Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Moses, you've got male
A couple of interesting recent posts lamenting the lack of masculine prose in fiction, or is it the end of the traditional image of manhood, or both. Novelist Frank Bill, whose writing I'm not familiar with, asks if masculine writing is dead, by which he seems to mean a certain style of prose that depicts a certain stereotypical kind of manly man, men who've gone from being learned by their fathers and grandfathers, to being babied by their mothers. Being learned from their fathers, to Bill, literally means hunting deer and dressing your kill in the forest. He thinks we've become "girlie-men" in the words of the old SNL skit with Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon playing Hans and Franz, soft, unrugged and unskilled in survival. DG Myers responds that Bill is confusing a romantic ideal of masculinity, what he calls 'reactive masculinity' as brought about by gender-neutralization in American culture, with true manhood, which to his mind means, "Taking care of others .... A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others." What Bill seems to be concerned with is the connection between the image of manhood and a certain style of writing, both of which seem to be on the wane. When we forsake the traditional image we risk losing a robust style of writing that emphasizes the masculine worldview ie. individual struggle (male) over forming and nurturing relationships (female), a desire to master (male) over consensus-building (female), a preoccupation with broad conflicts (male) over domestic ones (female), descriptions of nature's harsh beauty (male) as opposed to its fluid magnificence (female). I sense that both Bill and Myers are on to something, and not just because one time a literary agent who'd read my last novel in manuscript form said that she doubted it could be sold to a publisher because she didn't see the ladies of the book club recommending it to one another. Men, if they read at all, generally like action, sci-fi, books that provide insight into the forces at work in quotidian life (Gladwell, Leavitt), what I call 'mastery'. Literary fiction is increasingly a girl thing. With Passover, and the telling of the story of the liberation from Egypt, I began thinking about the man who is perplexingly hardly mentioned in the Haggadah, and yet who is utterly present in the story: Moses. It's telling that in the mid-20th century DeMille film version, in contrast, Moses is front and center, humble and strong, the quintessence of the manly hero, a survivalist, family-man, rugged and wise, the very figure of a man lamented by Bill. But Moses is also Myers's version of a man, duty-bound, like Swede Levov in Philip Roth's American Pastoral with the "golden gift of responsibility." At last night's seder it was mentioned that the heroes of the Haggadic story are women; Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who rebelled against the Pharaoh's decree to kill the Israelite first born, and Miriam who watched over baby Moses in the basket as it floated down the river, and even the Egyptian princess who plucked him from the Nile and took him into the Pharaoh's house. But I found myself thinking about the absent males, and not just Elijah the Prophet for whom we set a place, but unsung Moses for whom no place is set, and about what that absence might signify in the story of today.