Friday, April 27, 2007


Some time back I came across a discussion on Aishwarya's blog about feminism and literature. Can't find the post now but I remember she was replying to some meme about nice things that feminist movement had done to her life and she mentioned as one of the points that it had made possible for women to write about their experiences, find their true voices and become writers. I commented saying that women writers, specially those who are self-consciously feminist, somehow don't interest me much because they are always so obsessed with gender. It is as if feminism has increased the role that gender plays in their consciousness or formation of self-identity whereas it should have been actually the opposite -- the complete banishment of gender from self-identity. I did mention that i have not read enough women writers and I am not even familiar with all strains of feminist movement (which is actually quite complex) but my reaction was based merely on my total disinterest in the subject of gender.

Now Aishwarya sends me a link to this blogpost which has a wonderful (and hilarious) summary of How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ:

Pollution of Agency.
Okay, she wrote it, but she totally shouldn't have! A woman doesn't know enough about life to write about it well, unless she's a slut. She doesn't know enough about life, so she writes about irrelevant things like menstruation or rape or childbirth--"confessional" stories. Sure she wrote it, but she's such a bitch/so pretty you can't take her work seriously. Only abnormal women write books; look at how many of them commit suicide/go mad/can't find a husband.

The Double Standard of Content.
This is when certain topics are considered more important than others, based on an idea of how "universal" they are, and therefore art about them is innately more valuable. But this idea of the universal is skewed to what is part of the "public" or "male" sphere of experience. For instance, sport is more important than buying clothes [unless it's high fashion, perhaps]; business is more important than housework; war is more important than bedroom politics; male suffering is more important than female suffering. The double standard also means that books can be misread due to assumptions about the author, so for instance, before Wuthering Heights was known to be written by a woman, it was considered by critics to be about the nature of evil, and afterwards, it was considered a romance.

Hmmm. Now I know I was doing exactly these two things in my comments, though in a less extreme and less funny manner.

It is not difficult to understand, and it is indeed quite justified, why gender figures so prominently in the consciousness of women writers. It is a part of their experience, they face discrimination just because they are of a particular gender. Even if they believe in some gender-free ideal they can't outgrow it when they are actually fighting the discrimination. It is same as the case with someone who suddenly become conscious of his national or religious identity when he finds himself in an alien culture which discriminates against him or even doesn't welcome him. Just like it is happening in most western societies. All the talk of universal brotherhood and secularism notwithstanding.

Keeping this in mind I do feel good about more women writing about their experiences and thoughts even when everything is ultimately filtered through the prism of gender. Just that at a personal level this kind of writing doesn't interest me all that much. It is not just in reading, but in real life too macho men and feminine women, both bore me to tears. (I am with Proust, I like "masculine virtues" in women and "feminine charm" in men :) (from the Proust Questionnaire)). Now I am sure there are many women writers who are inclined towards this androgyny and gender-neutral approach too. I plan to look for and read more of their writings. (I did read a novel by Jeanette Winterson which didn't excite me much.)

I should also mention the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann who I read recently and who I found very interesting. In fact when I started Malina I groaned at the initial chapter. Though it is written in a very unusual style, I thought, no, not another woman writing about her boyfriend troubles! But then soon I was totally taken aback by the extremity of her depiction of violence and depths of extreme despair. Her voice is unmistakably that of a woman (in fact that's one of the central subjects of her novels) but she really takes it to extremes, where other writers don't generally go. Elfriede Jelinek, her fellow Austrian, shares her temperament too if not her artistry. Again she didn't interest me much. I also haven't read much of Virginia Woolf. I plan to read more of her writings soon too.

Talking about gender also reminds me why many mainstream American writers like Philip Roth, Updike, Mailer, Bellow or Amis (he is British but anyway) leave me cold, what with their rampant (and shallow) heterosexuality and their misogynist, macho characters. I understand that it is a part of their point, that it is supposed to be a critique of masculinity but be that as it may, I am not interested. (I have actually read very little of these writers. I know, there is more to them than this specially Bellow I think but may be when I get more time. They are very low on my list right now.)

My current favourite The Man Without Qualities (I am still reading it, three months after I started it) has what I think is truly progressive ideas about Gender and Sexuality. It is a little too complex for my small brain but it is brilliant. I just wish there were few more Musils out there, little less ambitious and complex and easier to read. Alas! I don't think anybody is there. I am still trying to understand it, will write about it sometime later.


Anonymous said...

Which philosophers or works of philosophy are discussed explicitly in the Man Without Qualities or do you think it is helpful to have read before embarking on MWQ in order to get the most out of it? Give me as many recs as you can think of/have time to list! Thanks.

antonia said...

there is no short way to Man without Qualities.
you have to know the complete past & contemporary literature & philosophy of course in order 'to get the most out of it'. The discussions of philosopers are implicit, not explicit.
Why not read the book and see where it leads you to instead of 'getting the most out of it'?

sorry alok, I stole your answer.

back to the actual topic. - every feminist loves you when you tell them you like IB. I agree with you, I have the same problems with books by feminists, it always feels like where is the actual story, when is the actual story coming - then on the other hand it is also like you desrcibe, one cannot get rid easily of the gender obsession which in deed can be an 'actual story'. I also was not so fond of J. Winterson and entirely agree with you about Musil having really good ideas on gender. There is Uwe Johnson who is also good at this, he does not display theories, but the characters in his book are not somehow fulfilling the clicheegenderroles. Johnson tells a story, is aware of all the genderproblems, but builds them in in his story in such a way that it belongs to teh story just as the weather or war or whatever. That's the big question, wo is able to do this, to tell a story and not falling victim to be too autobiographical or to too obvious theories and yet being aware of problems. And I could assume you might like Virginia Woolf too. The androgynous direction is not always a bad one. But then after all what I notice, the gap between women and men still is really really big, like when you say you thought what a strange book Malina is or that you felt not so convinced by Barnes as well at first ...or still in the progress of reading...correct me if I am wrong...The problem is just we are so conditioned even if we are aware or try to be aware, to the male view. There is just little tradition on whom women writers can rest on and the little tradition
it is actually characterized by fighting against prejudices, by fighting for teh space to write or to be taken serious, by fighting for the most basic conditions that men are having granted without saying, even today, even in this very minute. Which is why it is so difficult to overcome this gap, when one/men is so used to this privilege one does not see anymore that another group of people does not have these necessary good conditions for writing. And as long as the conditions are shit women will have to write against that before they finally can do what they actually want to do, it is like they have first have to tidy up the room while the room for men is already neatly and they just can start to write. I would think we don't know a genuine women's art yet what it is or whether it significantly differs from men or just not, we can't just say this yet, for there just does not exist enough stuff - or it does, but it just has not yet found entry in the 'collective consciousness'.
I mean even if famous people like IB or Virginia Woolf still are in the womenwritercorner and in general are being approached as 'oh dear will she write about her mean husband' one cannot speak at all even of a somewhat neutral approach to female writers. As long as the womenwritercorner & lets say mean husbands exist we won't have 'gender free' contributions from women to the arts. I am not so optimistic about this, and like you, looking for writers who somehow have a clue or better an awareness of those problems yet can tell a story....and in this respect I find teh androgynous direction most promising...
gosh this was my longest comment so far?

Alok said...

anonymous: I agree with Antonia. It is actually quite readable and he doesn't discuss any philosopher explicitly. Though Nietzsche figures prominently in one of the subplots. Still one needs to understand well the idea of what the scientific worldview really means for the old philosophical concepts and problems like freedom, self-identity, consciousness, ethics etc. And how to live based on this knowledge, of what science tells us, to live without absolutes. The book is not difficult to read at all, just that there is a feeling that I am not understanding everything he is trying to say.

Alok said...

antonia: wow! thanks for the long comment. I agree with you. So long as prejudices, discrimination and subconscious biases exist it is unfair and even wrong to ask for a writing which doesn't acknowledge gender. And in my original comment i was wrong about it or didn't make it clear. Gender is still very much a part of reality and the way we see ourselves is still shaped so much by what gender we belong to. Have things improved or at least are they changing for the better? I don't really know. Perhaps they are. But then it is also easy to see, specially in popular culture, how gender based identity makes it easier for people to sell their products... and in the meantime men continue to behave like "men" and women like "women."

nico said...

Hi there, how controversial. I agree with you, J Winterson tends to be repetitive and not very literary, but there's something still intersting, perhaps not being frightened to throw some audatious clises or bold metaphors. (I read everything she writes). Alok, you really have to give it a second try to Jelinek. Í've been reading a lot of gender theory, I agree that it is dangerous to say 'this is evidently written by a woman'. That should not surface in a debate any more, I think. There's an interesting tendency analyzing these things: Rosi Braidotti with her notion of nomadism, Kaja Silverman in a more psychoanalitic vein, and of course Elizabeth Grosz and Barbara Creed (Phallic panic). Novels like the ones Carson McCullers wrote could have been written by Faulkner, or Edith Wharton's could be attributed to Henry James... and so on...yes, it is tricky to put a gender.... thanks for post!

Alok said...

Oh I am entirely ignorant of all these theoretical works. What I wrote was just what I felt, it wasn't really based on any serious reading on the subject. And my personal feeling is that of boredom whenever I come across the subject of gender. Am trying to rectify this situation :)

Antonia said...

nico, you're having a jolly big brain. Rosi Braidotti. A couple of years I saw her giving a lecture on Deleuze at our university, and I agree with you she really is interesting with her nomadic approach. Also what I really liked about her is that she sees through the academic institutions. The only question I have what to do when you don't want to be a nomad.....that's a true obsevration, CarsonMcCullers and only has to think of 'Requiem for a Nun'...

Alok said...

When I get some time, I will read some gender philosophy.

nico said...

I really like her idea of linguistic nomadism, as in polyglots, that's pretty. Yes, being a nomad is more a fate that something one can control. Still it is useful when analizing modes of resistance, especially in marginal situations like the shanthy towns in south america.

Aishwarya said...

*grin* I thought you'd find it interesting. :)

Antonia's comment is excellent, by the way.

I've been reading Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own recently. It's not particularly radical, but it does explain how much women's writing is affected by the social conditions in which they find themselves. Interesting stuff.

Alok said...

yes, that article was very interesting. thanks! I have been looking at the feminist studies section of the library too. Will pick up a few soon.