The Fictions of Misogyny

5th March 2007

I usually get accused of hating my own gender, so it was a very strange experience to be labelled ‘misogynistic’, following a recent reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I was finishing the UK leg of the tour of my novel The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The offending piece was the part of the book where a very elderly woman (Mary) coerces a young man (Skinner) into having sex with her. At first it was only Skinner, rather than myself, who had this tag stuck on him. Even then this didn’t chime with me; in the sexual transaction Mary was the party in control from the off, so the piece couldn’t have been sexist as traditionally concieved. But did it mean that Skinner was a misogynist, a woman hater? I thought the character perhaps, at that point in time felt distaste to that particular woman. Over the piece of the book, though, I felt he was a confused young man, but certainly no more or less misogynistic than any other youthful, working-class male. The woman who made this contention was very charming and graciously admitted to me in the signing queue that she’d possibly used the wrong term. She was roughly of the generation where many people habitually employed terms like ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynistic’ as a default position with regard to something that simply made them feel uncomfortable. This now rather anachronistic kind of name-calling was deployed more regularly back in the seventies and eighties by some professed feminists towards older male writers. I made that point recently in the Guardian, when reviewing William McIllvaney’s excellent book Weekend. However, sections of the press gleefully, slavishly and selectively recounted this nonsense, in much the same way as they’d recently done with other bogus claims (‘dwarf hater’ and ‘closet Tory’) which seemed to plague me this summer. No worrries; one of the roles of newspapers in our modern age is to make a little mischief. But somewhere in this process, the label had gone from the character, to the writing, to the writer. While those terms are bandied around cheaply, you do have20to respond when you are erroneously accused of hating fifty per cent of the population. It was unreported, of course, that a younger woman in audience challenged the appropriateness of the misogynistic label. This defence didn’t surprise me; I’ve found that the current generation of young and youngish women seem to have the greatest empathy with my writing. They tend to acknowledge that male and female sexuality can be dark and murky; it’s not (and should not be) all about holding hands and skipping through bright meadows. The Dworkin-MacKinnon axis achieved great things in raising our consciousness about the power imbalance in relationships between the sexes; it also provided a haven for a lot of disapproving, squeamish prudes. In the seventies and eighties, John Updike, writing from the other side of the Atlantic, was regularly branded misogynistic for his use of the term ‘cunt’. Updike’s major fictional creation, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, frequently uses the word to describe women, thus reducing them to their genitalia. It might be argued20that Angstrom deploys this term because many middle-American of men of his class and social milleau often do. I don’t know whether this is true. ‘Cunt’ is still a very taboo word in the USA, carrying a great deal of shock power. Even some of todays gangsta rappers are offended by its use. So most certainly a strong, even overwhelming, case could be made that Angstrom has more than just trace elements of misogyny (and indeed, racism) in his character. But to extrapolate this sexism and/or racism to Updike himself is deeply flawed thinking. He would have to write every character as having the same mindset for this charge to stick, and he clearly doesn’t do this. Updike’s characters use this term in a different way to mine. Many of my own fictional creations would never say this word in connection with a female genitilia. This would mean absolutely nothing to them. When a friend joyously said to me earlier this summer, “what a cunt of day,” I did not take this to be swearing or abuse. We have to acknowledge that language, as well as its context, meaning and culture are moving pictures rather than snapshots. Any other view is the preserve of lazy, anal pedants. As has often been said, “there’s no such thing as bad language, just language used badly.” I personally couldn’t give a toss about what the Oxford dictionary says, I know a cunt when I see one and I don’t see one between a woman’s legs. As a writer, I’m not really that interested in the roots of the everyday usage of these words, merely that they exist in such contexts. If (and I accept it as probable) that their derivation is pejorative, relating to the subjugation of one gender by another, then that’s a matter for social historians and linguists, rather than novelists. Once words enter the culture, they are fair game, as long as their intent and consequences have been made clear in relation to the characters who use them. More concerning is the harshness of the male narrative gaze on women, particularly older women. This has been taken to re-inforce the notion that if they aren’t sexy they are nothing. John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom studies a woman’s decline which leaves “her skin collapsed in random folds and bloodless. Deep liverish gouges underscore her eyes, and her wattled throat seems an attrocious wreck of flesh.” As horrible as this viewpoint is, it is the way many (younger) people percieve both older women and men. Novelists have, in my view, a mission to tell ugly societal truths, not propagate wishful norms. Women writers are as capable of evoking the grotesque quality of physical (male) ageing as much as their male counterparts. The objection has traditionally been that there are fewer of them and therefore they cannot make the same cultural impact. This claim has some veracity, as only an idiot could claim that the publishing industry in Britain and America represents the dual gender, multi-ethnic, class and cultural voices in these societies. But this is emphatically not the fault of the individual author, even those writing out of a male, WASPish tradition. Another celebrated American writer, Philip Roth, has traditionally suffered much of the same type of criticism as Updike. His third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the story of a sex crazed, sleazed-up young Jewish male, records its protagonist’s confessions to his psychiatrist, who wants him to be less obsessed with matters carnal. But to my mind Roth shows Portnoy, and his obscenity and sexual belligerence, as both distasteful and self-defeating, suggesting that such self-obsessed male immaturity is preclusive to meaningful relationships with women. Ultimately, Portnoy is posited as the moral and emotional subordinate to the females he meets. A dependency on obscenity becomes meagre compensation for the fact that Portnoy’s relationships are shallow and unsatisfying. Roth shows how “foul” language becomes a form of rhetorical compensation that struggles to fill the void at the heart of their character’s existence and how men can be ultimately emasculated by their own sexist speech. Even more so than in the criticisms of Updike, I believe that there is an element of bad faith here. I think the real crunch issue is that Phillip Roth spares the reader nothing in the details of all orifices and various bodily excretions. I feel that many of his critics are simply groping for an ill-fitting cloak to cover their nauseated discomfort in face of his vivid imagery. Blinded by this, they simply miss the point of his writing. The current climate is very different to the one in which John Updike’s Rabbit novels were set. Whatever their original radical edge in highlighting gender inequities, in this environment the indiscrimate and inaccurate use of terms like ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynistic’ or even ‘misanthropic’ become thoroughly reactionary tools, almost always deployed against writing that appears to be transgressive. And it’s exactly this kind of writing that new authors now find it difficult enough to get recognition for. When we live in uncertain times people consequently grow risk aversive and desperate for affirmation: in art as in other walks of life. It’s sobering (for me at any rate) to think that if my first novel Trainspotting was written now, it would probably20not be published by a major UK house. After all, it’s far easier to market genre novels along the lines of crime, children’s fiction, chick lit (rebranded romance), horror, etc. than it is a book about Edinburgh schemies on smack. The writers I find the most interesting amongst my own contemporaries; Alan Warner, John King, Will Self, and in the USA, Chuck Palanuick, Bret Easton Ellis and Craig Cleavenger, don’t seek to be transgressive from a petulant desire to shock. They do it out of a love of literature and possibilities of its power, for which their passion is at least every bit as incandescent as the McEwan’s and Barnes’s of this world. And crucially, none of them, whatever their own backgrounds, buy into the idea that fiction necessarily exists simply to reaffirm the values of the white, western bourgeoise, invariably the underlying assumption with novels that are habitually described as ‘life-affirming’. Creating fictive personas as edgy and well-drawn as Warner’s sexually dysfunctional Machusla, King’s violent20thug Tom Johnson, or Self’s embittered London cabbie Dave, always carries the risk that naieve people will seek to attribute the same characteristics to the author. Thankfully, there are writers around who think these risks are worth taking and believe, in a myriad of different ways, that literature’s boundaries are there to be pushed. Equally gratifying, I get the feeling that most readers of fiction sense that it’s possible for decent people to write nasty, messed-up dysfunctional characters. And conversely, it’s well within the capabilities of repressed and twisted individuals to write good and virtuous ones. In fact, it just might be essential.