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8th November 2018

Opinion: “It’s sexist but…”

Books Editor, Gurnaik Johal, discusses the misogyny at the heart of the work of critically acclaimed writers like Hemingway, Nabokov and Naipaul.
Opinion: “It’s sexist but…”
Photo: Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba @ Wikimedia Commons

In the Western Literary Canon, misogyny is a given. Writers like Hemingway, Nabokov, and Naipaul are staples of university reading lists, of bookshop bestselling charts. The offensiveness of their misogyny always comes secondary to supposed brilliance of their art. “It’s sexist but…”

When a celebrated author dies, their status in the canon is solidified. This year, V. S. Naipaul, a prolific racist and sexist, passed away, and there was no end to the amount of praise his work received. To give a sense of the kind of man Naipaul was, he once said “Africans need to be kicked. That’s the only thing they understand.” He is open with his misogyny, saying once that he beat his wife for two days straight so that “she couldn’t really appear in public.” Famously, he told his wife he was having affair a year into their marriage, saying “I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.” 

That’s the sort of line that gained Naipaul a Nobel Prize and a Knighthood. But many people don’t care about Naipaul as a man, they care only about him as a writer. To give an idea of the kind of writer that Naipaul was, he was once asked whether he considered any women writers to be his equal. “I don’t think so,” he replied. He went on to say that maybe Jane Austen could rival him, but he “couldn’t possible share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Yes, women writers are reduced to being “sentimental”. Naipaul clearly hasn’t seen the fierce social criticism and philosophical brilliance in Austen’s work. When male writers discuss female writers, they often describe them as sentimental, emotional, as if these were bad things. To be sentimental is to be in touch with your feelings. To be sentimental is to be able to correctly process emotional data and respond accordingly. As a man, the constant belittling of sentimentality and sensitivity is upsetting. Men are extremely sensitive to being seen as sensitive and this anxiety is seen clearly in masculine literary fiction. We praise prose that is stripped bare of feeling as “cutting”, as “raw”, as though the only acceptable thing for a man to feel is the sting of a wound.

Don’t run like a girl, don’t cry like a girl — for goodness sake, don’t write like a girl. Cut out the sentimentality, anything “flowery”, cut anything unnecessary (including female characters). Start over. One more time, without feeling.

The ‘masculine’ writers that so many people adore replace feeling with thought. But the great power of literature is its ability to create empathy. Through stories we can experience life as someone else. We can be in a different body, a different mind and look at the world anew. Reading a book should be a learning experience, we should come away changed. But what happens if the only books we read are by straight white men? How can we feel changed if we’re given the same stories again and again?

To me, there are two types of writers. Those that “write what they know” and those that imagine new worlds. It’s a little disconcerting, then, to read male writers whose whole oeuvres are filled with misogynist men and lacking in three-dimensional women. Either this means that misogyny is all “they know” or that the only kinds of worlds that these writers can imagine are ones where women are sub-human, sub-plot.

But isn’t it important that we read stories about misogynist men so that we can really understand them? We can’t just ignore our past. Curious readers seem obsessed with sympathising with the perverse. Thinking that they are original, they ask: but how do the misogynists feel? How do the paedophiles feel? How do the rapists feel? We couldn’t possibly not hear their side of the story.

Their side of the story dominates the Western Canon. In Nabokov’s Lolita, a so-called masterpiece, we follow Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged academic as he obsesses over and eventually rapes twelve-year old Lolita. Critics praise how well Nabokov writes from the perspective of a paedophile, serial-rapist. Simply put, Humbert’s character is seen as more interesting, of more literary worth than that of Lolita. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “the omnipresence of men raping female children as a literary subject […] can have the cumulative effect of reminding women that we spend a lot of our lives quietly, strategically trying not to get raped”.

As Azar Nafisi writes in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defence and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim — not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.”

It’s one thing to argue that we should be able to read the rapist’s perspective, but it’s clear something is not quite right when we realise that more space is given to the rapist’s viewpoint than to the abused child’s. The sick depraved man is a literary subject, the women they abuse apparently just aren’t as interesting.

Almost every conversation I’ve had about these issues ends with people accusing me of artistic censorship. “You have to separate the art from the artist,” they say. “You need to be less sensitive.”

To separate the art from the artist is to imply that art is made in a vacuum. It suggests that art somehow transcends the world we live in, that it is more important than our real lives. I’m sorry, but it’s just a book at the end of the day. No book is more important than a life. If any work of art deeply offends one member of its audience, I think it’s a failure.

“That’s censorship,” some people might think. To that, I’ll quote Solnit again: “censorship is when the authorities repress a work of art, not when someone dislikes it.” I’m free to dislike what I like, for example: I don’t like Hemingway, Nabokov or Naipaul. I don’t like Norman Mailer, William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac. I don’t like Charles Bukowski, I don’t like David Foster Wallace.

I dislike them because they are misogynists, but I didn’t always realise this. Believe it or not, I used to love reading writers like Wallace, Hemingway and Kerouac. As a teenager, books like Infinite Jest and On The Road blew me away. But I grew up and had to start caveating their brilliance: “they’re sexist but…”

I soon stopped trying to defend them. I dropped the “but”. You can only go so far to defend misogynist art before you become a misogynist yourself.

To be a male feminist is to spend your life unlearning a way of seeing, a way of thinking. As boys, we are taught to be the main character, we grow up learning that women are sub-plot. Or worse, we grow up reading in a way that means we don’t even notice a book lacking in female characters, because a novel about men is art and a novel about women is women’s fiction.

I can no longer enjoy works by misogynist writers. No great writer can be a misogynist. Writing is about empathy, about depth of character and feeling; to create two-dimensional women is just bad writing.

And bad writing can be dangerous. We process the world through stories. By creating narratives, we order the chaos that is our lives. We therefore look to stories to understand the world. Story-tellers have the power to shape our opinions, to manipulate our feelings. This is not a power that should go unchecked.

To keep our writers in check is not censorship. As Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize said, “There is censorship, and there is challenging someone’s access to making money. This is not the same thing.”

This to me, is crucial. As readers, we must think of ourselves as consumers. We pay for the books we read and therefore pay authors to write them. When we buy a misogynist book, we pay a misogynist; we endorse misogyny, proving that it is financially viable. Every time you read a misogynist book you are telling publishers that “this is what we want”. They then feel more secure publishing similar titles, written in similar ways by similar authors, and start to see feminist texts as radical and financially risky.

We have the power to change this. Your money is your ballot. Cast your votes carefully, because the books we read today could go on to be the classics of tomorrow.

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