Busy day today Beatdown. Today is the day I will finally compile the list of books with great female characters that y’all left us in the comments (A list which, from what I saw on Twitter, was more popular than the chat that preceded it. People loved! that! list!) and present it to The Rejectionist so we can randomly select one to read and talk about. In the mean time, here is a chat we had last night, about books that are problematic.
REJECTIONIST:: Dearest Garland! We are here to talk about heartbreak! The heartbreak of What Happens When You Love a Book that Treats You So Wrong! What happens, Garland?
GARLAND: You get upset. Like I did when I realized that my favorite authors were all uniformly horrible people. So I got new favorites. Happy ending?
REJECTIONIST:: Um, what if you still love the book, though? Like, a person can break up with C-Macs, and it might give that person a great sense of liberation. But then a person is rereading Lord of the Rings for the ten hundred thousandth time, and maybe that person is all like OH HOBBITS, ENTERTAIN ME WITH YOUR ANTICS and then suddenly she thinks OH SHIT there is a LOT OF BUSINESS IN HERE ABOUT SOME ARYAN ELVES AND SOME BLACK BLACK ORCS. I think old Tolks makes a point of denoting the swarthiness of evil at least once per chapter. BUT, HOBBITS
GARLAND: I think that there is a difference between critically engaging with a book and seeing all of its flaws and endorsing those flaws. If we only read things that had been approved as free of all fuckery, we’d have a false sense of what’s being published. Sometimes you find beautiful passages inside of books that have major flaws, because books are like people, they have redeeming qualities mixed in with their faults.
REJECTIONIST: Sometimes the Feminism causes in me such a lament! I can NEVER ENJOY A BOOK AGAIN! Once one starts seeing women and queer folks and people of color as human beings, one can never go back to those halcyon days of just wondering whether Frodo will dodge him some racialized Orcs in time to get to Mordor! It must be so peaceful, not worrying about complexity. But you are right; I will defend, say, Lolita with my dying breath, solely because it’s one of the most beautiful books ever written. So where do you, Garland, draw the line? What’s your personal quadratic equation of Beauty squared plus or minus the square root of Fuckery squared over A Book You Can Read Despite Its Flaws?
GARLAND: Here’s were we get into the calculus of conscience. If a book is about something that I feel is true, and is well-written, then I will deal with a certain amount of fuckery. But if the book isn’t about anything, or the fuckery is so exclusionary or ignorant or mean-spirited that it puts me off, I will stop reading it. I used to be very much into William S. Burroughs, but the sexual tourism and virulent misogyny finally made me realize that what he was doing wasn’t interesting enough to deal with how disgusted I was feeling afterward. Plus the constant CONSTANT reappearance of the death by hanging theme was a little much.
REJECTIONIST: Yeah, that sounds about right for me, too. I always think it is fascinating to get into the mathematics of those lines with individual Feminists, though, because what registers as redeeming value is so personal. And I make a good faith effort not to question other peoples’ boundaries of fuckery, even though IT IS REALLY HARD FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND HOW ANYONE COULD NOT FIND NABOKOV LIFE-ALTERING. I also tend to reread books I loved as a kid for comfort, and I extend a free pass to a lot of those texts; I’m not sure I would have the same adoration for Tolkien if I had come to him as an adult.
GARLAND: You know, I’ve never read Lolita? I have it with me, but someone pointed out a few weeks ago that Humbert Humbert is supposed to be viewed as a monster and I decided I might want to read it. I should read it and we should talk about it.
REJECTIONIST: You should! And we should! Lolita in particular is a fine example of a book that’s about a horrible person, but is written by someone who’s well aware of that fact. I can certainly understand, though, not being able to deal with it. I tried to read it for the first time when I myself was twelve, which I don’t recommend.
GARLAND: You have to know your limits. One book I finished which I really, really wish I hadn’t was Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. I read a lot about people talking about what horrible experience it was to read, which it was, but it was also such a bleak book. It wasn’t about anything but horrible, horrible torture.
REJECTIONIST: I feel like Anne Rice covers the same ground with a lot less gratuitous violence and way better outfits. Although I do have a certain fondness for Poppy, as I distinctly remember her Sassy magazine One To Watch debut, in which she was wearing a green crushed-velvet babydoll with striped tights and platform Docs, and she talked about living in the French Quarter and being a Hot Goth Writer. I read that as a wee pup and thought YES EXACTLY THAT LIFE, THAT IS THE ONE I WANT. So, you know. That’s my boundary.
GARLAND: You and Sassy magazine.
REJECTIONIST: SHUT UP.
GARLAND: I used to really like Chuck Palahniuk. And then I reread Invisible Monsters and saw that its depiction of trans identities is just about as insulting as you can get and that the whole book is about how disfigured or disabled people are invisible to society at large. It was at one time my favorite book, but his shit is much less credible now that I know real people that it hurts.
REJECTIONIST: Yeah, that whole empathy thing also really interferes with one’s enjoyment of modern literature. I will, as discussed, make allowances for what looks to me like Genius (again: personal, not quantifiable, in my view) but I do find it such a relief to open a book and realize from the first page that I implicitly trust the author’s politics, that the jokes aren’t going to be at the expense of my personhood or the personhood of anyone I love; basically, that I’m in good hands. It happens so rarely, and I think even more rarely in literary fiction.
GARLAND: Does any of this come into play for you when you are selecting MS to send up the ladder?
REJECTIONIST: Yes, absolutely. But you know, I don’t think I’ve ever pulled something out of the pile where I thought, This is incredibly written but loathsome, NOW WHAT. Luckily, so far it’s always been possible to reject on aesthetic grounds. But I will certainly reject things that I think have commercial potential if there’s pointless sexualized violence in them, or, you know, the character’s Latina girlfriend has a fiery temper and makes him fajitas and that’s her sole function in the book. Just doing my part for the revolution. Based on what gets published, I am not exactly at the forefront of a movement. DON’T TAKE MY HOBBITS, is the moral. You do know Garland is Elvish for “a person of fine opinions”?
GARLAND: Just as Rejectionist is Esperanto for “a person who tells stories of interest and also collects stacks of Sassy Magazine.” It’s a very efficient language.