"feminization" of literature (post #1 / introduction)

"I think [reading novels] is going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range."

This is Philip Roth, talking to the Daily Beast, projecting 25 years or so into the future. This quote’s been bandied around the internet as a variety of Dire Prediction. (One of many.) The interesting thing about it is that Roth seems relatively disinterested. Roth will die. There is nothing older celebrated authors are more aware of than the fact that they will die. Come 2034, it’s unlikely that any of his intimates will exactly be made or broken over trickling royalties for Portnoy’s Complaint. Novels look like an inevitable loser to screens, says Roth, who’s had an excellent run with the period in which novels still had a chance. Interestingly enough, says Roth, the novel will have lost this fight right around the time I reach my maximum plausible lifespan. Just coincidentally. Have fun with that, says Roth. Peace out.

"When writers like Amis, or Philip Roth — who declared this week that novel-reading would be a fringe activity in 25 years — make their apocalyptic proclamations about the state of publishing, it seems apparent that their pessimism may in fact be rather strongly influenced by anxiety that their new work no longer carries the kind of cultural clout they have grown used to, not because people aren’t reading novels, but because people aren’t reading their novels. And part of the reason for that may be that with the bulk of modern consumers of fiction being women, the particular brand of literary writing in which a particular aptitude for fellatio suffices as characterisation for a woman is less interesting, or resonant, than it once was.”

This is Jean Hannah Edelstein, in the Guardian. She’s mostly interested in revenging herself on Amis, who’s torn into a tabloid pseudo-celebrity who manages to sell books: “She has no waist, no arse … an interesting face … but all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone.” Misogyny aside, Amis seems more interested in celebrity culture than the character of literature. Roth gets lumped in with him because he had the bad luck to say something people noticed and because, now that Updike’s passed, he’s seized the #1 spot on the list of American authors most often conceptualized as an actual human penis with the ability to type. (I don’t think Edelstein cares a bit whether what she’s saying is actually true or supportable, or is giving any full consideration to what all has happened to the audience for fiction between Goodbye, Columbus and today. She just says it seems apparent that something may be the case: it’s less of an argument and more of a request for you to agree with her if you, too, would prefer this assertion to be true.)

The non-argument’s thought-provoking, though, and definitely a good reminder that we should be separating two ideas about the novel: (1) the notion that it’s decliend as a popular form that many people consume, and (2) the notion that it’s declined from some position of being grand and “serious” and somehow centrally meaningful to our intellectual world. Edelstein’s obviously speculating — pretty wildly — that people like Amis and Roth confuse the latter with the former: that they’re just looking at the replacement of their grand-and-central “male” writing with a literary world that is, in lots of people’s terms, “feminized.”

The next few posts here, across the length of the day, will be an attempt to unravel a few different aspects of that idea.

  1. agrammar posted this