On Easter Sunday, the writer and podcaster Whit Reynolds ripped open a Pandora’s box of secondary sex characteristics when she challenged her Twitter followers to “describe yourself like a male author would.” The responses—of which there are now thousands—don’t so much display a unifying theme as a unifying shape or curvature:
Twitter cut outs
Reynolds’s crowd sourcing was inspired by the young-adult novelist Gwen C. Katz, who noticed a fellow-writer complaining online about #ownvoices, a campaign started by the author Corinne Duyvis to increase the number of “diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” The complaining writer was vaunting his talent for summoning female interiority on the page; Katz replied by posting quotations from his book, parts of which shake out through the eyes of a female protagonist, who may be the Tinder generation’s Jane Eyre.
“I sauntered over, certain he noticed me,” she recounts. “I’m hard to miss, I’d like to think—a little tall (but not too tall), a nice set of curves if I do say so myself, pants so impossibly tight that if I had had a credit card in my back pocket you could read the expiration date.” She throws her prey “a sultry flick of the eyelashes. . . to reel him in.” But her true superpower is her uncanny ability to gaze into the skulls of men, as when she mind-reads a dude at a bar. “Pale skin, red lips like I had just devoured a cherry Popsicle covered in gloss, two violet eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s. Dark hair curled slightly. And of course, my boobs. I had them propped up all front and center.”
If this novel gets optioned for the big screen, I pray that “Boobs: Front and Center” becomes the tagline. The woman in the passage emerges as a seduction bot, auto-generated by the male gaze and consumed by her own appearance; the writer, parodying himself magnificently, plays straight into the hands of the #ownvoices crowd. But the genius of what came next did not depend on the skewering of a single clueless bro. Reynolds’s challenge felt rooted in a long history of literary, male self-congratulation. The canon is lousy with authors who yearn to be admired for their sensitivity to the full range of female personhood, be that personhood luscious, pert, or swelling coyly against a sheer camisole. These are writerly men confident that they’ve nailed women’s psyches, all because of how single-mindedly they want to nail women.
My colleague Talia Lavin has the receipts, and posted them in an invaluable Twitter feed. In “The Professor of Desire,” Philip Roth’s narrator doesn’t just pant over the object of his blazon; he must also punish her for arousing him. “I even become somewhat suspicious and critical of her serene, womanly beauty,” he says. “Or rather, of the regard in which she seems to hold her eyes, her nose, her throat, her breasts, her hips, her legs.” Another maddening hallmark of the horndog wordsmith is prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness. Saul Bellow writes, in “Henderson the Rain King,” “For my own amusement sometimes I like to think of her part by part. . . . One breast is smaller than the other, like junior and senior; her pelvic bones are not well covered, she is a little gaunt there. But her body looks gentle and pretty.” In “Rabbit, Run,” John Updike makes a gallant attempt to salvage a shimmer of desirability from the pregnant frame of Harry Angstrom’s wife. “Standing there trying to get the waist of the skirt suit to link at her side, the tops of her breasts, swollen with untaken milk, pushing above her bra, she does have a plumpness, a fullness that call to him,” Updike concedes, generously. (And, when a woman’s perceived unattractiveness cannot be transmuted into attractiveness, it is typically met with bafflement and suppressed irritation.)
Lavin’s thread distilled the ridiculousness that ensues when bookish men perform interest in women’s inner lives out of a misbegotten sense of nobility. No one is fooled. No one thinks that Jonathan Franzen has tapped into some deep well of humanist perception when his twentysomething creation declares herself “the little squirrel that loves to fuck.” John Updike, you do not actually empathize with expectant mothers! The compressed brilliance of Lydia Kiesling’s phrase “the quick compensatory mind” contains seventy years of bowing to male sexual appetite as the de-facto measure of all things.
We draw toward the glow of the fires that our heroes have kindled to keep us out. I know tough and wise women, women who have common sense and yet keep themselves open to verbal entrancement; they sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler, whose amazing taxonomy of blondes Slate’s Julia Turner recently quoted at length, (though she omitted a few of the more egregious passages):
“There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. . . . There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal.”
And yet female writers have made recent, compelling interventions into our inherited understanding of how literature should relate to gender. Exhilarating fiction does not, we can be fairly certain, require misogyny. Emily Wilson’s new “Odyssey” translation, although deeply invested in male dominance, allows a pulse-quickening feminine subjectivity to flicker alongside the familiar masculine one. Here is her goddess Calypso, setting Odysseus free after ten years: “I swear I will not plot more pain for you . . . I am not made of iron; no, my heart is kind and decent, and I pity you.” I was struck by the plainspoken emotion in this farewell speech. In Robert Fagles’s version, Calypso talks in syntactical wreaths, separating nouns from their modifiers; she interjects asides. “I will never plot some new intrigue to harm you—Never,” she insists, a lady who doth protest too much. “My every impulse bends to what is right. Not iron, trust me, the heart within my breast. I am all compassion.”
It’s the “trust me” that gives her away. The male translator stresses Calypso’s wiles and ruses. Her ornate diction, her absolutes (“never . . . never,” “my everyimpulse,” “all compassion”), suggest a slippery being and a worthy adversary for silver-tongued Odysseus. Wilson makes Calypso straightforward in her goodbye. The goddess has kept the mortal from home for long enough; her heart relents; she feels for him. If a female intelligence can work such achingly subtle, humanizing adjustments on our testosterone-fuelled classics, surely there is hope for “a new vanguard” of literature, one with women at the helm.
The writer paused at her keyboard. She was not pretty, and yet there were moments in which her darkly lashed eyes aligned with her small mouth in such a way as to make her more appealing than a woman with her features had a right to be. The glamour came and went; other times, she looked like a gargoyle. Her smile was quick and eager to please, evincing a girlish propensity to be impressed. Her name was a diminutive, he thought—it ended with “y,” or perhaps “ie”—but that was unimportant. He wondered idly about her nipples.
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