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LINKING TIME: Big Dead John Updike Edition

You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?)
- Undeniably Great Genius John Updike, “A&P”

So, John Updike’s still dead. Did you know that? It is a fact. I’ve been more or less thinking about him being dead all week, and his deadness at this point appears permanent. I don’t know why John Updike is the most important thing on my mind for the first time ever, but he is, and I think it is because of the fact that, of all the various places where lady-hating appears in this world, lady-hating in Great Works of Literature bothers me the most. This is because, once someone is anointed “great,” people are compelled to study that person’s work, often by professors who are not open to critical interpretations of it, and so their lady-hating is not only perpetuated throughout the culture and/or associated with “cool” intellectual artsy “smartness” and/or imitated by douchebags who think the best way to assert their artistic identities is to observe famous people and then act like them, it is also shielded from honest and legitimate scrutiny.

Roth, Updike, Bellow, Kundera: these men, whose works are openly and earnestly misogynist in a way that you will only ever see at points of history wherein male privilege is seriously and successfully challenged, become a necessary part of one’s education and social capital, if one is to make it in academic or “intellectual” or “literary” circles. You cannot simply avoid, say, Phillip Roth. (Never read a whole book; never intend to read one; understand there’s a lot of forcible “face-fucking” involved. Did read the rest of those dudes, however!) If you do that, you are out of touch or unintelligent. You also cannot object to Phillip Roth on the grounds of his misogyny, because then you have bad taste and are a philistine who prizes politics over artistic achievement. (Didn’t know it was either/or, but: OK!) So basically what you have to do, if you are a woman or even a pro-feminist man, is to approve misogyny, be complicit with it, promote and praise it (or be a “good sport,” that is, indifferent and not all passionate or personally affected by it – “ha ha, yeah, it’s there, but note how detached and unmoved I am by this because the humanity of women such as myself is something I would never take it upon my weak little lady shoulders to defend”) in order to prove your worth within that field, and that whole process discourages women from getting involved or from making their voices heard, because, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of women are not comfortable with that level of complicity in their own oppression.

It definitely affected me, in precisely that way: after one particularly harsh experience with a sexist professor who marked my papers down for gender analysis (“too personal; I detect anger rather than appreciation; we must always strive to respect these great achievements”) my feelings about this dynamic, which I had observed and experienced in the past, finally overwhelmed me and divested me of the urge to struggle or to believe that what I had to say would ever be valued. I basically gave up on applying to grad schools and stopped writing more than a page a month; most months, I didn’t even get around to writing the page. That block lasted for about three years. This year, I am saying, is when I finally got over the “what’s the use” feeling this professor gave me. I can’t believe that I’m the only person this has happened to, or that every woman who experiences this eventually gets over it. I believe important, original voices are being silenced, and that is bad news. It also, by the way, reiterates the misogynist message within the works themselves: women exist to gratify and praise men, are to be condemned when they criticize or challenge men, and should never seek to compete with or stand alongside of men intellectually, for they are lesser beings.

I view writing as a form of resistance now. I view not shutting up, in general, as a form of resistance. So, because Art and Life are actually not two completely separate spheres (shocker!) I present to you: the various Ghosts of John Updike.

THE JOHN UPDIKE APPROACH TO POLITICAL DEBATE:


Ha ha, he doesn’t find her desirable, because she can use thoughts and words to form opinions which she then communicates through speech! Based on nothing more than this clip, I have decided that Dick Armey is betrothed to a RealDoll. No “prattle” from her, nosiree!

THE JOHN UPDIKE APPROACH TO FILM CRITICISM:

Anyway, the movie: Right off the bat, it looks pretty great and acts pretty stupid. (Insert a joke about a girl here.)

Ha ha, because girls who are smart are undesirable, and girls who are desirable are dumb, so there is basically always a reason to dislike any girl! Or is it that all girls are dumb? Help me, Josh Modell of the A.V. Club, your words are confusing my poor stupid woman-brain!

THE JOHN UPDIKE APPROACH TO WORLD HISTORY:

Quick briefing: Jessica Alba claimed Sweden was officially neutral during WWII. People thought that she was a dumb bimbo because, really, didn’t she mean Switzerland? Then they realized that Jessica Alba was officially smarter than them (and me!) because Sweden was, in fact, officially neutral during WWII. This guy is really upset about this, and writes the following [via Pandagon]:

She’s hot … and stupid! Just the way guys like ‘em… No one expects her to be consistent, or even smart. They just expect her to be hot.

Wicked hot. Girl should stick to doing what she does best.

Looking hot.

Illustrated “A&P” style with pictures of her nekkid or in swimsuits, AWESOME. Because her sole worth lies in arousing guys that she doesn’t even know, and her mind is in no way connected to that worth and in fact diminishes it, so let’s wish aloud that she would never use it and jerk off on her image in a way that is obscurely intended as an insult which puts her in her place, huzzah!

THE JOHN UPDIKE APPROACH TO JOHN UPDIKE:

The crystalline descriptiveness of his prose, the kind that makes lesser writers suck in their breath with envy, has always been used against him as an argument that his writing was all gloss and no depth, the way plain Janes insist the pretty blonde must also be brainless.

Ha ha, because he knows that women are all consumed with envy and competitiveness, because it is a stereotype that has been in currency for approximately forever (you can find it, for example, in John Updike’s “A&P”!) and therefore has got to be true. Am I right, fellas? Oh, wait: not everyone who reads is a fella? In fact, women tend to read more than men, and also to buy more books? WHAT THE HELL, DUDE.

You can hear it from crazy bloggers. You can hear it from published writers. You can hear it from Great Figures in Literature. You can hear it from elected representatives. What you can’t un-hear, once you tune in to it, is that it is always exactly the same thing.

7 Comments

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    I’m an English professor (female and feminist) who came across your blog while taking a break from grading a stack of student papers. Thank you for reminding me that it’s important that I do this job — that I keep showing my students that women’s voices matter (in literature and their own writing), that we can appreciate an author’s technical brilliance without admiring or internalizing his patriarchal perspectives. Reading blog postings like this one give me the inspiration I need to fight my own blocks (which surely derive from getting the kinds of comments on my earliest responses to literature that you describe here).

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Anita wrote:

    Ah, yes. I decided some years ago that I was really tired of men’s voices and would begin to avoid them as much as possible. It shocked and pleased me that, in middle age, I was finally free to say that. Then a couple of decades produced a few men who seemed to be saying new things. I believe they have been listening to women’s voices. Now I listen to wise and wonderful women’s voices and also to the voices of those men.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  3. RachelB wrote:

    My jaw dropped at the “we must always strive to respect these great achievements”– literary criticism includes, um, *criticism.*

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Charlotte wrote:

    As we were walking into the seminar room for my oral defense of my PhD qualifying exams (which since I was in a creative PhD were pretty much the make-or-break moment), one of my committee members, a man of Updike’s generation, commented that the feminist critique of traditional plot that I’d written as one of my 3 essays “made no sense.” That a woman’s story might have a different shape than a man’s story was a concept that “made no sense” to him. He wasn’t being mean, actually, he really could not make heads of tails of what I was saying — that perhaps the classic triangular shape we think of as plot was gendered, and reflected the male sexual experience –while a woman’s story, like her sexual experience, might be diffuse, nonlinear, different. I passed my exams, got the degree, and left academia — in large part because of the debt load, but also because I was hopeless at the politics, but also because I was exhausted by the effort to make myself heard, to insist that my stories did make sense.
    The power of defeatist silencing is a really hard force to resist. I published a novel to decent reviews in 2000 — it was out of print by 2003. The chain bookstores where the only works of fiction by women all have pink fucking shoes on the cover are an ongoing source of dismay, and too often I succumb to the feeling that there’s just no point.
    Perhaps if there’s anything to learn from our dead nemesis, maybe it’s just to emulate his work ethic. Three pages a day adds up to a lot of work.

    Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Boosette wrote:

    Updike is probably the root cause of my having given up English as a major – I got sick to death of being assigned to read his particular brand of misogyny and being expected to like it got real tiring, real quick.

    I never liked his writing, and you’ve gone and articulated why, and I’m forever grateful for that. (Also, in a way, I *Get* Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness now, thanks to Anon’s comment up there – that any merit gained from technical brilliance fails when the story is so deeply entrenched and dependent on sexist/racist/otherist underpinnings. [I still like Heart of Darkness. It's probably in part because of my own white privilege that I do.])

    But thank you – it’s been a long week, and I needed to read something like this.

    Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink
  6. monique wrote:

    Oddly enough, I just read this and thought of Counterstrike. I don’t mean to trivialize your experiences in academia; it’s just what I thought of. Having watched my husband and past boyfriends play it, having seen players give themselves truly awful names, having seen the “maps” that have been decorated with pictures from porn mags, and having heard the way the players talk in the game …

    Well, I can think of a few reasons that there aren’t a lot of women playing FPS (first person shooter) games, and none of them involve their enjoyment of adrenaline-boosting activities, their spacial relationship abilities, or their interest in computers.

    I said to my husband, “Gee, and they wonder why there aren’t many girls who play these games.” And he said, “I don’t think that’s something they’re really looking for.”

    Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  7. CassieC wrote:

    Oh, Sady, how I love you and your writing about these authors (Updike, Roth et al). It almost makes me wish you would read more of them because then we could read your take-downs! Seriously, I chuckle gleefully at every word. Except the part about how your professor undermined you, which makes me want to go be violent.

    My current bf is really into these authors and maybe it should bother me more. Although I think that part of straight white male privilege is being oblivious to the suckiness and horror of the perspective of these books. They’re not attacking the very humanity straight white men (actually, if one were paying attention, and included the capacity for basic decency and empathy as human characteristics, they are, but never mind that for now), so maybe it’s possible to read them and just not see the frikkin horrifying misogyny? I used to be able to read this crap back when I was in my mid teens and somehow thought I was a default human, somehow an honorary straight white male. Now, well, not so much. I tried Updike, read the first 10 pages, guessed the entire TIRED fucking plot, read the last 10, saw all my guesses confirmed, and was done with that unoriginal mofo forever.

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink