Yesterday, we read a fascinating article on The New Yorker’s Page Turner about impact that former president of France Nicholas Sarkozy’s bizarre hatred of Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel The Princess of Clèves, a staple of French cultural heritage and the favorite book of many. Sarkozy publicly bashed and mocked the book, prompting obstinate outrage from his countrymen, and the article goes so far as to suggest that the president’s position on the work was part of the reason he was ousted earlier this year.
But why hate on this book, Sarkozy? Perhaps he was just being crotchety. Which brings us to the topic of the day: books that old white men love to hate. Of course we know there are no books that only men hate (or like, for that matter), and one dissident does not a trend make, but sometimes it’s fun to make assumptions, so please take the following in the spirit that it’s meant. Read on for a few books that have set off the alarms for the white male establishment, and let us know which scary feminist novels we missed in the comments.
How Should a Person Be? , Sheila Heti
Heti’s genre-curious novel was heralded by many (including us) as the literary equivalent of Girls, so it’s no big wonder that boys don’t get it quite as much. In an article entitled “Listening to Women: Why smart, serious men have misunderstood Sheila Heti’s new book” at the Slate Book Review, Michelle Dean attempts to work out the reasons that critics like James Wood and Lorin Stein didn’t like it, characterizing the reaction of male critics in general to Heti’s book as “dubious rubbernecking,” a phrase we rather like, and essentially arguing that the brilliance of the novel is outside the masculine purview. We don’t know about that, but we certainly haven’t met any old white men who admit to liking it.
Pride and Prejudice , Jane Austen
You know who really hated Pride and Prejudice? Mark Twain. Not only did he once grumble, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone,” but we’ve heard rumors that while he was on his sickbed, his friends threatened reading Jane Austen to him if he didn’t get better. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow.” Then there’s V.S. Naipaul of course, who though officially Indo-Trinidadian definitely counts as the establishment, and even with the power of long hindsight is talking crap about Austen.
The Temple of My Familiar , Alice Walker
Though The Color Purple was criticized by some black critics for its negative portrayal of its male characters, it was generally favored by white critics. The Temple of My Familiar was received a bit differently. In a 1989 interview, Alice Walker discussed her “mixed” reviews thusly: “I do understand that my worldview is different from that of most of the critics. I think most of the reviews have been by white men, you know, real establishment white men. And they are defending a way of life, a patriarchal system, which I do not worship… So there is no reason I should really care that they are angry.”
50 Shades of Grey , E.L. James
White guys aren’t the only people to be hating on 50 Shades of Grey — after all, when something is this poorly written and madly popular, critics of every gender, size, shape and color are bound to protest loudly. But we think it’s fair to say that overall, the people that are buying and loving this book are women, and the people burning it in cookouts on their volleyball courts are men.
Almanac of the Dead , Leslie Marmon Silko
In a 1998 essay entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Francine Prose chalks up much of the negative critical response to Silko’s book (which she describes as a “wildly ambitious, epic, gritty, and violent novel, which builds to an apocalyptic vision of a vengeful and justified uprising of Indians throughout the Americas”) to an inability of male critics to treat novels by women the same way they would novels by men. “From the horror that greeted Silko’s book,” Prose writes, “one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.'” Sounds like quite a lot of eloquent loving-to-hate to us.
The works of Virginia Woolf
Now, to be fair, we personally know several oldish white guys who love Ms. Woolf. But unfortunately, we also know several who take the Norman Mailer route. As Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself, “I have a terrible confession to make — I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure — that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” It is, conceivably, your fault, Mr. Mailer.
The Notebook , Nicholas Sparks
So probably the only reason most men know to hate this book is because of how much they love to hate the film version, but that’s okay. It can stand in for romance novels in general, which, as Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have pointed out more than once, couldn’t get the attention of an establishment critic (male or female, really) if they were on fire.
We began with the French, so let’s end with the French. Napoleon Bonaparte was so scandalized by these novels that he ordered their anonymous author tracked down and arrested. Sade was apprehended at his publisher’s office and thrown in jail without trial. He only got out (or moved to an asylum, that is) when his family claimed his insanity. Simone de Beauvoir rather liked him, though.