Very misanthropic lady novelists

Each interhemispheric flight I take is worse than the last. The flights themselves are fine, if extraordinarily wasteful. They are luxury, even (the Asian vegetarian meals resemble, these days, meals from mid-range south asian restaurants in Melbourne, which I’d happily live off). But my body, decrepit old thing, suffers more. My little elephant ankles fill with blood. The ‘very fine’ lines beneath my eyes reveal themselves to be cracked up gorges. I don’t poo for days afterwards, and then I can’t poo enough. Worse: my jetlag lasts a full week, throwing time and space into a conceptual jumble, proving what Einstein said, that ‘time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.’ Which is my excuse for not having no great insights this week in this letter; no messages or revelations from daily life. My consciousness is shattered and discontinuous. Space is purely conceptual. (Time? Fantasmic.)

So: the only thing I did this past week back in Australia, apart from deep clean and shop and rearrange furniture (sorry Khalid!) and visit family members and friends and email my several employers to assure them that despite my erratic emailing hours, despite my incomprehensible email prose, I will definitely be at work next week, I will definitely not frighten the children with my haggard appearance, I am absolutely a high-functioning casual employee who will not get sick not even once all semester!—the only thing not done to survive jetlag this week was read novels and add them to my little book-reading excel spreadsheet. And based on the spreadsheet, I realized that I am having a very good year so far for reading novels!

The ones I gave A-pluses to: 2 x Patricia Highsmith; 2 x Sigrid Nunez; 2 x Vigdis Hjorte; 1 x Jamaica Kincaid (almost a completist now); 1 x The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing reread on audiobook (one of the greatest novels of all time, truly, ever); and if you count the week before the start of 2020, 1 x Lynne Tillman from the 90s.

Looking on this list of novels I ranked highly, I realized that my deep enjoyment of a novel must be contingent upon a too-smart-for-her-historical-situation, cantankerous, slightly sexually perverse, and possibly corrupt on some important level female narrator or protagonist who is battling against the indignities of everyday life (Highsmith is the exception—she writes only about man psychopaths and pathetic male dupes). And while the authors I list here are not all white, and are most of them are alive and well, they constitute a decent basis for what might be a female version of the Bad Man canon of dead white males. Very misanthropic lady novelists! Whom I love very much.

Something I have felt uncomfortable with for many years is how uncomfortable fourth-wave internet feminism makes me. It’s inexplicable: why do I feel this way? I am very angry about How Men Are and The Harm Men Cause With Impunity a great deal of the time. And I don’t want to be a Debby Downer about liberation politics. But every time a white woman cites Beyoncé as her feminist idol, every time a novel with the word ‘Girl’ or ‘Woman’ in its title comes out, every time I read a personal essay about a woman who has spent her life accumulating the benefits of patriarchal scabbery discovering that she has been working against her own interests this whole time, a small piece of me dies.

How could I be uncomfortable with women claiming feminism in order to free their minds and hearts? What could bother me about the objectively positive proliferation of women’s orgs and festivals and groups and magazines and parties? Long live women! Long live the exclusion of cis men from the spaces they so often ruin! Probably I suffer from internalized misogyny!

I have thought about and read about this for so many years, now, and in fact I tried to deal with it in my PhD thesis. The conclusion I have arrived at is that despite its clear uses in liberation projects, despite it creating a fecund context for the production of artistic work I think is sincere and beautiful and important (including my very own work, which is of course very important), the politics of identity comes with definitional limitations which can inscribe sameness, flatness, and dishonest, aggrandizing, and exploitative self-representation. I basically disagree that negative association (we share a common oppressor) produces positive alliances (we must also share qualities and values, we must get along great). I believe instead that political alliances ought to be able to withstand individuals not personally liking each other, and not agreeing on (indeed not focusing on at all) modes of self-representation.

When women decide to join forces against male domination, for example, we are encouraged to believe that our oppression marks us in predictable and repeatable ways. Say, because of certain historical social formations, women are forgiving people (not me!). Or, we simply work harder (oppressive stereotype!). Or, we are conditioned for intersubjective sociality and are therefore better at sharing power and resources. I mean, maybe? But what about women like Patricia Highsmith, who are absolutely not socialized or charitable or good at doing anything, really, other than drinking spirits straight from the bottle and talking to their pet snails they keep on rotting heads of lettuce in their desk drawers and writing stories about murderous psychopaths? Are they not women too?

There is something about post-2013 feminism that casts women as bluestockinged goody two-shoeses. Am I imagining that? Am I simply projecting? Probably. Still: I despise it. In my experience, oppression doesn’t produce qualities of kindliness or extraordinary high-achievement. It produces resentment, emotional dysfunction, and the grief of unlived and unliveable futures.

(Other than the goody-two-shoes feminist, there is a second category for fourth wave feminist women: the ‘difficult woman’ (praise!). (Puke.) This is a category of over-privileged women who are out of touch with society but insist on commenting on it nonetheless. (Lena, Tina, Mia.) It’s true, they are difficult to comprehend; it’s true that part of their ‘difficulty’ is rooted in misogyny; but it’s also true that nobody likes being told about the rights of women by women who’ve never worked in the service industry. ‘Difficult’ means, in the case of this type, ‘will probably be rude to the waiter and not notice’. )

Pessimistic women on the other hand have been left way behind. Ambivalent daughters, ambivalent mothers, ambivalent communists, ambivalent apaths. The extremely argumentative, the hostile, the genuinely poor and pissed off. Women who refuse feminine characteristics to bury or reject outright their oppression. Women who are actually disfigured—and not in charming ways—by their oppression.

In A House in Norway, the textiles artist Alma makes a tapestry called ‘How it should be between people’, because she simply does not know, and she resents that her boyfriend and her children insist she conform to how it should be. Alma is a mother who feels put out when her children come to stay, an artist who works all hours through the night and drinks bottles of wine at seven a.m. to sedate herself, and a very shitty landlord who is baffled as to why her new migrant tenant is terrified of her.

I am not saying I want all the women in the world to be dysfunctional in the ways that Alma is dysfunctional, or that I want to be as odd and bad as her. It seems I just really, really like novels about women like her, because they make me feel slightly better about being a grump and a pessimist and a woman who might end up with nothing but pet snails.