Monday, January 31, 2011

Sexist or Not Sexist? That is the Question.

So how does one come to define a book as sexist? Or the author writing it? It can sometimes be hard to decide. At first you get that little tickle in your spine, maybe your cheeks start to flush. You think to yourself, “I don’t like where this is going.” But then you have to stop and ask yourself: is this just the character being a sexist jerkface? Or is the character actually relating to us the author’s true feelings? Am I supposed to relate to this character? Think they’re a stand-up person? Are they the hero? Someone to be idolized? Sometimes the lines can be tricky.

Like in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I just recently read, Lord Henry espouses many sexist ideas and presents them in a humorous light. Haha, funny funny, let’s all laugh along, right? Well sure, Oscar Wilde was presenting a delightful bit of humor into the story but was I supposed to be agreeing or wringing my hands at how full of himself Lord Henry was? I think the latter. Sure, Dorian Gray, the main character, seemed to idolize Lord Henry at first but then also seemed to despise him at times. And I wouldn’t call Dorian a character to look up to at all as well. My review of this book is to come but it’s fair to say that Oscar Wilde was not in fact showing his true colors through the voice of Lord Henry and that the whole book was a commentary on class and image and beauty. Touche Wilde!

Then there’s a book like The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Arg, where do I begin. It almost pains me to talk about this book to be honest. I finished this one several months ago and it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I remember the tingling feeling in my spine when the sexist talk began (and racist too, what fun!). And then I kept waiting for some part of the book to seem to refute the main character in a way. To make it known that he was NOT a good guy. Sure, it was known right from the beginning, maybe the opening sentence even, that Coleman Silk is going to die, but then the rest of the book it’s like Roth is trying to prove to you that he’s really not an awful person (literally screaming out loud now). Is he perfect? No. Is he a jerk? Sure. But he had his reasons for being such a horrid *insert profanity here* (also insert eye roll). I’m not buying it Mr. Roth. Coleman Silk was a sexist, racist self-absorbed *that profanity we talked about before* and I couldn’t wait until I got to the point in the book where he was dead. The main problem I had though while reading was that I could tell I wasn’t really reading about a character’s sexist thoughts, I was reading about the author’s own thoughts, and that made my skin crawl. It’s hard to describe but it was there.

I’ve since talked to many others about Philip Roth’s novels and many have understood and agreed with what I’m talking about. Needless to say, I won’t be reading another Roth novel anytime again in the near future. But so what about the rest of you? Have there been books where it’s hard for you to tell if it’s the author’s personal POV or the character? What are some books/authors that you think do a good job in distinguishing between the two?

4 comments:

Jenny O. said...

I don't understand why Roth was so successful. I've tried to read at least four or five of his novels and they were all bizarre and nauseau-inducing. They seem to be so full of misogyny that I wonder that anyone admits to reading them.

llevinso said...

Agreed Jenny. I hadn't heard anything about The Human Stain before reading it (it was chosen for a group read) but when I picked it up I noticed it had won all sort of awards including the PEN/Faulkner Award. Totally shocking in my opinion.

Christie said...

I've never read Roth and don't plan to, but Hemingway irks me for that reason. Hemingway's female characters are simpering morons and I cheered at the end of A Farewell to Arms (because there was a death... and it was over too lol). I don't know much of anything about Hemingway, his life, and his ideas, but if all of his novels with female characters have irritated me for that reason, I'm blaming it on him.

llevinso said...

LOL Christie, thinking of Hemingway was actually what got me to start this post! I too cannot stand him but it's been so long since I've read any of his stuff (and the last one I remember is Old Man and the Sea which has no female at all) so he wouldn't have worked this time around. But I did do some Google research on him + misogyny before writing this. You'll find some interesting articles.