Friday, May 18, 2007

Gender Differences and the Pleasures of the Text

Every time the issue of gender disparities in our genre’s publications comes up, I reflect on how complicated a phenomenon it is and how many different ways there are to address, explain, or engage with it. My own approach usually combines Susan Winnett’s observations in her famous 1990 article in PMLA, “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure,” and my own understanding of discursive politics. The fact that we don’t have a single, intelligible way to talk about the problem is probably one of the reasons that we keep approaching it so clumsily and from such different angles. And as Winnett says,

Considering the last decade’s preoccupations with sexual difference and the pleasure of the text, it is surprising that theories concerned with the relation between narrative and pleasure have largely neglected to raise the issue of the difference between women’s and men’s reading pleasures. But this question seems to require critical tools that, for reasons I explore in this essay, have not been available. Indeed, the same analytic paradigms that give us professional access to texts have already determined the terms in which we accede to, comply with, or resist the coercions of a cultural program for pleasure that is not interested in---and whose interests may be threatened by---the difference of women’s pleasure.

Winnett is, of course, talking about the texts of capital-L Literature that is the usual object of scholarly literary criticism. But it seems to me that a large part of the problem we have talking about the differences in our genre is that, indeed, the terms in which the argument is cast are always those of the status quo and for that reason simply won’t be made to---maybe even can’t---accommodate the interests of women writers and fans. Of course, Winnett wrote that article back in 1990, and it immediately became one of the “critical tools” used by feminist critics to talk about the problem and has since been cited innumerable times by feminist critics exploring narrative politics. But seventeen years later, I don’t see that that’s made much difference to the literary critical establishment as a whole (which is, after all, still dominated by white men).

The opening of Winnett’s article, which immediately foregrounds women’s pleasure, is not only provocative, but also (as later unfolds) perfectly appropriate:

I would like to begin with the proposition that female orgasm is unnecessary. I am not, of course, saying that it is unnecessary to any particular woman that she experience orgasm or, for that matter, to any particular man that his female partner do so; rather, I mean that women’s orgasm and, by extension, women’s pleasure can be extraneous to that culmination of heterosexual desire which is copulation. Women’s pleasure can take place outside, or independent of, the male sexual economy whose pulsations determine the dominant culture, its repressions, its taboos, and its narratives, as well as the “human sciences” developed to explain them.

Winnett then describes male arousal and ejaculation in strictly visual terms and observes that narratology takes Freud’s “Masterplot” as the model for understanding narrative structure and asks “If they were conscious that the narrative dynamics and the erotics of reading they were expounding were specifically tied to an ideology of representation derivable only from the dynamics of male sexuality, would they not at least feel uncomfortable making general statements about ‘narrative,’ ‘pleasure,’ and ‘us’?” But, she says, on encountering a passage by Robert Scholes (from “The Orgiastic Pattern of Fiction”), she realized that asking such a question was simply naïve. She quotes Scholes:

The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act. In saying this I do not mean merely to remind the reader of the connection between all art and the erotic in human nature….For what connects fiction---and music---with sex is the fundamental orgiastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.

Scholes, in other words, insists that the structure of male orgasm is the one correct (and universal!) structure of artistic creation. Winnett remarks: “Even if we have become wary of the generic ‘man in society,’ we still might need to be reminded that such generalizations in such contexts indicate that the pleasure the reader is expected to take in the text is the pleasure of the man.”

We hear all the time in our genre, of course, that many men simply do not read anything they know to be written by a woman yet most women read without gender discrimination. (Obviously there are exceptions to this generalization, but it’s largely true and therefore meaningful to the discussion.) So what happens when men can’t take pleasure in certain texts written by women that many women take inordinate pleasure in? It’s obvious what happens, because I encounter this happening all the time (and not just with my own work or with the books I edit and publish for Aqueduct): the male critic or editor or fan reading them judge them boring, or clumsy, or dull, or inept---or “girly.” Such readers may well praise some work by women because often women writers choose to conform to the male sexual “Masterplot” of narrative. But they will be quick to dismiss (often with contempt) anything that they personally can’t understand or relate to with pleasure. As Winnett says,

For the male critic, the sexual pleasure of reading would seem to take place within a nexus of homosocial arrangements in which ‘the marriage of true minds’ is an affair ‘between men,’ as Eve Sedgwick has put it. In this system, woman is neither an independent subjectivity nor a desiring agent but, rather, an enabling position organizing the social fiction of heterosexuality. In its honest outrageousness, Scholes’s erotics of reading makes clearer than does Brook’s more subtle articulation that the patriarchy has a simultaneously blind and enlightened investment both in the forms of its pleasure and in its conscious valorization and less conscious mystification of them. And this realization does nothing but make it all the more frightening to contemplate the obstacles our own education has placed in the way both of women’s conceiving (of) their own pleasure and of men’s conceding that female pleasure might have a different plot.

Winnett shows how a narrative structure based on women’s pleasure might be delineated (and uses Shelley’s Frankenstein to do so). Perhaps I ought to note that she is not claiming that narrative should necessarily be understood as morphologically mimicking orgasmic pleasure (male or female): “I of course do not think that textual production and narrative dynamics are matters of sexuality alone…” In fact, in the second part of her article she challenges the dominant emphasis on narrative form (or narrative arc, which is how writers typically talk about it) as she notes that Scholes considers the sort of relations that interest women “merely thematic” (and not very interesting: Scholes dismisses as “situational-thematic” (for examples) “the role of mothers and daughters, situations of nurture and bonding, and so forth”), meaning that they can’t be recuperated within the structure of the narrative form (the way every aspect of the Oedipal plot naturally is). Scholes, by the way, chides feminist critics for spending so much time on what he sees as extraneous aspects of narrative.

“Situational-thematic”: Yes, this designation covers all the sorts of relations that tend to fascinate women when explored in fiction. And it denotes, I think, what Angry Black Women means by the “girl [or vagina] story.”

In sum, if you’re interested in why this difference in taste and perception of quality is so hard to talk about productively, it’s definitely worth your time to get hold of the article and read it.


Ide Cyan said...

That's essentialism dressed up in fancy talk. Honestly. It's no wonder you can't get anywhere if you start by conjuring away the power dynamics of oppression and then ascribe narratives to "genders" as separate groups capable of existing independently of their relationship to each other.

You'd do better to have a look at the Afterword to Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. (And you'll get a gold star from some people for getting me to tell you that.)

Timmi Duchamp said...

Well, my post is talking about reading & ways of writing. Do you think talking about that, per se, is a waste of time? That's a little hard on feminists who want to spend their time writing and reading fiction. Writers, especially, tend to think it's important to pay attention to the politics of narrative. I like to think, myself, that years of thinking about these things has allowed me to find new stories to tell that are truer to the world we live in than the ones that come "naturally" & just fall into the same old cliches & stereotypes.

In any case, it's a little hard to know what you mean by "ascribing narratives to 'genders'." Neither Winnett nor I am doing that, Ide, so I'm having trouble figuring out what you mean. Brook’s Oedipal Masterplot, I would say, is essentialist---but you will note, he says there's only one real narrative, the Oedipal narrative. (Narratives about mothers and daughters, for instance, are extraneous and thus not true narratives.) In opposing it, Winnett says that there are many other ways to talk about narrative than the Masterplot that both Brook & Scholes say is the only real narrative. Do you think that’s essentialist? I certainly don’t. As Winnett writes: “The existence of two models implies to me the possibility of many more; neither the schemes I am criticizing nor the one I develop here exhausts the possibilities offered by the psychoanalytic mode. Work, class, law, politics, ambition, domination, power, and geography—issues that involve gender but not necessarily sexuality—represent compelling and theoretically productive motivations for narrative outside a psycholanalytic paradigm that sees them as dramatizations of sexual drives.”

Winnett is, in short, arguing that there are many other ways to read than by way of the simple binary that Brook & Scholes set up as the standard for literary criticism. As far as I’m concerned, an opposition to binary thinking is anti-essentialist. Unless you have something else in mind? (The definition of “essentialism,” of course has been unstable since us second-wave feminists first started using the term. So for all I know, by “essentialism” you mean something other than dualistic thinking.)

& of course as you may have noticed, when I talked about these problems playing out in our genre, I noted that reading & writing practices don’t fall out along strict gender lines. But the fact is, narratives that aren’t intelligible by most men are labeled “girlie” & deemed “uninteresting” & often trivial (even when they’re very powerful works). The lack of intelligibility, as far as I’m concerned, is the real problem: it’s the men & the women who share the men’s criteria for determining what is interesting who reject the stories that don’t conform, not the women who read & write such stories who reject the boy stories. (Note that women have no trouble understanding the texts that conform to the male standard & wouldn’t dream of dissing them. It's an asymmetircal relation.) Is my pointing out this problem “essentialist”?

As for What Are We Fighting For, yes, I read that eleven years ago & have quoted from it often in my essays & articles. (I couldn’t seem to get anyone else to read it back then, though. I’m glad to hear that you've read it.) No question in my mind Joanna Russ would appreciate Winnett’s article. You could fairly characterize it as talking about what Russ in another place calls “Outsider Literature”—all the stuff that doesn’t fit the dominant—Oedipal, according to Brook—paradigm. & since Russ also suggests that a solution to the difficulties women writers have using male narrative forms is an employment of lyricism, I would say that she’s long been aware of the problem Winnett is trying to describe in her article.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Ooops-- I should never post at two o'clock in the morning. It wasn't eleven years ago, but nine. Sorry about that!

Ted said...

We hear all the time in our genre, of course, that many women simply do not read anything they know to be written by a woman yet most women read without gender discrimination.

I think there's a typo in this sentence; shouldn't it be "many men simply do not read anything they know to be written by a woman"?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Exactly so, Ted. Thanks so much for pointing this out. (I've now corrected it.)

Reagan Reynolds said...

Thank you for this post. I am currently conducting an analysis of this essay and your notes have really helped me to clarify the intention of Winnett's criticism. I am very inspired by this article, and find myself illuminated on the structure of the narrative in relation to male pleasure. Even the ways we, as students, are taught to write creatively (with an introduction, a problem, a climax, and a resolution) are evident in the gender bias that Winnett is exposing here. It is very interesting to consider.