[Ladies, gentlemen: Tiger Beatdown is a classy publication, of sophisticated cultural leanings. Sort of! We do spend a lot of time talking about the Miley Cyrus! And the Taylor Swift, and the Judd Apatow movies, and who is the best feminist on NBC’s Thursday night prime-time programming (there are so many choices). However, here is one thing that we rarely talk about: Literature. Which is sort of a strange omission, given that the one thing we know about You, the Reader, for certain is that you… well, that you read. That one is a given! Therefore, this week, we bring you What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet, a Tiger Beatdown THEME POST PARTY (again! And also, WOO) dedicated to the Ladies and Lit Thing. Leading us off: The Rejectionist!]
When I was younger I did that thing that some of us ladies do, the thing of working very hard to be The Girl Who Was Cool Enough to Hang Out With the Boys. Being that girl was an exhausting job, fraught with peril; it involved drinking a whole bunch, not talking much, constantly making sure the boys knew how much more down I was than other girls, and carrying around at all times one of the following three novels: All the Pretty Horses ,On the Road, or Junky (even at the highest pinnacle of my internalized misogyny, I never made it through Henry Miller). It was an unforgivable sign of weakness to read books about (let alone by) women, who sat around in kitchens popping out babies, harping on their menfolk, and doing the dishes. Women were boring! They were gross! Passive! Or just plain mean! They didn’t think much! They couldn’t possibly do exciting things, like drive cars across the country or drive spaceships to the moon, kiss girls, duke it out with their fathers in a sudden eruption of years’ worth of Repressed Sentiment, pursue villains craftily, or survive the streets of turn-of-the-century London as cunning and wily orphans. A professed affinity for Manfiction was a central tenet of this precarious Cool Girl identity; a Cool Girl was always ready to support the literary analysis presented by the dudes, even after consuming a fifth of bourbon at three in the morning.
What’s a manfiction book, exactly? It is indeed, almost but not entirely exclusively, a book by a man; but it is a particular kind of book by a particular kind of man, a Real Man, a virile, manly man, who gallops around on horses in between penning great works.
SOME MORE TELLING CHARACTERISTICS OF MANFICTION
1. There aren’t any ladies in it.
2. Male characters cannot communicate with their sons, brothers, and fathers. Or anybody else, really; but they are particularly hampered in inter-man relationships (this is important to emphasize regularly, because the only men who are capable of talking in polysyllabic phrases to other men are gay, and the only thing less manly than writing thoughtfully about women is writing about gays. An inability to communicate is the literary equivalent of the empty seat between two dudes in a movie theater). Instead of communicating the men will drink a lot, commit random acts of violence, beat their sons or pets, and drive around in trucks without speaking. These men do not have daughters.
3. There is at least one of the following: lots of poor people, cows, hunting, a farm, a blizzardy Midwestern town, terse silences, long journeys on horseback/foot, the dissolution of a marriage. The dissolution of the marriage is frequently followed by extensive scenarios involving the aging and not-very-attractive male character finding a newfound sense of purpose with one or more very young, very buxom, and very blond ladies with voracious sexual appetites. The poor people are never happy, as Authenticity can only be conveyed by poor people who are miserable and dissolute.
4. Maybe there are a few ladies in it. If those ladies are of color, they will be very sensual, with snapping black eyes. They will spend the bulk of their time preparing the delicious cuisines of their native cultures. Probably the adjective “fiery” will be used at least once in conjunction with this lady-character’s appearance. If the lady is a white lady, she will rest quietly for the duration of the novel, while a variety of man-types engage in fisticuffs over her person, trade her back and forth, or attempt to get in her pants, thus providing the manfiction with its Narrative Arc. The lady wears a pretty dress which clings alluringly to her figure, unless she is a Bad Lady, in which case she dresses like a slattern (i.e. wears pants). Bonus points if the lady smells improbably of floral shampoo at all times. If the lady is older than thirty she’s definitely a sexless, emasculating bitch, unless she is a predatory but sordid vixen.
5. Author cites the following as influential in interviews: Harold Bloom, Charles Bukowski, fatherhood (of a son), alcoholism. Author may have been married many times to one or more very buxom and very blond ladies with voracious sexual appetites, whose age is inversely related to his fame.
6. But in general, there aren’t any ladies in it.
As reigning high priest of manfiction Cormac McCarthy noted in a relatively recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, it’s hard to write about ladies. (“I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.”) It’s so hard, in fact, that Cormac eschewed the ladies altogether in his most recent, Pulitzer-Prizewinning (ladies don’t win the Pulitzer) novel The Road. (Mom can’t hack the apocalypse and offs herself before the novel’s action starts, conveniently leaving the stage open for The Most Epic Father-Son Journey of All Time.) Why is it so hard? Is it that fulsome miasma of mystery that issues forth from our ladyparts? Our deep, fecund, and irrational thought processes, tied so inextricably to the miracle of childbirth? The moist cavern of our wombs? What makes us so damn inscrutable, ladies? Whatever it is, it’s so gnarly that only a heroic feat of man-writerly prowess can get a lady into a work of manfiction at all. It’s much more challenging, obvs, for man-writers to write about ladies than it is for ladies to write anything at all, which is perhaps why men who do (see: Atonement) receive such fawning accolades. When ladies write about ladies, it’s a total cakewalk for us–because we already know how ladies work, thanks to our nonstop access to the monolithic feminine consciousness; a consciousness that is, of course, identical from lady to lady, and smells a little bit like fish.
For years I read, and sometimes even loved, manfiction. I was well into my twenties before it slowly began to occur to me that the ladies who surrounded me — smart, funny, fearless, awesome; ladies who hitchhiked across the country solo, hopped trains, taught themselves homesteading, backpacked through the wilderness, played in bands, dressed sexy, dressed like boys; lades who, in short, unapologetically lived their own lives on their own terms — were nowhere to be found in the books I was reading. And I missed them. I didn’t want to keep pretending I was Philip Marlowe while my secret heart knew Chandler’s only option for me was to get prettier, grow out my hair, put on a sapphire-colored dress, and set to swooning. I’m not the first person to point out that a lifetime spent reading against yourself is both disorienting and miserable. So I don’t really read manfiction any more; not because it’s bad, but because it makes me tired and a little sad. A lady is not a dishwasher, a font of mystery, a vortex, an unknowable object of desire. A lady, like any other person, is just someone with her own set of stories.
[The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.]