“Kushner is out to create a mystique, and her book is full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool,” Kirsch writes. “In other words, The Flamethrowers manages to be a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.” Though Kirsch stops just short of spelling it out, his overall message is clear: if this book had been written by a man, it wouldn’t have gotten such good reviews. Though slightly more eloquent, it reads just like Bret Easton Ellis’s famously condemnable tweet about another successful and talented woman tackling “masculine” topics: “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.” Kirsch leaves out the comment on Kushner’s physical appearance (though he does make a leading and confusing statement about her picture appearing in Vogue early in the piece), but his sentiment is no less misguided.
Ignoring the fact that Kirsch is really saying nothing about the book that makes it sound “macho” and the bizarre accusation that Kushner is trying to be cool (which Kushner has gracefully responded to on her Facebook page), the underlying bias is – again, again! – that you can only be a writer or a female writer, and if you are the latter kind, all sorts of special filters and considerations may be applied. What’s misleading here is that Kirsch self-consciously positions his argument within the ongoing cultural conversation about women in fiction, paying lip service to Claire Messud and VIDA, before going on to plant his feet squarely on the side of the conservative, sexist old guard. Kirsch talks about “mansplaining” in the piece, almost going so far as to accuse Kushner of it — a nonsensical train of thought, especially when it’s he who is being condescending.
A final quibble: Kirsch closes his article by asserting that “a novelist should not be a mythmaker, not when one of the greatest powers of the novel is the ability to penetrate the myths we make about ourselves — to show how things really work, instead of how they claim to work.” In my mind, a good novelist is nothing but a mythmaker – and this talent doesn’t take anything away from the ability to “show how things really work.” Should all novels be a dissection of contemporary life and nothing else? Is a writer who creates a tenable, glowing, full world failing at the grand novelistic task somehow? Or is that only if she’s a woman?