Thursday, August 6, 2009

The M word

The latest bourgie-lit-crowd uproar is over yesterday's Newsweek piece by Jennie Yabroff headlined "Is Author Richard Russo a Misogynist?" and subheaded "He might have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction but his female characters are flat, contrived, and maybe even insulting." A number of bloggers quickly took up the cause of defending Russo, as did a swiftly organized Twitter campaign. I've had time to only skim Yabroff's piece but my initial take is that she makes an interesting case for Russo's sexism and androcentrism (I'd certainly add heterosexism too, but she's apparently not concerned with that) but an insufficent case that his work rises (or plunges) to the level of misogyny. What's weird is that she opens by contrasting him with Roth and Updike. Really? In my book, Roth's entire oeuvre oozes with misogyny; his whole reason for writing, it has sometimes seemed to me, is to express his woman-hating. As for Russo, I've only read a couple of his books. The last was the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Empire Falls, after which I've had no interest in reading more. Not because it struck me as misogynist but because it struck me as mediocre, the sort of novel I'd have loved in eighth grade (no offense to eighth graders). And, yes, it was utterly male-centered, but since I don't know whether this is the case for all his novels I can't draw any broad conclusions about that. I will note that, while Russo is generally considered a writer who is aware of the issue of class, writes at least some working-class characters, and writes at least some about the impact of plant closings and the like, in Empire Falls, if I'm remembering right, all that is more or less peripheral and the protagonist is or is striving to be a small-business owner. Ah yes, once again, the petit-bourgeois solution. Yecch.

Anyway, back to the M word. Whether or not Yabroff is accurate in painting Russo as misogynist, the fast and furious response is interesting. It's as if the M word is out of bounds. As if it's not, hmm, gentlemanly to say such a thing. As if the accusation itself is unfair, distasteful -- as if speaking it is in and of itself a horrific crime. To me, this shows how thoroughly bourgeois reaction forms the foundation of all U.S. capitalist culture at this juncture. Not merely bourgeois ideology, but full-on reaction, which has been on the march since the late 1970s and has so effectively flipped things around after the brief flowering of efforts toward cultural liberation that arose in the 1960s and early 1970s that what you have to answer for now is not misogyny but, gasp, accusing someone of it!

Of course, this same thing is true, multiplied a millionfold, about the R word. Heaven help the public figure -- all the way up to the president of the United States -- who even comes close to identifying some person or institution, or some person's or institution's act, as racist. If it looks like racism and acts like racism and talks like racism -- and yes of course I'm talking to you, Sgt. Crowley, Camridge police, Harvard police, all U.S. police forces, all of whose operations revolve around racism, as witness the U.S. prison population -- it is racism.

Although what's going on in with misogyny is not precisely the same as the way racist forces have tried to virtually criminalize the R word, there are some similarities, I think. We've only just this week had an example. If it looks like misogyny, acts like misogyny and talks like misogyny -- and yes of course I'm talking about this week's massacre at a Pittsburgh women's gym, not only the act but the lack of mass national outrage at it -- it is misogyny. And yet no one seems to be using the word.

Is Richard Russo a misogynist writer? I can't say for sure, haven't read enough of his work, though my sense is it's male-centered but not anti-woman. What I can say is that the question ought not to be off limits, and that the immediate furious reaction to a woman daring to ask it is sadly telling about the state of literary culture.