New Yorker to Women: Drop Dead

Image Credit: Bloomsbury USA
Image Credit: Bloomsbury USA

Do you know what I often expect to find after reading a graphic depiction of domestic violence? Uxoricidal comedy. Because living women can be such a burden, but dead wives, on the other hand… They’re simply a hoot.

Last week’s New Yorker featured a story about the innovative techniques currently used to fight domestic violence—with detailed descriptions of a woman who was stalked, raped, brutally beaten, and ultimately shot to death in front of her child. And then the very same issue also included this charming anecdote in James Wood’s featured critical essay “Sins of the Father”:

Almost twenty years ago, George Steiner suggested in these pages that doing philosophy was incompatible with domestic life. Speaking of the troubled French thinker Louis Althusser, Steiner proposed that sometimes it might be necessary for a philosopher to strangle his wife.

Are you laughing yet? Because Althusser did, in fact, strangle his wife. Wood has quite a gift with that sardonic humor, doesn’t he?

In the magazine’s defense, it’s possible that none of the editors read these two articles side by side. I may not have noticed the crass juxtaposition if I hadn’t happened to start Wood’s essay immediately after I finished reading about a woman HAVING HER FACE SHOT OFF. But the problem with the Wood essay—and the New Yorker’s decision to publish it—is about more than poor taste in opening lines. See, Wood’s central argument is that great literary men are above morality and shouldn’t be concerned with the lives of the women and children who surround them—beings who, apparently, can be abandoned and abused if their existence happens to interrupt the great man’s creative flow. Call me a humorless feminist, but I’m not really okay with this.

Wood’s entire piece—ostensibly a review of the new memoir by Saul Bellow’s son—drips with white male privilege, making it both obnoxious and laughably old-fashioned. I was just waiting for him to quote Harold Bloom. Although Wood is supposedly remarking on what poor fathers writers make, he spends the vast majority of the article suggesting that the emotionally scarred wives and children should buck up and stop being such pussies. They were allowed to bask in the glow of male literary greatness, so even if that glow involved hostility, abandonment, and outright abuse, they should be thankful nonetheless because, I mean, ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!

While Wood congratulates the literary children who made peace with their difficult fathers (e.g., Susan Cheever, Alexandra Styron, and Janna Malamud Smith), he suggests that Greg Bellow is still a “speaking wound.” Now, I haven’t read Greg Bellow’s book, but I did hear him speak on the Guardian Books podcast, and he didn’t sound particularly petulant, bitter, or whiny to me. He simply didn’t believe that a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize was a moral pass. His father hurt him because his father was an asshole. The content of Saul Bellow’s work doesn’t change this anymore than O.J. Simpson’s prowess on a field should have shielded him from murder charges. But Greg Bellow’s inability to pardon his father is, to Wood, an unspeakable crime, representative not of the father’s failings but the son’s. The son needs to learn that  literary greatness supersedes basic human decency.

Wood argues that literary men are above censure because they are above life itself. He actually argues that male writers shouldn’t be forced to deal with the daily dramas that most mere mortals refer to as life. Continuing to quote Stein, Woods writes, “There is something vulgar and absurd … in the notion of a Mrs. Plato, a Madame Descartes. You cannot commit to taking out the garbage or doing the dishes while also solving the problem of the cogito or announcing the death of God.” Although he coyly states that Stein is, perhaps, being overly male-centered, I doubt he actually believes this because his argument can only apply to men.

While generations of poor suffering men had the opportunity to be both father and author, most female writers have historically had to forgo children altogether. Most didn’t have a spouse willing to do all the work for them while they were out contemplating the cogito. And if a female writer did abandon or neglect her child—which some certainly did—she had a much more difficult time arguing that her MFA precluded her from taking any responsibility. A bad mother is a bad mother while a bad father can still be an artist.

But, never fear, Wood does assign some blame to the men, but he only blames them for submitting to domestic cultural norms. Wood argues that, “The great scandal … is not that these men were writers first and husbands and fathers second but that they arranged their lives in such conventional ways.” What Wood fails to consider is that “these conventional ways” often allowed the men to write in the first place. Who would have typed out their manuscripts? Who would have cooked for them? Who would have done their laundry and cleaned their dishes? Who would have provided for their every need so that they could focus entirely on their craft? Finally, who would have provided them with the experiences and children they wrote about? Apparently, all of these novels about mid-century American life could have been written by writers who were not at all involved in mid-century American life.

While Wood considers himself downright progressive for mentioning that many of these literary wives had to arrange their lives around the needs of their husbands, it’s clear he considers this sacrifice worthwhile because it supposedly “saved” these writers from having to come in contact with the mundane. Discounting the entirety of domestic life and biological creation, Woods writes

How, really could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity? For a man, creating a child—though certainly not raising one—is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of thought and effort. Or to put it another way: raising a child can seem ordinary, as continuous, and as ‘easy’ as life itself, while writing a book is like staying up all night.

Right, because you know what never causes you to stay up all night? Having a baby.

One should remember that the writer under discussion is Saul Bellow. Does Wood really believe that the author of Seize the Day and Herzog could have written these novels without ever having married, had children, and divorced. Although Bellow’s oeuvre also includes depictions of war, his best novels are explicitly domestic—as are the best works by John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, and most of the other acclaimed male authors of that particular generation. They were all domestic novelists—no different from Jane Austen. But, according to Wood, their domestic life had no bearing on their creative life. Because they’re men. And because they didn’t take out the garbage.

Perhaps David Remnick was having a particularly rough week when this issue came out, and he simply didn’t read this essay or didn’t consider whether it should appear alongside graphic depictions of male violence. I mean, it was pretty hot last week. But it’s more likely that it simply didn’t occur to the editorial staff because this antiquated view of male privilege is still so prevalent in the literary world. And it’s a view that isn’t only annoying. It’s also dangerous because it allows us to, say, pardon a man who anally rapes a child because he made a great film with Jack Nicholson. That young girl’s life, like the life of Althusser’s wife, doesn’t matter. These women weren’t GREAT. So apparently they were also expendable—or as Wood would put it, collateral damage.

4 Replies to “New Yorker to Women: Drop Dead”

  1. I was not, of course, arguing that women and children should just buck up and appreciate the great male geniuses in their midst. I have no illusions that Saul Bellow must have been an impossibly difficult father; just that it makes no sense for Gregory Bellow to talk about separating, in his father, the life from the writing. The life was the writing, for Bellow — and this was part of the difficulty of being his son. (I”m grateful not to have been the son of writers.) Styron, Malamud Smith and Cheever wrote better books than Gregory Bellow because they are better writers, and have thought more deeply about these issues.
    When I wrote about how paternity couldn’t equal the drama of literary creativity, I was trying to understand how those particular male writers felt, not how I feel about paternity.

    You are quite right that many women writers never had children (while the male ones could go ahead and have as many as they liked). However, two points should be made: many of the male writers also never had children (from Lermontov and Flaubert, to Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, V.S. Naipaul, and William Golding); I would say that this is because they knew, at some deep level, that writing and domesticity are often hard to reconcile. Secondly, a fair number of the great women writers who did have children were pretty crap mothers (Muriel Spark, for instance, who was absolutely horrible to her only son). I love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but do you for a moment think she would have been a good mother? Thank God she wrote books and didn’t try to have children, too.

    For the record, I have two children (and yes, have spent many nights up trying to get them to sleep!), and am married to a novelist, Claire Messud. So these are issues we struggle with, and talk about, and even write about: I wrote, in January, in the New Yorker, about some of these struggles as they are dramatized in the fierce, feminist work of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whom I deeply admire. My name doesn’t have an extra ‘s’. That’s the actor — though from your strange and warped account, one might have thought that HE wrote the piece about Greg Bellow.
    –James Wood

  2. “…it makes no sense for Gregory Bellow to talk about separating, in his father, the life from the writing. The life was the writing, for Bellow…”

    Right, but the life WASN’T the writing for his son, and Greg has every right as a distinct human being with a personality/ideas/grievances of his own, to feel however the hell he wants to feel about his father. I’m sorry Mr. Wood (well, OK I’m not that sorry) but your response isn’t any less appalling or (male) privileged than your New Yorker piece. Can you really not see how that quote is tantamount to “And Greg should just deal with that because it’s the cost of being a genius writer?”

    And mentioning that you are indeed married with children only makes one feel sorry for your wife and your children.

  3. You are good at being aggrieved, but you need to be intelligently aggrieved.

    Of course I was not arguing that Greg Bellow should simply shut up and deal with his sorrow because that’s just ‘the cost of being the son of a genius writer.’ The whole point of looking at three other memoirs (memoirs by women — books you keep on forgetting to mention, genders you keep on forgetting to mention, as if they weren’t in the piece), by Alexandra Styron, Susan Cheever, and Janna Malamud Smith, was to suggest that they have more intelligent and more interesting things to say about the very things you (and I) are interested in, than Greg Bellow does. They have interesting things to say about gender, for instance, because they were the daughters of male writers. Greg Bellow has nothing interesting to say about gender. They have interesting things to say about the post-war male writer, about patriarchy, about the myth of ‘genius’ (it is Malamud’s daughter who quotes her father writing to his publisher, after his first book was accepted, ‘now I join the sacred company’ — not without a little dry irony, I think). Greg Bellow has spent most of his life simply refusing to accept that his father was a writer — as I said in the piece, his book is a loud wound. But a memoir by the child of a writer surely needs to have something to say about this salient fact. Greg Bellow has grievance (and who can blame the poor bastard?) but he doesn’t have intelligence or perspective: rather like you. All I can suggest you do is actually read the Bellow memoir, with its rage and sadness and complaint, and then read Malamud Smith’s book about her father, and make your own mind up. Then maybe read my essays on Richard Yates and on Elena Ferrante, both much about gender and writing and having children and families.

    I’ll pass over your comments about feeling sorry for my wife and children. They’ll get on fine without your sorrow. But thanks for the offer anyway.
    -jw

    1. Please note that the comment you were replying to was not written by me. I would never attack an author’s family, and I have a great deal of respect for your wife’s work. I very much enjoyed your piece on Elena Ferrante, but your essay on Bellow displayed, in my opinion, a rather old-fashioned understanding of male genius. Also, I’d like to remind you that the main reason I wrote my piece was because The New Yorker chose to publish your essay, which included a joke about domestic violence, in the same issue that included an article about women who had been killed by their husbands. I’m sure you have the “intelligence and perspective” to agree that this was a poor editorial choice.

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