The Male Gaze On The Page

Laurie Penny calls out a literary double-standard, arguing that “when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called ‘confessional’it’s just ‘literature’, or a ‘memoir'”:

[M]ale political experience is never coded as maleit’s just universal truth. In five years as a columnist and com­mentator who also happens to be young and female, I have lost count of the times I have been encouraged by editors to write about being a woman, in a way that is “provocative” without really challenging sexism. I have been encouraged to be a “voice” for young womento draw attention away from how most newspapers’ political pages are still dominated by men’s words, men’s agendas.

Now that I’m lucky enough to be able to pick and choose, I often hear the same thing from younger women writers: that they can pay their rent, or have their pitches listened to, only if they write about fashion or diets or dating in a way that is modestly feminist but still fluffy enough to sit within the “women’s pages,” which are usually part of a paper’s lifestyle section by virtue of not being considered serious politics.

Along the same lines, Katie Roiphe speculates that critics raving about My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s extensively detailed autobiographical novel, would hold their tongues if the author were instead a “Carla Olivia Krauss”:

I don’t think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diarylike profusion from a woman.

A 30-page riff on going to a party with children, and trying to balance your food while watching your child, and what exactly happens to her shoes, would appear, if a woman wrote it, both banal and egoistic. (Knausgaard writes, “I felt a surge of warmth in my breast. Leaned over and picked up a diaper and a pack of wipes while Heidi clung to me like a little koala bear. There was no changing table in the bathroom, so I laid her on the floor tiles, took off her stockings, tore off the two adhesive tabs on the diaper and threw it into the bin under the sink while Heidi watched me with a serious expression. ‘Just wee-wee!’ she said. Then she turned her head to the side and stared at the wall, apparently unmoved by my putting on a clean diaper, the way she had done ever since she was a baby.”) Reviewers and readers alike would think it was narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent. …

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. … The particular variety of rage aimed at women who document their daily lives, especially if they don’t involve a childhood of poverty or abuse or illness, is deeply entrenched and irrational. It’s not just that we don’t think of what they are doing as art, but that it annoys us, riles us. It feels presumptuous, vain, narrow, feminine, clichéd. It is not chic the way Knausgaard’s stormy ruminations on the minor oppressions of family life are chic.

Meanwhile, Sheila Heiti applauds Adelle Waldman for narrating her novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. from a male perspective. She argues that “formally, not just factually, it’s important that the author is female”:

This is hardly the first book in which a woman inhabits the mind of a man, but here it seems we’re never meant to forget that a woman is behind the writing. Just as we later see Nate outsourcing his conscience to the women around him, it’s as if the novel’s subject – the dissection of the male psyche in the context of dating – has been outsourced to Waldman, a writer who has the talent to write about anything but was given this subject because she is a woman; because the men in her milieu who have written about Nates haven’t looked so closely at the pain these men cause: her book is less an apologia than the case for the prosecution. It is methodical; Waldman has done the work of imagining so we can all understand this sort of guy’s behaviour and mentality. It’s almost a public service.