Dear Hegemony

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Dear Hegemony, please tell me who I am.  Please tell me how to see myself. 

We've just been reading Wide Sargasso Sea in class, so my mind's on how a dominant voice--backed by money and the power of the metropole--can erase and madden someone else's truth.

And how generous Hegemony is with its answers!  Here are just two that scratched their fingernails across my brain this week. 

David Denby, reviewing Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer in the March 8, 2010 New Yorker, refers in passing--admiringly--to Olivia Williams "one of the rare actresses who seem more intelligent and beautiful as they get angrier."  Just in passing, mind you.  It's not his focus; it's an aside.

But pause.  Let that sink in.  So . . . the majority of actresses, then, seem more stupid and ugly as they get angrier?   Do women in general, David Denby?  (Is it any wonder that so many women have trouble expressing anger directly?)  Is that true of male actors, of men? 

On to #2.  Nathaniel Rich, who turns all of 30 tomorrow, is perhaps surprisingly young to be the senior editor of fiction at The Paris Review, but then, he's had unusual opportunities.  His father is Frank Rich, who writes for the New York Times; his brother Simon writes humor for the New Yorker.  He grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Yale.  He worked at the New York Review of Books straight out of college. 

Hegemony.  Money.  The metropole.

Why does this matter to you, writers?  Well, at the Paris Review, a most desirable publication venue for any writer, Nathaniel Rich serves as the decider, the gatekeeper.  His taste determines what gets into the journal's pages.

So I found it rather fascinating to stumble across this window into his desires.  It appeared in Canteen Magazine this January in what Rich's own website describes as "an autobiographical nonfiction piece."  Its title, "Over Ernest," suggests that it's looking back at youthful folly; that the author's early infatuation with Hemingway is now outgrown.  Still, its opening paragraph is fascinating:

There was a time—not as long ago as I’d like to believe—when I imagined all novelists as Ernest Hemingways, hero-adventurers who shot tigers, fought in wars, seduced wild-eyed women, gambled their life savings at high-stakes poker, won duels, lost duels, and wrote frantic bursts of prose while standing upright in their rented rooms in Havana or Saigon or Beirut. I didn’t fully understand the standing-upright part, but I had read that Hemingway worked this way. At first I figured it had something to do with the immense ferocity of the act; surely he was too wired with genius to sit down at a desk. The more I thought about it, though, it occurred to me that the reason Hemingway wrote standing up was to allow a woman (his muse, no doubt) to more easily “inspire” him while he was in the midst of his demanding labor. This image—of the great writer madly scribbling masterpieces while being fellated by a native woman—haunted me. If this was the writing life, who wouldn’t want to be a writer? . . . I had just turned 21 years old.
While being fellated by a native woman. 

Gentle readers, we recently read and discussed in class an excerpt from Madwoman in the Attic, that groundbreaking work of feminist criticism from the 1970s.  The students were shocked by the wildly sexist things that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century male writers said about the blood-congested male drive they saw as essential to writing works of literary genius. 

How backward, we all said. 

Yet here we go again, in 2010.  (Hey, it's working for Avatar.)

Okay, so Nathaniel Rich was young and oversexed when he fantasized about Hemingway.  Okay, so surely the essay will later take his younger self to task--I couldn't tell, because Canteen only excerpts the first page.  (Invited to read more--by subscribing, at $10 an issue--gee, I declined.)  Okay, so it was 9 whole years ago.

But not as long ago as I'd like to believe.


Faye said:

Now that is seriously discouraging. In so many ways.

And I guess I'm not the only person who didn't love Avatar!

March 4, 2010 11:03 PM

Cindy Author Profile Page said:

Nathaniel "Rich," what a privileged little
asshole, in a reverie of his/Hemingway's
dick. Am I allowed to swear here?
This was another great entry, Joy, and
your last line rocked. I miss you!

March 6, 2010 12:53 AM

fayepoet said:

You are a literary detective. I had no idea--the illusion of fellated fantasies feeding "masterful"words. How well you watch our backs!

March 7, 2010 2:08 PM

New Fiction said:

I love to read about fiction, btw - I like the layout of your site.

April 11, 2010 7:33 PM

Robert Nagle Author Profile Page said:

I guess is not going to improve your opinion of Paris Review!

(PR has been stolid for the last 20 years; it's time they have an infant terrible to shake things up -- even if he happens to be a sexist pig. They never really had female editors -- which may account for its irrelevancy).

I like weird and clever sexual metaphors. If you do these kinds of things, you have to be careful about literary context or you risk alienating your audience. On the other hand, there are occasions when alienating audience is precisely the point!

That said, even in this day and age it's hard to imagine women writers using oral sex metaphors that casually.

Finally, it is a little too easy to pick out one or two poorly thought out phrases and use it to indict somebody or find some evidence of cultural hegomony (especially in a journalistic piece). I can't tell you how many times I've reread old pieces of mine and found expressions I used which now horrify me. Does David Denby have a pattern of repeatedly demeaning the performances of women? Does the New Yorker?

June 3, 2010 8:04 PM

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