Monday, April 16, 2012

The Incomprehensible Man

Meg Wolitzer recently lamented--in an essay for the NYTimes Book Review's "Second Shelf"-- that "the top tier of literary fiction--where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation--tends to feel particularly, disproportionately male."

On the way to reaching that conclusion, Wolitzer determines that, while women can say they're interested in what men think because they already know what women think, the opposite is impossible to imagine. In her words, "Were a man to say, 'I already know what men think; I'm more interested in reading books by women,' he would be greeted with incomprehension."

Which inspired me to write the following letter to the editor of the NYTimes Book Review:


I’d like to thank Meg Wolitzer (Second Shelf, 3/30/12) for helping me decide on the title for my next book. It will be called “The Incomprehensible Man,” and its premise is taken from Ms. Wolitzer: “Were a man to say, ‘I already know what men think; I’m more interested in reading books by women,’ he would be greeted with incomprehension.”

It will be a nonfiction account of a year in the life of a man who, wanting to understand aesthetics, read The Elegance of the Hedgehog; who, wanting to understand the Civil War, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin; who, wanting to understand the shift in white sensibilities about civil rights, read The Help and, backwardly, Gone with the Wind; who, wanting to try to understand libertarians, tried to read Atlas Shrugged; who, wanting to understand America’s place in the world, read The Poisonwood Bible.

But The Incomprehensible Man didn’t even think of those books as being by women, or women’s books. It didn’t even occur to him. He thought of them as being the best books to read in order to learn about those aspects of life. And then he read Ms. Wolitzer’s essay and saw what he was doing. Why was he doing this? All he could figure was that men are more and more Freud’s Discontents, while women are more and more Freud’s Civilization. Was will das Weib? The Incomprehensible Man wants to know.

Don’t look for it in your bookstore. “Incomprehension” isn’t anybody’s idea of a market.


That "year in the life" actually did happen to me just this past year, in fact, in the course of reading for the Nevermore Book Club at my library. The format of the club is wide open: we just get together once a week to talk about books. My approach to what I'm going to read is somewhat random. I do bring a lot of current nonfiction, most of which I've ordered for the library. But my favorite books are the ones that stick with me, for good or ill (and believe me, there's a lot of ill in Ayn Rand).

This past year, these books have been overwhelmingly novels written by women, as the above letter attests. I certainly didn't try to make it that way. It just happened in that serendipitous way that public libraries so wonderfully abet. Somewhere in my mind would be a subconscious flash of neon along the lines of "What problem or issue in the world is on your mind?"--and within no time I'd be engaged with it in a book.

Was it by a man or a woman? I didn't care. All that I cared was that the book lead me into intimacy with the subject. With Margaret Mitchell it turned out not to be a place I wanted to go, and Rand depressed me no end. Still, the books punched the ticket.

Not that I expect any kudos from Wolitzer. It's not like I set out to read books by women qua women. Moreover, while the novels that I read were surely by women, they didn't necessarily exemplify the literary standards that so concern Wolitzer. Were they "top tier" literary? Only one or two really qualified.

But so what? Does the world Wolitzer imagine--that place where great literature "enters the public imagination and the current conversation"--even exist, whether the books are written by men or women?

Right now, the books that are in the public imagination are by women--but Wolitzer would scoff at the notion that they are literature. Whatever book-fueled public imagination we have is consumed by wizards, vampires, and a dystopian future of kids killing each other with bows and arrows in order to stay alive. And every single one of the chief exemplars of that influential body of literature--because, however "good" or "bad," it is literature--is by a woman.

As for serious fiction? Heck, not even the Pulitzer could dig one up this year by anyone of any gender at all. So much for that top tier where the air is rich and the view is great, where everyone yawns at Jonathan Franzen and decides not to read David Foster Wallace since he let boredom get to him.

Wolitzer's envy is needless. If change hasn't already happened, it's on its way. Modernism was the last gasp of male literary culture. Now that it's expired, men have fallen back into either the Iliad or the Odyssey and are content to relive either story again and again in sporting events or computer games. Women--to some extent despite themselves--will discover that the language they invented to express the concerns of their sphere will be the main prop of their growing political power, a power that will reshape civilization.

Patriarchy, your days are numbered. Time for a circle jerk with Louis C.K.

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