novel that wasn't about his own dick.
During the reign of these male moguls in the literary sphere, there have been female giants like Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Tyler. Their novels are brilliant but they didn't get anywhere near seriously  comparable treatment. Someone should have told them to wear safari jackets.
Now, according to Jason Pinter's recent piece in Huffington Post, men can't get a place at the table. In its death throes, the publishing industry has favored lower-paid executives and editors - surprise, women! - and guess what? - they don't like male-centered fiction much at all, perhaps rationalizing that, these days, men don't bother to read. (More to the point, men don't buy as many books as women do, and that's a fact.)
Undeniably, chick lit is a hugely successful, commercial genre, and that's where female writers have blazed their widest inroads. But, sadly for the sake of feminist sexual politics, chick lit is modeled on an old sexist formula. Both Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City are modeled shamelessly on Jane Austen. The plot engine is about finding Mr. Right in an economic world dominated entirely by men. Certainly Carrie Bradshaw is a talented free agent who can write her own books and host her own publicity events. But she will never have her own private plane unless Big, the guy with the big bank account and bigger heart, takes her to wife.
Even sorrier for the sake of equity between the sexes is the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. With a plot ripped off from the Story of O, this piece of puke-flavored pulp celebrates the degradation of women. And for reasons that escape me, guess who's buying it?
Okay, men grabbed the literary limelight in the last century. Today, you'd think we can't get a break, and perhaps we deserve it.

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