LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
All rights reserved.
The editor who published this essay invented the title. I didn't see it before it was published. I didn't anticipate it either. The title suggests that I am dealing with contemporary journalism and conjures up the pornography debate, intentionally I think. But this essay is about male power, misogyny, and literature. The two books reviewed here are intelligent, original books about how men use power to suppress women's deepest, most creative, and most significant speech. Both books should be read if they can be found. People have told me that I was terribly hard on these books. I didn't mean to be. They are about what is killing me--how women's writing is demeaned and how women are kept from publishing. My intemperance and impatience are from pain and also from an acute, detailed knowledge of how this hatred of women's writing is both institutionalized and indulged. So l am not happy with what these books leave out and I keep saying that they have not said enough. But nothing is enough. So let me now thank these writers for these books. I learned from both of them.
These are two energetic and passionate books. Each analyzes and describes some part of the politics of survival for women writers. Neither conveys the sheer awfulness of the nightmare itself: the nightmare that extends over the course of a life day in and day out; the wearing away of body, mind, and heart from poverty, invisibility, neglect, endemic contempt and humiliation. That is the story of women's writing. When I was younger, I read writers' biographies fast and loved the bravery of enduring any hardship. Now I know that the years are slow, hard, and hungry--there is despair and bitterness--and no volume read in two hours can convey what survival itself was or took. These books both fail to show what survival as a woman writer of talent really costs, what the writing itself costs: and so both shortchange the intense brilliance of much of the women's writing we have.
Russ is a speedy, witty writer, full of fast perceptions and glistening facts. One can slip and slide all over her prose and it is fun: unless or until you start getting pissed off. You want to know more and deeper stuff about the writers she invokes, something about the texture of their lives, more about the books they wrote, some mood and some substance relating to the writers or the work that is considered and sustained in quality, something of the concrete world surrounding them. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but maybe it is not. One gets tired of hearing women writers referred to but not known or conveyed. This is a political point.
Nevertheless, Russ has some brilliant insights into how women's writing is suppressed. She explicates the basic hypocrisy of liberal democracy with amazing accuracy:
In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the "wrong" groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can't .But, alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then--since some of the so-and-so's will do it anyway--develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the "wrong" people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch. (pp. 4-5)Many of the writers Russ refers to, however, did not live in a nominally egalitarian society. They lived, for instance, in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They lived difficult, often desperate lives, constrained, almost in domestic captivity. They were middle-class in their society's terms, which does not translate into anything Amerikans on the face of it understand. They were poor; they were poorly educated or self-educated; mostly they died young; they had virtually no social existence outside the patronage of husbands or fathers. Russ invokes the misogyny surrounding their work then, but ignores the ways in which their works continue to be marginal now. This is a real loss. The marginality of works acknowledged as "great books" is a fascinating political phenomenon. The urgency of getting those books to the center of culture has to be articulated by those who recognize the prodigal substance of those books. As Russ so rightly says, Wuthering Heights is misread as a romance--Heathcliff's sadism is, in fact, exemplary. Wuthering Heights brilliantly delineates the social construction of that sadism, its hierarchical deployment among men to hurt and control them and then the impact of that male humiliation on women; it also provides a paradigm for racism in the raising of the young Heathcliff. The book should be of vital interest to political scientists and theorists as well as to aspiring writers and all readers who want abundantly beautiful prose. Similarly with Jane Eyre: the book should be, but is not, central to discourse on female equality in every field of thought and action. It would also be useful to understand how George Eliot can be recognized as the supreme genius of the English novel and still be largely unread. (We do read Tolstoy, her only peer, in translation.) Russ avoids Eliot, perhaps because the magnitude of her achievement suggests that "great writer" is a real category, small and exclusive, with real meaning.
The strategies of suppression that Russ isolates travel nicely through time. It is doubted that a woman really wrote whatever it is (that is a dated strategy: the contemporary version is that the writer is not a real woman in the Cosmo sense, hot and free). It is acknowledged that a woman wrote the book, but it is maintained that she should not have--it masculinizes her, makes her unfit for a woman's life, and so on. The content is judged by the gender of the author. The book is falsely categorized: it falls between genres so it is misread or dismissed; a man connected to the woman publishes her work under his name; the woman herself is categorized in some way that slanders her talent or her work. Or, it is simply discounted, according to the principle: "What I don't understand doesn't exist." Our social invisibility, Russ writes, "is not a 'failure of human communication.' It is a socially arranged bias persisted in long after the information about women's experience is available (sometimes even publicly insisted upon)." (p. 48) Russ develops each of these ideas with sophistication and wit.
There are two spectacular insights in her book. About Villette she writes: "If Villette is the feminist classic I take it to be, that is not because of any explicit feminist declarations made by the book but because of the novel's constant, passionate insistence that things are like this and not like that . . ." (p. 105) She has articulated here that which distinguishes feminist thinking and perception from the more corrupt and disingenuous male approaches to life and art.
She also discerns in the whole idea of regionalism as a literary subspecies a strategic way of trivializing and dismissing women. Willa Cather and Kate Chopin are regionalists (one might include Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor) but Sherwood Anderson (!), Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner are not. Of course, Faulkner is; and he is a great novelist too, in my view. Regionalist is used to suggest a small, narrow writer, a woman; it is not used, even though accurate, to describe Mr Faulkner.
I have three serious arguments with Russ's book. First, she claims that "[a]t the high level of culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral." (p. 18)1 think bigotry on the high level is active, purposeful, malicious, and as common and slimy as the bigotry in other social sewers. The misogynist spleen pollutes criticism and makes life hell for a woman writer. The misogynist spleen suffuses the publishing industry--how women writers are talked about and to, treated, paid, actually published, sexually harassed, persistently denigrated, and sometimes raped. I take the bigotry of high culture to be active.
Second, Russ scrutinizes rightly the wrongheadedness of those who trivialize or dismiss books written by the "wrong" people, but she seems to think that all books by "wrong" people are created equal and I don't. She says with some disbelief that some women actually thought Dorothy Sayers was a minor novelist until they read Gaudy Night. I read Gaudy Night, which I liked enormously, and still think Sayers is a minor novelist. I think great books, as distinguished from all other books, do exist. It is true, as Russ eloquently insists, that many of them have been left out of the literary canon because of racial, sexual, or class prejudice. It is also true--which Russ ignores--that books by the "right" people are often overestimated and their value inflated. I think this matters, because I do think great books exist and they do matter to me as such. I think that writing a great book, as opposed to any other kind, is a supreme accomplishment; I think reading one is a gorgeous and awesome experience.
Finally: I intensely disliked Russ's "Afterword," in which she presents a pastiche of fragments from the writings of some women of color. Despite the apologia that precedes the "Afterword," suggesting that it is better to do something badly than not at all, I experienced Russ's homage to women writers of color as demeaning and condescending (to me as a reader as well as to them as writers). Fine writers are worth more. Neglect is not corrected unless the quality of respect given to a writer and her work is what it should be. I think some of these writers are fine and some are not very good; a few I don't know; some wonderful writers are omitted. This hodgepodge suggests, among other things, that distinctions of excellence do not matter, whereas to me they do, and I am insulted as a writer on behalf of the excellent writers here who are treated in such a glib and trivializing way. I simply abhor the lack of seriousness in this approach to these writers.
Lynne Spender's book, Intruders on the Rights of Men, is about publishing: how men keep women out of literature altogether or allow us in on the most marginal terms. "In literate societies," she writes, "there is a close association between the printed word and the exercise of power." (ix) This is something Amerikans have trouble understanding. One of the awful consequences of free speech/First Amendment fetishism is that political people, including feminists, have entirely forgotten that access to media is not a democratically distributed right, but rather something gotten by birth or money. Wrong sex, wrong race, wrong family, and you haven't got it. Spender's political clarity on the relationship between being able to make speech public, and power in the material sense of the word, enables her to shed a lot of light on the inability of women to change our status vis-a-vis speech in books. She tends to define equality in a simple-minded way: equal numbers of women to men and participation on the same terms as men. Nevertheless, she challenges the so-called neutrality of culture as such; she understands that there is a politics to illiteracy that matters; she never loses sight of the fact that power allows or disallows speech, and that male power has marginalized and stigmatized women's speech. She under-estimates how much female silence male power affirmatively creates.
Her discussion of the power of the publishers is inadequate. It is conceptually the bare bones. She does not discern the wide latitude that individual men in publishing have for sexual abuse and economic exploitation of women on whim. She does not analyze the structure of power within the industry--the kinds of power men have over women editors and how that affects which women writers those women editors dare to publish. She does not discuss money: how it works, who gets it, how much, why. She does not recognize the impact of the humongous corporations now owning publishing houses. She does not deal with publishing contracts, those adorable one-way agreements in which the author promises to deliver a book and the publisher does not promise to publish it. But: she does discuss, too briefly, sexual harassment in publishing--an unexposed but thriving part of the industry, because if women writers, especially feminists, will not expose it (for fear of starving), who will? The book is very interesting but much too superficial. It gives one some ideas but not enough analysis of how power really functions: its dynamics; the way it gets played out; the consequences of it creatively and economically for women writers. Spender is an advocate of women's independent publishing, which is the only suggested solution; but she does not explore the difficulties and dangers--political and economic--of small, usually sectarian presses.
Both Intruders on the Rights of Men and How to Suppress Women's Writing are genuinely worth reading, but they will not bring the reader closer to what it means for a woman to write and publish; nor will either book get the writer herself through another day.
"Whose Press? Whose Freedom?" first published in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 4, January 1984. Copyright © 1983 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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