Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Being a Problem

Once, when I was studying in France during college, I was at some sort of dinner party, the kind where I was the youngest person there by about twenty years. I remember being asked about the death penalty (which often seemed to stand in for Europeans' sense of the United States's backwardness back then - ah, the relative innocence of those Clinton years) and about Virginia Woolf (because when you tell French people you're studying literature they ask you about what you've read instead of asking if you like being poor the way Americans do).  In my mediocre French I managed to say, more or less, that I was against the death penalty and very, very much in favor of Virginia Woolf.  Then the male host, who up until then had been pretty quiet, leaned in with that "ok this has been fine and all but now I will ask the really important question people are afraid to ask" posture.

"Et les noirs, aux Etats Unis?" he asked. " Comment ├ža va?" Black people in the U.S. How's that going?

Now, obviously, he  didn't rationally think there was anything I could say that would meaningfully speak to the condition of 30 million people. Like a lot of dinner party conversation, it was a performance. I think he disliked me for some reason and wanted to trip me up, to ask something 'controversial' that would throw me off balance.  The people he was talking about weren't really people, weren't really even a 'problem' or a 'question,' they were just words for him to say.  I wish I could say I whipped up a stinging reply invoking James Baldwin about how we don't have a black people problem, we have a white people problem, or something like that.  Instead I mumbled, well, that's a very complicated question. The female host saw my discomfort and changed the subject and may have shot her husband a nasty look. I don't remember exactly.

But I remember that detail from that dinner party from all those years ago because it comes to mind every time I read some article about what people - most often women, or non-white people, or poor people - are doing wrong.

For a long time I was unable to read any article like this that was about a group I'm a part of. Being relatively fortunate and white, these were usually relatively mild pieces about why there were so many single women in New York City and why so many people were stupid enough to go to graduate school in the humanities. Back when I was doing internet dating, I made a rule not to reply to the (so so many) guys who had rants about how they never wanted to date anyone who identified with any of the women on Sex on the City.  I didn't identify with them (well, almost never), but I was weary of anyone who was a little too excited to have a shorthand for the single-woman-as-problem. (Correctly so as I found out when I broke my rule).  I still have a problem getting through a lot of these kinds of articles, especially now that I'm a mother. Maybe I'm just sensitive, and this is just a variation on the Groucho Marx problem. I can't read any article that has me as a member of its problem. But I don't think I'm alone on this.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks because of these horrible ads.  Now, not surprisingly, a lot of the responses have been about the tone of them, whether they shame teenage parents and whether they'll be effective. There's been less discussion about whether they are accurate.

Kell Goff  claims that critics have focused on tone because "of course" they're accurate - a claim she finds so self-evident she doesn't feel the need to support it - although she finds time to link to a very relevant study about young people wanting to be famous.

But actually, there's a lot of evidence that they're misleading at best. This overview of recent studies  argues  that teen pregnancy is a result, not a cause, of poverty and that it actually has "little, if any, direct economic consequence.  Kristin Luker reached the same conclusion in her book from 1997, and Planned Parenthood's criticism of the ads cites the work of Frank Furstenberg,  who did an early long-term study following young mothers and their kids and found the same thing and similarly summarizes the findings.

Now, I know a lot of people find this hard to believe. But you, know, that's why we have studies: because something seems intuitive and is agreed on by both liberals and conservatives doesn't make it so. And when you think about it, it actually does make sense. Kids are expensive! scream the ads. But they're expensive no matter what age you are. If you're middle class, your income will likely go up a lot over the course of your working life, so waiting has a lot of economic benefits. If you're poor or working class, not so much. And having your kids early has some advantages: you have more energy, you're more likely to have help from your own parents and extended family. (Ironically, you'll see articles acknowledging this, but usually only when they're using it slam on women for having kids too late.) And being a parent can inspire young people to do well in or go back to school, and to achieve in all kinds of ways.

But these false beliefs have real consequences for real parents and their kids. Listen to someone who's been there: 
"As a teen mom, my life has seen some insanely high peaks of hell and it wasn’t because of my pregnancy or motherhood, it was because of the crappy experiences I had to endure with people who were (and still are) judgmental and bitter. When I wanted to apply for college in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to bother - that I should focus on trying to graduate high school first and apply to a community college IF that even happened. When I turned to people for support, they threw statistics into my face and told me I was what these very ads portrayed. I wasn’t. I’m not. And most teen moms aren’t. Until today, I still hear the “Well, you should have thought about that before becoming a mom.” 
There's a particularly awful irony here: when people cite statistics about poverty in order to talk about the challenges of helping students succeed, the administration who spent your tax dollars on this crap accuses them of "making excuses." Demographics aren't destiny! A good teacher can solve everything! Defy the odds with bootstraps! But once you're a fallen woman, the (misleading) statistics are all. You no longer have any agency.  Poverty isn't a problem in Bloomberg-land; it's a punishment.

That's why the criticism that "you can't change people's behavior by shaming them" isn't quite right. Because the people being shamed aren't ones the ads are talking to. They're the ones being talked about. They're the problem. They're the object lesson meant to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives. And we should think twice before doing anything to improve their lives - or the lives of their kids - because it will send the wrong message. That might sound paranoid, unless you remember the "debate" over welfare reform.

I remember leaving the hospital with my son just over a year ago now.  The hospital where he was born is on a busy city street, so I remember the odd feeling of stepping out from that other self-enclosed world to find the city had been going about its normal business. I remember the mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, joy and terror.  I can't imagine what it would have felt like if I had come across an ad, an official message put forward by the city of which I was a citizen, that told me my worst fears were justified, their realization inevitable, and that any joy I was feeling was a delusion to which I had no right. I would say that I wouldn't wish such a feeling on anyone, but I sort of do wish that the ad team that came up with this "edgy" concept and probably is congratulating themselves, taking the controversy as evidence they've "started a conversation" or what have you, would feel it, just for a while. Because they're the problem.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

If NY Mag Had Asked Me

So there was a bit of a noise recently after New York published this survey about the now (presumably complete) Roth oeuvre. Most of it had to do with how many women and men were included in the survey (take a guess), the probable impact of this on the answers to the question "Is Roth a misogynist?" and the unfortunate start of Keith Gessen's response to that question: "Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?" Oh, and they asked James Franco. So there's that.

So New York didn't ask me, sadly. But I do feel somewhat uniquely qualified here. I've written about Roth quite a bit, and have read almost all his books, including the lesser-known non-fiction memoirs and essays. Even the one about baseball. And because, while I'm sure many people would think this only shows my "bias," I actually think having also spent a lot of time reading, writing and thinking about feminism, might put me in an interesting position to answer these questions.

So, if New York had asked me? Well, before getting to the misogyny thing, I would have been tempted to make fun of their questions. Is he the greatest living American novelist? Like, really, the greatest ever ever? And should he win the big prize? They might as well have asked, but is he awesome. . . or super awesome?  (A fawning biographer having an affair with her famous subject would make a pretty good Roth novel, actually). Can't we leave the obsessive ranking to the Ivy League admissions offices and the guys from High Fidelity? If you have to go there, I do have a soft spot for his consistency: it is pretty impressive that of the almost thirty books of his I've read, there's only one stinker in the bunch. (That would be the baseball one.) 

So, is he a misogynist?  Presumably a lot of people find the question stupid or insulting, but I'm with Zoe Heller here: it makes no sense to celebrate art's potential to offend, and then claim that anyone taking offense is deluded or stupid. Of course, to take offense is to risk sounding like one of the Puritans Roth rails against.  That's probably why Nell Freudenberger said "I don't like the way he writes about women, and I don't like the way I sound complaining about it." And it's true that while, as everyone rushed to point out, the fact that the characters spend a lot of time thinking about fucking women doesn't mean they aren't misogynist, it doesn't mean they are, either. Straight male sexuality is as good a theme as any, and, given that Roth isn't wrong about our Puritanism, there's a tendency to react negatively to that in a way that is kind of hollow. There's a Terry Gross interview with Roth when she asks him about his character's "excessive" sexuality, and he said that the concept of normality wasn't one any serious person has any business entertaining.

But I think a lot of readers who aren't Puritans are responding to something else. At times it's the Tom Wolfe-level satirical misses: a lot of The Human Stain is wonderful but as a satire of a female academic Delphine Roux could have been written by a National Review intern over his lunch break, and about Rita Cohen, the man-eating radical from American Pastoral, the less said the better.

More than that, though, I think the interesting question is the extent to which there's an imaginative sympathy extended, one which at least attempts to see all the characters as they see themselves. Not everyone has to be George Eliot, of course, and being inside one head, with all its peculiarities and solipsisms, even the same one year after year and book after book, can be a pretty rich vein to tap. (Though the churlish part of me wonders whether such a project would get a woman author labelled as 'personal' or 'minor,' rather than land her a manly poll with big yellow circles to mark the circumference of her greatness.) And ironically, his big theme actually necessitates that Roth spend more time with his female characters than a lot of male writers. No one that I know of has asked if Cormac McCarthy is a misogynist for creating worlds where women often don't exist. Personally I prefer writers who explore masculinity rather than take it as a given universal.   I think, for example, that Junot Diaz's latest collection is brilliant in how it does that - and not only because he includes a story from a woman's point of few.  It's still noteworthy that he does this, I think, and that it's hard to imagine Roth doing this. Not that anyone has to, of course, but shouldn't it be seen as a skill that's part of what we talk about when we talk about writers who can 'do everything'?

Still, at a certain point there's a failure of imagination that does get wearying. It's interesting that Benjamin Kunkel picked as his favorite passage this one from American Pastoral: "You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again." That's Zuckerman talking about "Swede" Levov, whose placid world and un-Zuckerman like bonhomie has been torn apart by his daughter's radicalism. The daughter, Merry, is completely unconvincing as a character in her own right but completely convincing as a portrait of how the Swede would see her. But it's Zuckerman who's worried about getting the Swede right - Merry herself is portrayed as so irrational there's nothing right or wrong to get about her.

Interestingly, for me there are two times in Roth where a female character breaks outside of the projections and fantasies, one from the start of his career, and one from much later. As Vivian Gornick writes in her essay on Roth and Bellow from The Men in My Life, the relationship between Brenda and Neil in "Goodbye Columbus" has a tenderness that immediately disappears from his work thereafter: "When, close to the end, Neil says to himself, "Who is she? What do I really know of her?" it is not to demonize Brenda, it is to underscore the mystery of sexual love." To Neil's final reflection that "I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her" Gornick remarks, "A long while? How about never?" (I'd been working on this post for a while when I realized that of course Gornick had already said it all and said it better. I don't think the essay is online but there's an interview where she talks about its argument and the relationship between sexism and the Jewish thing. There's also a fascinating 1976 essay on Miller and Mailer and Roth in this collection.)

Never indeed, but to my mind something interesting did happen late in the game with Sabbath's Theater, the winner in the "best book" part of the poll.  Drenka, mistress and foil for the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is the one woman in Roth who is a peer of the man who pursues her - not only because her libido and erotic imagination match his, but because they're both outsiders. Unlike so many women in Roth, Drenka doesn't embody the fear of aging or illness or death; instead she's a kind of double for his own experience of isolation, someone whose solidity is as tenuous as his own. In the Gornick interview I linked above, she talks about how Roth and Bellow use women as a way to avenge the experience of feeling excluded.  By the time we get to Sabbath, though, there's something else: how the resistance to domestic and conventional life has made this almost-old man another kind of outsider, and the cost of this. Not that he should have done otherwise, exactly, but it's an ongoing joke in the book that he fancies himself the proper bohemian artist sacrificing everything for his art, but his art is puppets. 

Sabbath also points to something that's evident throughout late Roth: the sense that his protagonists are raging against an order that's long since faded away. Sabbath's friend asks him "Isn't it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero . . .Are we back to Lawrence's gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism . .. the discredited male polemic's last gasp." Interestingly, Gessen says something similar  in the rest of his response: "Still, it might be said that Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposites sides of the question of sex, but arranged, together, something helplessly, against it; where sex is less of a battlefield and more of a tragedy." I'm not sure about the tragedy part:  Everyman, for example, doesn't work because adultery no longer carries that weight. I was reading Details at the hairdresser yesterday and there was a teaser for the Roth documentary coming out. So I guess Roth is still a male symbol of some sort for some people. It quoted him saying something about all those 19th century novels with adultery as their theme. I love adultery he says, don't you. Well, many people do, it would seem. But by Everyman he was tired enough of writing it that he breaks off a scene of the protagonist's fight with his wife, noting that scenes such as these are common enough, no need to write them again.

  I do think what Gessen says applies more to the pre-sexual revolution mores depicted in things like Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and Indignation than to all of Zuckerman and Kepesh's exploits. Still it makes me want to give Gessen the benefit of the doubt that he was making a joke with the first part. Either way, it does point to something: as Freudenberger's comment shows us, no one wants to be the reactive critic, waging a finger at the artist's vision. But Gessen gets at what's behind her ambivalence: it's Roth's work itself which is so often the "reaction." This is not necessarily a fault, but it's something that demands a better question than one about greatness.

All of which is, I suppose, to say: I would have gone with the 52% who voted "well . . .. "