Trying to broaden my reading I came across The Millions, a newsletter belonging to Publisher’s Weekly and in it, a piece by Sonia Chung, called “Bon Courage” about women STILL not being allowed to “…in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch.”
This is true. Or is it? Are the women screaming at the sky at Women’s Marches, not inhabiting their Nietzschean mensch? Hillary, who won’t/can’t give up till her last breath, hasn’t demonstrated her Nietzschean mensch? Was the attack on jurist Kavanaugh by women collectively raging that due process including evidence must be junked, not the female ID in full cry? Or is the writer asking for more violence, more destructiveness, more aggression? It took humans a good 1000 years to climb out of the uber-violent past and create the fragile safety we now inhabit, at least in western democracies. Travel to anywhere off the tourist track in the developing world, and you will definitely run into the female Primal, the Alpha bitch, the Nietzschean mensch and you will be rightly terrified. I’m thinking of Winnie Mandela here, who routinely necklaced liberal blacks and burnt alive teenagers, terrifying even her communist overlords. Staring Winnie in the eye was, for me, a look into the beast. I lowered my eyes and slouched away. It was, however, a vivifying moment, I was reduced to the savannah, to the primitive fear of the predator. Fun for privileged moi!
But maybe the writer is asking for something rather less terrifying and violent? Is she, while complimentary, asking for more out of the proliferation of successful middlebrow women writers that the current absorbedness we give to successful premium TV? Vis:
I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.
I can hear Sophocles complaining at the local philosophers’ book group.
Plotting, she implies, is cheating the reader of the real, messy world. And she is right, there is an emptiness at the core of many of the currently successful women novelists, of which there are thousands. Equally empty is premium TV, which grabs your lizard self and scares the shit out of it until you cannot tear your eyes away. This compellingness has been codified by writers teaching writing. The Story Code, Save the Cat, The Bestseller Code, Hit Lit, (the great grand-dad) Robert McKee’s Story has reduced the story to an algorithm designed to sweep the reader away. So yeah, it gets old being swept away. It’s like having had too many lovers, one’s eventual response is a shudder.
Or is this the most muted, sophisticated call to chaos and disruption, I have come across?
Bon Courage was written by a novelist who teaches at Skidmore, easily one of the plushest of the plush Seven Sisters, who very definitely does not live in fear of bullets piercing her sitting room walls or serious financial difficulty or in fact, any difficulty at all. And after chunking down and analyzing her piece, it seems that, rather than the invasion of human female evil into safe spaces, she is asking for fully-fleshed women characters, who are mixed good and evil, using the vivid language of the primitive, the marginal, in order to fully evoke the experience of the writer. She calls that ‘richness’, and indeed, it is. But wait, is that she wants?
I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it.
Shaping and challenging rather than reflecting. Shurely not. Does she mean an attempt to encourage readers to immerse themselves in the difficult lives in the developing world, in communities of color? No, we are celebrating quite a lot of that. A call to writers to develop a more sophisticated version of the socialist realism forced on Russian writers post 1917? Maybe. She goes onto recommend a handful of books four by people of color, one of them, female, and another dead white male.
I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?
“A vertically oriented driving energy”. Jesus God, is Marx everywhere? And what is this fresh meaning of the word “vertical”? The Cut, New York Magazine’s style, fashion and whining section, uses the word ‘vertical’, as in a “women’s vertical” to describe itself. Does it mean challenging the status quo? The man, the patriarchy? How tiresome.
It is an inevitability that when the world seems at its most accommodating, as it must at Skidmore, we seek out danger. It is a hectic way to live and read, but barring any moral core, any culture-wide, over-arching imperative toward virtue (rather than the accepted modernity of kindness, inclusion, correctness), are we to work towards a vertically-oriented driving energy that will topple the white male (and his privileged lapdog of a woman) off his throne?
Chung uses seven years of The Good Wife as her template of the perfect middlebrow serial, but its conflicted ending is for her, the perfect coda for her idealized future lit:
“… that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her, are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.”
Literature now follows the therapeutic model, beginning wound leading to misbehavior, consequences, therapeutic insight. Few novels end with a misalignment. They end with a teaching moment, these days about race and privilege. If 19th-century lit’s heroines did not die under the wheels of a train or riven with syphilis, they spent the rest of their lives trapped and repentant, having flouted convention. It was messy, it was punitive, it was informed, though not overtly, by Christianity, even by the best of the best. And its effect was to (slowly) widen acceptable individuation and morality.
Outside the world inhabited by the gatekeepers of literature is a rough beast that kindness and inclusion cannot tame, despite our attempts to codify and export those virtues as a requirement of foreign aid. Venture outside our safety and make yourself vulnerable, and you very quickly encounter what Christ called, the Ruler of this world. Christianity dealt with that force, buried deep in our nature and expressed by our bad selves. Our entire civilization is built to bar its entry, deal with its manifestations.
We have not yet found a replacement for the pre-modern faiths, the result being a furious and chaotic public debate, canceling, moral certitude, the cry to replace the legal and political underpinnings of our fragile stability. Faced with so much uncertainty, the invocation of a new form of evil, the revenge of the Female Id, capable of overturning all that made her suffering acceptable, is understandable. But very very dangerous.