The diminishment of certain male authors after #MeToo has inspired a defense, Jonathan Compo writes, and many of these defenders are women.
The absolute value and relative importance of a given book is forever being reassessed. For those with a stake in one book, though, this reassessment appears a personal threat, as the inexorable advance of the tide appears to a child architect of a sandcastle. And so, the diminishment of certain totemic male authors in the wake of, among other things, #MeToo, has inspired a defense. From The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The TLS and elsewhere, horns have been blown. What distinguishes this wave from others before is many of these defenders are women.
My cynical read is this: when a once-beloved author comes under fire from my etiquette-minded generation and is accused of portraying women’s insides too little and their outsides too much or of having mistreated the real women in the author’s life, those looking to defend him (and it’s always him) are in a bind. Send a male writer after the PC complainers, and you open your publication up to the same criticism—you are perpetuating Literature as Boy’s Club. So, you find a female fan and have her make the case.
Here’s a game
I’ve read defenses from women of Nabokov, Lawrence, Updike, Eliot, Wallace, Tolstoy, Bloom, Kerouac, Roth and—for god’s sake—Eminem. Here’s a game. Think of a problematic author (this should be easy), google “In Defense of [insert author’s name],” and once you filter through all the lit-bro blog posts, you’ll find an eloquent and profound article in the following form: acknowledge the ethical criticism of the author, state your identity credentials, and then defend the author on the basis of aesthetics.
You’ll quickly realize, playing this game, there are few male authors who weren’t objective assholes to women in their lives and in their books. Two, even given this, it’s hard to refute the defenses offered in the kind of article I’m describing. You can always, after all, trust a misogynist for a fancy prose style.
Economy of attention
Their formal invention, their facility with words and their resulting importance to The Canon™ are the grounds on which these authors are defended. Sure. Fine. But I’m left uneasy. I don’t want to rewrite history, and I’m not, I don’t think, an opponent of beauty—but I’m suspicious, in this economy of attention, of any extra attention paid to authors from people who those authors consciously, if ironically, routinely disregarded. Why spend time defending the reputation of the intentionally disreputable?
Also, I am skeptical that any art, no matter how gorgeous, can fully account for its artist’s failures. This is a sliding scale, sure—I’m not trying to scoop every author who’s abused the c-word in with those who’ve pushed their partners out of moving cars—but there are those who I just can’t read anymore without recalling the Camp Cope lyrics:
Could it be true?
You don’t seem like that kind of guy
Not you, you’ve got that one song that I like
They said he’s got one song that I like