So many people were reading Gone Girl by the time I’d heard of it that I knew I had to get on the train. It’s a thriller, a potboiler, by a woman named Gillian Flynn. A pretty young housewife named Amy disappears, leaving her husband Nick in a fog of suspicion, confusion and self-doubt. It’s told in a rather unconventional, somewhat alinear he-said she-said, with the kind of deliciously unreliable narrator you just know is not telling you the whole thing. It’s terribly engaging.
But: it’s not the kind of book I expect some of its fans to read. It sits at that ever fuzzier line between what is called “commercial” fiction and “literary” fiction. Flynn, you see, used to be the television critic for Entertainment Weekly, which is not the sort of credential you often see attached to a book the self-consciously “literary” adore. Television is still thought of, for less and less obvious reasons every day, as insufficiently “literary.” Add to that the fact that all of the Gone Girl boosters I ran into online and off were women, and it got me thinking about how often this happens, how the books that sit on the line between mass appeal and literary value tend to get the brunt of the gender segregation of the book market.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago Esquire started its imprint for “men’s fiction,” which some poor editor defined to the New York Times as “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another,” he said. “And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man’s life that seem common.” Now, look. If you’ve done this sort of journalism at all you know it’s quite possible that a subject, caught off-guard by a reporter’s question, ends up giving a less-than-considered take on the subject. Let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt and assume that’s what happened here, because surely it can’t be his view that “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another” is either (a) the only kind of thing men read, or (b) the only kind of thing men write. If he does, I am happy to let him borrow my copy of Gone Girl. Or, you know, Bring Up the Bodies, or Lightning Rods.
The Esquire editorial staff means well, I’m sure. Once, in the glory days of Gordon Lish, they were literary tastemakers, and who doesn’t want to be the toast of the town? But even in the antiquated early seventies you don’t see the kind of skew that Esquire is now selling. Captain Fiction wasn’t Captain Men’s Fiction. But then, as though to compound the issue, they launched what they call a Short Short Fiction Contest, a flash fiction competition, and provided ten examples of suitable work. Nine were by men (Téa Obreht being the holdout) and nine by white people (excepting Danyeel Mueenuddin). Perhaps they were unaware how literally they were depicting certain people’s chances at the prize. Perhaps they don’t “mean it.” But it’s only a bitter sort of laughter that curls up my throat, thinking of that. It’d be so much easier if these men meant to exclude us, because if they recoiled at the mere thought of estrogen (or melanin) being allowed near a pen it’d be easier to get rid of them. We could pick them off like beer cans on the fence.
Instead, we have a situation where the excuses are about “quality” and “taste,” which are (conveniently) subjective and indistinct. (“I just happen to enjoy the novels of DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, Franzen, and Wallace,” goes a familiar version of this refrain, though usually when pushed the list of men goes on, and on.) Or else we are told that the young white men are the best self-promoters, which raises a contradiction that never resolves itself. We go ‘round and ‘round. Either you are simply publishing the best without regard to the personal qualities of the writer in question, or you are affected by what you admit is the secondary (and racially and gender-ly specific) question of “confidence.” It is an either/or question to which there is a clear answer, somewhere. But a clear answer is not generally the goal of these conversations. The targets move so the home team players won’t have to.
Put another way: in Gone Girl, when Amy disappears, Nick, who claims absolute certainty of his innocence, at least has the good sense to appear self-doubting. To have a sense that he was not a perfect husband before she vanished. In these discussions we never even get that kind of theatre. Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe it’s less frustrating to deal with men who, looking around, seeing that everyone else is gone, shrug, widen their grin, and go right back to what they were doing. At least they are being honest.
But while we are on the subject of honesty: some more may be called for in this situation. When I bring this up, people in positions of influence often say: what do you want from me, from the editors? Well, for starters, on Monday I’m going to a fundraiser for VIDA. You could come. That said, a better-funded byline count isn’t going to solve much. They’ve been around for awhile now; the information doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere.
“Shaming people,” one of VIDA’s organizers told The New York Observer, recently, “has never really changed anyone’s mind.” She said this by way of explaining why VIDA tries not to name names. I sympathize with her point; we here are ladies, and we were brought up to be nice about this. Add to that my burden of Canadianness, and suddenly the whole thing has to be positively treacly. It’s just how I feel more comfortable.
But niceness has become, paradoxically, a chokehold on this discussion. How nice can you be about being shut out of a conversation? How nice are you obligated to be? Does it extend to deliberately obscuring facts so as not to make people feel you are calling anyone specific out? Does it really get us anywhere to write essays like this one of mine to explain this again and again? To cloak them in calm language, to try to be diffuse about it because diffusion is “polite”?
Sometimes I think the strategy on the imagined other side is to force us into a war of attrition, to keep ramping up the demands for further explanation until all we have is the sand lining our throats. And then, of course, because we broke up the match first, we are told we deliberately lost it.
So let’s try a middle ground. I am not looking to shame anyone, but I am going to try demanding some explanations myself. There are, after all, things I want to know. At some point someone has to flip the table. I suppose now is as good as any other time. And yet, grrargh, here I am shivering in the floodlights because what I have to ask, as meekly and kindly as I can think to phrase it, because oh god I guess Esquire will never ask me to write for them now not like that was an actual possibility before, is this:
Shouldn’t these “white guy” editors and writers be ashamed of themselves?
Though I’ll assure you the question isn’t rhetorical, I can’t say I hold out much hope for the answers.