Indulging the Provocateur: Privilege and the Culture of Male Arrogance in the Publishing Industry

by new hystericisms

Sometime last year, The Guardian online posted an article about V.S. Naipaul in which the Nobel laureate explains that he is a much, much better writer than all the ladies. Even Jane Austen. Especially Jane Austen, because Austen is one of those writers who is obviously a lady, Naipaul explains. To wit, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think it unequal to me.” Women: sentimental, narrow-minded kitchen things. You know, the usual stuff. Leaving aside his particular antipathy for Jane Austen, a writer of a different period who, incidentally, at least had a sense of humour, this interview with Naipaul should have annoyed people. I should have thought that Nobel laureates are, for the most part, forward-thinking people who at least try to control their biases. Women’s issues not your thing? That’s fine, but let’s not aid in the undoing of progress.

The article annoyed me. My co-writer, also annoyed, posted a link to the offending piece of writing on her Facebook wall. The comments can be summed up thus: Why are you so offended? He’s a provocateur.

Here’s the thing: he’s not a provocateur. He’s a schmuck.

Provocateur is a word that covers all manner of men’s sins. It’s a French word, masculine, and there’s no feminine equivalent in common use in English. She’s not a provocatrice; she’s a bitch, am I right?

No. Fuck you. Excuse my French.

Why am I talking about this year-old article? It’s suddenly relevant. It’s relevant because of a recent debate in Canadian publishing that began with a ten-year-old article of Jan Zwicky’s and evolved into a discussion of gender. Specifically, what the denouement of the debate actually speaks to is the industry’s championing of the male perspective, encouragement of male arrogance and indulgence of provocateurs.

Once upon a time, Jan Zwicky wrote an article called “The Ethics of the Negative Review.” In it, she says that writing a vitriolic review of a book is a needless exercise that serves no one. Though it has been much misinterpreted, what Zwicky’s article is saying is that if a book does not engage you, your review of it will not be intelligent. Silence can be more powerful, she says. Nowhere does she say that all reviews have to positive; on the contrary, and as she goes on to clarify in a more recent essay, there is a difference between “respectful disagreement” and “adolescent snark.”

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts website recently republished the article as part of a wider discussion on women and reviews. Soon after, Michael Lista, some guy, wrote an article in the National Post that might be described as “thick,” which creatively employs a certain logical fallacy known as a straw-man argument in order to respond, point by point, to Zwicky. He uses numbers and everything. There’s a joke in here somewhere.

What’s striking about the article by self-styled provocateur and local guy Michael Lista is, yes, his anger. His inability to differentiate between debate and vitriol is just as evident in the form of his article. It’s a clever, though not intelligent essai in systematic meanness. Here, then, is the point at which the debate devolved into kvetching tweets from a few (only a few) rather stupid men who felt that if they couldn’t get their hate on in canliterary mags, well, then, they should just move to America, where they’ve got the uteruses under control and guns in every pen! Or whatever. Logic. It’s a thing.

At the time, my co-writer and I wondered why these men were positively demanding their right to be disrespectful, claiming their right to be cruel. Cruel, not critical. The two are not the same, and everybody – even, deep down, that guy Michael Lista – knows it. Cruelty is not a gendered trait, and no matter what anyone tells you, and people will tell you, this has nothing to do with biological imperative. Claiming as prerogative being heard above all and being right, god damn it, however, smacks of male privilege and the publishing industry’s culture of male arrogance. One need only look as far as the recent Fareed Zakaria or Jonah Lehrer debacles to see this in action.

It’s not far from this kind of arrogance to the disrespect that occasions pointlessly nasty reviews. And don’t kid yourself. It is an issue of respect. Undergirding the kind of reviews these writers demand to have published is the notion that what they have to say has more value than the work in question, which itself is of so little significance that it sometimes is not even quoted directly. The review ceases to be a review at all and becomes a sort of self-congratulatory personal essay on the reviewer’s own merits, thrown into relief by the failure of the, etc. Take, for instance, this article on Stephen King. The writer of the piece, the first person ever to cast doubt on the literary merits of King’s canon, has read a book or two in his day, let him tell you. Also, he has a son who one time read King when he was, like, a baby, but now he reads books by Pynchon and Bolano and DFW. Books for grown-up men. There it is: the line in the sand, this impulse to be on the winning side. Naipaul, for instance, distinguishes between his writing – “literary” – and “women’s writing.” At least he’s honest about it; at least we can see, here, what we are up against.

Reviews like this define and neatly cordon off what is “literary” or worthwhile from everything else, and the rhetoric of humiliation writers like Lista employ serves to police the bounds: disagree with me. I dare you.

Is this really what the state of reviews has come to? Instead of intelligent discussion and critical engagement, these men are arguing for the literary equivalent of pounding their bare torsos with their fists. Why? It’s true that it’s much easier to write a slick gloss than it is to actually appraise something seriously. Are they afraid that behind the snark, the provocation, they don’t have anything interesting to say?

Yes, fear. The schoolyard bully’s fear that if he starts pulling punches, people will see him for what he really is.

And what is that, exactly?

Flickr image via shelisrael1, who does not endorse the use to which I’ve put his photo.