Monday 18 April 2016

Cisgenderism and the Beats

"The Guardian’s own list of 100 best novels written in English had a mere 21 written by women. How many had strong female characters? How many had lead characters of colour? Or with a disability? Or who identified as anything other than cisgender and straight?"

These and other question posed by the American writer Lynnette Lounsbury in The Guardian (4th April 2016), were prompted by her belated realisation that the Beat writers she formerly admired 'had no place for women'. 

If female Beat writers are marginalised (and she is right to insist that they are) then a factor contributing to their marginalization is readers such as Lounsbury. To put it bluntly: she should read more widely. Female Beat writers include Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cohen, Diane di Prima, Brenda Frazer, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Edie Parker and Anne Waldman, but Lounsbury mentions only two of these in her article. None of them is as well known as the big Beat beasts (and I needn't list the reasons for this), but then many writers of the period, male and female, Beat and whatever-the-opposite-of-Beat-is, are equally neglected. I find Lounsbury's position problematic - she might as well complain that there aren't enough Presbytarians in Middlemarch, and no cats at all in the Holy Bible. Beyond noting the marginalization of women in Beat literature and complaining about it, she does little or nothing to address the issue apart from plugging her own Beat novel.

The 'mere' 21 female writers in The Guardian's top 100 were selected - as were the other 79 - by Robert McCrum. Here they are: 

Jane Austen  Emma (1816)
Mary Shelley  Frankenstein (1818)
Charlotte Brontë  Jane Eyre (1847)
Emily Brontë  Wuthering Heights (1847)
Louisa May Alcott  Little Women (1868-9)
George Eliot  Middlemarch (1871-2)
Edith Wharton  The Age of Innocence (1920)
Anita Loos  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)
Virginia Woolf  Mrs Dalloway  (1925)
Sylvia Townsend Warner Lolly Willowes (1926)
Stella Gibbons  Cold Comfort Farm  (1932)
Elizabeth Bowen  The Heat of the Day (1948)
Harper Lee  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Muriel Spark  The Prime of Miss Jean Brody  (1960)
Doris Lessing  The Golden Notebook (1962)
Sylvia Plath  The Bell Jar  (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor  Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  (1971)
Toni Morrison  Song of Solomon (1977)
Marilynne Robinson  Housekeeping (1981)
Penelope Fitzgerald  The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Anne Tyler  Breathing Lessons (1988)

I've read all of these apart from Lolly Willowes (which is completely off my radar, but sounds interesting), To Kill a Mockingbird (one can't read everything) and the last four on the list (and I really must get around to Marilynne Robinson soon). McCrum ends the series (arbitrarily, he admits) in the year 2000 with Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, another novel that's so far failed to snag my attention.

Are we invited to infer that there hasn't been a novel at least as good as any of these written by a woman during the past three decades? A very thoughtful and good-humoured response to McCrum's list came from Rachel CookeI find myself in complete agreement with almost  everything she has to say and admire all the female writers she cites, although I think she's a bit harsh about H. G. Wells (who surely invented 'mansplaining'?)

Lounsbury's questions bear repeating in reference to the 21 books written by women listed above, and can be answered:

How many had strong female characters? 
Almost all of them, from Emma Woodhouse to Flora Poste, Miss Jean Brodie and the redoubtable Mrs Palfrey. Do many novels past or present actually feature weak female characters? No, because that would not be interesting. From Moll Flanders to Nancy in Oliver Twist, fictional female characters tend to be quite resilient individuals - empowered, even. Jane Eyre doesn't say 'Reader, he married me'.

How many had lead characters of colour? 
Lamentably few of them (but isn't there grounds to suppose that Heathcliff is black?). One cannot re-cast novels in the way one can have, say, an all-black King Lear (a production of which is currently running at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre to huge critical acclaim). That there are few 'lead characters of colour' in the English language novel since Bunyan and Defoe is  not a flaw or omission, simply a fact that cannot be undone, which we may choose to regret, or ignore, or be angry about.  It's a shame that Joseph Conrad's great novel, originally published in America as The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, is unlikely to appear on any future list, given its title. But it is one of the most powerfully anti-racist novels ever written, and should be valued as such.

Or with a disability? 
Again very few. Frankenstein is, I suppose, about a radically disabled man (although the modern Prometheus is in fact assembled from cadavers rather than a single reanimated individual, as the latter approach would have been a blasphemous reference to resurrection and caused the author no end of problems. The Creature is a whole. bunch of guys, a one-man gang). There are, I might point out, plenty of male cripples in literature, and not just physical cripples, from Quilp and Quasimodo to Lord Jim, Tiny Tim and Humbert Humbert. 

I learned recently that the single most read book on American university campuses is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If undergraduates are reading that instead of Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (published the same year and included in the McCrum 100) that seems to me a Good Thing. But it would be a Better Thing if they were to read both.

Or who identified as anything other than cisgender and straight?
Orlando comes immediately to mind, although Woolf's novel is not on McCrum's list. But this brings me to the real subject of today's blog. The term 'cisgender' was new to me, so I looked it up on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. which told me:

Cisgender (often abbreviated to simply cis) is a descriptor for those whose experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth. It may also be defined as those who have "a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one's sex." It is a complement to the term transgender.

As I say I'd never come across the term before and couldn't understand why it wasn't already covered by 'straight' or even 'heteronormative'. We all know that gender is partly a cultural construct (i.e. the 'role society considers appropriate for one's sex', with the implication that society is likely to be at odds with the non-compliant, the differently gendered). I'd point out to Lounsbury that there is one big reason that there are vanishingly few gay characters in literature before the increased tolerances of the 1960s that followed the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, because to publish novels which endorsed or described homosexual acts was illegal and carried not only harsh prison sentences for those authors and publishers reckless enough to risk their livelihood and freedom) but also social ostracism. Leasbianism was never illegal in Britain, although Radclyffe Hall's  sapphic pot-boiler The Well of Loneliness was subject to prosecution (and is a rotten novel by any standards).  

Back to Wikipedia:

There are a number of derivatives of the term in use, including cis male for "male assigned male at birth", cis female for "female assigned female at birth", analogously "cis man" and "cis woman", as well as cissexism (or "cissexual assumption" or "cisnormativity").

The novelist Ian McEwan came under attack recently when he said in a lecture that . . . but you can look it up for yourself. These are deep and murky waters and we - most of us - navigate with some difficulty. Not, in my case at least, because of any conscious or unconscious 'transphobia'.

I am not immune to reason but am sceptical about the view that any of us is entitled to complete self-realisation entirely on our own terms, not least because some forms of self-realisation are illegal (and rightly), others noisy and anti-social, others offensive. Ultimately, self-realisation on one's own terms may challenge society (the social construct that Thatcher claimed didn't exist) and this is no bad thing, so long as we agree that there is such a thing as society, based on shared standards, beliefs, aspirations, history and allegiances. I'm not talking about North Korea here, but about Britain, a nation with a (more-or-less) shared unity of purpose, a consensus that some things are good and others bad, that tolerance is better than prejudice, that women have equal rights, that forced marriages and domestic slavery and so-called 'honour' killings are wrong, that murder and cruelty and child abuse are intolerable, that evading or avoiding tax by storing money in offshore portfolios is dodgy even if legal, that eating people is wrong,  and so on. 

The fact is that when the rights of an individual are incompatible with the norms of society then something has to give, or there has to be some compromise and accommodation on both sides but (as the line goes in Fiddler on the Roof): "When a poor man eats a chicken one of them is sick".  

It's usually the chicken. Transgendered members of society do not so much threaten the status quo as question it, and any such interrogation is beneficial in a society that claims tolerance and understanding as its core values. What muddies the waters is the overlap with celebrity culture (let's not go there) and the even more pervasive cult of individualism and self-entitlement that comes with late capitalism.

But to return to Lynette Lounsbury's complaint about novels in the past not reflecting today's standards of diversity and equality. We cannot change that, however much we might wish to, and all that is revealed in such a complaint is (in E. P. Thompson's useful phrase) 'the massive condescension of posterity'. 

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