You are not what you write

(My apologies to anyone who saw the blank title yesterday–I’d meant to save the draft and didn’t).
Novelist Philip Roth turned 80 recently. In response to criticisms of the misogyny in Roth’s writing, novelist Keith Gessen asserts Roth can’t be a misogynist—he likes women! He constantly thinks about having sex with them!
As Slate points out at the link, this does not track as an argument (some men hate women precisely because they think so much about sex, then don’t get “enough”). But it got me thinking about the relationship between what we say in our writing and who we are, and whether the two alwways match up.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading the Robert E. Howard collection Sword Woman. The editor comments in passing that as Howard created a formidable female protagonist in Dark Agnes (the sword woman of the title), obviously he can’t be the sexist so many people assume. While I don’t think Howard’s writing is as sexist as he’s accused of, I think the editor’s argument is full of holes.
The thing is, even in the real world, sexists, anti-semites and racists (and misogynists) don’t necessarily despise all women or blacks or Jews. In Sundown Towns, James Loewen writes that many whites-only towns had one black man around who was allowed to stay after Sundown, thereby proving they weren’t bigots. The man would be safe, not anyone challenging the status quo or white power, and in return he got somewhat more acceptance. Likewise, I read a book on Palm Beach in which a member of a Gentiles-only country club mentions that while out-of-town Jews are verboten, there’s one Jew—long-time resident of the community, accepted by everyone—who’s allowed in.
So it’s no surprise if the same is true in fiction. Writing a strong female protagonist or black character may be a way of saying “Well, if all women were like this, I’d respect them …” For example, in the 1955 SF novel, The Girls From Planet Five, Texas largely cuts itself off rest of the country after women begin running everything. However, one Texan informs the protagonist, he’s no woman-hater: “There are women and women, and the ones I can do without are the domineering, brassy, this-is-the-way-I-run-your-life kind. Ann’s the other kind, as you’ll see. A man’s woman. And when it comes to her I’m no mysogynist, believe me.” (courtesy of Crooked Timber)
Howard, for another example, wrote one sports story which treats its black hero very admiringly (so I’m told—I haven’t read it). He has an African shaman who befriends Solomon Kane. But on the other hand, we have Black Canaan, which presents blacks challenging white control as a terrifying and evil thing (which is not surprising, given Howard grew up in the South 100 years ago).
Or for a more recent author, Laurel K. Hamilton certainly has a strong female protagonist in Anita Blake, but almost every other woman in the books is either an evil monster (literally) or clearly subordinate (beta members of Anita’s were-pack, for instance).
And that’s without even getting into the question of what actually sells. Howard wrote two stories of Dark Agnes. They didn’t sell, so he was working on a more supernatural third story when he died. If he’d found a market for her, there might be less talk of Howard’s sexism. I’m sure there are plenty of authors whose published stories reflect attitudes toward women, men, minorities, etc. that are based on what they thought would sell, not what they believed. Not that throwing in sexism or racism to boost sales is excusable.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics, Reading, Writing

2 responses to “You are not what you write

  1. Pingback: Sometimes you are what you write | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Movies and a Play | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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