Monthly Archives: March 2014

They look like white elephants: Hemingway, writing and feminism

collectedstoriesI have loved Hemingway for a long time. I must have first read him in my late teens, and I was stunned by him in that all-consuming way I’ve experienced with only a few other writers. It is the simultaneous clarity and obscurity that I love. Everything is laid on the surface: action, gestures, drinks, rain. But you hear very few internal thoughts, read very little emotion. Hemingway trusts his readers to make their own meaning from the surface he has constructed so plainly. The iceberg theory and all that.

Hemingway taught me that dialogue is not the conversation of everyday life. Dialogue must be constructed as tightly as anything in fiction. In real life, people waste words. In dialogue they should not. Repetition is good. It sometimes conveys the gap between people, whether it’s a difference of opinion or something more permanent. Look at this:

“How you feel now?”
“I’m awfully tired,” he said. “And I’ve got a bad headache. But I feel a lot better. Let’s have another one and then go up to your place and get a bath.”
“Maybe we ought to eat first.”
“I’m too dirty to eat. You can hold a place and I’ll go get a bath and join you at the Gran Via.”
“I’ll go up with you.”
“No. It’s better to hold a place and I’ll join you.” He leaned his head forward on the table. “Boy I got a headache. It’s the noise in those buckets. I never hear it any more but it does something to your ears just the same.”
“Why don’t you go to bed?”
“No. I’d rather stay up with you for a while and then sleep when I got back down there. I don’t want to wake up twice.”
“You haven’t got the horrors, have you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine. Listen, Hank. I don’t want to talk a lot of crap but I think I’m going to get killed tomorrow.”
I touched the table three times with my fingertips.
“Everybody feels like that. I’ve felt like that plenty of times.”

A lesser writer would have put, “He rolled his eyes” or “He shook his head yet again.” We get the full relationship and scenario between these men through dialogue and repetition only, no explication. What hit me when I first read Hemingway, and what enchanted me to the point where I tried to imitate it as so many writers have, was the artificiality of his dialogue. It is obviously and deliberately contrived. Not being a realist writer, he isn’t afraid to cut and shape. After all, all fiction is contrived. Hemingway’s dialogue shows the difficulty his characters have “connecting” with each other, the inadequacy of external things – dialogue, appearance, movement – to truly express the internal world of a person.

EH 1306NReading all of his stories recently, I was struck by how many of the images had stayed somewhere in my unconscious. It was like happening on a scent that brings back the entirety of a place, a time, a set of feelings.

I think this is how influence works sometimes. When you write, you aren’t cognisant of what you’re drawing on. But a lot of what you’ve read – especially those images, passages, characters, motifs – stays buried, where only your unconscious can reach it. It’s going off-topic, but the role of the unconscious, bringing things out of the dark into the light, sometimes only partially, is I think the centre of writing.

Here’s something that was buried for me:

Into a skillet he was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs, crouching on long nigger legs over the fire, turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side to baste the eggs with the hot fat.
“Will you cut some bread out of that bag, Mister Adams?” Bugs turned from the fire.
“Sure.”
Nick reached in the bag and brought out a loaf of bread. He cut six slices.

What is special about that? There’s no intensity of feeling or language. It is the starkness, the food, the atmosphere, the Americanness. I know that for me, what I see as good writing is connected to concreteness. Abstract, transcendental concepts which aren’t tied to something tangible on earth are too vague to have much impact. I don’t really know what strikes me about this particular Hemingway passage, what took me back to the first time I read this scene. But good writing is like that. There is a certain amount you can analyse, but as an aesthetic and emotional experience good writing is like good music – it hits you somewhere beyond expression.

This is all aesthetic. As a feminist, how do I come to terms what is truly Hemingway’s unavoidable misogyny? He gives us no complexity in his female characters. They are always passive and are defined by their relation to men. This is their mode of being. If Hemingway isn’t eager to chronicle interior lives in general, he certainly completely avoids giving us the subjectivity of any female characters. They are defined by their usefulness or agreeableness to men. They are either “good” women who do their job by serving men, or “bad” women who have deceived or hurt them.

I don’t think the excuse that “he was writing in another time” is tenable. I don’t see gender politics as moving in a straight line, always tending toward progress. I think it is more complicated than that. But if you are a radical feminist, when you read any literature, and of course with any work of art or pop culture, you have to come to a point of compromise. You have to use the critical lens you have developed to interrogate what you’re reading/watching/listening to.

As a feminist I am as interested in masculinity and its construction as I am in femininity. They are both central to the deconstruction of patriarchal power. So Hemingway’s representation of war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, “man in nature,” homosociality is fascinating for me. He somehow manages to interrogate this hypermasculinity while being enthralled in it. As a reader I can see the violence, anxiety, loneliness and impossible expectations of this kind of masculinity and I don’t have to celebrate this masculinity as he does. Being a writer of complexity, he necessarily shows the “negative” aspects of this kind of masculinity, he gestures towards the underlying uncertainties his male characters have. His style itself is reflective of the way hypermasculinity obscures the anxiety it provokes. The spare sentences, focused on external action, simultaneously make us think about what is not being said, what is under the iceberg, what men are supposed to hide and bluff their way through. He is still in love with the façade of masculinity, but as a reader I can see it as artifice in the way femininity is understood in Western culture as artifice. His male characters are trying to get to some “truth” of manhood through war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, getting “back to nature” but it never works out. As a feminist I can see that this is because there is no truth to manhood.

HemingwayGun
Reading Hemingway critically like this, far from making me a “bad feminist,” I think makes me a better one. Yes, I roll my eyes at the waif-like “girls” who beg men to love them, but I can see that this is the misogyny that must attend hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity of the sort Hemingway celebrates depends on misogyny for its power. Just as it depends on homophobia. Because it is not just a celebration of “masculine” activities and traits, it is a conde   mnation of everything “feminine.” To be a man means to objectify women, which means to embrace a misogynistic heterosexuality. Hemingway definitely writes masculinity with complexity but he doesn’t go the next step and interrogate its attendant misogyny and homophobia.
But reading him gives me a better understanding of masculinity, and patriarchy, and misogyny. And it has made me a better writer.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

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girlgirlgirl

“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”

It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

sula

I wept over this page. It is a truth beyond so many others the way our world is structured and which is hardly ever spoken or written. I have known so many girls and women who have thrown aside their friendships, their deep love, with other girls and women, for a boy or a man. That romantic relationships with men are considered the pinnacle of affinity and intimacy for women is a mark of the insidiousness of and damage wreaked by patriarchal notions of relationality and womanhood. A monogamous, possessive, heterosexual relationship is a marker of success for a woman’s life, often, indeed, the reason for her being, the completion of her Self.

Simone de Beauvoir said in 1949 something that I see every day in 2014:

“She is waiting for Man.”

Yes.

“Whether wishing to realise herself as a woman or overcome the limits of her femininity, [she] has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape; he has the dazzling face of Perseus or St George; he is the liberator; he is also rich and powerful, he holds the keys to happiness, he is Prince Charming. She anticipates that in his caress she will feel carried away by the great current of life as when she rested in her mother’s bosom.”

Or Ryan Gosling, or whoever is the Prince Charming today, I don’t keep up. But note it is no longer her mother. She has lost the centrality of intimacy between women.

This is crucial for feminism because “In her eyes, man embodies the Other, as she does for man; but for her this Other appears in the essential mode and she grasps herself as the inessential opposite him.”

Beauvoir anticipates ideas of institutionalised heterosexuality, heteronormativity and the binary gender system. Woman is to Man as Body is to Mind. The opposite of the binary, and inferior. Dependent upon the other for meaning. Not a true Self without the other.

If women are to embrace the feminist ethic, if they want to move beyond a restrictive, self-negating, self-denying patriarchy and institutionalised heterosexuality they must shatter this hierarchy of relationality. They must scorn the recourse to jealousy which is rooted in misogyny and the patriarchy’s tactic of “divide and conquer.” I know women and girls who claim they “get along better with guys” as if it is something to be proud of. I have listened to girls and women worry and complain endlessly that another girl is talking to their boyfriend, whether the girl is a friend of theirs or someone they have never met.

thisisahoeThis jealousy is rooted in the idea that a woman’s aim in life is to “secure” a man, to maintain a “successful” heterosexual relationship, and therefore they must be on their guard at all times. It is rooted in the assumption that other women and girls are “out to get” a man at all costs, so hold tight to yours. Similarly, it assumes all men are hopelessly vulnerable to the wiles of femininity. Leaving that aside, though it feeds into the patriarchal strategy of ascribing men an “instinct” of polygamy and women an “instinct” for monogamy which is similarly damaging to relationships between women, it sets up women and girls against women and girls. The success patriarchy has had with this strategy has been accomplished through internalised misogyny. Women split themselves off from other women. Yes, it is a highly effective tactic of the patriarchy, but its internalisation means women and girls themselves effect it.

thatsmisogyn

A girl calling another girl a “slut” or a “bitch” is a hideous example of this yet it happens as if it is nothing. Every time you do this, you are showing your internalised misogyny. You are reiterating the age-old patriarchal strategy of divide and conquer, of trivialising and shaming women for not fitting into a standard of “woman” and “femininity” defined by the patriarchy. These are ways of policing women and are used by women as well as men. Be critical of these tactcs. Support, uplift – don’t knock down. We are all held to that sexist standard and we need women to help us break out of it, not constrict us further.

challenge girlhateI have heard women and girls talk for hours on the need to “make it work” with a man, expound on the efforts they will go to “rescue the relationship,” with no corresponding anxiety when a friendship with a woman is in dire straits. They have turned into wrecks at the slightest sign of conflict in their heterosexual romantic relationships while thinking nothing of abandoning a seriously ill woman friend. Until this stops, patriarchal strategies will continue to disempower women, and internalised misogyny will dictate the terms of every bond between women and girls.

Every time you think of your monogamous male partner as more significant than your women friends and family – indeed as your “significant other” – every time you cut off a woman friend in the throes of a new romantic relationship, every time you devote 90% of a hangout session with your woman friend to fretting about the state of your romantic relationship, to whether he really does look twice at that mutual friend, you are denigrating your Self, you are saying, “I only have space in my head and my life for a man,” you are rejecting the transcendent power of relationships between women.

When Nel comes to the realisation that “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude” it is stunning, it is an epiphany. Because it overturns the hierarchy enforced by the patriarchy – that relationships with men, which are always possessive: boyfriend, husband, significant other, are the ideal to which women should aspire. She realises that her friendship with Sula was not trivial. It was deeper than anything she had felt with Jude. This is the feminist power of Morrison’s work. She never falls into the trap of heteronormativity, where relationships are economic, possessive, one-way – as they are in, for example, Austen, Bronte, and many other writers who are considered feminist or proto-feminist.

sisterhood It was Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” which made me see the necessity and radical power of smashing the hierarchy of intimacy and valuing the huge range of relationships between women. This, to me, is the most important objective of feminism.

Rich points out the numerous forms of male power in patriarchal societies which combine to make women “convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable – even if unsatisfying or oppressive – components of their lives.”

This has resulted in “an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other.”

Yes, feminism means sisterhood. “Women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other.”

And so by accepting the all-importance of heterosexual monogamous relationships women are “internalising the values of the coloniser and actively participating in carrying out the colonisation of one’s self and one’s sex” – Kathleen Barry.

In other words, girl hate and isolation within a monogamous heterosexual romantic relationship.

stop the j wordIt was this which made me realise I needed to alter the direction and purpose of my own writing. To go beyond the minimal requirements of the Bechdel Test – to write the range, importance and richness of kinship between women in all its strength and conflict.

However, my vision of this objective is not structured around Rich’s essentialist notions of femininity and womanhood – that women are by nature more caring, for instance. This is possibly a minor point if we work from the understanding of the social construction of the binary gender system, and masculinity and femininity. In this way we can break down the ways in which women and femininity are explained in relation to men and masculinity – that is, as dependent on the “superior” term in the binary.

Instead, women are here for ourselves, transcendent, subjective, not aiming to “find a man” to complete us, supporting each other where we have put each other down, where men put us down, where patriarchal trivialisations of femininity and friendship between women put us down.

endgirlhate“Woman identification is a source of energy, a political springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality.”

Breaking the hierarchy of intimacy is crucial to my feminism because as Rich says without it “women will remain dependent upon the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives.”

It’s intersectional, global and radical.

girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.

When I say “work”…

“When I say “work” I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs” – MARGARET LAURENCE

thedeskThe one thing to make for yourself if you are a writer is a routine. I doubt, if you are writing any kind of fiction that attempts to be even slightly challenging or new, that writing will ever become something you are well-versed in, something easy. It’s one of the few jobs where you feel like you don’t really know what you are doing most days at work. I don’t know if this is true for everyone. I imagine it has something to do with writing being like making light out of darkness, turning the unconscious into something conscious, trying to represent something that is almost beyond your grasp. I feel like a fool or a fraud for most of the first draft, all of the second, most of the third, some of the fourth, all of the fifth, etc…Until I manage to convince myself that I know what I’m doing. Then when it is published I feel like a fool/fraud all over again. One day is always as hard as the day before. One story is as frustrating as one written years earlier. So sitting down at the desk day in, day out, is the only way. You have to make a routine so steel-encased you won’t break it for anything less than earthquake.

Most people don’t get the sheer amount of work involved. I mean dull, monotonous, frustrating work. The pages and pages of drafts. The number of times you look at what you have done and wonder how you could have been so stupid to attempt it. The neck, back and shoulder pain of leaning over a desk. What it comes down to is hours at the desk. That is all. If you don’t have time to write you don’t have time to become a writer. Yes, most people are going to wonder what you are doing all day. Yes, it is self-indulgent. But if you have to do it you have to do it.

I was twenty when I started treating writing as a job. I was lucky, something just came over me and I knew this was what I had to do. It was a perfect storm. Finally I knew I was going to be a writer. So, four hours a day, preferably in the morning. If that’s not possible, whenever I can squeeze it in. There’s not much point sitting down for less than two hours at a stretch. Sometimes editing can be done in shorter stints, but a big block of time is what is going to get you somewhere.

In the morning I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s like trying to start an engine on a frosty morning. I sit rubbing my eyes, staring at the road and the trees out the window, feeling nothing like a writer. This can go on for some time. Sometimes this can be useful, turning the mind over. Sometimes it’s a waste of time and makes for nothing but frustration and thoughts that I may as well give up this charade.

Only one coffee a day. On Saturdays, or if I have been particularly cursed by insomnia, I may have two. Otherwise, my nerves get the better of me. I take a break after about two hours, get some chamomile tea, some food, read a few pages of a novel.

I have music on when I write. Seems sloppy, of course. But for reasons unknown it lets me focus, keeps me in the place I’m in.

I’m lucky if I have five minutes of intense, ephiphanic writing per session. When I have those periods I am happy and excited about the writing. Every other minute is close to drudgery. Some days I won’t have those periods. But every other minute of drudgery is worth it for those minutes of focus. Every other minute I am avoiding distraction, trying not to watch the clock, hoping for those moments. When they come it is like accessing something bigger than myself. I had that thought many years ago and it is still how I think about the process of writing when it is at its best – it is as if you are in touch with something bigger than yourself, and your only hope is to get it on paper.

Writing every day is training. If you do more waiting than writing, everything gets flabby. It takes a long time to build a habit. It is certainly not pleasant to get up on a cold morning and sit at your desk when acquaintances have planned a good day out. I have definitely been seduced away from the desk and it was doubly as hard to stay at it the next day. But if you have done it for six months every day previous, it will be a lot easier.

I have learned this from doing it. But learning from the habits and philosophies of other writers is one of the best things you can do. Like many adolescent girls who think they have both literary potential and hidden depths, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. I read her journals very young and it made the way I think about writing. Plath was tough, disciplined, angry and assured about her writing. Reading great works of literature is the bread and butter of writing, the way looking at, feeling, smelling a carpenter’s creations and watching a carpenter work is the bread and butter of carpentry. But you also need to listen to the carpenter talk ABOUT carpentry. Reading journals, letters and biographies of writers will let you fashion your own writing philosophy and routine.

“When I stop, the rest of the day is posthumous. I’m only really alive when I’m working” – TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

“I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act.” — A. S. BYATT

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing” – DONALD HALL

“Writers don’t have lifestyles. They sit in little rooms and write” – NORMAN MAILER

“Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards” – HENRY MILLER

“Be ruthless about protecting your writing days. Although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg” – J.K. ROWLING

“I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.

I think it’s bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly” – KAREN RUSSELL