[ This piece was originally published on Philip Hall’s/@ISA’s Xuitlacoche blog on the 3rd of February as an experiment in flash blogging. I’d recommend going there for the scintillating comment thread that followed. ]
Part 1: In which Norman Mailer stars in an experiment in search engine optimisation
When Norman Mailer died in 2007, informed opinion – in the blogosphere, people who had read at least two of his books – was split. The army of readers who saw him as one of the most despicable misogynists writing fiction in the 20th century was perfectly matched by warriors on the other side, who raged that the label wasn’t just unwarranted but tantamount to heinous calumny. Before commenters returned to bitching-as-usual, tempers were lost on literary sites all over the net in debating temperatures high enough to bring to mind tiles burning off space shuttles re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
After I’d agreed to a spontaneous suggestion by our good friend Sean Murray — a pioneer and stalwart of the comments section of The Guardian’s books blog – that we re-open the debate, I found myself dragging my mental feet. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed as if the question was artificial. Whether Mailer was or wasn’t, if not quite a woman-hater, he was a writer so disrespectful of the other gender as to make the difference academic.
That the ‘m’ word never arose – as far as I remember – in what was said about Harold Pinter or John Mortimer when they recently left us, almost seemed proof enough of Mailer’s guilt, by contrast. As some wise Navajo ancient probably didn’t say. ‘Ain’t no smoke without a fire.’
Now consider last week’s sad addition to the ranks of recently departed literary names. There have been few summaries of John Updike’s life and career that have failed to mention how much he outraged feminists over the decades. There isn’t much room for fighting over whether he deserved to have truckloads of their rotten tomatoes lobbed at him – because of his own admirable honesty in answering the charge.
In the New York Times obituary Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:
Some readers complained about his portrayal of women. In an interview with The Times in 1988, Mr. Updike acknowledged the criticism that “my women are never on the move, that they’re always stuck where the men have put them.” His “only defense,” he said, “would be that it’s in the domesticity, the family, the sexual relations, that women interest me. I don’t write about too many male businessmen, and I’m not apt to write about too many female businessmen.”
Yet in trying to address this criticism by creating what he called “active and dynamic” women in “The Witches of Eastwick” and “S,” he may have made things worse. Some reviewers detected behind the author’s apparent respect for these female dynamos more ambivalence than anything else.
No one would conceive of levelling an accusation of misogyny or even of patronising women in the work of some twentysomething and thirtysomething male writers I’ve come across recently. Women most definitely do have brains as well as sex organs in, for instance, the manuscript of a novel I’ve been reading online in which the dialogue in intricately textured exchanges between the female characters has such perfect pitch that it’s hard to believe that a man wrote it.
If it were possible to reach them in the next world, I’d defy Mailer and Updike to write a passage that rings as true as this one does – after putting every last coin in my piggy bank on a bet that they, or for that matter, Philip Roth, could not:
‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’
‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’
‘Here on the frontline a Jew is worse than useless,’ said Jan. ‘Very interested in everything, aren’t they? They like to find stuff out. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the stuff stayed in their big fat bonces. If God had no access, in other words. If their minds were not in fact transmitting and channelling every discovery back to the twit to willywank over his Godliness.’ Jan shook her head. ‘There’s hope yet in sly womanhood, but not if we’re Jews. Might as well be men.’
‘Might as well be men,’ said Bathsheba.
‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’
Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.
. . . If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?
Who wrote that extract? Well, oddly enough . . . Sean Murray, the lead counsel blogger defending Mailer against the charge of woman-hating in several threads on The Guardian’s books blog. That’s a segment of his mostly finished work-in-progress, The Adorata.
Why would Sean –- or any happy result of evolution like him — bother to defend old ‘phallocrats’, as I gather David Foster Wallace dubbed Mailer, Updike, and others of their ilk?
I’m afraid that Sean is going to have to find passages of Mailer to quote for both the prosecution and defence. Like any orthodox gender-neutral blogger, I haven’t any of Mailer’s books with me, although I’ve been reminded in writing this that I must replace my copy of The Naked and the Dead — unquestionably the greatest novel about war in modern times read by me.
But then of course it has no women in it – as far as I recall.