I’m a fiction author and journalist who is very much aware of, and angry about the racial, class, country-based, and gender and sexuality inequalities in the book and media worlds. Given the systemic exclusion many of us face, over two years ago I started only reading novels by female authors — preferably those from other oppressed worlds as well.
Then I spent the last month reading a book by a good, progressive, critical male author. I read Dhalgren because I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone as a writer, and the book certainly does that.
But, you know that feeling you get when you go back to a country or city after a long time away? How you notice things with more astuteness because of your new distance and detachment? I got that, reading this male author. We grow up on a diet of white male, US- and Euro-centric fiction and media. Because of that, certain things about the male gaze become normalised to us, to the point where it takes stepping away for a few years to notice them, or fully appreciate their ridiculousness.
With few exceptions — cis-males, even the more good-willed and progressive ones (even, in this case, the gay, African-American author of Dhalgren) write about things that most female authors do not. Male authors describe what women look like. They describe breasts vividly, with textural and visual detail so that you can really imagine them, bra-less, brushing against the main male character’s back. They describe women worried about their looks, getting ready in the morning, glancing at themselves in the mirror. Their male characters do not do this, and typically have no bodily features or clothing worth discussing.
Even in Dhalgren, where the main character is a bi, polyamorous male, and the setting is a bizarre falling-apart ungoverned city in the US where the sun never fully rises — there are issues. The men are ragged, dirty, imperfect, odd but active and interesting protagonists making things happen. The main female character, Lanya, is nice, tolerant of all of Kid’s flippant nastiness, and kinda unmemorable, except that she composes a song and joins eight women in having sex with two men. There’s a scene where a woman enjoys being fucked (and yes, the passive tense here is on purpose — the author made her just lie there, legs open) by 8–27 men in a row (the author mentions a few different figures).
Kid, the main character (who seems to be modelled on the author) spends two weeks writing a bunch of poems, and becomes respected and published quite quickly. He doesn’t have to do any actual work to get good at writing, and men support him in getting his book laid out and to the printers with few questions asked. He also becomes the leader of an intimidating gang of people just by being violent and dominant. Nothing in the novel hints that both these situations are problematic, and also fairly typical for men only, in a sexist world.
While Dhalgren seemed to pride itself in extreme sexual scenes, even more toned-down male-authored novels reinforce the normalisation of women existing just to be admired by, and obtained by men.
Try this — ask one of your decent male friends to name a female author they’ve read. If they are cluey, they’ll mention J K Rowling, then they’ll stop shot and gaze around with a puzzled look on their face. Ask them to list their favourite books or authors, and guaranteed, 90% of them or more will be old white males from the US or Europe. So, why not boycott men back for a little while and balance out the books and ideas you’ve been exposed to with another perspective? Believe it or not, there are enough magical, artful, incisive books by oppressed people out there to keep you going for a while.
Tamara Pearson is the author of The Butterfly Prison.