Is it really the case that pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books? That would be a bummer, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the answer is yes…. The past is a region ruled by the soft bigotry of low expectations. We all allow it to run up against the asymptote of any moral value we hold dear now. We are moved by the ideals of Thomas Jefferson even though we know he took his wife’s little sister, the sister she brought with her as a six-month old baby, the very youngest part of her dowerage when she married him--he took that grown girl as a slave concubine, and raped that woman until he died. We would all think it a very idiotic objection to The Good Soldier Švejk that women weren’t allowed to serve in the military at that time and so it didn’t bear reading.
My favorite part of the Odyssey is book XXII, when Odysseus, having strung his bow, turns its arrows on the suitors and, eventually, kills them all. This is despite the fact that he and Telemachus go on to hang the 12 faithless maids with a ship’s cable strung between the courtyard and another interior building, so that none of them will die cleanly, and they struggle like birds with their feet fluttering above the ground for a little while, until they are still. There is no point in traveling into the land of “how many children had Lady MacBeth,” but, at the same time--the suitors raped those women, at least some of them, and likely all, if we use our imagination even in the most limited and machine-like fashion on the situation. Still it is my favorite, because I am vengeful….
Often the protagonist of an Important Novel of the Latter Half of The 20th Century is male, and is a thinly veiled version of the author. So thin of a veil. A veil so thin is it possible to discern whether the author was circumcised…. He regards women as, one the one hand a mere necessary evil, not things one would be inclined to befriend or discuss life with, and on the other hand, beings of terrible power that make one very angry indeed. This terrible power is that you can be betrayed by your own desires and want some woman so badly, and it doesn’t matter how stupid you think she is, if you really want to have sex with her that badly, all bets are off and you, in some sense, have no say in the matter…. The Important Novelist tends to do two things. Firstly, he projects his anger at his inability to control his own sexual desires into the female characters, by having them be plotting to ensnare the male ones, variously. Secondly, he constructs his female characters like a socially immature game developer, from the outside in, and boy howdy does it show. “I’m going to pick blonde. Ooh, ooh, and make her tits bigger!”
As a male reader, I imagine you are probably inclined to feel that in every novel some characters are more fully developed than others, and further, that the degree to which anyone really has a plausible interior life at all varies quite a lot between authors, so the fact that none of the female characters are well-developed and none of them have a plausible interior life might not immediately register. If you are a woman reading these novels it registers painfully and clunkily and woodenly, every page, all the time. It’s as if someone has stuck 8-bit Mario into Grand Theft Auto V but hasn’t noticed any difference and doesn’t expect that anyone else will either. He’s made of giant squares! What the--….
I am not an aesthetic Stalinist. (One hopes these things go without saying, but it has become very clear they do not.) The point here is not evaluating how many grams of feminist OKness each book achieves so that I may weigh it against the feather of Ma’at and either send it on its way or let it be devoured by the terrifying crocodile-headed goddess Ammit.
The point is rather, I judge novels that were written during a time when men perfectly well could have known that the women they spoke to were intelligent human beings, in which the authors nonetheless fail in varied awful incredible ways to represent the 51% of humanity involved, to have failed qua novels. It is a necessary result of the Updike-version sexist writing that your novel fails to be even a passable novel. It is actually somewhat embarrassing for everyone. DFW was inclined to be more charitable.
Addendum: sometimes I think, ‘I write so many words every day getting into arguments with stupid people online, surely I should post on CT instead and talk to intelligent people?’ At other times I remember exactly why I am often disinclined to do the latter. Please be civil.