The first question is of course: can you enjoy art that is contrary to your politics?
But the question is really: why do I enjoy art that is so contrary to my politics? Or specifically: why do most of my favourite authors range somewhere on a scale from sexist to misogynistic? For a feminist, I’m awfully close to that guy that lists “Kerouac/Miller/Bukowski/Palahniuk” as his favourite authors on a dating website – i.e. the guy you’re meant to avoid, because he’s a jerk.
The reason I was thinking about this is because I was recently reading Henry Miller’s 1939 Tropic Of Cancer, the largely autobiographical account of his life in Paris. The book recounts an excessive consumption of women/alcohol/other vices, mostly funded by his long-suffering, “crazy” wife, June, who remains in the US. Subjectively, it’s a pretty good book. When you read it, you get sucked into Miller’s whole masculine, excessive persona, the stream of consciousness, the drama and the newness of it all.
Unfortunately, to get the good parts of Miller, you also have to plough through passages such as these (from another series of his, ‘The Rosy Crucifixion’ Trilogy):
“Please, please,” she begged, trying to squirm out of my embrace. “You’ll disgrace me.” I knew I had to let her go. I worked fast and furiously. “I’ll let you go,” I said, “just one more kiss.” With that I backed her against the door and, without even bothering to lift her dress, I stabbed her again and again, shooting a heavy load all over her black silk front.”
— Miller, ‘Sexus’.
Keeping in mind that Miller’s books are essentially autobiographical (he stated that he was ‘trying to reproduce in words a block of my life which to me has the utmost significance – every bit of it’,) — it’s then difficult to know how to take passages such as these. As a reader I do enjoy them, and politically I’m opposed to literary censorship, but as a feminist these descriptions of women are disturbing, as are the quasi-rape scenes.
When I was trying to research this article, I couldn’t find much, except articles like “10 Misogynistic Books That Every Woman Should Read”, which seems fairly reductionist. It proposes that women should read Bukowski’s classic Women (1978) because ‘he’s a pathological womanizer. Allow him to explain himself’. For a bit of background on Bukowski, there’s a video of him kicking his fiancé on Youtube. The clip comes from a 1987 interview of his, with his then-girlfriend Linda Lee Beighle, with the LA Times: ‘Suddenly Bukowski explodes. “You think you can walk out on me every night, you whore? Who do you think you are?”
‘It’s a painful scene to watch, especially since Beighle has been smiling gamely, as if to say, ‘He’s really not serious. We do this all the time.’ Then, astonishingly, Bukowski kicks her off the couch. As he lunges after her, wine flies everywhere, and there are sounds of a struggle and a thud off camera.’
But again, I totally love Bukowski’s books (especially his 1971 Post Office, which was the first one by him I ever read). Like Miller, Bukowski’s work is incredibly autobiographical. As the novel describes, Bukowski did spend years working in the United States Postal Service, from 1958-1969. Unfortunately, not just Post Office, but everything I’ve read by Bukowski seems to feature him as the central protagonist, surrounded by a collection of girlfriends/mistresses/“whores”. As Karin Huffzky wrote, ‘in his underground society he describes a purely masculine world, in which women are hardly more than splashes of a puddle through which hardy fellows traipse, mostly drunks, or in which they wallow’.
Bukowski’s protagonist describes his wife, Joyce:
‘I’ll say one thing for that bitch. She could cook. She could cook better than any women I had ever met’.
Or his argument with his girlfriend:
‘Oh, I didn’t know that. I thought you bitches were always screaming for equal rights?’
— Post Office, 1971.
In reviewing Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Jeanette Winterson notes that ‘what we write about fiction is never an objective response to a text; it is always part of a bigger myth-making — the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves’. In context, she means that for his admirers, Miller is ‘an innovator who is anti-literature…vivid, not refined’, a representation of the “common man”. But for others, it is clear that this commonality, ‘cannot include women, unless a woman is comfortable with her identity as a half-witted “piece of tail”‘. Put more succinctly by XOJane, but regarding Bukowski, ‘If a man tells you he likes Bukowski as a way of telling you about himself, this is shorthand for telling you that he thinks alcoholism and misanthropy are kind of romantic’.
The best modern example that I can pick who follows a similar thread to Bukowski and Miller, is Bret Easton Ellis, who I again am totally enamoured of and will read anything and everything he has ever written even when it usually involves women being murdered.
On its publication, Ellis’ 1991 American Psycho faced perhaps a similar reception to the near-sixty year prior, Tropic of Cancer. The book was originally to be published by Simon & Schuster, who later withdrew after controversy over Ellis’ violent depictions of female-deaths/rapes. Similarly, Tropic of Cancer was originally banned in the US, and wasn’t available there until 1961, where it faced obscenity trials. Both books are now widely acclaimed.
“We are not telling them not to publish,” Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter, said. Instead, she said, members are being asked to exercise their right of free expression by refusing to buy the novel so the publisher “will learn violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable.”
— Tammy Bruce from the National Organization of Women, as reported by the New York Times, 1990.
Carla Namwali Serpell wrote a chapter on Ellis’ work in her treatise, ‘Seven Modes of Uncertainty’. She notes that ‘The reactionary take on American Psycho was, in essence, a literal-minded reading of its content. The anatomically detailed descriptions of these misogynistic murders are what prompted readers to judge not just Bateman’s character but Ellis’s too’. The key difference is perhaps that Ellis’ work is not so explicitly autobiographical as Miller’s and Bukowski’s; the novel employs devices of satire/absurdity/repetition throughout to indicate the inevitable unreality of the events described. That being said, the dark humour of the novel only works because it is set in the masculinist world of Wall Street – in which sexual violence signifies as humour. She notes further that ‘the deep rift in the reception of American Psycho is due not to its extreme violence, but rather our inability to locate and inhabit a moral position on it — an ambiguity’.
Regardless of the satirical point that Ellis was making with American Psycho, or of his statement on the vacuous nature of modern life, or even besides the fact that it is a truly excellent book, the point remains that ‘ultimately – what difference does it make if we believe Patrick committed…the murders or not? We still have to read all the detailed descriptions of the killings.’ I remember when I first read American Psycho — I think I was sixteen — being made physically ill by the descriptions of rape and dismemberment, in a way that horror movies or NCIS hadn’t made me feel before. Maybe the descriptions aren’t gratuitous, and yes are probably key to the work, but they tie into similar images of media we spend our whole lives seeing; women as side characters, women are victims, murdered or raped and so on. It returns to what Winterson believes is that core question about Miller’s work: ‘why do men revel in the degradation of women?’
Unfortunately I don’t have an answer as to why I like these books so much. Maybe I’m just buying into the accolades of the literary establishment? Maybe I’m just numb to literary ill-treatment of fictional women? I can’t remember reading a book by a women that depicted in men in such a manner, much less one met by such critical acclaim, which is probably indicative. Perhaps it is simply the sense of universalism that automatically accompanies the work of men, that allows me to relate to it, despite the exclusion/degradation of half the population that their fiction entails. Probably the question is not Winterson’s ‘why do men revel in the degradation of women’, but rather ‘why I am so comfortable with the (fictional) degradation of women?
Answering this question would evidently delve deeper than the space in this article permits. Succinctly, it’s likely linked my own exposure to a proliferation of media that is so very casual in depictions of violence toward women, to the degree that I am able to overlook and simply enjoy the book. Which is of course not to say we should censor, or even just not read these authors— but evidently a sense of criticism and cynicism is needed, and an ability to step away from the hero-worship of kind of shitty men like Bukowski, quite so much.
Image: Chris Lawton
Jemimah Tarasov has written for Overland, SMH, Stir, Bossy & others. She is a current editor of Overpass (https://overpassmag.com/) and a previous editor of Demos Journal. She is especially interested in queer issues, pop-culture and (of course) feminism. She wishes she could write like Chris Kraus, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas.