Msnowe's Blog

Imagining Social Confines

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on April 20, 2010

Murky bridges to cross...

m.snowe is enamored with Caleb Crain’s writing:

“Imagination, when fully indulged, takes the imaginer beyond the confines of his social identity. Faking representation is what novelists do. If a critic determines that E. M. Forster’s portraits of heterosexual love are stiff, and Henry James’s are rich, then he has discovered something about their relative skill as novelists. He hasn’t learned anything about their sexual orientations.”

–From “As If” (This post is great too.)

It’s easy to  like what he says, and how he says it. m.snowe would like to append Crain’s post by saying that the same notion of authorial skill goes for gender, not just orientation. Writing and imagination can and should take a writer beyond their sex, i.e. a man can write a believable, alive female fictional character, and so can a woman write a man.

Here is another important paragraph in Crain’s piece:

“Finally, the warfare here is asymmetrical. Generally speaking, a straight man can grow up happy and safe while in complete ignorance of what gays feel when they fall in love. For as much of his development as he is obliged to remain closeted, however, a gay man has no parallel luxury. He makes a close study of what his straight peers are doing and saying about love, so as to be able to pull off a reasonable impersonation. After coming out, a gay man may no longer have to masquerade, but he nonetheless belongs to a minority, and members of a minority are always obliged, as a matter of survival, to know the shibboleths and customs of the majority, and to have a decent working model of the majoritarian psychology so as to manage interactions with them.”

Gender warfare differs slightly from the warfare of sexual orientation. While gay men and women can make a close study of what it means to be straight and then act accordingly (of course, they shouldn’t have to, but they can), women are traditionally barred from observing men, or told that they cannot completely understand them, and men are also told they can never really understand women. Of course, we live in a man’s world, so the inability to understand or act according to “male” strictures is considered an obvious lacking.  All you have to do is look at a woman, and you are able to then judge her by some crudely false, socially engineered sexual inadequacy. The woman, in effect, has come out of the closet as such from the day of her birth (when the doctor declares: “It’s a girl!”) and she had no choice in the matter.  While women might know the “shibboleths and customs” of the power-majority (men), often-times, they are not allowed to enter into them, or are viewed too weak to do so.

This type of asymmetrical warfare argument could be used for all types of discrimination: race, class, sex, orientation, etc., so on. It’s just refreshing to read someone get it so right, and define it so crisply.

Sadly, m.snowe must now turn to a disappointing tale of a good book not living up to its full potential, for reasons partly in line with what has just been discussed above: the ability of imagination to take wing and allow an author to float above and out of the confines of his own social identity. I don’t know much about Colum McCann’s social identity, aside from the book-jacket copy and accompanying promotional pictures. But that doesn’t even matter. If he was a black gay woman, it still wouldn’t matter–m.snowe loves his way with words, but she’s finding it difficult to believe in or care about any of his female characters. They exist, seemingly, in order to define their relationships with men, the same men who have independent hopes, dreams, struggles and personal pursuits. The women are always cooing over men, or trying desperately to forget men, or driving around town with men. The men are always in the driver’s seat, unless the woman is driving alone, dejectedly, thinking about men. If the men in the novel were as women-obsessed, then at least there would be some semblance of parity. But there is not.

But,  McCann has a way with those words. Unfortunately, he can poetically pull together sentences, he just doesn’t expand that poetry out into female character development. Luckily, we can still appreciate the beauty.

Here are some awesome examples :

“We used to drive all the way up to Park Avenue just to laugh at the bleary-eyed doormen. We caught early movies in the Times Square grind houses. Two-Trouser Sister. Panty Raid. Girls on Fire. We greeted sunrises on the tar beaches of Manhattan’s rooftops.”

“Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways.”

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