TO The successful literary agent was recently reminding me of his early days in the publishing industry. Twenty years ago, two subjects were considered beyond the limits: pastry and feminism. “If you said you had an essay book on feminism, it was ridiculous,” she said. “People would put ‘no essays, thank you very much’ on their profiles.”
In 2021, you cannot opt for feminist essay collections. They are not just academics and journalists like Amia srinivasan, Jacqueline Rose and Katherine Angel, but also novelists and poets: Lucy Ellmann, Jeanette Winterson, Siri Hustvedt, Olivia Laing and Nina Mingya Powles.
You could switch that scene with an agent and a head novelist: “I mean, a novel is fine, but what about a book of essays on women’s bodies? Or a manifesto? Well maybe a memory! How about memoir essays on why you traded men for … houseplants?
If I sound cynical, it’s only because some of these books feel cynical too – feminism as a trend, feminism as a sale, feminism as a special table at Waterstones. Many bold and brilliant essays are being published that perhaps would not have been published a decade ago. But they rub shoulders with some – sorry for the phrase – “MeToo” collections, which are often less informed and with fewer arguments than the average newspaper commentary.
I’m afraid Eimear McBride’s nonfiction debut falls into this category, and it doesn’t help that it was formatted to look like a newspaper column. Compact in size, the book’s pages fit about six to eight words per line and roughly 150 words per page, with the text divided into catchy subtitles (“Lucky bitches!”). McBride calls the work, made at an invitation from the Wellcome Collection, a “subjective collection of thoughts” on “the disgust that seems to mystically adhere to the female body at birth.”
For the past 100 years, she argues, women’s liberation has been “improperly accomplished” because female bodies are still viewed with disgust. Women are viewed in various ways as animals, meat or land, “unfit for decent ‘respectable’ treatment that their male peers may take for granted.” Sometimes this disgust is “rampant and poorly concealed”; at other times it is “insidious and almost imperceptible.” But its effect is to keep women exiled from humanity.
But who sees women as subhuman filth? Men? Society? McBride writes with great conviction but without much precision. He claims that a nebulous group called “the pillars of the old world” treat women “with all the disgust they feel that now, by their logic, we must.” Over the course of the 176-page essay, these pillars are revealed in various ways such as the Catholic Church, the porn industry, Daily mail columnists, the advertising industry, the music industry, a music critic who wrote some vile things about Debbie Harry, the Kardashians, a Canadian police officer, a Conservative party candidate who was once in Norfolk, ladette culture , Immanuel Kant, a 2015 short film made by some pole dancers in California and so on … Which is to say that McBride has written a wide-ranging howl of despair about what she finally calls “Escher’s inescapability of the patriarchal framework In which we live”.
In many ways, it makes perfect sense for McBride to write about the objectification and shame of women through their bodies. In his first two novels, A girl is a half formed thing (2013) and The bohemian minors (2016), its feverish and fractured syntax was well in tune with sexual desire (“So, where one of mine slides, then me, Jesus! My eyes are wide open”), as well as with sexual violence. McBride was trying to get under the skin of her storytellers, to show where thought and physical sensation become inseparable. She helped open the fictional space for courageous and experimental writing about sex and power.
However, the essay form does little favors for such an allusive writer. The arguments are not well served by fuzzy references and a language that struggles to express itself. Here, McBride sounds somewhere between a prudish sixth ex and someone delivering an all-encompassing pub spiel, full of hyperbolic assertions. She talks about women being “wholesale” expelled from the centers of power and then says feminism had stalled until the #MeToo movement, which is clearly not true: “fourth wave” feminism had been bubbling. for a time. He is also loosely distinguished by misogyny in other countries, citing female feticide in India or covertly filmed women in Korea, without assimilating any of the nuances of those particular cultures.
Much of the research feels outdated (a 2008 study of women as sex objects in American magazines) or the kind of thing columnists look for when they need to type 600 or so quick words. Psychology Today it’s a good post, but I’m sure the Wellcome Collection had more to offer. If the writing was more witty and snappy, McBride might have gotten away with it, but she’s more often quite fuddy-duddy (she refers several times to “scantily clad celebrities”) and the long, impenetrable sentences that made her the last. novel, Strange hotel (2020), a little chore seems to have become a habit.
You get the feeling that even McBride was frustrated by his own linguistic entanglements, his narrator was growing weary of “pseudo-intellectual confusion which, if I’m honest, is for the sole purpose of keeping the world at the end of a very long sentence.” ”. And yet here’s an example from her essay: “Strategically, then, the effort to derail women’s struggles against the impositions of their ‘brand’ has focused on blurring their ability to recognize the difference between what they know what they are and how the lens of objectification forces them to experience the world. “
It’s not until the essay’s epilogue, written immediately after Sarah Everard’s murder, that McBride finally steps forward. McBride, writing about the way the police dumped women to the ground at Everard’s vigil on Clapham Common, suggests that there was more force here than in the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK because ‘racism is perceived as a volatile political problem, with deep institutional roots and the potential to cause great social upheaval ”, while“ misogyny has always been the most socially acceptable hatred, relegated to the domestic and private sphere and, most of the time, simply seen as a bit of a joke. “
Whatever the merits of this particular point, Everard’s death surely would have been a better starting point for this essay. There are plenty of nifty observations and clever sideslides, but not enough to deserve to be packaged in a book. He’s too confused in his aims and doesn’t say anything that a columnist like Caitlin Moran didn’t say more powerfully (and with humor). Just because she makes it look easy doesn’t mean it is.
Why doesn’t McBride focus its efforts on its own industry? I would have loved to read your review of the way men represent women’s bodies in contemporary fiction. But this would require naming names and in the cozy literary world, that would never be enough.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism