Recently, Zoë Bossiere raised some questions regarding male writers. For example—while referring to a character in Junot Diaz’s two collections of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her—she asks: Could a sexist character like Yunior have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered?
“Maybe not,” she answers.
Maybe not. But just as easily, maybe.
We tend to forget that imagination is a fundamental aspect of literature and art. I find it hard to believe that all the Scandinavian women writing crime literature are murderers. I doubt that Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl,” has killed her old boyfriend, or wants to. Stephen King is probably not wildly evil, or even all that mean. And Han Kang, who wrote “The Vegetarian,” might not be a vegetarian, or like to be painted naked by her sister’s husband, or even have a sister.
Bossiere goes on and ask, “Some might argue that these works [by men]contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is ‘good’ art actually worth?”
I personally feel that it is not worth s–t if someone deliberately suffers in the process. By suffering I do not mean that, say, children might suffer due to parental distraction or absentmindedness. I mean suffering in a violent and abusive way.
Yet, I agree with the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård who has defended writers who “run up against the limit of what cannot, shall not, should not or must not be written”, arguing that every time an author “refuses to shy away”, the arbitrary nature of such limits is revealed.
It may be difficult for many to distinguish the writer from his or her work, but it is important to do so. When we too quickly equate a person’s work of fiction with the person him or herself, it shows more a lack of imagination than moral reasoning.
Readers of course have every right to become political consumers and stop reading books by writers whose actions may be reprehensible. But I know that not everyone is Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, and I can accept writers with flaws. I can read Jean Genet or Ulrike Meinhof (the brain behind the Baader-Meinhof Gang that operated in Germany in the 1970s), and not feel the urge to steal or kill. Sometimes the best literature can confuse us, nauseate us, show us our moral flaws as well as our ignorance.
Still, men should not be excused on the basis of their literary genius for what they do in real life. Never. The same goes for women. It is not chauvinistic in the slightest to state that all women are not angels, just as all men are not sexual predators. Writing this, however, feels like putting a rope around my neck, because gender issues, especially in the #MeToo era, have become so contentious. Today discussion of the topic is governed by a cowboy mentality, in which everyone shoots first and asks questions later.
For example, in today’s gender debate, some men and women treat one another as men and women—not as human beings. It’s as if gender gets in the way of an unbiased interpretation of what is happening. I think it’s important to acknowledge that all kinds of judgement—about right and wrong, true or false—require time, reflection, and analysis. Today, perhaps due to social media—especially Twitter—it’s easy to contribute blindly. There is a strong herd mentality on social media.
Do we take time to dwell, to reflect, to add perspective, to provide nuance? Or do we just blame? And when we blame, are we doing so out of instinct, out of some latent hatred? And do people—writers included—consider what kind of words they are using to blame other human beings? For example, the term misogynist has become so popular and broadly used that it soon will lose its meaning.
The philosopher Kate Manne defines misogyny as not about hatred toward women but about controlling and pushing women who challenge male dominance. The crucial aspect is how men and women challenge one another—that is, whether the dialogue conveys respect, trust, and equality. In the literary and academic world, people will often defend their ideas or positions. Sometimes people do this with respect and care, other times with hostility. Sometimes it’s women being hostile; sometimes it’s men. Sometimes hostility is due to vanity, arrogance, insecurity, or plain stupidity, and sometimes it’s due to men (or women) being afraid of losing their powerful positions to women—or other men.
A recent example is a recording of a Q and A session with writers Junot Diaz and Carmen Maria Machado, during which Machado describes Diaz as a misogynist and a bully. To me, this interpretation seems wrong, but according to Manne, it’s the potential victim who defines whether Diaz is securing his power or not. And then, of course, we can interpret Machado’s actions and words, words she probably—being a writer—chose deliberately. Nietzsche said thinking is interpretation. It’s an ongoing process, and I would be very careful about labeling Diaz misogynist only on this recording or Machado a liar. Which leaves us where? Perhaps we are witnessing a power game fueled by both historical and current frustration, irritation, and hate—a situation where fiction and nonfiction merge, a situation where we no longer read novels based on their literary qualities but morally on whether the character is a good human being.
In an essay published in The New Yorker, Toni Morrison writes: “The choices made by white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.” In other words, perhaps many of the problems debated today are not only about gender but much more about power.
We tend to forget that all human beings are worth the same when we focus too much on gender, skin color, or socioeconomic status. I know there is good reason for doing so (cf. Morrison’s essay on white men); still, the challenge is to encounter the present moment with an open and neutral mind full of compassion.
In short, in this quest for living equally and respectfully together, I think it is crucial that we all keep our heads cool and our hearts warm.