Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Women Women Do See

There are many ways in which I've changed as a reader over the last few years, and one of them is that I've become more political. If even a few years ago I read with only a vague awareness of issues of race and gender, nowadays I find that I apply clearly-defined yardsticks to most of the fiction I read--for example, the Bechdel Test. Now, all the Bechdel Test does is give us an indicator--if a writer is capable of envisioning women interacting with each other for reasons not related to a man, then it's more likely that they see women as people in their own right. It isn't a yardstick for feminism, and it's certainly not a yardstick for quality, nor was it intended as either one. In fact, I'd say that the test probably has less to do with individual works and more to do with with the entertainment industry as a whole, and the fact that so few works produced by it actually pass this simple, seemingly obvious test. Nevertheless, once your eyes have been opened to this fact it's hard not to apply the test to any new film or TV show you encounter, and to think less of the overwhelming majority that don't pass it.

By the same token, I've found myself keeping a running tally of female characters and their roles in the books I read, most recently in The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris. I picked up The Dart League King after reading the enthusiastic raves of Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, organizers of this year's Tournament of Books, as well as those of commenters who had read the book on their advice. Though I found The Dart League King less engaging than Guilfoile and Warner did--in fact, contrary to their experiences, I found the novel strangely putdownable, even in its more intense later segments--there is no denying that it is an impressive accomplishment. Taking place over the course of a single evening in the small town of Garnet Lake, Idaho, The Dart League King shuttles between the points of view of five characters--Russell Harmon, founder and two time champion of the Garnet Lake Dart League, about to face his toughest competition for the title in the form of a former professional player; Tristan Mackey, Russell's teammate, recently returned from college; Vince Thompson, the local drug dealer to whom Russell owes more than two thousand dollars, who has decided to kill Russell for fear that his former client will shop him to the cops in order to escape paying his debt; Brice Habersham, Russell's opponent but also an undercover DEA agent, who is planning to arrest Russell in order to start a chain of testimony leading through Vince to his suppliers; and Kelly Ashton, Russell's former girlfriend and, unbeknownst to him, the mother of his child, now on a date with Tristan.

What makes The Dart League King special is the profound sympathy it extends to each of its characters, transforming familiar stereotypes--the small town loser, repeatedly narrowing down his options through shortsightedness and laziness; the violent, mercurial drug dealer; the girl who just wants to get out of a dead end life in a dead end town--into fully realized, entirely human people. Even more compelling is the sympathy the characters have for one another--Russell's admiration of Brice's skill at darts, Brice's pity for both Russell and Vince, Vince's hurt feelings at what he perceives as Russell pretending to be his friend in order to score drugs, and his unwillingness to take a life, Kelly's love for Russell and for her daughter. The Dart League King is a deeply compassionate novel. Even as it approaches its climax and the tension begins to ratchet up, as several of the characters' lives and freedom hang in the balance, its primary concern is their affection and love for one another, and how these feelings manage, for an instant, to drive them to be better, braver, and stronger than they've ever been before. And yet I finished The Dart League King not with a sense of Morris's compassion for his characters but with the feeling that he had slammed a door in my face. Then I went back and reread Guilfoile and Warner's recommendation and boggled at it, thinking: but, but... didn't they see? Didn't they see the women?

Aside from Kelly, there are two female characters in The Dart League King (three if you count the frequent mentions of Kelly's mother, a drunk who can barely be counted on to watch her granddaughter while Kelly goes out for the evening). The first, Liza Hatter, is a former classmate of Tristan who on the eve of his graduation from college he brought out to his parents' lake house at Garnet Lake and joined on a nighttime swim, during which she got a cramp and drowned while he watched and did nothing to help. Morris clearly expects us to recoil from Tristan, who at the time of Liza's death was already dangerously detached from humanity and has only descended further into anti-social tendencies in the weeks since. It is surely telling that of all the novel's characters he is the only one never to express a hint of sympathy or compassion towards another person, and his confession that "when it came right down to it he didn't find people all that interesting, as they all seemed more or less to have the same kind of thoughts, perform the same kind of actions" is clearly antithetical to the approach of a novel which works so hard to transform even the most familiar character type into a complicated and fully realized individual. But the fact remains that because we only ever see Liza through Tristan's disdainful, dismissive eyes, she never gains the three-dimensional humanity that Morris extends to the novel's main characters, Tristan included.

We are invited to sneer with Tristan at Liza's obvious crush on him, at her suggestion that they spend the evening snuggling on the couch watching videos, even at her foolishness in swimming farther than her strength could carry her, and without the counteracting effect of her point of view there's never a sense that Liza, like the novel's other characters, was a world onto herself, that despite being silly and having mundane desires she was a person who wanted, and deserved, to live. We're horrified by Tristan's actions because the only emotion he seems to feel about taking a life is the desire to look at his victim's decomposing face after her body washes up near the lake house, not because he destroyed Liza, who means so much less to us than he does.

The second female character is Brice Habersham's wife Helen, a sickly hysteric who demands his near-constant attention and care, and who is prone to embarrassing outbursts if she believes him lax in his duties: "if the match continued long enough it might even lead her to pick up the phone from the bedside table and, claiming later that she had forgotten his cell phone number, dial 911 to talk to the police." Such has been the nature of Brice and Helen's marriage for all its twenty seven years, beginning with a breathtakingly awful wedding night on which Brice's fumbling advances met not merely with resistance but with shrieking, swearing, and finally the revelation that Helen only married him to get back at her no-good, married lover, in the wake of which the two have never made love.

Brice and Helen's marriage bears great similarities to the marriage of the title character in John Williams's Stoner. Like Brice, Stoner is a quiet, thoughtful, socially awkward man who falls in love with a woman who reveals herself, after their marriage, to be shrewish and manipulative, using her weakness and neediness as weapons against him and denying his physical desires. (In fact, given the similarities between the Habershams and the Stoners, and the fact that, like The Dart League King, Stoner is a novel about seemingly uninteresting people who are revealed, through the author's unflinching yet compassionate descriptions, to be complicated and fascinating, one wonders whether The Dart League King wasn't written at least in part as an homage to Williams's novel.) The problem with this depiction in both novels is that the issue in both Brice and Stoner's marriages isn't sex, it's love. Both men have married women who don't love them, who have entered into the marriage under false pretenses, in order to get away from a bad situation, and who, now that they have what they want, have no intention of giving any thought to their husbands' feelings or desires. Helen Habersham and Edith Stoner are both terrible people, users whose husbands ought to have left them right after the wedding night (and though this would obviously have been difficult for Stoner, who got married in the early 20th century, I'm not sure what was stopping Brice from doing so in 1980), but by depicting the marriages' core dysfunction as sexual rather than emotional, both authors play on our justifiable sympathies for Brice and Stoner, using them to manipulate us into the conclusion that the two men have the right to demand sex from their wives, despite the fact that neither marriage would have been improved by such behavior.

Still, Helen and Liza aren't point of view characters, and given the complexity with which Morris imbues even a sociopath like Tristan one would expect Kelly, at least, to fare better than the other two women. To a certain extent, she does, in that we never dislike her the way Morris encourages us to dislike Liza and Helen. Kelly desperately wants to leave Garnet Lake and escape the lackluster future she sees stretching out ahead of her. To that end, she's latched onto Tristan, who as a teenager represented her hopes for escape and whose relative sophistication in the present day--he's a college graduate and has some money--has led her to think of him as her ticket to a more glamorous life. To her credit, Kelly is smart enough to see that something is not quite right with Tristan, and to suspect that he has no long term plans for her. She also still has strong feelings for Russell, and over the course of the evening she reconnects with him and tells him that he is the father of her child. Near the novel's end, Kelly is faced with a choice between waiting for Russell at the bar and going to the lake house with Tristan. Though she longs for Russell, she also sees him for what he is--a well-meaning but weak-willed man who will probably never have more to offer her than the life her parents lived and which she is desperate to escape--and concludes that her desire to wait for him
... was weakness talking. The thing to do was get in the fucking truck. This was the moment when the losers were born, when the could-have-beens and should-have-beens were made, when the fault was exposed in the underlings. This was the moment when, facing the mirror, one averted one's eyes, denied oneself and all the plans that had been laid.
So Kelly gets in the truck with Tristan the murderer, who takes her to the lake house to show her the body of his victim. And here she might still have escaped with her dignity, because she shows great courage in a crisis. For a time her strength of character overpowers Tristan, whom she finally sees as the overgrown child that he is rather than the savior she wanted him to be. But when Kelly demands that Tristan call the police, he rebels and, deciding to leave the country, comes at her with a knife.

Is there any way to interpret this development but that Kelly is being punished for rejecting Russell as not good enough for her, for having dreams that go beyond the life he could have offered her? And what are we to make of the fact that we never learn the end of her story, that the narrative cuts away just as she's preparing to fight for her life, but that her survival simply isn't important? The novel's ending is clearly trying to be consoling, showing us Kelly's daughter lying peacefully in her bed early the next morning (and given that her sleep hasn't been disturbed by either her mother's return or a call from the police station, it seems unlikely that Kelly survived) and Russell happily preparing for work and planning to introduce himself to his daughter later in the day, and the only way I can read this, especially given that Kelly's last thoughts are that at least, if she dies, her daughter will have a parent who loves her, is that Morris expects us to feel that Kelly's death is not much of a tragedy because Russell and the baby have each other.

At the end of The Dart League King, three of the four male point of view characters have gained something, gotten a chance at a new beginning and found a new, better direction for their lives. Russell has held on to the dart league championship, and gained a baby daughter and the desire to be a better person for her sake, as well as making amends with Vince. Vince has put to rest some of his inner demons, and is finally leaving the town where he will never be anything more than a hoodlum for a life that offers so much more. Brice has realized that he feels at home in Garnet Lake and decided to retire from the DEA, which he never liked working for, and to cap it all off he finally gets to make love to his wife, who suddenly decides that she loves him. And Kelly? If she survives, Kelly has learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of thinking she could do better than her coke-snorting, uneducated, barely-employed childhood sweetheart whose sole positive attributes are that he's a really sweet guy and good at darts. The men get to spread their wings, the woman either gets to find out she's better off at home, or she gets a knife to the guts.

It's pretty obvious, reading my reaction to The Dart League King side by side with Guilfoile and Warner's, that we all brought very different baggage to the novel. It's a safe bet, I think, that unlike myself they didn't keep a running tally of female characters and their roles as they read the novel. I'm not saying this as a criticism of Guilfoile and Warner (though in the future I will be taking their recommendations with a grain of salt), and I do still agree with their assessment of The Dart League King as a work of literature--it's beautifully written, and the male characters, at least, are delicately drawn and completely engaging. This, however, is purely an intellectual reaction. On the emotional level, my strongest reaction to the novel is dismay at Morris's treatment of his female characters, which completely overpowers my admiration for his writing. And that, quite obviously, has more to do with how I approached The Dart League King and the type of reader I am right now than it does with the novel Morris intended, or managed, to write.

I make no apologies for bringing a certain point of view to the novels I read, nor for my reaction to this specific novel, but it gave me pause when I realized that I had translated a failure in ideology into a failure in quality. On the other hand, there's something very wrong about Morris's novel, and I would hate to go back to being the kind of reader who doesn't see that wrongness. As reviewers we're repeatedly exhorted to approach a book with no preconceptions or expectations, to read and judge the work as it was written, not as we wanted it to be, but what if what we wanted was a novel that wasn't racist or misogynistic? To what degree we are justified in bringing ideology to our reading, and how much weight we should give that ideology in our reviewing? I'm asking the question seriously, not looking for validation or jeers. There are things I believe in, and it hurts me when in order to take pleasure out of a reading experience I have to set those beliefs aside. I also think that the only way to increase the number of novels that don't force me to make this choice is to loudly point out the ones that do. On the other hand, I also believe that a work of fiction shouldn't have to pass a purity test to be worth reading, and that you can't sum up the worth of a novel with a tally of its female characters and their roles, or by applying the Bechdel Test. I'm genuinely uncertain about where to draw the line.

9 comments:

Athena Andreadis said...

It has actually gotten worse since the late seventies. Most major films have a single woman, period, let alone passing the Bechdel test. Also, the punishments meted out to women for any behavior beyond the narrowest (though still arbitrary) boundaries have reverted to savage. So much for progress and for the exhortation to feminists to "move on".

Mike Taylor said...

According to the Reverse Bechdel Test, I shouldn't read any of Jane Asten's novels.

Katherine said...

I think the idea that reviewers should approach fiction with no preconceptions is unrealistic; to approach fiction with an awareness of what one's preconceptions are is a more achievable goal. At the very least, everyone who reads has ideas about what makes a good book; everyone also has ideas about morality, and if the author seems to be condoning or encouraging immoral behaviour (as the reader understands that concept), that will undoubtedly colour the reader's reaction.

I'm not sure that your reaction to Morris's novel is "ideological", really -- without having read the book, it seems to me from your description that here is a novel which treats all of its male characters as human beings with rich and complex inner lives, deserving of compassion and sympathy; and treats two of its female characters as props to demonstrate in one case a male character's sociopathy and in another case his being hard-done-by; while the third female character is more well-rounded, but is punished by the narrative for daring to have aspirations above her station. That is, in fact, a problem with the quality of Morris's writing. An inability to endow one-half of the world's population with the same dignity and significance as the other half in one's fiction is a serious lack in a writer.

I don't mean to suggest that every novel has to pass a feminist test in order to be good; only that the depiction of human beings and human relationships in the round is one of the main things that novels are for, and any limit on a novelist's ability to do that will introduce flaws into his/her work.

tikitu said...

I don't often comment here but I read most of it. I feel like I have to respond to your last paragraph here. It sounds to me like you're worried about something you shouldn't be ("where to draw the line", not misogyny, just to be absolutely clear).

One can't "sum up the worth of a novel" by any other reductive scheme either. When I read your reviews I don't pay much attention to the line saying "It's great" or "It could have been great but it failed" or "It's horrible". You talk about where your response comes from; you give evidence (you quote, you count characters); you compare with other works -- those are the bits that make reading your reviews worthwhile.

You wouldn't say "The dialogue was flat, therefore the book is bad" either; but "The dialogue was flat and nothing else made up for it" is fine. So long as you keep the distinct standards separate ("The writing is terrible, the setting is fantastically imaginative, and the treatment of women horribly misogynist") there doesn't seem to be a problem. If your reaction to one feature is so strong it overwhelms all the rest, we want to hear you say that too.

What "approach a book with no preconceptions or expectations" is about, I guess, is choosing the standards of comparison before reading. If you report your running tallys of female characters for every book you read, even when the results don't have much to do with your response, that's reviewing with an agenda.

tikitu said...

(Btw, it would make following a conversation like this easier if you enabled per-post rss feeds. Or is there somewhere I haven't looked and should have?)

ianras said...

Abigail, there's a distinction worth making here, I think: there's a feminist approach one can take to texts with badly-drawn women characters which goes "The women characters aren't afforded the depth or nuance of a real person; this novel simply does not represent things as they are" and there's another feminist approach one can take that says "The women characters aren't afforded the depth or nuance of a real person; this novel feeds into a patriarchial structure that has unjust effects on real women's lives". The first approach treats the novel primarily as a work of art; the second approach treats it as a political enemy, functionally no different from misogynistic graffiti or what have you. Only the second is ideological.

Stephen said...

If you didn't see it, there's an interesting thread on the Bechdel test on Charles Stross's site -- mainly dealing with other issues (such as is the test less reliable for fiction, especially 1st Person fiction, than it is for movies/tv), but perhaps worth a look.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Mike:

Fortunately, you'd still have the overwhelming majority of literature, film and TV left to you.

Katherine:

An inability to endow one-half of the world's population with the same dignity and significance as the other half in one's fiction is a serious lack in a writerTrue, though I can certainly think of novels I've enjoyed or even loved despite their author prominently flaunting such an inability.

tikitu:

You wouldn't say "The dialogue was flat, therefore the book is bad" either; but "The dialogue was flat and nothing else made up for it" is fine.Well, see, it's just that concept of making up for it that's troubling me. I can see how different literary attributes (dialogue, characters, setting) can make up for one another, but morality and quality are orthogonal qualities. Saying that one makes up for the other is a bit like saying that this house isn't very big, but at least it's painted a nice shade of blue.

Per my comment to Katherine above, it seems to me that when we say that a novel's quality makes up for its ideological failures, what we're actually saying is that we enjoyed the novel enough to ignore, or at least not dwell on, those failures, so that our primary emotional response to it is pleasure rather than outrage. The exact opposite, in other words, of my reaction to The Dart League King.

I'm not saying that that's wrong (indeed, you pretty much can't attach a value statement to someone's emotional response to a work of art) and clearly both you and Katherine are right to say that what's most important is that a reviewer express where they're coming from. Some of my favorite reviews have approached a work from a very definite, sometimes dogmatic point of view, and even if I don't agree with them or feel that that approach encompasses the novel as a whole, there's usually something interesting to learn from such reviews, or at least a good argument to be had.

I suppose what I'm feeling is a version of the common reviewer complaint that they read less intuitively than they used to. Having become a more political reader means that I place another filter between myself and the work. I'm fond of that filter and don't plan to stop using it, but I do think that it affects the immediacy of my response to a novel.

(Re: RSS feeds. AtWQ has a comments feed, also syndicated on LJ. I haven't opted for per-post feeds because the comment volume on the blog isn't so great that I think they're necessary for following a conversation, though obviously if more people think otherwise they should say so.)

ianras:

I'm not sure those two approaches are as distinct as you say. Isn't part of the effect that the patriarchal structure has on people's lives that it enforces unrealistic standards and attitudes towards them, which they are encouraged to emulate and discouraged from challenging? At any rate, I'd say that my habit of keeping a tally of female characters and their roles falls on the side of the latter approach you describe, not the former.

tikitu said...

Abigail: I can see how different literary attributes (dialogue, characters, setting) can make up for one another, but morality and quality are orthogonal qualities.I'm not sure -- morality and literary quality, perhaps, but is that what you're assessing? Or, better, is literary quality all that you are 'supposed to' assess, as a reviewer? Surely not: you're in the business of telling people how you reacted to books so that they have some idea how they will react to them, and can choose ones they're going to enjoy.

On the other hand that orthogonality matters, because it means you can't give a final score out of ten: if some indicators point upwards and some point downwards you can't average them. I tried to suggest above that the same applies within the 'literary' category also; for sf, for instance, stylistic control is pretty much completely orthogonal to imagination. (And that matters for your readership: some will be willing to discount one feature that you might value more highly.)

You're right to point out that literary quality "making up for" ideological failure is a problem; I think I was wrong to talk about one literary feature "making up for" failings in another also. What's important is to say "This bit was well done, that bit was badly done"; the final summation of "On balance I managed to enjoy it despite its failings" or "In the end the failings ruined it for me" is (I think) much less important.

Having become a more political reader means that I place another filter between myself and the work.A more positive spin might be that you notice more of what is concealed under the surface of the work. This is something I value about you as a reviewer, although I can understand that for you as a reader it might be frustrating. "I wanted to like it but in the end I couldn't" is painful.

(Rss feeds: different strokes I guess. I think of this as one 'conversation' and I don't want to have to follow any others that might also be happening around the place. But, your house your rules.)

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