Friday, November 26, 2010

Novel Retraction

No, this is not about yet another retraction of a Journal article related to someone's irreproducible results involving high-stakes biomedical research. It is about yet another novel that has a character who makes paranoid statements about feminists as she is thinking about her own life. As I was reading a novel recently, I found myself wishing that novels could have Errata, or retractions, or second-thoughts; that an author could realize "Oh no, those things I had that character say and think are really stupid in a way I did not intend" and then fix the problem. That would be a novel retraction.

Here are some excerpts from The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver; I don't know if these thoughts reflect the beliefs of the author, Lionel Shriver, or only her main female character (Irina), but I hope it is the latter:

Irina assumed that Jude was prideful in that wearing feminist way about the fact that she'd not taken her husband's surname.

She [Irina] didn't care if feminists would have maintained that she didn't need a man.

She [Germaine Greer] was that rare animal, a feminist with a sense of humor..

Older, she [Irina] was wiser to the woes that could fall abruptly from the sky like weather, and all that feminist brouhaha aside, a woman was safer -- plain safer -- when she made a survival pact with a male of the species.

Thus over Ramsey's protests she demurred from taking his surname, not from feminist zeal but because she could not afford it; the appellation Irina Acton would make official the very vanishing act at which she was already getting too much practice.

One gets the impression that this Irina character has an imaginary little feminist sitting on her shoulder, criticizing her every decision (no doubt in an unpleasant, shrieking voice).

I am sure that there are wearing, humorless feminists wandering around out there somewhere, hating all men and despising women who take their husband's name, but do I really need to say that those descriptions are not applicable to most people who would call themselves feminists? Perhaps the author only used statements like the ones above to illustrate the insecure mindset of her main character; if so, this was effective.

Whether or not the anti-feminist statements are part of the fictional world of the book or also represent the beliefs of the author, the question is: Do spurious anti-feminist statements like the above examples ruin a work of fiction for me, the reader?

The three most recent examples that I have discussed in this blog are Solar (I McEwan), The Perfect Reader (M Pouncey), and The Post-Birthday World (L Shriver); one by a male author, two by female authors. There are parts of Solar that I liked, and I can't say I hated the book, but there were quite a few things about it that I disliked. I hated The Perfect Reader entirely. And I didn't really like The Post-Birthday World (I liked Shriver's other books more). So, maybe..

But, in fact, I really don't think the occasional anti-feminist elements were central to my dislike of these books. The "feminists hate men", "feminists are humorless" etc. statements and caricatures certainly didn't help me like the books, but I would probably feel the same if a novel also involved repulsive stereotypes of scientists. Oh wait, Solar had that too.

I am trying to think of a recent novel that contains overt "anti-feminist" statements or characters, but that is an interesting, thought-provoking, well-written work of fiction. I don't mean "anti-feminist" in the sense of having a plot line about a woman who doesn't have a career and/or who is a 40 year old "girl" who loves to shop (I don't consider either of those anti-feminist). I mean "anti-feminist" in the sense of the excerpts above. I am sure there must be some, but my memory fails me right now. Any suggestions?

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am sure that there are wearing, humorless feminists wandering around out there somewhere

Ya think?

Mom, Ph.D. said...

Irina (and Lionel Shriver) sound dated--1980s or earlier. I guess it's a good sign that I can't think of another recent novel with this problem (but I don't get to read as many novels as I'd like to these days).

I did cancel my subscription to The Atlantic a few years ago because they kept publishing Caitlin Flanagan's anti-feminist rants, and without any more nuanced approaches to feminism to counterbalance.

Stephanie said...

I wouldn't say I despise women who take their husbands name, but it does get on my nerves that the only women I know who didn't take their husbands names are scientists, except for my sister, they picked a new name. I'm pretty sure most of my scientist friends would have changed their names if they weren't scientists with papers. So, the feminist movement really hasn't done much in that realm. I suppose it doesn't matter really, but it represents something that really bothers me. But I don't blame the women, I'm just a little disappointed and sad about the general situation. Does that make me a humorless feminist?

I did finally meet a man who changed his last name to his wife's, so that hypothetical case people tout actually exists, at least, n>=1.

Anonymous said...

I have heard of, but have not personally seen, both partners changing their name as well.

Anonymous said...

I know a couple, whose last names were "Alpha" and "Beta" and they both changed their last name to Alpha-Beta. The guy, Beta, was a fellow student and later colleague.

Mariclo said...

I think I've said this before in response to a another comment on this blog but I'll repeat it just in case:
I DO NOT understand (and yes I have a little trouble respecting) women who would change something as fundamental as their name for ANY guy!

In Canada (or at least in Quebec,I'm not positive about the rest of teh country) ,it's illegal to change your name when you get married. You have to get special permission and have darn good reasons fo doing so.

Also, the same: why only give the father's last name to the children?
I'm the one who'se absolutely sure the kids are mine...(men have to assume!)they have both our last names...

Stella said...

Mariclo: Maybe you should try to understand, instead of deciding that you can't quite respect these women. Women have many different reasons for the choices they make, and it's pretty judgmental to assume you understand their situation. See this post, which makes exactly this point extremely well.

myytinmurtaja said...

What I'd like to see is an anti-feminist with a sense of humour! In my humble opinion, no rarer beast exists.

I you want to be really, truly funny, you need a modicum of self-awareness and honesty. If you are self-aware and honest enough - well, then it just so happens that clinging to the reassuring fairy tale that women are somehow "inferior" to you is really difficult.

Mom, Ph.D. said...

Myytinmurtaja's comment is fantastic! And so true. I don't know of any anti-feminists with a sense of humor.

EliRabett said...

Obviously Alpha and Beta were married by Rev. Gamow

Mariclo said...

Stella, Even after reading the other post ,I still stand by my opinion: the cases described do not reflect the reasons why a majority of cases where women (in America) change their names to Ms Mydearhusband.

And it pisses me off mightily that a feminist would use society and its outdated paternalist and macho views of family and couple to sanction the "right to choose". Cases like the ones described do exist and I can see that an individual would change her name for some of those reasons but doesn't it make you sick that she would HAVE to (abuse case for example)?

Anonymous said...

I shied away from reading Solar after your post on it last spring, but eventually I read it and I *loved* it, anti-feminist screeds and all. (Though must admit I sped-read through those parts). And yes, all the scientists were presented as repulsive bores, but I had just gone through tenure, so that seemed... well...about right.

Happy Thanksgiving, FSP. I'm impressed you kept up with your posts!

Doctor Pion said...

Damn, Eli beat me to it.

I'll just add that it sounds like Ramsey needs to lighten up and realize that "We are all lobsters".

Anonymous said...

My husband and I both hyphenated our names, and if I'd known what a headache it would be, we each would have just kept our names. At the Social Security Office & the DMV, my husband got asked, "But you're the guy...why are you changing your name?" (plus the hassle of having a 15-letter last name...at my old job, I had a 42-character email address). I remember asking a feminist professor (who had changed her name) why she chose to do so, and her answer was that her maiden name was her father's as well, and therefore just as patriarchal as her husband's, and she liked the idea of joining with her husband to create a new family (the latter is exactly why we hyphenated). But I have a lot of friends--pretty much all of my friends from undergrad who aren't in grad school--that have chosen to take their husband's name, and I've been surprised how few even considered doing otherwise (on the other hand, my grad school colleagues are all keeping their own names, and I'm in a field where very few publish before the PhD is granted, so it's not about publications). I also know one couple who made up a new last name, & both switched to it.

Also, I live in BC, and it is definitely not illegal here to change your name--most of my husband's female colleagues have their husband's names (so it's just a Quebec thing).

Stella said...

Mariclo, I agree with you that a lot of those situations are pretty terrible, and that in most cases women who take their husband's name aren't in those situations. But the point is, for any given woman you meet on the street, you don't know that, so please hold off on deciding you can't quite respect her. It may happen more often than you think; my awesome feminist cousin just got married, for example, and took her husband's name rather than keeping the name of her father who abandoned the family when she was three.

For whatever it's worth, I would absolutely not change my name if I got married, but I'm not going to judge anyone else for their choices.

Anonymous said...

Maybe people should have,I don't know,some kind of coming of age ceremony when they turn 18 and choose a name that does not come from the father or husband...

Anonymous said...

For a while, in every novel I or my husband were reading, every female character was a sex object of some sort. I had a stretch of time where I read A Sheltering Sky, my husband had read Siddhartha and The Fountainhead, and I've hardly read novels since.

Anonymous said...

I changed my name, in the midst of my scientific publishing activity. I'd always assumed I'd keep my birth name, but it hit me shortly before my wedding that I was *choosing* to establish a family with my husband, and for me that superseded the accident of the name I inherited at birth. And frankly, I like the way my first name fits together with my husband's last name. It's more lyrical, and more unique, than the clunky and very common last name I grew up with.

Sure, it wreaks havoc if you want to look up my h-index on Web of Science. But if that's the most important question you can ask about me, you probably aren't my cup of tea anyway.

As far as the original question, I can enjoy reading about a totally mysogynistic character on occasion. It's far more irritating when it's the omniscient narrator's voice coming through that way.

Female Science Professor said...

That's a good point. It probably does make a lot of difference whether the opinions are conveyed by a narrator whose thoughts are shared with the reader, or whether it's a more remote (third person) experience.

Anonymous said...

Feminism is used as a label by so many different groups these days that any statement about it is likely to be false about most of them. I think that particular individuals tend to use it to a group/individual they find most memorable (positive or negative). I've seen attempts to make more specific the family of terms with Nth wave, pro-this, against-that, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting that (while not novels), anniversary editions of both "The Blind Watchmaker," and "Godel, Escher, Bach" have retractions in the extra introductions. They both apologize for their 'horrible' sexism when writing the books by using 'he/man' and having only male characters respectively.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to add to the derailing of this post into the name-change issue, but I find it interesting that the debate boils down to how we perceive women who choose to take their husband's names. I think passing judgment on anyone for an issue like their names is simply ridiculous.

But it does bother me when I see friends changing their names -- not because of their individual decisions or my respect for them, but because of the realization that this is still the more popular choice, and say what you will, a sign that the patriarchy has a very strong hold over us. And that just makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

re: Mariclo
"In Canada (or at least in Quebec,I'm not positive about the rest of the country) ,it's illegal to change your name when you get married. You have to get special permission and have darn good reasons fo doing so."

I cannot comment on Quebec and whether it is "illegal to change your name", but I have some knowledge of France (as I am married to a Frenchwoman) and there is the obvious link between the two places. In France official documents, such as passports and ID cards, show women's names listed as "maiden name, epouse hubands name". I believe this practice dates back to the revolution of 1789 and the "égalité" aspects of the French national "motto". However how a woman wants to call herself is another matter. My mother in law started of in married life as "Madame married name" but now styles herself as the hyphenated "Madame maiden name-married name"

Of course it is interesting to see that in Anglo-Saxon countries we still commonly see the reverse "hubands name, nee maiden name"

R.B. said...

I don't have to have characters making over feminist statements, but I won't bother with over anti-feminist ones. It's easy enough to be misogynist without trying for a lot of writers, but to go the length of repeatedly dogging feminism shows (to me) some kind of self-esteem issue.

It's funny, because I was just trying to find a book about parenthood I'd read, and the only writer I could remember from it was Lionel Shriver.

Would you still consider reading/enjoying the book if Shriver was stated on the record that it is the character, and not the writer, who has these thoughts? I feel like I would. There are a lot of books out there, and I can find one that doesn't poke lazy fun at feminism.

Anonymous said...

You know...I had forgotten about your blog for almost 8 months. Suddenly thought I would stop by...and before I looked I wondered what your top blog post would be about...

I guessed right...feminism!!!!

Let's see...in the last 8 months... so much has happened in the world, but your life revolves around that old axis of feminism.

Now we are down to complaining about random characters in stories having anti feminist feelings. Since these characters in books don't really exist... you are now out to police thought itself. The old Soviets would have loved your approach to thinking about the world.

Anonymous said...

@Anon from 6:52:

Right, having a discussion and/or posting a critique about a book or the characters therein is thought-policing. It's not like it's been done for centuries, or something people actually do for a living!

*facepalm*

Anonymous said...

Well I guess that totally proves the results of Anon's awesome scientific analysis. Except.. wait.. according to the tag index, there seem to be more posts about cats than about feminism. I therefore conclude this blog revolves around that old axis of felinism.

Oh yeah, and musing does not = complaining, although I can see how that subtle distinction might be elusive to an anti-feminist with no sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

Shorter @Anon from 6:52:

How dare you write about things you are interested in, when I am not! You must shut up about those things. Then I'll deign to drop by more often.

Anonymous said...

I didn't change my name when I got married. I had arguments with my now-husband about not changing my name. Yes he could understand why I didn't want to, but he'd had a lifetime of being told that this is what wives do. Blind entitlement clashed with a modicum of understanding. He said just wanted that "gift" and I wasn't willing to give it. He couldn't imagine giving me that gift, however.

He's not some anti-feminist monster, either. He'd qualify as a person who has some awareness issues that face women. He has massive blindspots, though, and this was one of them.

Feminists end up making compromises every day. I don't begrudge anyone who wants a break from petulance, hostility and resistance from family, friends and authorities (tip: think twice before having a different surname from your children).

Anonymous said...

I was reading a novel by Stella Rimington (ex-head of MI5 in Britain). I got to a point where her character rehashed the tired "humourless feminist" line and I put the book down. Quite simply, the character and the story was not engaging enough to go on.

I had no trouble reading through Iain Banks' Wasp Factory, even though the main character quite clearly misogynist (and disturbed). A better story, a better character.

Anonymous said...

Maricalo,

I fall under the categories from the linked site of: "choose your battles," and "my father's name is patriarchal too" and "I like my husband's name better than my maiden name aesthetically".

Also the camp of "having different names is confusing" and "hyphenating is awkward."

Am I betraying my sex? No. I made the decision - it was not forced upon me. It's true, I made it within a whole bunch of patriarchal influences, but that's the context within which I decide what breakfast cereal to buy, too. I personally don't have much more riding on my last name than I do on cereal.

For the record, if I'd published prior to marriage I definitely would not have changed my name because then I'd have a positive reason not to change it. In the absence of such a reason, it's my business so butt out.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me most is the number of people who have assumed that I changed my name when I got married - as if it wasn't a choice, but an expectation. That, plus the expectation that my husband would not change his name, really suggests our society has a ways to go before we have true gender equality. Feminists still have a lot to fight for.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My wife kept her own name on marriage. We decided to give male children my last name and female children her last name. We ended up having only one child (a boy). Having a different last name from her child caused no difficulties (it is extremely common here, from a variety of different reasons).

My brother's wife, on the other hand, changed her last name on marriage and kept that name even after they divorced. She remained closer to my parents than to her own, and is still part of our family.

snobographer said...

I'll take the dry wit of Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Parker or Eudora Welty of Jane Austen over the macho fauxthorative hackneyed bloviation of Philip Roth or Norman Mailer any day.

drsunsets said...

I published four 1st author manuscripts before I got married. I planned to keep my name. Fiancee, also possessing one of those strange blind spots, wanted me to take his name. We went round and round on this, and in the end, I gave in.

It's actually worked out OK. I kept my maiden name as a middle name, and I hyphenate on pubs. Plus, taking the married name makes me "Dr. Easytopronounce" for students, whereas my scientific publishing name is "M. Impossibletopronounce-Easytopronounce"

Anonymous said...

I am one of the rare beasts whose husband changed names, while I kept my name. So add me to your count, Stephanie. I wasn't really published in a serious way before I got married, but I just couldn't fathom giving up my name. My husband wanted us to have a family name, so he added my last name to his own, with a hyphen. The kids have the hyphenated name as well. I just kept my name as is. Having a different last name from my kids has never been an issue for us.

I always find it strange when women take on their husband's surnames, but I respect their right to do so.

Bagelsan said...

Thus over Ramsey's protests she demurred from taking his surname, not from feminist zeal but because she could not afford it; the appellation Irina Acton would make official the very vanishing act at which she was already getting too much practice.

It's funny, but this sounds like a very feminist reason not to change your name. My "father's name" or not, I've had my name my entire life and it's part of my identity -- why would you casually erase something like that on the whims of a husband? It's vanishing yourself.

I personally don't love that so many women change their names. Isn't it funny how it always just happens to be the woman who has an unpronounceable name, a bad father, a desire to "start a new family" etc? If those were the only reasons then men would change their last names with comparable frequency... and they definitely don't. It's obviously a gendered expectation, no matter how many anecdata of walk-out fathers and specific terrible circumstances you pull up.